Monthly Archives: June 2019

Gerard Manley Hopkins – ‘O the mind’

“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”

I have been fascinated by a biography of the Catholic Jesuit and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) picked up in the excellent Mrs Middleton’s second hand bookshop in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. One of the aspects that resonated once again was the links and interweaving of the psychological and the spiritual. The link between Hopkins’ psychological struggles and his spiritual vocation is present throughout his adult life. The biographer states that the poet was too devout to mistake depression for spirituality, but the pain of what he felt emotionally undoubtedly sharpened his search for God’s presence. Hopkins might have thought of it as God’s way of directing him to the priesthood. Psychological insights and awareness of emotional difficulties were relatively limited in the way we might now think about them – this is pre-Freud but the biography reveals how often his spiritual inclinations fitted his psychological needs.

The biographer Robert Bernard Martin notes how Hopkins’ perceptions of his motivations are frequently startling combining an initial attribution to religious reasons, then a shrewd awareness that they also spring out of the predispositions of his own personality. The two views are not in conflict but seen as phenomena discussed using different perspectives and vocabularies but with the same patterning. Hopkins was interested in his dreams, working out (well before Freud and Jung) that ‘you can trace your dreams to something or other in your working life, especially of things that have been lately … But the connection may be capricious, almost punning.’

Tuned in to his own emotional state Hopkins describes how on an early retreat as a novice in the Jesuit training college in Roehampton, when one of his fellow novices was reading an account of the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, he, Hopkins, suddenly ‘began to cry and sob and could not stop.’ He was deeply moved by all accounts of the religiously dispossessed and the persecuted.

Hopkins’ love for the charismatic but ill-fated Digby Dolben and other young men is painfully both partially acknowledged then denied and repressed, with Hopkins probably determined on celibacy long before his time at Oxford. Martin asks whether celibacy for Hopkins and many others could be seen as a way of avoiding the admission even to himself of his homoerotic feelings. For Hopkins this sometimes was translated into repression of all physical beauty – so an act of penance became one of keeping his eyes on the ground. At times what he saw as sensual temptation became so strong that he despondently found he became excited at thinking of Christ’s passion or at examining Christ’s body on a carved crucifix.

As he became older the depressions intensified exacerbated by the lack of affection towards him and any atmosphere of human warmth in his life as a Jesuit. In one letter to his long-time friend the poet Robert Bridges Hopkins wrote: ‘I think that my fits of sadness, though they do not affect my judgement, resemble madness.’ And from this state of mind he wrote the Sonnets of Desolation also known as the Terrible Sonnets.

Looking for Wisdom 4

In his book ‘Be here now’ Richard Alpert/ Baba Ram Dass  describes how he was taken back to the temple and just stayed – no one asked whether he wanted to stay or study – there were no contracts, no promises and no vows. ‘There was nothing’. No one asked for money – there was no commitment required as he writes ‘it was all done internally.’

While there he received teaching in Raja yoga doing breathing exercises, different yoga practices, meditation, and study above all about non-violence through simple metaphors and phrases. One of the things that affected Ram Dass the most was the ability of the guru to know him inside out and he gives a number of examples. One involved Ram Dass travelling back to Delhi to sort out his visa and while there having a rather special deluxe vegetarian meal. He writes:

I had been on this very fierce austere diet and I had lost 60lbs. I was feeling great – very light and very beautiful – but there was enough orality still left in me to want to have a feast… and the last thing they served was vegetarian ice-cream with 2 English biscuits stuck into it. And those biscuits … the sweet thing has always been a big part of my life, but I knew somehow, maybe I shouldn’t be eating those. They’re so far out from my diet. It’s not vegetables – it’s not rice. And so I was almost secretly eating the cookies in this dark corner … and the next day took the bus back up to the mountain… Two days later we heard Maharaji was back… I hadn’t seen him in about a month and a half … I got a bag of oranges to bring to him and I came and took one look at him, and the oranges went flying and I started to cry and I fell down and they were patting me. Maharaji was eating oranges as fast as he could, manifesting through eating food the process of taking on the karma of someone else … he ate eight oranges right before my eyes … I was crying and he pulls me by the hair, and I look up and he says to me, ‘How did you like the biscuits?’

As the instances multiplied so Ram Dass realized that the guru knew all his thoughts but as he looked at Maharaji all he saw in response was love.

‘Now the impact of these experiences was very profound. As they say in the Sikh religion – Once you realize that God knows everything, you’re free. I had been through many years of psychoanalysis and still I had managed to keep private places in my head …certain attitudes or feelings that were still very private. And suddenly I realized that he knew everything that was going on in my head, all the time, and that he still loved me. Because who we are is behind all that.’

