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Posts Tagged ‘George Herbert’

spiral-staircase

For source of image see link

After posting the piece on tree felling last week, I thought it would be useful to follow up with this from several years ago, but recently reposted. My reactions to the felling of the cedar caused me to revisit in my mind what had dented my trust in adults at an early age – nothing out of the ordinary for the time but hard to handle at four years old none the less. This piece explains exactly what I believe happened and how it affected me. It is the second of two pieces on memory.

Blind to my own Meanings

The shortcomings of my memory described in the first post were bad enough, but what is even more disconcerting about it is that, even when I am exerting myself to the utmost, the full truth of my own potentially retrievable past can evade me and remain completely hidden for decades, and in some cases for life.

Recently, I was forcibly reminded of that fact.

Soon after I became a Bahá’í, almost 30 years ago, I wrote a poem fairly obviously ‘after the manner’ of George Herbert with a less obvious reference, in its abstractions, to Andrew Marvell‘s enigmatic minor masterpiece, The Definition of Love. I didn’t consciously presume to do that – it just came out that way. The first draft I have tracked back to January 1983 – so that’s a fact at least, which is a relief after the will-o’-the-wisp realities of the previous post.

Thief in the Night

Down the dark spinning stairway of my years
Under exalted space,
Abandoned, yet galled by compassion’s spears,
I walked with a blank face
Beneath my searching soul’s long scrutiny,
Wild in despair and helpless mutiny.

At last, locked in denial’s icy vault,
Belying the Sun’s power,
I outfroze each noon – congealed in my fault,
Blinded deafened by dour
Distrust, unmoving – proud perversity
Defrauding me of all tranquillity.

You, with a robber’s skill, intruded there,
Behind my barricades,
Contemptuous of lock and heavy bar.
God speed the Thief who raids
From Magnanimity! Dear Lord, You left
Me rich in peace, only of pain bereft.

At the time of writing I was a bit uncomfortable about the poem. I was pleased it had come out onto the page needing relatively little editing. I was embarrassed about how overblown the language seemed to be as a description of a shift from atheism to faith: ‘I’ve only moved house from my old mild atheism to this tolerant faith,’ I said to myself, ‘Though the foundations are different, much of the furniture looks the same. It’s true that I’m much happier, but it’s not as though I’ve escaped from Topcliffe‘s dungeon.’

The truth was I did not understand my own poem fully. I only came to a true understanding much later – about three weeks ago in fact. The seed of that insight was in my last experience of therapy as a client about twenty six years ago.

Breaking through

Why did I go back there now? Well, a close friend asked me recently what my experience of Rebirthing had been like. In telling her I came to see a link that I had been blind to before, because I had never previously put the poem and the experience I am about to describe in the same frame of reference. This is true but barely credible given that the therapy took place less than three years after I wrote the poem. What stunned me most however is conveyed by that simple word – ‘after.’ I had written the poem before I knew what it meant.

Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition. These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning. Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

I found a therapist in Much Wenlock near where Housman had found the woods in trouble. I didn’t know how much trouble of a different kind I was going find. I went for eight sessions and it was the last one that brought about the dramatic shift in consciousness. It was on 11 July 1985, two and a half years after the poem was written: I have a journal entry to prove it. Another fact, thank goodness. The session lasted over three hours, and three hours was meant to be the maximum time I was paying for. I think the experience accounts for the brinkmanship.

So, there I was in the back room of a small cottage, lying on a mattress along the wall, a stone fireplace nearby, with the therapist on a cushion by my side. I can’t remember her name, which is rather sad. It’s fortunate that she ignored the clock for this session – a generous piece of good judgement for which I am extremely grateful.

The breathing had gone well as usual but this time, after less than half and hour, I began to tremble, then shiver, then shake uncontrollably. This was not a result of hyperventilation: I’d got past that trap long ago. She quietly reminded me that I simply needed to watch the experience and let go. Watching was no problem. Letting go was quite another matter. I couldn’t do it. I knew that it must be fear by now, but the fear remained nameless, purely physical. And this was the case for more than two hours of breathing. Eventually, we agreed that, in terms that made sense for me, Bahá’u’lláh was with me at this moment and no harm could befall me. There could be no damage to my soul and almost certainly no damage to my body.

