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Posts Tagged ‘transcendent’

schop

Arthur Schopenhauer 1788-1860

Arthur Schopenhauer has been called the gloomiest of philosophers. He describes the world as comprising two things: there’s the way we see it – the representation – and then there’s the way it actually is – the will. The ‘will’, he says, is blind. It’s an instinctive energy, a universal imperative whose sole purpose is the creation of life. We witness it as a relentless turmoil for ‘being’ and survival.

There’s something beyond the will though, something transcendent and blissful, but it’s near impossible to get at, which is a pity because, taken at face value, ‘the will’ is not a pleasant thing at all. In the natural world it is red in tooth and claw, creatures devouring one another other, us devouring creatures, even when we don’t need to. Similarly, we are devouring the planet itself. And even when we’re not actually killing or pillaging, we still find ways to compete, to dominate and thrive at the expense of others. The striving is endless, and pointless. This is gloomy stuff indeed! But Schopenhauer found a way out.

Simply put, we are moved by beauty – well some of us are. Some of us are so enamoured of the pointless striving and posturing instead, beauty is lost on us, and we soon find ways of corrupting it. Yet beauty, the sense of it, stuns the will, and opens a door to something other, something transcendent, even divine – if that’s your thing. To cultivate an aesthetic sense then, according to Schopenhauer, is our only way of seeing through the veil of ceaseless toil and catching a glimpse of transcendent meaning. What it is, exactly, is hard to say, because we don’t actually see it. But we can feel it.

Beauty manifests itself in many ways, but for Schopenhauer at least, music is its highest form. Music is a question of taste of course, and I’m sure Schopenhauer would have struggled with Slowdive in concert, which brings us to the blue haired girl. If this clip is still up by the time you’re reading me, look out for her in the audience. If not you’ll just have to imagine her. She tells us how music feels, by showing us how she feels it. With tears. We can read Schopenhauer until he’s coming out of our ears, and not many do these days, but if we want to understand what he’s going on about, all we need do is follow the blue haired girl.

 

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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885

The material life is what it is. We are born into certain circumstances – an ethnicity, a religion, a family, a nationality, a moment in time – and we make of our circumstances what we can. We do this within the limitations of our personality, intelligence, and energy, also the limitations placed on us by history, culture, and by prejudice – our own prejudice directed at others, and theirs directed back at us.

Thus constrained we make way as best we can, always striving for personal happiness. But for all our hopes to the contrary, life is messy, impermanent, beset by tragedy, and there is nothing to suggest what we make of our material lives, whether we find our balance, or we thrive or are utterly crushed, is actually of any importance at all.

For proof we need only observe those among the rich and powerful, people who are the most materially successful and surely want for nothing, yet whose ignorance and cruelty suggests they are operating at a very low level of self awareness, that indeed as human beings, not only have they a long way to travel, that wealth or power or popularity is not the real measure of success at all. But then we all know this, don’t we?

Without a certain level of self awareness, we are like automata, we are as lacking in the essence of life as the material things we crave. Self awareness is standing beneath a starry sky and feeling one’s smallness while also awakening to a deep connection with the mystery of all before us; it is the realisation that without our eyes to see and hearts to feel, there is no beauty, that our exquisitely fragile presence is the only thing that grants the universe meaning. Thus the soul in man awakens.

Many confuse this soul-life with religion, and though it is indeed a spiritual matter, it is not about “getting” religion. Religion is easy. Spiritual matters are more difficult. They develop, not supernaturally, but from the psyche and they grow from enquiry into one’s self. Religions can provide a path to self awareness, but one that is too often subverted by the tendency of all hierarchical structures towards corruption.

As unlikely as it sounds, writing – or indeed any form of art – provides another path. There is in all of us a transcendent function that enquires of life and seeks wholeness, seeks oneness with “something”. We can ignore it, or we can grant it creative expression. It’s not a path for everyone, and really rather depends upon one’s psychological type. But it suits me, so I write.

When we write, we are dealing with the unconscious and its unknown contents. Through writing, we invite these contents to become known through the imagination. Once known, or at least hinted at, they become our life’s work, our life’s story. We work then at a pace in partnership between the forces that support us and our natural ability to assimilate them.

My own story thus far is contained in twelve novels, beginning with the Singing Loch, first penned in my twenties, and ending with my most recent, the Inn at the Edge of Light. It begins with the natural world, with the sublime nature of the hills and mountains of the British Isles, and the realisation that the sublime isn’t “out there” at all, but is actually a thing we project from within, like an archetype, a pattern of psychical energy, that the sublime is an abstract impression of the divine ground of being. We were separated from it at birth and we crave reconnection.

The paradox however is that, once awakened and craving reconnection, we realise the river of unconscious contents emanating from this inner universe we are seeking to re-enter, is flowing against us, striving ever more towards an awareness of itself in the physical world, a world that, to a human life, seems curtailed to the point of frustration and despair. It is as if timelessness seeks the ephemeral, a phenomenon as strange as the thought of a free man seeking imprisonment. This is a hard one to crack, but in writing we state the problem, and we invite the answer.

Sometimes the answers come directly from the unconscious, revealing themselves on the page, often trivial details in themselves but which form, over time, a greater structure of understanding. And sometimes it comes serendipitiously, the unconscious guiding us towards the works of others, works we may have perused many times and seen nothing in them, but through our continuing enquiry we awaken sufficiently to return and take what meaning is meant for us, at the time when we are ready to grasp it.

