Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Where to from here?

There are so many things that we human beings would like to do – from travelling the world to reading the latest Man Booker Prize novel, to attending a famous opera, to seeing the latest film, to attending a seminar on the latest fads in self-help, perhaps even attending a well-qualified psychotherapist or counsellor or writing a powerful novel, even a fairly tame one might do, provided, of course, that it was published.  We human beings are complex creatures, or at least creatures who like to consider themselves complex.  There simply is no satisfying our desires.  St Augustine of Hippo called man, and I use man in its generic sense here (perhaps I should have said “humankind” and in that way I should be far more politically correct? - I’ve a nasty habit of interrupting myself, so on with the main clause), “a restless seeker.”  Needless to say, the old Saint saw such restlessness as an innate spiritual desire within man for the source of truth – namely God.  If you’re into 4th or 5th century theology or are in any way a Platonist then you’d find this very consoling no doubt.  I think that there is a certain truth in his contention.  A site worth perusing on this old Saint and brilliant medieval philosopher is http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/augustine.html St Augustine’s dates are 354-430 AD, so he straddled the fourth and fifth centuries.

Anyway, lest this become a very rambling post, let me get to a point in all this.  Note I say “a” point rather than “the” point.  I’m trying to keep my musings as objective as I possibly can.  I suppose as the year is coming to an end I am beset with many existential concerns, large on a personal level, but miniscule on a universal one.  Like most modern 21st century beings who are in their fifth decade of life, I am trying to review the direction my life has taken me in.  I’ll be 48th on the 5th of January 2006.  Questions that concentrate my mind are the following in no set order of importance: (i) Am I really happy at my job? (ii) Do I need the stimulus of another one? (iii) I need a woman in my life – certainly a confidante to share my concerns with as well as the more creaturely pleasures (iv) where can I get my second book published?  I’ve already written one on meditation and it was published in 2002.  If you’re interested in reading about this book click here: http://www.veritas.ie/veritas/asp/section.asp?s=49  (v) Should I not take a career break for further study?  If so what field would I be really happy in?  I have studied in diverse areas from Maths, Irish, English, Philosophy, Theology, Education and History to French and Italian.  Of late, I have specialised mostly in Irish and can speak and write in it equally as well as English.  As you will see from the introductory words to this site the present blog is a hodge podge of English and Irish entries.  It appears to me that this is essentially confusing to any would-be reader.  Therefore, should I not set up a separate blog in Irish?  Good thinking, but do I really have the time to do that? (vi) Should I apply to TCD and do the teacher fellowship, which I was offered many years ago and didn’t take up? It only lasts for one term anyway, and I can afford to be without salary for four months anyway. Perhaps the Department of Education and Science would allow me to keep my salary and pay a substitute out of it? (vii) Maybe I should consider moving school or even consider changing subject areas? (viii) Should I complete my studies and personal development in the counselling/psychotherapy area?  I have decided to attend a counsellor who needs clients to finish her M.Sc. in psychotherapy – I feel I’ll learn more about myself by so doing. (ix) Am I fundamentally fulfilled and happy in myself?  I think so, at least for the most part, but I suspect that I’m not completely fulfilled.  Is any human being ever?  So, the abiding question is (x) where from here?  As I say on a universal level these are small questions – small meat indeed.  Set beside last year's St Stephen’s Day Tsunami disaster, the earthquake in Pakistan a few months back and the global poisoning of our planet by carbon dioxide emissions, these personal concerns pale into insignificance.  Those larger universal questions must remain for another day’s concerns.  Suffice it to say, that I’m fleeing away on a holiday.  My brother Pat and I are heading down to Sicily on Thursday 29th December and will be returning on Thursday 5th January, my birthday.  So, we’ll be spending New Year in Palermo and we’ll toast all beings of good will everywhere from the central Piazza.  I feel oh so selfish, but that’s how it is – just one more existential concern to worry about and to add to that interminable list!   The picture I have included at the centre top of this post is one I took some months back of a quaint old house behind some trees in Newbridge House, Donabate, County Dublin. Somewhere like this should be a wonderful place to escape to and meditate - perhaps even alleviate those personal existential concerns! But, maybe ther is no escaping? I think probably not!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