And at that moment I let go.

Several things happened then that would be barely credible if I had not experienced it myself.

Integrating the Past

First, the quaking literally dissolved in an instant – the instant I let go – into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. My experience of the energy had been completely transformed.

Secondly, I knew that I was in the hospital at a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time.

This was not new material. I had always known that something like it happened. I had vague memories of the ward I was on and the gurney that took me to the operating theatre. What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts. And yet I had no difficulty retaining it and explaining it to the therapist. And I remember it still without having taken any notes at all at the time that I can now find. The journal entry recording the event is a single line – no more.

And what were the thoughts?

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

This was more like a preverbal injunction to myself for which my adult mind found words instantly. For the child I was at the time, it had been a white-hot blend of intolerable pain and unshakable determination. It shaped a creed that had been branded on my heart at that traumatic moment, and its continuing but invisible hold on me till the explosion of insight was why it had taken me so long to let go.

At that young age I began to grow the carapace that would lead me eventually to feel safe only in trusting no one but myself. The shell continued to hide its origins even from me as its creator until that moment. It was the root of my atheism, the root that I had concealed from myself and everyone else for so many years. That was the true source of the poem, which I had completely failed to recognise even though I wrote it.

Sorry to bang on so emphatically about the degree of concealment, but I was, and perhaps still am, reeling from the shock of discovering something that, once discovered, looked as though it should have been obvious – what the poem really meant.

Some Leftover Issues

I had to revisit my faith in Bahá’u’lláh, before I could rediscover the root, and it was only that faith which enabled me to trust the therapist, to trust the therapy, and to let go. Otherwise I’d have been frozen in my fault forever. And when I used that phrase to describe the situation to my friend was when I remembered the poem again. So, it was not until three decades later, when I described that self-work to my friend about three weeks ago, that I fully understood the poem I had written so soon after becoming a Bahá’í. This probably makes the poem a failure for anyone who doesn’t know the background (perhaps even if they do). It seems, maybe, to be straining for an effect beyond the reach of its apparent subject.

(I am aware that this account so far begs a rather important question: how could I have embraced the Bahá’í Faith, or any form of religion, in the first place when, at the core of my being, I harboured such a distrustful script? There is a post that goes some way towards answering that, but the issue needs to be addressed more fully at another time, I think. For anyone who’s curious, at the time of this reposting I’m no clearer now than I was then.)

I had cloaked myself from a conscious realisation of what I really meant in the poem, presumably to protect myself from the pain of it. Blind as I was to its true meaning, the imagery of cold for instance seemed over the top to me, until I understood the chloroform connection. When you breath in chloroform it feels as though your lungs are filling with ice and unconsciousness invades your mind like a freezing gale blowing upwards from your chest. Then there is a dizzy plunge into oblivion – which makes more sense of the ‘dark spinning stairway of my years.’ The chloroform makes sense also of why a breathing therapy should be the one to help me re-integrate this trauma into consciousness.

I think it’s best to leave those who are curious, to pick up on any other parallels for themselves, if anyone has an appetite for the task. If it wasn’t my trauma, or someone’s I cared about, I’m not sure I would want to do that kind of work on it.

There is another question that I can’t ignore, much as I wish I could. Why should I trust this memory anymore than the one I deconstructed to such deflating effect in the previous post?

There is, of course, no completely convincing answer to that.

All I can say is that I do trust the amber of the core experience, not least because it is qualitatively different from the episodic memories that provide its setting and which are so susceptible to confabulation. My recollection of the details that surround the crucial moment are extremely vague. I can’t even be sure at this distance in time what the therapist looked like. The core memory has little or no such potentially counterfeit detail to undermine its credibility. Its glowing resin, of pure thought and emotion fused together, held such immediacy and power it was completely compelling. That’s why I believe I can trust it and I do.

I expect you’re hoping that I won’t be going back to memory lane any time soon. I’m glad I returned there this time though. I’m not planning a third part called Memory (3/3): the perfect reproduction of events. I’m not going to write about elves either.

