Author Archives: Fiona Gardner

The Courage to Be 2

Paul Tillich understood the need to balance the opposites – so that to have ‘being’ there has to be ‘non-being’ too but he sees this as the negation of everything; it has to be there as destruction has to be balanced as the opposite of creation. Non-being links to anxiety – for if we know that we are alive then we will also know that we can also not be alive. If we are fearful and afraid then that is usually about something in particular – in other words there is an object to focus on whereas anxiety is generalised and has no object. Fear can be faced and overcome but with anxiety ‘participation, struggle, and love with respect to it are impossible’. If we are left without a focus or a tactic to use as with fear then anxiety leaves us feeling overwhelmed and impotent often turning into depression. For Tillich it is the power of being that then stirs beneath anxiety so as he writes nonbeing strives toward being when ‘anxiety strives to become fear, because fear can be met by courage’.

Tillich distinguishes three types of anxiety: that of fate and death (ontological); that of emptiness and loss of meaning (spiritual); and that of guilt and condemnation (moral). Each of the three can be applied to the personal as realities in an individual’s life and to the social/ collective. Ontological anxiety the fear of fate and death applies to everyone and we cannot get away from it: ‘everybody is aware of the complete loss of self which biological extinction implies.’ Here he uses the word ‘fate’ to refer to ‘mini-death’ where we are open to any change at any time which leaves us aware of our weakness and vulnerability through disease and accidents. Nonbeing is not only felt through death and fate but also spiritually in the encounter with meaninglessness, the result of which is the second kind of anxiety; the antidote is spiritual self-affirmation, which ‘occurs in every moment in which man lives creatively in the various spheres of meaning’. Yet the second anxiety is spiritual anxiety which threatens our entire sense of self – here the antidote is to accept the possibility of the despair of emptiness and lack of meaning the danger is to deny this and so embrace fanaticism and deny all doubt. Anxiety linked to guilt (the third one) is when we fall short of what we know we could be and become and end up rejecting our self.

Interestingly Tillich sees the age in which he was writing (post-war 1950s) as visibly spiritual anxious – surely we are even more so in the 21s century with our emphasis on materialism and denial of the spirituality of nature.




The Courage to Be

The Courage to Be

Over thirty years ago I went into psychotherapy with an analytical psychologist, a Jungian who had trained at the Society of Analytical Psychology in London. About a year into the work she lent me her copy of The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich first published in 1952.  Eventually I bought my own copy which I carried around for years almost like a transitional object but also because the very title was an impetus to take a leap into daring to become the person that I was meant to be.

It was D.W. Winnicott who said that the main problem for children brought up in the 1950s and 1960s was being crushed – that’s another way of saying compliant. In other words you behave the way that the parent(s) wants you to behave but this is managed in such a way – by some parents at least so that the very energy of the life force is subdued. From this comes the false self, a persona that is presented to the world and where sometimes the true/essential self remains hidden. I couldn’t understand the book very well at that stage but I knew it was a message.

Paul Tillich was a German Protestant philosopher and theologian and he writes about the concept of what he calls ‘courage’ and how this can be mobilised to confront anxiety. The great thing is that Tillich has knowledge of depth psychology as well as the ideas of existentialism. Tillich was writing less about a particular individual’s reasons for being anxious and rather looking at it as a modern psychological epidemic leading to a loss of meaning. For him courage is the treatment or the antidote to anxiety in the sense of affirming one’s own life even in the face of the certainty of death and given that our life may seem to have no apparent purpose. At the heart of his exploration is the idea of the guilt that we carry for not being ‘acceptable’ in our own eyes – one might see here the endless striving to prove oneself and the disappointment of not being ‘perfect’.

Looking again at my rather tattered copy I can see how male dominated the language is but there’s some good things to take from his explorations. Tillich defines courage as ‘the universal and essential self-affirmation of one’s being’; it’s an ethical act because we are affirming our being alive despite all the elements of existence which conflict with this essential self-affirmation. In Tillich’s look at the philosophical background to the idea of courage he includes the writing of Thomas Aquinas who sees courage united with ideas of faith, hope and love and how it can be a gift of the Divine Spirit.

Generally Tillich is writing about the courage for the true self to be – he uses the term ‘one’s essential being’.