A Christmas Break

Eight staff members from my school took a four day break to Munich, Dachau and Salzburg. As regards Salzburg an interesting site to explore is http://www2.salzburg.info/. The Christmas markets in Munich were excellent as was the shopping in general. We stayed at a very good hotel not too far from the centre of Munich - www.apart-muenchen.de - and we used the U-bahn or underground railway or metro to get around. Needless to say we visited the Marienplatz and viewed the famous Glockenspiel. Thursday was spent touring the main sites of Munich. On Friday we went across to Salzburg, Austria, for the day. What a beautiful city it is with its wonderful architecture and beautiful cathedral. The Christmas markets were superb as were the mime artists in the streets, the musicians, the Christmas carols and the cheer, the food and the interesting ice sculptures. The locals were very friendly indeed - well used to tourists. However, our trip had also a more sombre element to it. On saturday morning we journeyed a short distance by train out to Dachau. The following site is well worth perusing at one's leisure: http://www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de/englisch/content/. When we arrived in Dachau concentration camp we were immediately struck by its silence and bleakness. It was December 10th and I'd say it was about 0 degrees C. The chill in the wind added to its bleak solemnity. One could not walk on the soil of Dachau without being mindful of the thousands and thousands and thousands of poor wretched souls who died so miserably there at the hands of their executioners. "Established in March 1933, the Dachau concentration camp was the first regular concentration camp established by the Nazis. Initially the internees consisted primarily of German Communists, Social Democrats, and other political opponents of the Nazi regime. Over time, other groups were also interned at Dachau such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, as well as "asocials" and repeat criminals... During the early years relatively few Jews were interned in Dachau and then usually because they belonged to one of the above groups or had completed prison sentences after being convicted for violating the Nuremberg Laws of 1935... The number of prisoners incarcerated in Dachau between 1933 and 1945 exceeded 188,000. The number of prisoners who died in the camp and the subcamps between January 1940 and May 1945 was at least 28,000, to which must be added those who perished there between 1933 and the end of 1939. It is unlikely that the total number of victims who died in Dachau will ever be known. " (Edited from the first page of the following site, q.v., http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005214 ). Five of the eight of us chose to visit this solemn memorial of the inhumanity and cruelty of man to his fellow man. The other three simply had not the heart to face such depths of depravity - they felt they would be too upset!! I can understand their feelings. Dachau, at one and the same time, represents both the heights and the depths of man - the depths of his cruelty (the Nazi guards and the Nazi régime) and the heights of courage and creativity of its former inmates - namely, say Viktor Frankl, one of my all-time favourite writers and psychiatrists who spent years there and survived by writing a few lines of his famous book - Man's Search for Meaning - in his head each day. When he was finally liberated all he had to do was write it out verbatim. This subversive act of intellectual prowess kept him alive in a veritable meaningless hell on earth. This was the whole centre and meaning and driving force of Frankl's therapy - the need for meaning is the greatest and most important need for the human psyche. If even he could find meaning in such horrific suffering - if meaning could be found even in meaninglessness - then meaning was surely available to all no matter how horrific their plight! Many thoughts went through my mind - from all those books I had read as a teenager by former inmates of different concentration camps to the famous film by Stephen Spielberg at which I wept and was proud of it - Schindler's List - to Primo Levi's wonderful book called Survival in Auschwitz (Se Questo e' un Uomo). Tears came to my eyes again as I viewed the exhibition of the clinical cruelty of the Nazi machine. To think that human beings had actually thought up all that depravity is mind boggling. I thought of Paul VI's famous words to the UN in the post-war years: "Never again war. War never again!" Yet, we have never learnt, have we? Wars go on and on and on. Neither have concentration camps died out with the Nazi holocaust of the Jews and other unwanted kinds. I stooped down and picked up a cold stone from the shingle that covered the famous roll call square of Dachau. It was in the shape of a heart, and it was cold in my hand until the warmth of my fingers dispelled it. I will put it beside my incense burner to remind me of all those haunting faces who lost their lives. They have not died for nothing. Long may their memories live. I enclose a picture I took with this sombre post. Amen!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Christmas Party

It is now 12:30 A.M. and I have just returned from our annual Vincent de Paul Christmas party which we run at our school. I suppose Christmas brings the best out in everyone. Today was such a day. These lines are by way of gratitude to all those who care so much about others. First let me start by mentioning the pupils involved in serving up the dinner to our old folks: David McGuinness, Luke Clarke, Shane Farnham, Keith Shannon and Stephen Cheevers from Fourth Year, William Sherlock from Sixth Year and the one and only Paul MacCormack from last year's Sixth Form. Thanks lads, you all "played a stormer" as the cliché goes from this part of the world! Thanks, Paul, for your wonderful organisation skills and for your complete generosity. I must not forget to pay special tribute to Mairéad Martin, my fellow teacher and comrade-in-arms for the past twelve years who is really the "driving force " behind our efforts. Thanks for the inspiration and the determination to get things done - you're a wonderful human being! Thanks also to other teachers who helped, especially Aoife MacCormick - one of the loveliest and most genuine people to join our staff in recent years. Thanks for your support and for being with us the whole day long. I'm not, of course, forgetting others like Barbara Farrell who is always her usual happy and helpful self - thanks, Barbara, for being there. Nor must I forget to tender my thanks to Brian O'Dwyer and Christy Oonan, principal and deputy principal respectively for your support both on the night and in days leading up to the event. Thanks also to the parents who came in to bring the old folks home - Mrs. Carville and some others whom I don't personally know. Thanks also to my brother, Pat who always comes down each year to help us ferry our guests home, and also to Mairéad Fitzsimons, our Careers Guidance Counsellor, who came in all the way from Portmarnock to help with the same task! Then there was the inimitable Peter Tiernan who provided the excellent entertainment for the night. The songs were brilliant, covering all those marvellous hits from the sixties onward. There were some wet eyes in the house given the time of year. I suppose one would want to be a stone not to be moved by the depth of feeling some of the old folks put into their songs. Ageing is a strange but natural thing. As I looked at the faces of these dear old people it struck me that they, too, were once young. It also struck me that I, too, was ageing. It is a special gift I think to grow old gracefully, to grow into an acceptance of whatever life wishes to do to you with your co-operation and support. It is a special gift indeed to embrace the Self, to accept the Self, to grow comfortable as it were in your own body; to accept the inevitability of life's vicissitudes, all those ups and downs; and then finally to look death in the eye and say: "We are not afraid to embrace you because you, death, are a part of life and not an end of life as such! Life holds us by one hand and you, death, hold us by the other. We walk with both by our side. Let acceptance bring us its consolations in our journey!" I enclose a recent picture I took of the sunset over Donabate strand which for me sums up, or at least gives a glimpse into the mystery of our existence!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Native Tradition and Psychoanalysis