And finally, with the Inn at the Edge of Light I take my seat at the bar and the landlord pours me out a glass of the water of life and I begin to understand through all this mythologising the role of a man with one foot in the camps of both his conscious and his unconscious life. Either that or I fall victim to my own delusions, and what I have achieved is no more than a voyage of Romantic speculation – take your pick.

But if I can close by paraphrasing Carl Jung,…

To the intellect, mythologising is futile speculation. To the emotions, however, it is a healing and valid activity; it gives existence a certain glamour which we would not like to do without.

Nor is there any reason why we should.

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Beardy manWe must be careful not to misunderstand the word “spiritual”, nor think we can only come to it through religion. The spiritual dimension existed before there were ever religions to give it a name. Many people, both religious and otherwise, have experienced it and they use words like timelessness, boundlessness, oneness, and love to describe it. This is the mystical core at the heart of all religion, yet many who would not consider themselves religious at all tumble into it by accident. They do not see angels, or saints, or witness terrifying revelations , but describe a more abstract experience, marvellous and expansive. It leaves them altered. They no longer need to seek or indeed reject “belief”. They simply know that it is so.

Of course not all who invite such an experience will find it, yet all who do seek it discover that the search alone shifts the focus of their lives away from inner pain and more towards a mindful awareness of life itself. In eastern philosophies there is no separation between the mental life and the spiritual. In addressing one we are always addressing the other. I wrote earlier about the three vessels – the physical, the mental and the spiritual. They are the three legs upon which we stand. Kick one away, or deny its existence altogether, and we are sure to lose our balance.

In secular society, there is a problem with religion; at the state level it is, on the one hand, irrelevant since society is now entirely market driven. On the other, religiously motivated violence is sadly nowadays such a threat to life and limb, religion is only tolerated so long as it does not get out of hand. At the personal level too religion can be seen as lacking any real goodness, that indeed it works contrary to its stated purpose – dividing and persecuting, instead of uniting and embracing our diversity. If the spiritual vessel exists at all nowadays it has been upturned and its contents tipped out. Sadly, this is to deny our true nature, and what we suppress will always come back to haunt us ten fold.

Buried deep in the psyche there is a spiritual function. It is the generator of a current that urges us all towards change, towards transformation and transcendence through the assimilation of energies that rise from both the personal and the collective unconscious. We have no choice in this, it is a part of what we are, a part of what moves us. Through us, nature is evolving psychically. There is nothing supernatural about this; it is an aspiration, a movement towards what is intrinsically good, a goodness that is not written down anywhere but simply known.

The early churches were formed to bring us to this enlightened state, but somewhere along the way they became hung up on ritual and power. Non-affiliated mystics continue to seek the core experience, yet cautioned all the while by the orthodox priesthood, also by the robustly irreligious and the scientistic, that when we stop believing in God, we start believing in anything. But this is not true. We set aside belief and seek instead our own direct experience of the transcendent dimension, the soul life. In a mental health context, the quest for healing, for happiness, for wholeness, is always, in part, a spiritual quest – it’s just that our search is more desperate.

The spiritual vessel is the one most easily damaged by the turbulence of our collective existential angst and it is existential matters that are central to feelings of wholeness, and by implication also their antithesis: depression and anxiety. Topping that vessel up will restore us to ourselves like no other medicine, but first we must divine the shape of the vessel within us, then set it upright. Many succeed in this through the prodigals’ return to the churches they rejected in the long ago, but to the isolated, the disconnected and the lonely in spirit, traditional congregations can be sources of stress, the liturgies triggers for uncomprehending anxiety.

Yet the spiritual function demands its fill whether we are religious or not. It contains the unwritten codex, the contract of our time on earth, and we are obliged to make our peace with it, to move in the direction it is suggesting, both as individuals, and collectively as a species. It would be a lot simpler if all of this was written down for us at birth, perhaps tattooed on our palms, but it isn’t. We have to divine the meaning for ourselves – that is our purpose and we do it by developing a personal relationship with “God”, or whatever label you want to attach to this sense of something “other”.

It sounds arrogant, putting oneself above two thousand years of religious teaching, but we have no choice in it. Just because one finds no connection through conventional worship, it does not stop the stirrings of the spiritual function, so we turn instead to the incoming tide of personal-development literature. This is as eclectic as the varieties of spiritual experience, but it is not easily dismissed. Broadly it suggests we work towards mindful self analysis, seek the stillness within us, and if we need a story to describe it, then a personal mythology will suffice – it does not need to be true for anyone else so long as it sits comfortably with us.

Over the course of a couple of million words, and several strange novels, this is the direction I am moving in. Other researches, online musings, and occasional dialogues with a book from China’s mythic past, enable me to keep my own vessel pointing the right way up, and the water in it just warm enough to relax into now and then. You can do this too. I don’t know how, and hesitate to suggest anything other than that by finding the vessel inside of you, the spiritual function will begin to work its way through you too of its own accord. Then you simply follow wherever it leads.

I hesitate to tell you that, if my own history is anything to go by, none of this will stop that black dog from settling in from time to time. That’s just its nature. Mental illness will always cast a shadow over the lives of those who have even once suffered from it. But through an awareness of simple self-healing – physical, mental and spiritual – we need not feel quite so helpless as we were before. We know we can always beat a path back to the light of life whenever we find ourselves benighted.

I’ll leave the subject of men’s mental health there.

Thanks for listening.

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