Read Full Post »

At the head of part one if this sequence of posts, I explained how two things have conspired to cause me to resurrect a short sequence of posts from over two years ago. One concerns memory and is explained in part one.

The other relates to the preceding set of posts on thresholds of consciousness. This second post of this series relates very strongly to that theme and is an example of where breathwork of a kind helped me integrate an early and traumatic experience into consciousness.

Blind to my own Meanings

The shortcomings of my memory described in the first post were bad enough, but what is even more disconcerting about it is that, even when I am exerting myself to the utmost, the full truth of my own potentially retrievable past can evade me and remain completely hidden for decades, and in some cases for life.

Recently, I was forcibly reminded of that fact.

Soon after I became a Bahá’í, almost 30 years ago, I wrote a poem fairly obviously ‘after the manner’ of George Herbert with a less obvious reference, in its abstractions, to Andrew Marvell‘s enigmatic minor masterpiece, The Definition of Love. I didn’t consciously presume to do that – it just came out that way. The first draft I have tracked back to January 1983 – so that’s a fact at least, which is a relief after the will-o’-the-wisp realities of the previous post.

Thief in the Night

Down the dark spinning stairway of my years
Under exalted space,
Abandoned, yet galled by compassion’s spears,
I walked with a blank face
Beneath my searching soul’s long scrutiny,
Wild in despair and helpless mutiny.

At last, locked in denial’s icy vault,
Belying the Sun’s power,
I outfroze each noon – congealed in my fault,
Blinded deafened by dour
Distrust, unmoving – proud perversity
Defrauding me of all tranquillity.

You, with a robber’s skill, intruded there,
Behind my barricades,
Contemptuous of lock and heavy bar.
God speed the Thief who raids
From Magnanimity! Dear Lord, You left
Me rich in peace, only of pain bereft.

At the time of writing I was a bit uncomfortable about the poem. I was pleased it had come out onto the page needing relatively little editing. I was embarrassed about how overblown the language seemed to be as a description of a shift from atheism to faith: ‘I’ve only moved house from my old mild atheism to this tolerant faith,’ I said to myself, ‘Though the foundations are different, much of the furniture looks the same. It’s true that I’m much happier, but it’s not as though I’ve escaped from Topcliffe‘s dungeon.’

The truth was I did not understand my own poem fully. I only came to a true understanding much later – about three weeks ago in fact. The seed of that insight was in my last experience of therapy as a client about twenty six years ago.

Breaking through

Why did I go back there now? Well, a close friend asked me recently what my experience of Rebirthing had been like. In telling her I came to see a link that I had been blind to before, because I had never previously put the poem and the experience I am about to describe in the same frame of reference. This is true but barely credible given that the therapy took place less than three years after I wrote the poem. What stunned me most however is conveyed by that simple word – ‘after.’ I had written the poem before I knew what it meant.

Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition. These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning. Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

I found a therapist in Much Wenlock near where Housman had found the woods in trouble. I didn’t know how much trouble of a different kind I was going find. I went for eight sessions and it was the last one that brought about the dramatic shift in consciousness. It was on 11 July 1985, two and a half years after the poem was written: I have a journal entry to prove it. Another fact, thank goodness. The session lasted over three hours, and three hours was meant to be the maximum time I was paying for. I think the experience accounts for the brinkmanship.

So, there I was in the back room of a small cottage, lying on a mattress along the wall, a stone fireplace nearby, with the therapist on a cushion by my side. I can’t remember her name, which is rather sad. It’s fortunate that she ignored the clock for this session – a generous piece of good judgement for which I am extremely grateful.

The breathing had gone well as usual but this time, after less than half and hour, I began to tremble, then shiver, then shake uncontrollably. This was not a result of hyperventilation: I’d got past that trap long ago. She quietly reminded me that I simply needed to watch the experience and let go. Watching was no problem. Letting go was quite another matter. I couldn’t do it. I knew that it must be fear by now, but the fear remained nameless, purely physical. And this was the case for more than two hours of breathing. Eventually, we agreed that, in terms that made sense for me, Bahá’u’lláh was with me at this moment and no harm could befall me. There could be no damage to my soul and almost certainly no damage to my body.