I will begin this entry in my weblog by quoting two very similar quotes from two very disparate sources. The famous Great Blasket writer, Muiris Ó Súilleabháin penned the first quotation that comes to my mind, and it runs: '... mar a deir an seanráiteas, is goirt iad na deora a shileann, ach is goirte ná san na deora ná sileann.' An English translation would run thus: 'Bitter the tears that fall, but more bitter still the tears that fall not.' I think he was returning at the time of penning these lines to the island of his birth as a very young boy, his father having died, to the home of his grandfather. There is a lot of truth in this statement - unexpressed grief will surely wreak havok on the prson by way of psychosomatic illness. What put this quotation in my mind was the hearing of another quotation from a modern psychoanalyst and this one runs thus: "Sorrow that does not end in tears makes other organs cry." I was attending a series of lectures on Psychoanalysis at Trinity College here in my home town, Dublin city, Ireland. Unfortunately, I didn't catch the name of the psychiatrist or psychoanalyst who uttered these profound words, but I was stunned by how close they were to my favourite quote from Muiris Ó Súilleabháin. Muiris penned these words in his famous autobiography, Fiche Bliain ag Fás which was translated widely into other languages. The English version is called Twenty Years a-Growing and is well worth a read. It should not surprise us much that traditional wisdom of ancient civilizations contain much that is wholesome to the soul and the spirit. No wonder Carl Gustave Jung turned to the study of the mythologies and beliefs of the ancients. I also enclose a picture I took recently at Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhóir - The Blasket Island Interpretive Centre - at Dún Chaoin (Dunquin) in the Dingle Peninsula. The picture simply depicts a to-scale model of the original village on the island. I shall enclose some other pictures related to this area over the next few posts. Until we meet then: beir bua agus beannacht!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Some Random Thoughts on Meditation

Meditation is… being aware being awake being mindful being still/tranquil being focused being centred being in tune

going with the flow going slowly and mindfully going peacefully going gracefully going lightly going gently being at one with Self being at one with Others being at one with Mother Earth being at one with the Universe being at one with creation being at one with The Ground of our Being (God) integrating the bad and the good in me. facing up to my shadow (Jung). exploring the Unconscious. bringing aspects of the Unconscious to Consciousness. letting the ego decrease and play a less important role in my life. simplifying things going from many things to one unifying centre “seeing the unity behind the multeity,” (S.T. Coleridge) going on a journey to self-awareness. journeying to self-realisation following where this pathway of deeper self-knowledge may lead

simply sitting sitting in silence sitting with eyes closed sitting with eyes half-closed sitting with eyes focused on an object (a candle perhaps)

Meditation leads to

  • compassion for Self
  • compassion for others
  • compassion for all creatures – “all sentient beings” (Dalai Lama)
  • peace of mind.
  • compassion for all sentient beings.
  • a more reflective approach to life.
  • walking lightly on Mother Earth
  • acceptance of Self and Others

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

No man is an island

“No man is an island entire of itself…everyone’s death diminishes me…” or words to that effect. The great Anglican divine and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral London, John Donne (1572-1631) wrote these words in a famous meditation. The actual text is from Meditation number XVII and reads more fully: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." See http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/donnebib.htm for a full index of all his works. To meditate on death is indeed a sobering thing to do. Those, like Donne, just at the beginning of the early modern age, knew death at first hand. Life expectancy then was very short indeed. In many of his poems, as indeed in the poems and writings of other contemporary authors, the reality of death was never really very far away. For all the truth in Donne’s writings, there is yet a dimension of life he has not explored – namely that the death of others can add much to our lives in a mysterious and strange way if only we have the insight to explore that hidden and eclipsed dimension of death. That’s easy, of course, for me to say from the security of our existence under the protective and often shallow crust of modern society of the twenty-first century. Today, when we meditate on the death of those we love we try to see their leaving us as a celebration of all the good in their lives. We can’t fault John Donne for the preoccupations and dark beliefs of his era – he lived in pre-medical times as it were! So the deaths of our loved ones can expand our horizons, can give us strength to live life more fully and make us thank God or whatever “benign” force lies behind this wonderful, if at times, cruel universe. From the deaths of all my loved ones I have learned about the great sacrifices of love – especially from my grandmother, Phoebe St Ledger, who when she married my grandfather Patrick Brophy, gave birth to 12 healthy children and lost three or four, perhaps more. I remember as a young boy praying by her deathbed and touching her ice-cold marble hands. From my Uncle Pat’s death I learned the great value of generosity and the great value of good humour. From the death at a very young age of my Uncle John, I learned the supreme courage and good humour of a man who could face blindness, several amputations and finally death with great acceptance and serenity. Then, there was the death of Uncle Jim 12,000 miles away in New Zealand – from this I learned the value of following your dream wherever it might lead. From the death of my grand-aunt Annie I learned the courage of persistence and resilience. There are so many things we can learn, not just from their deaths, but also most especially from their lives. Most people leave this world as they have lived their lives in it – I think that is essentially true. I could go on listing all the people I know who have died. However, I shan’t bore the reader with such details. Rather I shall finish with a little reflection on the death of my own father, Thomas Francis Quinlan (1913-1993): Thank you Thomas for the gift of my life, for your gentle presence, for providing for us to the best of your ability, for suffering the ills that life meted upon you without complaint, for the courage you showed as you went on your final journey of death, for kissing all good bye with “I love you” on your lips and ours, and for your beautiful last words: “It’s such a lovely day!” The picture I include with this post is one I took three years ago, and it depicts the island called "Ireland's Eye", off Howth Harbour. Beannacht leat a scrbhinn.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

This poem explores our personal unconscious.

Stalactite

Phantoms, monsters, ghosts,
Jesters and clowns –
All of them –
That crowd our dreams,
Bearers of some deep truth
Lurking in unexplored corners.