The Breath of God, 3

Conscious or mindful breathing fills us with the breath of God and the reverse is true. Sandra Sabatini writes that during the day we shrink from the lack of awareness of our breath – because of a lack of time and attention which she thinks is ultimately a lack of love:

‘as you get into contact with the breath

You are able to reverse this process

And obtain more space, more roots into the ground’

Inevitably as we breathe in a more natural way – no holding or cutting off our breath here – then the body becomes more open and lengthens – so that even psychologically we are able to be more flexible and open to new thoughts.

Eastern spiritual practices such as Zen and Taoism offer breathing techniques as an essential grounding and often as a way into meditation, why doesn’t Christianity? Ten minutes of conscious breathing as part of liturgy with emphasis on the breath body would surely ensure that we are grounded in our experience of the lived body and world, yet also tuned to our spirituality.  An essence of this body awareness is the comforting presence of our breathing, which is seen as a precondition for transcendence in terms of liberating spirituality. There can be a rhythmic regularity in our breathing that is in harmony with the bodily phenomena that appear to our consciousness.

‘following the rhythm of the breath

the body is put in a situation

where is only healing

opening and space.’

Breathing techniques allow for the experience of emptiness as the exhalation leaves the body ‘a clean inside’: ‘you can create a space and then what comes in is a gift’. The emptiness is here the ground for resurrection and all new possibilities which with the new breath comes in completely naturally:

‘when the old breath has left you forever


To enjoy this emptiness

When the new breath has filled you up


to enjoy this fullness’

The breath of God gives us the experience of God – emptiness and fullness and in the space in between there is silence – silence and space.

Thomas Merton writes:

‘The reality that is present to us and in us: call it Being, call it Atman, call it Pneuma … or Silence. And the simple fact by being attentive, by learning to listen … we can find ourself engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything in that hidden ground of Love for which there can be no explanation.’

The breath of God 2

Use of the breath has been advocated as part of spiritual healing throughout different civilisations and used since ancient times by indigenous healers in Africa, India, China and other parts of the world. In essence the healing task has been described as aiming to balance and harmonize various patterns of energy flow within and without our physical and subtle bodies. This also extends to  our relationships with one another and the wider community and within nature through tuning in to the rhythms/vibrations of the cosmos, nature and humanity.

This healing energy is typically experienced through the life-breath as a form of bridge between nature, God, ancestors, body, mind and world.  Breath-based spiritual healing may be viewed as holistic, contextual and essentially psychological, in the original and literal meaning of this term, in its concern with the logos (study) of the psyche (breath, energy, consciousness, soul, or spirit of life that leaves a person at death and continues in some other form).

In Christianity in John’s gospel we read: ‘Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.’ This surely is an echo of God breathing life into Adam but here the disciples are empowered by the breath to become alive and do the will of God.

In Buddhism the practice of breath control – pranayama is a way of focusing on the breath. Sandra Sabatini writes that all you have to do is to ‘breathe and be aware of how you are breathing. Breathe through the nostrils easily, naturally’. Here the emphasis is on the level of attentiveness:

‘notice how the breath comes in and goes out

notice what happens at the end of an exhalation

notice what happens at the end of an inhalation

notice, listen, observe

by putting your attention on the breath

and just being aware’

 This is the start of healing and removing the physical and psychological toxins that have built up in the body. She says it may appear that this is nothing much but ‘minute rearrangements have taken place at a very deep level and …their echoes like a ripple, will go on resounding inside you for hours, for days.’ Following this practice breathing (the breath of God) then becomes a magic event, ‘delicate and exquisite.’

‘You will find that this increasing observation of your breath opens a door to the unexpected. This simple instrument will lead to infinite discoveries. When you are in a difficult situation, if you are in pain, or when everything seems to fail, you can reconnect to your breath and find relief. As you learn to be in its company all the time, you wonder how you could have forgotten about it for so long.’