And at that moment I let go.

Several things happened then that would be barely credible if I had not experienced it myself.

Integrating the Past

First, the quaking literally dissolved in an instant – the instant I let go – into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. My experience of the energy had been completely transformed.

Secondly, I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time.

This was not new material. I had always known that something like it happened. I had vague memories of the ward I was on and the gurney that took me to the operating theatre. What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts. And yet I had no difficulty retaining it and explaining it to the therapist. And I remember it still without having taken any notes at all at the time that I can now find. The journal entry recording the event is a single line – no more.

And what were the thoughts?

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

This was more like a preverbal injunction to myself for which my adult mind found words instantly. For the child I was at the time, it had been a white-hot blend of intolerable pain and unshakable determination. It shaped a creed that had been branded on my heart at that traumatic moment, and its continuing but invisible hold on me till the explosion of insight was why it had taken me so long to let go.

At that young age I began to grow the carapace that would lead me eventually to feel safe only in trusting no one but myself. The shell continued to hide its origins even from me as its creator until that moment. It was the root of my atheism, the root that I had concealed from myself and everyone else for so many years. That was the true source of the poem, which I had completely failed to recognise even though I wrote it.

Sorry to bang on so emphatically about the degree of concealment, but I was, and perhaps still am, reeling from the shock of discovering something that, once discovered, looked as though it should have been obvious – what the poem really meant.

Some Leftover Issues

I had to revisit my faith in Bahá’u’lláh, before I could rediscover the root, and it was only that faith which enabled me to trust the therapist, to trust the therapy, and to let go. Otherwise I’d have been frozen in my fault forever. And when I used that phrase to describe the situation to my friend was when I remembered the poem again. So, it was not until three decades later, when I described that self-work to my friend about three weeks ago, that I fully understood the poem I had written so soon after becoming a Bahá’í. This probably makes the poem a failure for anyone who doesn’t know the background (perhaps even if they do). It seems, maybe, to be straining for an effect beyond the reach of its apparent subject.

(I am aware that this account so far begs a rather important question: how could I have embraced the Bahá’í Faith, or any form of religion, in the first place when, at the core of my being, I harboured such a distrustful script? There is a post that goes some way towards answering that, but the issue needs to be addressed more fully at another time, I think.)

I had cloaked myself from a conscious realisation of what I really meant in the poem, presumably to protect myself from the pain of it. Blind as I was to its true meaning, the imagery of cold for instance seemed over the top to me, until I understood the chloroform connection. When you breath in chloroform it feels as though your lungs are filling with ice and unconsciousness invades your mind like a freezing gale blowing upwards from your chest. Then there is a dizzy plunge into oblivion – which makes more sense of the ‘dark spinning stairway of my years.’ The chloroform makes sense also of why a breathing therapy should be the one to help me re-integrate this trauma into consciousness.

I think it’s best to leave those who are curious, to pick up on any other parallels for themselves, if anyone has an appetite for the task. If it wasn’t my trauma, or someone’s I cared about, I’m not sure I would want to do that kind of work on it.

There is another question that I can’t ignore, much as I wish I could. Why should I trust this memory anymore than the one I deconstructed to such deflating effect in the previous post?

There is, of course, no completely convincing answer to that.

All I can say is that I do trust the amber of the core experience, not least because it is qualitatively different from the episodic memories that provide its setting and which are so susceptible to confabulation. My recollection of the details that surround the crucial moment are extremely vague. I can’t even be sure at this distance in time what the therapist looked like. The core memory has little or no such potentially counterfeit detail to undermine its credibility. Its glowing resin, of pure thought and emotion fused together, held such immediacy and power it was completely compelling. That’s why I believe I can trust it and I do.

I expect you’re hoping that I won’t be going back to memory lane any time soon. I’m glad I returned there this time though. I’m not planning a third part called Memory (3/3): the perfect reproduction of events. I’m not going to write about elves either.