This was the message that Baba Ram Dass brought back, and one interesting insight he notes is that the guru just gave him things that would help rather than accentuating all the bad things that might be going on in his head; in other words ‘sins’ are not particularly relevant it is who the person is in themselves that really matters.


Looking for Wisdom 3

After this first insight (see last post) Richard Alpert – later Baba Ram Dass continued to explore and experiment with hallucinogens including setting up a research study with Timothy Leary and taking vast amounts of drugs. What he noted was that there was always a ‘coming down’ and with that the realization that it was all immensely frustrating to be open to the kingdom of heaven and new states of awareness and then being cast out again. He was left with a general low level state of depression that whatever he knew still wasn’t enough.

‘I was four hours in a state of total homogenous light, bliss, and then I recall starting to “come down” and this huge red wave rolled in across the room … and it was all my identities, all rolling in over me … it was like this heavy burden I was going to take on myself … I realized I didn’t have the key…’

Inevitably he was thrown out of Harvard and in time found his way to India still failing to find what he was searching for, and now tired of the LSD experiences he began to feel intense despair. ‘I had gone through game, after game, first being a professor at Harvard, then being a psychedelic spokesman, and still people were constantly looking into my eyes, like “Do you know?” … and I was constantly looking into their eyes – “Do you know?”’ Meeting an American, Bhagavan Dass who repeatedly told him to ‘be here now’ Alpert travelled with him to meet his guru and so Alpert was introduced to Neem Karoli Baba whom Ram Dass called Maharaji.

The first meeting the guru asked Alpert for his car – this was a land rover borrowed from a friend and something Alpert was upset to be asked about about so the guru went to the heart of the idea of possessions, but also spoke to Alpert about the death of his mother confirming a vision Alpert had had a few days before of his mother’s presence with him. Alpert’s western mind couldn’t compute what was happening, he couldn’t make sense of it – he theoretically knew about psychic experiences and also experientially knew about them through chemicals… but this wasn’t either of those:

‘My mind just gave up. It burned out its circuitry … its zeal to have an explanation. I needed something to get closure at the rational level and there wasn’t anything. There just wasn’t a place I could hide in my head about this. And at the same moment, I felt this extremely violent pain in my chest and a tremendous wrenching feeling and I started to cry. And I cried and I cried and I cried. And I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t sad. It was not that kind of crying. The only thing I could say was it felt like I was home. Like the journey was over. Like I had finished. That night I was very confused. A great feeling of lightness and confusion.’

Looking for Wisdom 2

In analysing what was happening Richard Alpert – as he was known then – appreciated that his Jewish high-achieving, anxiety ridden background played its part but that he felt there was a lack of validity in him about what he was doing and this was exacerbated by the need to be ‘scientific’ about his research which felt like intellectual games.

‘There was not enough human beauty, human fulfillment, human contentment. I worked hard and the keys of the kingdom were handed to me. I was being promised all of it but…  the whole thing was too empty. It was not honest enough… Not enough was happening that mattered- that was real.’

His work as a therapist felt equally false:

‘And as a therapist I felt caught in the drama of my own theories. The research data showed that …Freudian patients ended up talking about their mother because of subtle reinforcement clues – it was so obvious.’

It was this general malaise that then led Alpert to experiment taking magic mushrooms with Timothy Leary who was working down the corridor: ‘I found him extremely stimulating and the students found him exciting to be around, because of his openness the new ideas and his willingness to take wild risks in thinking.’ So Alpert ‘turned on’ with Timothy Leary and some other colleagues by taking psychedelics. During this first trip he describes going through various revelations including:

‘I saw a figure standing about 8 feet away, where a moment before there had been none. I peered into the semi-darkness and recognized none other than myself, in cap and gown and hood, as a professor. It was as if that part of me, which was Harvard professor, had separated or disassociated itself from me….I thought “Well I worked hard to get that status, but I don’t really need it”’

This process repeats itself with Alpert seeing himself as a social cosmopolite and then all the different aspects of himself  …cellist, pilot, lover and so on. ‘With each new presentation, I again and again reassured myself that I didn’t need that anyway.’ Then there is the basic identity – the Richard Alpert-ness followed by his body – at this point the trip becomes a panic and frightening but  he heard an intimate voice asking ‘but who’s minding the store?’

‘I realised that although everything by which I knew myself, even my body and this life itself, was gone, still I was fully aware. Not only that, but this aware “I” was watching the entire drama, including the panic, with calm compassion. Instantly …I felt a new kind of calmness – one of a profundity never experienced before. I had just found that “I” …that point, that essence – that place beyond. A place where “I” existed independent of social and physical identity. That which was I was beyond Life and Death. And something else … It was wise… it was a voice inside that spoke the truth. I recognized it, was one with it… ’