Here, we dwell in fine appointed
Houses and apartments
With the world at our fingertips,
Yet there are those deep down
Cobweb places of the heart and soul
Where hairy spiders crawl
And bind their prey

Bit by little bit
And suck their blood away.
Layer upon layer of intricate,
Delicate and oh so finely woven webs –
Embroidery that hides
Multitudes of little sobering truths
Waiting to be known,
Pleading for our courage to go where

The bony skeleton rattles chalk-stiff limbs
And drops a loosened tooth to
The dust of long forgotten cares,
Beyond the dung heaps of our burnt-out passions
To a cool still corner of a lonely cave
Where water drips compassionate drop by drop
And carves a crystal sculpture from the soul
Like an ancient stalactite
Reaching from a roof of stone. [I enclose a picture I took in Dunmore Cave in County Kilkenny, Ireland. It's a picture of stalactites - not a brilliant picture as the camera I had at the time was not too good!]

Sunday, November 20, 2005

"How we believe is as much as mystery as how we remember." John Henry Newman

Memories

Memory was a strange thing.  There were surprising connections.  Most of them seemed random enough, but there were others, which were so different.  There was that sense of “dejà vu” or even of having been there before with these more surprising connections.  For years he had wondered what on earth made us who we are.  He did not want to be predictable in the way he formulated his questions – he felt he had come too far along the road to be enamoured of clichéd enquiries.  How the human being remembered was always a source of wonder for him.  The very act of remembering and the consequent reflection on its wonder were essentially what made him who he was and what separated man from the animals, what put the “sapiens” in the term “homo sapiens.”

It was always the smallest of things that made him remember – the way the myriads of small shells and shingle crunched under his shoes as he walked along the strand.  It was that very sound that brought him back years.  Now he was a little boy running on the beach chasing the wind, shouting, “Catch me!”  Shortly after that he had visions of himself playing with the neighbour’s dog, which always came into their childhood kitchen excitedly wagging its tail at the end of a long school day.  Then again he could vividly see a young boy standing in a shop in a small country town in the early sixties of the twentieth century.  

The ridges in the sand left by the outgoing waves wove a wondrously regular pattern in the sand.  Those waves had come one after another, each inevitably part of the whole tapestry, meaningless in themselves without the company of the millions of others.  It must surely be the same for memories, he thought.  Can one exist on its own, without the addition of others to give it shape and meaning?  

Walking, camera in hand, he sought out different angles, interesting reflections and wonderful shapes like that of the huge grey cloud like a fur collar draped across the shoulder of the strand.  All these myriad angles, reflections and shapes were constantly changing from moment to moment in the waning light of the red winter sunset.  Memories, he thought, were as fleeting and as unrelated as these angles, reflections and shapes that intrigued him now.  And light what was it?  Seven colours of the spectrum which, when spun quickly, formed the colour white or again white light being broken into its seven constituent colours through the wonderful medium of a prism did not really seem to capture the mystery at all.  Old Heraclitus’ dictum that all is flux and forever changing seemed to capture the experience of what he was feeling rather than any more precise scientific formulation.  Sure science had its place in the scheme of things – in applying logic and observation and hard facts to “reality” and so on and so forth.  But the experience of this transient mystery before him was so difficult to express in words.

And then the dark, what was it?  Was it enough to say it was the mere absence of the light? Then other memories like waves broke across his consciousness.  As he walked, he remembered how he had rested once among the dunes on this very beach in the summer sun, but that was many years ago.  He remembered also how he had suddenly become aware of some other strange presence near him.  Then his gaze came to focus on a dying herring gull, which was spasmodically moving its neck back and forth.  He wished he had the courage or even the know-how to wring its neck.  It was obviously in pain.  His peace was now disturbed by this white wretched living thing, which was now quite obviously painfully dying.  How dare death so rudely poke its reality into his?  But that was the way things were, was it not?  Then he remembered how his father had often used that phrase with him – “That’s the way it is, son.  That’s the way.”

As he walked there were four foreigners, speaking some language from Eastern Europe that he couldn’t identify.  They were trying to launch a great kite into the sky – it made a perfect arc of dark blue and white.  One side, he noted that there was some sort of buggy that the kite could pull if it could be launched.  With the waning light they decided that the effort was not really worth it, so they packed up and went away.  There were many languages which he could not understand, but that did not really matter did it?  He sensed what they were talking about from their gestures.  Communication was always more than words.  It was context and situation, gesture and expression that added so much more than the forced exactitude of words.

These days as his mother was entering more and more into the labyrinth of dementia words were beginning to lose their meaning.  Every time either he or his two brothers visited her she would begin to talk and talk, making up words as she went along.  Words had become so slippery now in this twilight world of dementia.  And all those memories were now distorted and contorted and twisted out of shape till they became transformed into something different.  What that “something different” was he did not know.  This was unexplored territory.  What geriatric specialist could describe that world where they themselves had never trod?

And what was the personality if memories themselves were beginning to break down?  What was personality anyway?  Did they not tell him at college all those years ago that personality was a complex reality made up of traits, behaviours, thoughts and feelings shaped by memory?  If memory broke down, then personality would cease to be.  Mam was a different person now – her personality was altered, altered utterly.  For all intents and purposes she was dead for them and almost dead to them.  And yet somehow at some deep unconscious level she recognized them and constantly sought to engage them in conversation.

Looking right around the bay he could see Howth Head in the distance.  He remembered having walked it so many times before, that each memory blended itself into the other that he could not properly separate them.  Memory was never that precise was it?  The imagination always seemed to enhance it, add this or that colour and even subtract more painful elements we simply didn’t want to remember.  Christ, it was almost forty years – 38 to be more precise – since his Uncle Jim had taken him and his two brothers tramping over that headland.  Jim was a somewhat exotic and colourful character in the dull grey Ireland of the 1960s – he was a worldwide traveller having visited most countries save Soviet Russia and China.  Now he remembered how the yellow furze bushes had cut into the skin of his young legs as he ran after his Uncle Jim, the explorer, home on holiday from that land of beauty – New Zealand.  