In other words – just keep breathing…but sometimes mindfully…

The breath of God

The idea of the breath of God is sometimes seen as the life force, the spirit of God that led to creation and to all creatures. In the Hebrew Scriptures we read that God formed us from dust and breathed into Adam the breath of life so that he became alive. Breath is what unites all living things and is the environment in which we stay alive. The spirit is ‘ruah’ and ‘pneuma’ a current of air, breath or breeze. John 3 ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

In Carl Jung’s memoir he describes one of his journeys in Africa where he visited with the Elgonyi in Kenya where the sun is worshipped from the mountains at the moment of rising as at that moment the sun was God and an offering was made by spitting or blowing vigorously on the hands before holding them up to the sun.

‘If the gift was spittle, it was the … personal mana, the power of healing, magic and life. If it was breath, then it was roho – Arabic, ruch, Hebrew, ruach Greek, pneuma – wind and spirit. The act was therefore saying: I offer to God my living soul. It was a wordless, acted-out prayer which might equally well be rendered: “Lord into thy hands I commend my spirit”.’

Jung’s commentary on the Secret of the Golden Flower, refers to the Chinese alchemical metaphors of ‘diamond body’ or ‘holy fruit’ which refer to the purified, incorruptible breath-body or spirit-body sought by Taoist adepts in their search for spiritual immortality.  For Jung this also covered an essential quest for all humanity of special relevance in the second half of life; at this stage of life the goal of spiritual existence, is the birth of a “spirit body” or “breath body” which ensures the continuity of detached consciousness.” Jung was attracted to yoga but thought that Christianity might develop its own form of yoga in line with the traditions of the west; perhaps to some extent this has happened but I think that Jung would see now in the contemporary west how generally alienated we are from the breath-body or spirit-body; we have lost touch with the breath as Sandra Sabatini puts it: ‘We have moved so far away from ourselves that we have completely forgotten our closest friend’. She sees the possibility of healing through the transition from hectic, uneven breathing to a smooth, round rhythmic one; this happens’ gradually and slowly but once the healing process begins, it takes you by the hand naturally and leads the way.’ And this is the breath of God.



Thomas Merton on Chuang Tzu’s ‘Perfect Joy’

Perfect Joy is a short piece of prose writing by Chuang Tzu where he explores whether any of us can find ‘a fullness of joy’ while on earth or whether there is no such thing.

He begins with a series of questions about if there is such happiness to be found how do we go about finding it – in other words what do we have to do to attain this? Any search immediately raises the next question which is what is this ‘happiness’ and what is ‘joy’. Merton translates and interprets this into the values of the world: what does the world see as joy and happiness: ‘money, reputation, long life, achievement’ and joy is ‘health and bodily comforts with good food, nice clothes, beautiful things to look at and lovely music to listen to’. And so the reverse of all these things is what the world condemns or sees as misfortune, so we strive to keep our lives on track with these good things and yet even when we have these things we have anxiety that our health will be taken away or we worry that we need more money and more things to keep us happy.

Chuang Tzu on the rich:

‘The rich make life intolerable, driving themselves in order to get more and more money which they cannot really use. In so doing they are alienated from themselves, and exhaust themselves in their own service as though they were slaves of others’.

Similarly the ambitious seeking success: ‘are alienated from themselves, exhausting their real life in service of the shadow created by their insatiable hope’. As we grow older Chuang Tzu sees we become stupider as in trying to avoid death we become incapable of living in the present. He’s particularly interesting about the dilemma of leading a sacrificial life and so receiving honour for being a ‘good’ person and seen as upright which he writes still leads to unhappiness and or even ruin, disgrace and death. Is being ‘good’ really so good? Is it rather a source of unhappiness – perhaps to have to maintain such a reputation?

Chuang Tzu rejects all these definitions and standards – he sees no meaning at all in any of it. Instead he writes:

‘My opinion is that you never find happiness until you stop looking for it. My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness: and this, in the minds of most people, is the worst possible course.’

He holds to the saying that: ‘Perfect joy is to be without joy’ and ‘Perfect praise is to be without praise.’ He has the experiences that if he ceases striving what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ become apparent all by themselves. This is the idea of wu wei – non-doing and Chuang Tzu says that if we practice this we will have happiness and well-being but ends asking who is the person ‘who can attain to this non-doing’.