Read Full Post »

The greater the decline of religion, the more grievous the waywardness of the ungodly. This cannot but lead in the end to chaos and confusion.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Tablets – page 64)

Onely a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like seasoned timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turns to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

(George Herbert: 1634)

The Starting Point:

In The World Order of Bahá’u’lláhShoghi Effendi refers to “the onslaught of secularism invading what has hitherto been regarded as the impregnable strongholds of Christian and Muslim orthodoxy” as one of several grave symptoms boding ill “for the future stability of the structure of modern civilisation.” It clearly would seem a good idea to try and understand its nature better. When we look at current thinking in the wider community alongside key Bahá’í concepts, can we tease out the nature of secularisation more clearly?

“Secularism”, according to the Chambers Dictionary (1994), is “the belief that the state, morals, education etc. should be independent of religion” whereas “secularisation” is not defined: we are left to assume it might be the process by which secularism comes about, from “secularise” meaning “to make secular.” The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1973) gives the primary definition of secularisation as “the conversion of an ecclesiastical or religious institution or its property to secular possession or use.” This more or less forces us to start by attempting a definition.

Problems of Definition:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.

(Alexander Pope: 1733-34)

David Fontana

The meaning of this term, according to David Fontana in Psychology, Religion and Spirituality (pages 10), probably depends upon what we decide we mean by religion. He summarises a detailed consideration of the work done to define religion and feels that three factors provide a good enough working definition:

1. Belief in a spiritual dimension,

2. Observance of a set of spiritual rituals or practices, and

3. Adherence to a doctrine of ethical conduct arising from spiritual teachings.

As for secularisation, Hamilton, in The Sociology of Religion, distinguishes six overlapping possibilities (pages 166-167):

  1. Decline of religion: previously accepted symbols, doctrines, institutions lose their prestige.
  2. Greater conformity with this world and a turning away from the “supernatural.”
  3. Disengagement of society from religion.
  4. Religious beliefs and institutions get transposed into non-religious forms.
  5. The desacralisation of the world.
  6. The movement from a sacred to a secular society.

Judith Fox, in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (page 292- First Edition) reminds us of the distinction researchers and theorists have made between public and private “religiosity”, some locating “secularisation” only in the former sphere and “secularism” in the latter. She compares two influential thinkers in the field (page 295). Weber, it seems wistfully, contended that science and modernity would inevitably and irretrievably push faith to the margins: Durkheim, though an atheist, felt that the function religion served, regardless of its truth value, would never be outlived and religion would always revive in some new form when the old forms lost their hold. The latter is known as the functionalist view.

While some have ended up wanting to abandon the concept of secularisation altogether, Hamilton, in his treatment of the subject (page 167), feels this to be premature. He argues the term has a core meaning:

. . . the decline, and perhaps ultimate disappearance, of specifically religious beliefs and institutions which seems to encompass [the] first, second, fourth and fifth meanings. . . . Secularisation in this sense may or may not be occurring and may or may not be a permanent process.

Is It Happening?

Being overcome by the drunkenness of corrupt inclinations, the people of the earth find themselves in a state of stupor. They are, therefore, debarred from the wondrous signs of God, are prevented from attaining the ultimate goal and are deprived of the liberal effusions of divine grace.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Tablets – page 237)

Matthew Arnold

A strong sense of the decline of religion is also shared by poets. Matthew Arnold’s image of a retreating tide is perhaps the most famous example, but we will also be meeting Tennyson’s take on it in a later post.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

(Matthew Arnold: 1867)

Hamilton (page 169) reviews the evidence and concludes:

. . . the evidence would appear to be in favour of the view that religion, in general terms, is in decline in most Western industrial societies, at least in so far as they are Christian. . .  The general pattern of this weakening is that it is more marked in the Protestant countries of Northern Europe than in Catholic countries of the Mediterranean region. Britain falls somewhere in the middle. Holland and Belgium, however, show a somewhat less marked trend, at least until recently, and the United States perhaps the least marked but this is on the basis of church attendance and similar indicators . . .

The weakening effects of secularisation may also be extending to Islam as well. So, why is this happening? We’ll be returning to this aspect in the next post.