Another time he had walked Howth Head with some school friends and their mathematics teacher from O’Connell School.  He remembered Brother Russell saying these precise words:  “This is absolutely exhilarating, gentlemen!”  Yet another time he had climbed it with Spanish and Italian students whom he was teaching English during his holidays from school.  He remembered purposely praising the owner of the school for her agility – deliberately massaging her ego to get a longer period of work from her.  That was all long ago now.  

All those chemicals, neurotransmitters, or whatever that shoot across those millions of nerve endings – ganglion upon ganglion – to form memory upon memory.  The wonder of it all!  Was personality reducible to the complex interplay of chemicals?  Are we after all just a collocation of atoms and molecules, as Bertrand Russell would have had us be?  Since his experience of depression at forty years of age he was not quite sure anymore.  Maybe we humans were just a complex pharmacological phenomenon?  

Then the waning light reflected in the pools of water on the strand caught his attention.  The light from the setting sun was a brilliant red orb dissolving in the sand.  The falling night and its beckoning mystery brought back all those memories when as a boy he had hated leaving his friends as his mother would call him in from his play.  The half-light was always mysterious, much more so than either pure white daylight or the black dark of night.  Now he photographed the reflected sun in the water and the tyre tracks of the cars that had come this way some hours ago.

And life was a play of light – source of all life - in all its various intensities on the fertile blue planet Earth.  He was so blessed to be sighted - to enjoy all the various colours and shapes patterned each day on the screen of his mind.  He supposed the blind might rely much more on the other senses.  They probably remembered by sounds, by touch and by smell.  The wonder of it all, he thought as he turned and walked back to his car.  It was practically dark and he had to turn on his full headlights.         [The picture I have placed at the beginning of this post is one I took of car tracks in the wet sand at Donabate beach. In the piece above I decribe how I took the particular pictures referred to, of which this is one!]

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Unconscious - That Great Unknown waiting to be Known

Night Walk

To walk into the black night was like a descent
Into the stony places of the unconscious,
Into the shadowy corners of the Self,
Into the labyrinthine Hades of his fears.

It was right, he thought, so right
To face all his fears head on,
To walk into those dark places which might frighten
Lesser souls…

He heard the waters lap over the cold grey rocks,
The lone cry of a careworn curlew,
Felt the caress of the black breeze on his cheek
And the embrace of the intimate magic of the night.

There were no other walkers there in that dark
Where he walked alone but not abandoned.
He felt close to those who had gone before him –
His dead father was walking him by the hand.

In the shadows he thought he saw seals wink
From the lapping waves beyond the rocks
And slip away into the great grey embrace of water -
And like Oisín and Niamh Chinn Óir they did not look back.

Near the rusted railings he stopped and stared
Into the deep dark morass of memory
And let the past play in images in his mind
Till his soul fled away on the wings of a lone heron.

                             ****
Lights like candles on a giant birthday cake
Welcomed the lone walker back from the pier.
In the black of the night he heard seabirds call
And the voices of other walkers across the harbour.

  

Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Recent Poem

Motorway Blues

Restless,
Lost somewhere
Between dreams, the early morning mist,
Fitful twists, broken sleep
And the low grey clouds
Over moaning motorways –
Glad the radio’s not working,
Nothing to distract the driver from himself,
From all that’s happening within
And without –
Body calling in the distance
To care for it –
Go gently,
Breathe into the pain
And let all worries go!

Trucks and trailers, cars and u.v’s,
Four-wheel drives, distraught wives,
Frustrated husbands, sore heads –
Too much too soon,
Too little not often enough,
No-breakfast faces, headaches and backaches
And the rush and push and slush of life,
Babies that bawled long into the small hours,
Dogs that howled through his dreams
And then the rush of life –
To get to a destination on time.

Finally there, an hour or more later,
Still restless, not altogether lost
And only half-awake
He fingers the mug of hot coffee,
Lets his brain thaw out
And faces another day.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Enthusiasm

The etymology of the word "enthusiasm" is interesting. It literally means "to be filled with (G)god, from the Greek "theos" (god) and "en" (in). In other words one is carried away with excitement, inspired by a higher power which is literally pouring down and out through you, and you are almost a mere channel or conduit for this power. You are almost in a veritable ecstasy - or ecstatic, literally outside the state of "stasis". "Enthusiasm" is a word with many connotations and associations. One can call to mind other such words like "Dionysian" which means "being of a frenzied or orgiastic character" which is the opposite of Apollonian, which means "logical, calm, harmonious, measured, ordered, or balanced in character." Another related word that comes to mind is "Bacchanalian", the adjective from the Roman festival of Bacchus celebrated with dancing, song,revelry and even orgy!!!
Why am I going on about the etymolgy of this word anyway? Well, I think it applies to some people's work style, to certain persons' way of being in and living in the world. We might also call these people "intense". They seem to live life at a high octane level and literally burn with the power of enthusiasm. I remember having an enthusiastic Irish teacher years ago, Micheál Ó hEaráin was his name, and you could hear the blackboard vibrate in the adjoining room when he was working at it. I also remeber the spittle flying as he spoke with great passion. His classes were alive. I've also seen people who hold the pen rather too tighly and write through a page rather bthan on it! Probably both people here are over-doing it. Are nervous breakdowns around the corner in these cases? Perhaps. Anyway, Micheál never burned out through breakdown - he retired a tired man at 65 and is still going strong at 75!!
Enthusiasm is important, indeed, though it can be over-done. However, enthusiasm that is properly expressed and balanced and not taken to extremes can communicate the magic of a subject or of a topic to others. Enthusiasm is catching. It will inflame others, inspire them, provoke them, lead them on to discover the creative side of their personality etc. A teacher without enthusiasm is a very sad, and I should say a very ineffective teacher. When enthusiasm is gone, such a teacher is a bore, a poison in the education system and should retire before he or she becomes burned out or cynical.
Is é an focal ar "enthusiasm" i nGaeilge ná "dúthracht" nó "díograis". Ní féidir aon teanga eile a fhoghlaim gan a bheth díograiseach agus dúthrachtach. Caithfidh tú titim i ngrá le fuaimeanna áille na teanga. Caithfidh tú iad a bhlaiseadh ar do theanga agus iad a chaitheamh amach le díograis i gcomhrá le daoine eile atá i ngrá leis an teanga sin.
Imparo l'italiano questi giorni d'inverno. 'E una lingua bellissima con una musicalita' simile alla musicalita' del Gaelico. Gli italiani sono amichevoli come gli irlandesi. Mi ricordo durante La Coppa del Mondo nel calcio - faccio allusione a Italia 90 - che gli iltaliani chiamavano gli irlandesi "gli italiani del nord"! Possiamo adesso chiamare gli italiani "gli irlandesi del sud!!" Vado in Sicilia per una settimana dopo il natale e spero di mettere in pratica il mio italiano con entusiasmo.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Musings at the end of a long week