Thomas Merton – ‘The Way of Chuang Tzu’ 2

The essence of the Tao is precisely this idea of the balance of the coincidence of the opposites so favoured by Carl Jung and experienced and written about by amongst others Thomas Merton and Harry Williams. It seems as if it is a breakthrough into a realization of the whole where each part stands in relation to the other.

Part of the Taoist process is self-transformation; we accept that life is transitory and that in this light the pursuit of wealth or fame are vain foolishness; they are distractions from seeing and understanding the world and contemplating its meaning. Freed from delusions it is easier to be open to the flow of Tao in and through us.

As Merton writes in his ‘Note to the reader’ the ‘way’ is ‘a certain taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence’ and alongside this a refusal to take seriously the aggressivity and the ambition and self-importance demanded to get along in society. This ‘way’ prefers not to get anywhere in the world, or even in the field of ‘some supposedly spiritual attainment’.  Merton sees echoes of this in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and especially in the Gospels – the ‘Little Way’ of Therese of Lisieux encapsulates this too where to ‘lose one’s life is to save it, and to seek to save it for one’s own sake is to lose it’. Merton explains that the ‘way’ of Chuang Tzu is mysterious precisely because it is so simple – so simple that it can get along without being a way at all.

Merton writes: ‘Least of all is it a ‘way out’. Chuang Tzu would have agreed with St John of the Cross that you enter upon this kind of way when you leave all ways and in some sense get lost.’ This is the letting go of all concepts and assumptions – as in contemplative prayer but here it is a way of being – totally present to what ‘is’, seeing without adding to what we have seen – how hard is that…

Here are a couple of stanzas from Tao from translations as interpreted by Merton:

To name Tao

Is to name no-thing.

Tao is not the name

Of an ‘existent.’

‘Cause’ and ‘chance’

Have no bearing on Tao.

Tao is a name

That indicates

Without defining.

Tao is beyond words

And beyond things.

It is not expressed

Either in word or in silence.

Where there is no longer word or silence

Tao is apprehended.

Insights from Thomas Merton’s ‘The Way of Chuang Tzu’

The Way of Chuang Tzu written by Thomas Merton is an attractive text where he brings to the Western reader Merton’s appreciation of an influential Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu (399 – 295 BCE). Chuang Tzu writes in parables but in an accessible and easy style and Merton’s interpretations of different translations helps the reader accept the surface but also look deeper at the latent meaning. It all seems rational but underneath it is mystical. The writings are full of the meeting of opposites and their complementarity which is at times transcended although always grounded in everyday life. Chuang Tzu is at peace whilst at the same time as Merton explains moving through the world. This is Tao which passes through ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ and ‘I’ and ‘Not-I’ where all is in flux and everything is continual development and change.

This is Thomas Merton’s interpretation of:  Great and Small

When we look at things in the light of Tao,

Nothing is best, nothing is worst.

Each thing, seen in its own light,

Stands out in its own way.

It can be seen to be ‘better’

Than what is compared with it

On its own terms.

But seen in terms of the whole,

No one thing stands out as ‘better’.

If you measure differences,

What is greater than something else is ‘great’,

Therefore there is nothing that is not ‘great’;

What is smaller than something else is ‘small’,

Therefore there is nothing that is not ‘small’.

So the whole cosmos is a grain of rice,

And the tip of a hair

Is as big as a mountain –

Such is the relative view.

So in Chuang Tzu’s writing he is putting up positions as if they can be endorsed and then reflectively taken down again. Merton says what should we do with this? Is it that the answer is to remain indifferent and treat right and wrong, good and bad as if they were the same? But no, Chuang Tzu, despite the above, would be the first to deny that they were all the same, but in his doing so he would refuse to grasp one or the other and cling to it as if it were an absolute.

The underlying message here is in line with the thinking of Carl Jung too which is that if we hold on to a limited and conditioned view of what is ‘good’ then it becomes in our minds raised to the level of an absolute. Once in this position it immediately becomes an evil, because it excludes certain complementary elements which are required if it is to be fully good – here Jung would see that for it to be whole it has to include the good and the bad. Merton writes:

‘To cling to one partial view, one limited and conditioned opinion, and to treat this as the ultimate answer to all questions is simply to “obscure the Tao” and make oneself obdurate in error.’