 

Read Full Post »

The shortcomings of my memory described in the last post were bad enough, but what is even more disconcerting about it is that, even when I am exerting myself to the utmost, the full truth of my own potentially retrievable past can evade me and remain completely hidden for decades, and in some cases for life.

Recently, I was forcibly reminded of that fact.

Soon after I became a Bahá’í, almost 30 years ago, I wrote a poem fairly obviously ‘after the manner’ of George Herbert with a less obvious reference, in its abstractions, to Andrew Marvell‘s enigmatic minor masterpiece, The Definition of Love. I didn’t consciously presume to do that – it just came out that way. The first draft I have tracked back to January 1983 – so that’s a fact at least, which is a relief after the will-o’-the-wisp realities of the previous post.

Thief in the Night

Down the dark spinning stairway of my years
Under exalted space,
Abandoned, yet galled by compassion’s spears,
I walked with a blank face
Beneath my searching soul’s long scrutiny,
Wild in despair and helpless mutiny.

At last, locked in denial’s icy vault,
Belying the Sun’s power,
I outfroze each noon – congealed in my fault,
Blinded deafened by dour
Distrust, unmoving – proud perversity
Defrauding me of all tranquillity.

You, with a robber’s skill, intruded there,
Behind my barricades,
Contemptuous of lock and heavy bar.
God speed the Thief who raids
From Magnanimity!  Dear Lord, You left
Me rich in peace, only of pain bereft.

At the time of writing I was a bit uncomfortable about the poem. I was pleased it had come out onto the page needing relatively little editing. I was embarrassed about how overblown the language seemed to be as a description of a shift from atheism to faith: ‘I’ve only moved house from my old mild atheism to this tolerant faith,’ I said to myself, ‘Though the foundations are different, much of the furniture looks the same. It’s true that I’m much happier, but it’s not as though I’ve escaped from Topcliffe‘s dungeon.’

The truth was I did not understand my own poem fully. I only came to a true understanding much later – about three weeks ago in fact. The seed of that insight was in my last experience of therapy as a client about twenty six years ago.

Why did I go back there now? Well, a close friend asked me recently what my experience of Rebirthing had been like. In telling her I came to see a link that I had been blind to before, because I had never previously put the poem and the experience I am about to describe in the same frame of reference. This is true but barely credible given that the therapy took place less than three years after I wrote the poem. What stunned me most however is conveyed by that simple word – ‘after.’ I had written the poem before I knew what it meant.

Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition.  These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning.  Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

I found a therapist in Much Wenlock near where Housman had found the woods in trouble. I didn’t know how much trouble of a different kind I was going find. I went for eight sessions and it was the last one that brought about the dramatic shift in consciousness. It was on 11 July 1985, two and a half years after the poem was written: I have a journal entry to prove it. Another fact, thank goodness. The session lasted over three hours, and three hours was meant to be the maximum time I was paying for. I think the experience accounts for the brinkmanship.

So, there I was in the back room of a small cottage, lying on a mattress along the wall, a stone fireplace nearby, with the therapist on a cushion by my side. I can’t remember her name, which is rather sad. It’s fortunate that she ignored the clock for this session – a generous piece of good judgement for which I am extremely grateful.

The breathing had gone well as usual but this time, after less than half and hour, I began to tremble, then shiver, then shake uncontrollably. This was not a result of hyperventilation: I’d got past that trap long ago. She quietly reminded me that I simply needed to watch the experience and let go. Watching was no problem. Letting go was quite another matter. I couldn’t do it. I knew that it must be fear by now, but the fear remained nameless, purely physical. And this was the case for more than two hours of breathing. Eventually, we agreed that, in terms that made sense for me, Bahá’u’lláh was with me at this moment and no harm could befall me. There could be no damage to my soul and almost certainly no damage to my body.

And at that moment I let go.

Several things happened then that would be barely credible if I had not experienced it myself.

First, the quaking literally dissolved in an instant – the instant I let go – into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. My experience of the energy had been completely transformed.

Secondly, I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time.