Musings at the end of a long week Boy, am I tired! Tá tuirse an domhain orm. We have just completed one month back at “the chalk face”! We started back earlier than most schools – Thursday the 25th of August to be precise. By so doing were able to plan our schemes of work for the coming academic year and also to take 2 extra days around the 8th of December coming. A group of us teachers are heading to Munich for a long weekend. We will take in the German Christmas markets and other cultural sights, making Dachau concentration camp a key item on our itinerary. That’s a “must” that visit – after all we study history so that we will never repeat the mistakes of the past! At least that’s the theory anyway. I bought some books by one of my favourite authors today – namely A.C. Grayling – The Meaning of Things, The Reason of Things, The Heart of Things and The Wisdom of Things. Four beautifully produced books. I simply could not resist the temptation. Grayling is a very fine philosopher and cultural commentator and is worth reading again and again for his insights, and for both the depth and breadth of his knowledge and understanding. In an article in one of the above books he writes about the aesthetics of Nazism, how Hitler had a very sophisticated if narrow, authoritarian and brutally stunted view of the beautiful. Anything outside the classical 19th century German art Hitler dubbed as “degenerate”, distorted and “unfinished.” Both Hitler and Goering were fanatical art collectors and literally robbed all the galleries of Europe of their art collections. Those paintings they did not like or thought of as garish and “degenerate” they, of course, did not destroy, but rather sold on to foreign interested parties. And this, strangely enough, or maybe understandably enough, was also to serve the maniacal dreams of a madman who sought to dominate the world and exterminate a whole race. Hitler’s whole understanding of art and music, architecture and town planning were all aspects of his drive to power and control. His aesthetics and ethics all derived from this delusional sense of his own power, from the crass projections of his own inflated ego. Read Grayling – he’s brilliant! Then read anything you can get your hands on by Primo Levi who spent time in the hellhole of Auschwitz. The n read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl who spent years at another concentration camp, namely Dachau. Frankl was a world-renowned psychiatrist who wrote this famous book in his mind over the period of his incarceration. When he was eventually liberated he was able to write it down from memory. It was in the Dachau camp that he invented his own school of psychotherapy called “logotherapy”, namely that the most fundamental urge in any human being is his search for meaning. Anyway, I had a brilliant day at school. I interviewed about 35 of my charges in TY about their work placements and how they were getting on in fourth year. Then I substituted for another teacher in the Repeat Leaving Cert year. They are all wonderful young people setting out on life – full of dreams and hopes. I told them they were brave and courageous to be repeating, and that if they really wanted something badly enough they’d achieve it. Ba cheart agus ba chóir dom na smaointe seo a chríochnú as Gaeilge. Tagann seanfhocal tábhachtach chun mo chuimhne – “Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí; cáin an óige agus críonfaidh sí; buail sa tóin í agus titfidh sí!” Dairíre píre tá gaois agus eagna sna línte sin. Is iad na daoine óga na múinteorí, na h-altraí, na dochtúirí agus na ceardaithe den todhchaí atá os ár gcomhair amach. Nuair a bheimidne sean, caite agus spíonta – is iadsan a bheidh ag tabhairt aire dhúinn. Dia libh a dhaoine óga. Bíodh dóchas agaibh. Tá bhur saol romhaibh amach agus ní gá ach dul i ngleic leis agus greim muinéil a fháil air. Mar a deir an seanfhocal Laidine “Carpe diem” nó “Seize the day!” Tugaigí aire dá chéile go dtí go mbuailfimid le cheile Dé Luain seo chugainn. Le grá agus le meas mór, TQ.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Significant or Insignificant

Significant or Insignificant?

Just mere dots,
Insignificant
Almost.

Difficult to grasp
These infinite spaces
Domesticated
By beautiful geometry.

Another beautiful mind
Attached to a brittle body.
All these beautiful minds
That reach out to those indifferent
Places and spaces,
That attempt to throw
Equations like threads
To move great boulders.

And the images flow free –
The universe, you see, is
Like a great sponge
With all those interconnecting
Empty holes
And then all that dark matter
In between.

Galaxies fly apart,
Yet the centre holds.
All will wind down and out
Into a cold nothingness
When all light goes out
Aeons and aeons and aeons hence.

Just mere dots
On the infinite spacial multidimensional plane,
Insignificant worms maybe –
Yet how wonderful the mystery,
How wonderful the minds that
Play such beautiful games –
That compose such great symphonies


Of symbol upon symbol
Laden with the lightness of great meanings.
Insignificant worms on a soil
So significant, that we grew
To a consciousness of such
Mystery and beauty
That we dance still with enthusiasm
That one day,
One day,
We may understand.

Just mere dots,
Significant
Almost.