Gerard Manley Hopkins – at one with nature

Gerard Manley Hopkins brought a tactile, physical intimacy to his observations of nature and it is perhaps his praise to creation that so delights the reader:

‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’

His study of nature was to bring his full attention to it, breaking down all possible physical, mental or emotional barriers of understanding so that he seemed to merge with what he was studying. He said ‘what you look hard at seems to look hard at you.’ Here is openness and receptivity and generosity towards what he loved both for its own sake and for its reflection of Divinity.

At times the poet seems through his writings at one with nature. The Robert Bernard Martin biography looks at how Hopkins wrote about coming home from confession one night:

‘In returning the sky in the west was in a great wide winged or shelved rack of rice-white fine pelleted fretting’.

Here the words ‘in returning’ refers to Hopkins himself – not the sky but somehow the use of the words serve to achieve a kind of obliteration of distinction between self and sky.

And again writing about watching the river water he wrote:

‘by looking hard the banks began to sail upstream, the scaping unfolded, the river was all in tumult but not running, only the lateral motions were perceived, and the curls of froth where the waves overlap shaped and turned easily and idly.’

So here the external view of the river becomes the viewpoint of the water and then the mind of the observer Hopkins; this then Martin thinks is Hopkins’ recurrent theme of the unity of the human and nature as parts of Divine creation. For Hopkins, if you look hard enough at a river or a flower or an animal then that which is studied radiates back a meaning – one that is unique. This is about inscape – the inner meaning, the inner coherence of the individual. This is perceived only through close examination or through empathy; it’s not dependent upon being recognized,  instead the extraordinary thing is that it is inherent in everything in the world, whether we notice it or not.

I am reminded here of Thomas Merton speaking about the transparency of God shining through everything – through absolutely every part of creation. Hopkins used the word inscape to indicate the essence of something, arrived at by love and assiduity (meaning close or constant attention). To grasp or perceive inscape was to know what was essential and what was individual in whatever one contemplated. It was a form of identification. For Hopkins nature was not divorced from God, it was a symbol of God and ultimately a part of God,  ‘For Christ plays in ten thousand places.’

This then made the destruction of nature deeply painful (imagine how Hopkins would respond now as we decimate creation). Apparently he was especially sad and desolate whenever he saw a tree being felled. So from his poem Binsey Poplars (trees felled in 1879):

O if we but knew what we do

When we delve or hew –

Hack and rack the growing green!

            Since country is so tender.

And:  from Inversnaid:

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.


(NB Away myself for a holiday in the ‘wet and wildness’ of Scotland – so a short break from the postings)

Gerard Manley Hopkins – feeling the fell of dark

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night!

Much of the wonderful poetry of the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins sprung out of the certainty of his religious belief and his joy in God’s creation, but in the collection known as the Terrible Sonnets, or the Sonnets of Desolation, we read and experience the feelings about his emotional state. They express no doubt about the existence of God, but, rather as the biographer Robert Bernard Martin puts it, something much more terrifying – the certainty that God does exist and an almost equal certainty that God’s mercy does not extend to the poet himself, or, that God is unaware of the individual or careless of their fate. The inspiration to write the sonnets is born from terror and here religion does not offer comfort. Hopkins in a letter to Robert Bridges about the sonnets says that ‘four of these came like inspirations unbidden and against my will.’

The poetry could be seen as one way that Hopkins could contain his mental dread and hold on to his sanity by accommodating the chaos of his unconscious through the composition and order of writing the verse. Martin writes:

‘It seems part of a recurrent pattern in his life, the necessity to give rigorous shape to what was frightening and dimly understood, just as he had chosen the most demanding of orders when he became a Jesuit. The sonnets did not quell the rebel emotions that disturbed him, any more than his vocation removed temptation; both, however, made the ramping beasts tractable.’

Any suggestion of suicide and self-destruction is resisted and in this verse Hopkins seems to touch rock bottom and then turn to life:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort. Despair, not feast on thee;

Not untwist – slack they may be – these last strands of man

In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;

Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.


And in a later poem Hopkins turns to the comfort of the Resurrection that transcends depression and insanity:


Enough! the Resurrection,

A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.

                            Across my foundering deck shone

A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash

Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:

                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

                            Is immortal diamond.