  

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Going On Being

There is an old joke that goes something like this: "Plato said that 'to be is to do' while Aristotle said that 'to do is to be.' Then the punch line: "but Sinatra was more correct, he said (or sang) "do be, do be, do..." (Can't you just hear Old Blue Eyes singing that refrain?). I suppose we are all condemned to be doers unless we have dropped out of society or some tragedy has struck our unfortunate lives. The modern holistic movement and all the pop psychology writers place the emphasis on "being" over "doing" and grant the former more importance. Traditional Buddhist psychology also stresses the greater inportance of being as do psychologists, counsellors and psychotherapists. I suppose if we look at life in a linear fashion as we age from 0 to whatever age we finally "shuffle off this mortal coil" then doing has more priority as we have to develop and grow and acquire qualifications and work and so forth. However, there are other perspectives on life. Life is not only linear, it can and is cyclic, has depth and height, soul and heart, feelings and emotions, even "emotional intelligence" as Daniel Goleman has so wisely pointed out in his eponymous book. Once we've achieved what we have reckoned to be whatever is "success" in our world view, then we may have time to be... Maybe it is the trials of life that have taught us to "do a little less and to be a little more." For me it was being hospitalized when I was forty for some 7 weeks. For others it could be physical diseases like cancer or a horrible road accident. Perhaps even the loss of a job. Maybe a bereavement or some other frustration in life. We are forced to re-evaluate where we are going, what we have achieved and what is the point of it all. This latter is not a rather general though deep philosophical question, but rather a more personal one of what have I really got out of life, what is life for me, queries which incorporate a host of other questions that relate to my life and how I am living it. Am I wasting my time or am I appreciating what I have got? We have a colleague at school who is always wishing it was holiday time - "only 20 days left to holidays," etc. Another wiser colleague replies: "There you go again, wishing your life away." It seems to me that we can be prisoners either of the past or the future. Those who are prisoners of the past cannot let go of their regrets, their failures, their once good health and looks, their former wealth, their dead partner etc etc. They become stuck in a "slough of despond" as Bunyan puts it in Pilgrim's Progress. Those who are prisoners of the future cannot let go of their fears, fear that mum will pass away, that the wife or husband will cease to love them, that they won't be promoted, that the bottom will fall out of their world in so many myriad ways. (As the old joke has it, it could be worse - the world could fall out of your bottom! Forgive this dreadful inversion!) The secret of all the great religions, and more importantly the spiritualities that spring from them, is to live in the now and to be neither a prisoner of the past nor the future. More easily said than done. The person (or persons), whom you are graced to be with at any specific moment in your life, is (are) the most important person (s) in the world for you at precisely that moment! Think, or rather meditate about that for a while and it will eventually become clear. The secret is to be now, this instant, to celebrate the sacrament of being that is now. These thoughts were provoked by my reading of "Going on Being: Buddhism and the Way of Change, a Positive Psychology for the West," by Mark Epstein, M.D. (Continuum, NY, 2001)

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Creativity is undoubtedly one of our greatist gifts. There are so many ways of seeing the world. I remember once a friend of mine saying that the only way to see New York is to "look up." How true. When I finally got there in my early forties I did just that. I remember on another occasion being brought on a tour around the grounds of Dalgan Park, Navan by a geologist-botanist friend. He had such a fresh and lively way of engaging with nature. Ger brought us to see all the different trees and plants. There are two great sequoia trees there - that is, those great Californian Redwoods. "Look up at its beauty - this is a great way to see trees." Then he invited us to feel its soft bark. Try lying on the grass and smelling it! Try hugging a tree! Try doing things differently for a change. Go by a different road to work. Eat something unusual, obviously something edible! Learn a new language. See things differently. Tá sé beartaithe agam an blag seo a bheith dátheangach, a bhuí san leis an mblagadóir (?) "Imeall"! Is cuimhin liom an craoltóir Liam Ó Murchú sna seachtóidí go dtí na nóchaidí den fhichiú h-aois ag moladh craoladh dátheangach i gclár iontach dá chuid "Trom agus Éadrom." Slán beo leis na seanlaethanta. Is amhlaidh go raibh an ceart aige. Ní raibh aon eagla ar a aoínna an méid Gaeilge is a bhí acu a chleachtadh. Agus mé ag foghlaim na hIodáilise le déanaí cuireadh an chuid is mó den bhéim i bhfoghlaim na teanga céanna ar an gcumarsáid i dtús báire, agus ansin tagann na nithe eile go léir isteach. Mas féidir le héinne é nó í féin a chur in iúl in aon teanga ar bith tá tosnú maith déanta acu. Is ansin a thagann na gnéithe eile den bhfoghlaim isteach: éisteacht, scríobh agus léamh - comhréir, gramadach 7rl Tá sé tábhachtach, nó rí-thábhachtach fiú, gan eagla nó imní a chur ar an bhfoghlaimeoir, é nó í a spreagadh agus a mholadh, gan bheith á gcáineadh nó gan bheith dá gceartú ró-mhór. Tiocfaidh feabhsú de réir a chéile, bíodh sé luath nó mall. Seal gairid i ndiaidh dom tosú mar mhúinteoir óg, chonaic oide eile mé ag ceartú aistí. "Haigh", ar%2

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Priorities and Perspective

What are your priorities in life? Have you thought about that lately? Well I arrived down at school today to find that one young gentleman had had a panic attack during his Leaving Cert Honours English paper the previous day and consequently had to be prescribed medicine to relax. He also felt he could not do his Honours paper in Irish because he felt so poorly nerve wise. I listened to him for half an hour and did a short relaxation/meditation exercise with him. He decided at the end that he would be more relaxed doing the pass paper. I told him that I could not decide for him - only he could make up his own mind. After all he had to live with himself, not me. Anyway I could in no way put pressure of any sort on him. I also rang his mother twice and spoke to her. We both agreed that this young man's mental health was way more important than any exam, than the level of paper sat or than the grade attained. The mother's priority was her son's health as was mine. The level of paper he might sit was a secondary concern. I feel good in myself that I did not put pressure on him. How could I live with myself if he bottled it a second time? He told me he felt more relaxed after our "chat" and relaxation exercise. I also drove him and his friend home and brought them both in for coffee and cakes at MacDonald's new cafeteria in Artane.
Anyway, priorities are important. People are more important than subjects or results, which in the end of the day are all about perception really. A.L. is a good kid, well capable intellectually of honours, but not able to take that horrible pressure which our system puts on some certain few vulnerable individuals. What is our system doing to certain kids? What are we as adults and parents feeding them as regards success in life? Have we got the right priorities? Have we got a realistic and wholesome perspective on life? I use both these words "realistic" and "wholesome" purposely. Realistically the young man is more important than the exam. We must take everything into account, that is, the whole person, not just one aspect of his intelligence. I say one aspect because exams seem to only measure one or two aspects of intelligence at most. (Rather than going on an educational diatribe here I will just briefly allude to Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences. For those of you interested just go into www.howardgardner.com and learn all about this wonderfully enlightening theory of multiple intelligences.)
As regards perspective, did you ever try viewing a painting with your nose nearly up against the canvass? Or at least did you ever try viewing one from too close a position? That's it, you've guessed right - if you view a painting like that you will get it all out of perspective. Stand back and you will view the "whole" of the matter in hand. You will gain perspective. We all need perspective, otherwise we will bore, confuse, confound, and worst of all probably upset both ourselves and others. This young man had lost his perspective. What he needed was an adult to give him space to relax and achieve a certain amount of perspective - as much as he could after this period of crisis.
That's why we need our teachers to be well balanced. We need our adults and parents to be people who are into self-development, to be adults who are open and honest, sincere and realistic and are good listeners. We need on-going personal development. All you adults out there listen to me. In my 25 years of teaching I have known personally 5 or 6 suicides. Those were the ones I knew of - I'm sure there were many of which I did not know. So listen to your kids. For God's sake don't try to live out your hopes and dreams in and through them. Don't put undue pressure on them. (Please note the adjective qualifying the noun here - "undue" - I didn't say "no" pressure. No pressure can and does lead to laziness, sloppiness, drift and more drift and disaster too!) Be open, be honest, and listen, listen, listen. Please hear what they are saying and also what they may be afraid to say to you. With practice you will learn to hear also what they are not saying.
Here's wishing you priorty, perspective and balance in your life and in that of your friends and family!!!!

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Voice on the phone

I'm writing this in answer to a call from my friiend J. McC. about the address of my blog. Luckily enough I was able to retrieve it. Apologies to all addicted bloggers out there in Blogsville.

Travel on. It's not the destination that counts - it's the journey. So say all those who follow any spiritual path worth its salt. Where am I now? I'm at home in my study looking at the screen of my computer with both attic windows open allowing in the nice cool summer air here in Dublin, Ireland. Believe it or not the sun is actually shining and I can hear the lovely sounds of children at play, lawnmowers cutting grass etc. Nice to be off school with nothing in particular to do. Just relax, meditate - or as the words of the famous play put it: "Relax, relate, communicate!" I've forgotten the name of the play. Maybe some blogger out there might remind me. "Dr Fell" or something like that I think.

Bad news at school there in early April, one recent past pupil ended his life tragically. I wrote this poem on that day.

For D. M: 1985-2005

So final,
So brutal,
So sad,
The words won’t come,
They trip each other up,
Spiral down
Like an aircraft shot
From out the skies.

Words won’t behave –
They mutiny at this shock,
They slap my face
To bring me to my senses,
Forget your selfish preoccupations,
The deceptions of the ego,
Sit a while and watch and wait
For the tears to track your cheeks.

So final,
So brutal,
So sad,
The words that come must lisp
Against the choking rope,
The way you chose to end it,
So final,
So brutal,
So sad.

02/04/2005

There are no answers to such tragedy - just the acknowledgement of our own reactions. We had a lovely memorial service for him at the school. As a senior teacher and part-time counsellor I had the privilege of leading that service. D.M. is still in our hearts.

Yes, life goes on. We must plant seeds of hope and hope that some few of them will grow amidst the rocky soil of modern society. Sorry that this post became so serious so quickly. I have just been meditating for over a half an hour and that combined with the good weather and the beautiful day sent me a little into the deeper reaches of the spirit.

Thanks JMacC for waking me from my slumber and greetings to all fellow bloggers out there, especially to any of you who are kindred spirits and who walk lightly on Mother earth. TQ

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Are there likeminded travellers out there? Fellow Spirits?

Images are more powerful than words anyday. Journey represents an important image for our path through life. At a recent lecture I attended by Professor Malcolm Longair, the Astronomer Royal, and professor of Cosmology at Cambridge, he alluded to a beautiful image - namely that the universe was similar to a Huge Sponge. Why? Because of its structure - a series of interconnected holes and then the whole thing somehow kept together by dark matter. There are other images too. I have heard those who suffer from depression describe their lot as being "locked in a prison," "lost in a thick fog," "caught in a narrow tunnel," "drowning," "suffocating," etc. I am by nature a searcher and a seeker. I am agnostic by nature, and very positive in this agnosticism by being open to all knowledge and wisdom no matter where it comes from. I am open to the wisdom of all the great religions and use any of their insights that help me on my way through life. I do have a preference for Buddhism which by its very nature is really agnostic in the true sense. I also like it as I find that it is very akin to psychology or at least many of its principles seem to have a firm basis in psychology, and its principles resonate with my lived experience. Hope this makes some sense.