This was not new material. I had always known that something like it happened. I had vague memories of the ward I was on and the gurney that took me to the operating theatre.  What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts. And yet I had no difficulty retaining it and explaining it to the therapist. And I remember it still without having taken any notes at all at the time that I can now find. The journal entry recording the event is a single line – no more.

And what were the thoughts?

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

This was more like a preverbal injunction to myself for which my adult mind found words instantly. For the child I was at the time, it had been a white-hot blend of intolerable pain and unshakable determination. It shaped a creed that had been branded on my heart at that traumatic moment, and its continuing but invisible hold on me till the explosion of insight was why it had taken me so long to let go.

At that young age I began to grow the carapace that would lead me eventually to feel safe only in trusting no one but myself. The shell continued to hide its origins even from me as its creator until that moment. It was the root of my atheism, the root that I had concealed from myself and everyone else for so many years. That was the true source of the poem, which I had completely failed to recognise even though I wrote it.

Sorry to bang on so emphatically about the degree of concealment, but I was, and perhaps still am, reeling from the shock of discovering something that, once discovered, looked as though it should have been obvious – what the poem really meant.

I had to revisit my faith in Bahá’u’lláh, before I could rediscover the root, and it was only that faith which enabled me to trust the therapist, to trust the therapy, and to let go. Otherwise I’d have been frozen in my fault forever. And when I used that phrase to describe the situation to my friend was when I remembered the poem again. So, it was not until three decades later, when I described that self-work to my friend about three weeks ago, that I fully understood the poem I had written so soon after becoming a Bahá’í. This probably makes the poem a failure for anyone who doesn’t know the background (perhaps even if they do). It seems, maybe, to be straining for an effect beyond the reach of its apparent subject.

(I am aware that this account so far begs a rather important question: how could I have embraced the Bahá’í Faith, or any form of religion, in the first place when, at the core of my being, I harboured such a distrustful script? There is a post that goes some way towards answering that, but the issue needs to be addressed more fully at another time, I think.)

I had cloaked myself from a conscious realisation of what I really meant in the poem, presumably to protect myself from the pain of it. Blind as I was to its true meaning, the imagery of cold for instance seemed over the top to me, until I understood the chloroform connection.  When you breath in chloroform it feels as though your lungs are filling with ice and unconsciousness invades your mind like a freezing gale blowing upwards from your chest. Then there is a dizzy plunge into oblivion – which makes more sense of the ‘dark spinning stairway of my years.’ The chloroform makes sense also of why a breathing therapy should be the one to help me re-integrate this trauma into consciousness.

I think it’s best to leave those who are curious, to pick up on any other parallels for themselves, if anyone has an appetite for the task. If it wasn’t my trauma, or someone’s I cared about, I’m not sure I would want to do that kind of work on it.

There is another question that I can’t ignore, much as I wish I could. Why should I trust this memory anymore than the one I deconstructed to such deflating effect in the previous post?

There is, of course, no completely convincing answer to that.

All I can say is that I do trust the amber of the core experience, not least because it is qualitatively different from the episodic memories that provide its setting and which are so susceptible to confabulation. My recollection of the details that surround the crucial moment are extremely vague. I can’t even be sure at this distance in time what the therapist looked like. The core memory has little or no such potentially counterfeit detail to undermine its credibility. Its glowing resin, of pure thought and emotion fused together, held such immediacy and power it was completely compelling. That’s why I believe I can trust it and I do.

I expect you’re hoping that I won’t be going back to memory lane any time soon. I’m glad I returned there this time though.  I’m not planning a third part called Memory (3/3): the perfect reproduction of events. I’m not going to write about elves either.

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A Bridge between Worlds

 

When the artist develops confidence in a set of symbols as a bridge between the world of matter and the world of spirit, innovation in the way the elements . . . . are used . . . . can lead to an art that is deeply moving and reflective of high ideals.

(Otto Donald Rogers in Crystallizations: page 143)

Seamus Heaney has recently brought out a new volume of poems, Human Chain. Why should that matter to any of us? Surely poetry doesn’t change anything.

The title Seamus Heaney gave to his Oxford lectures, published in 1995, was The Redress of Poetry. He opens the book by referring to two poems, his own Squarings and George Herbert‘s The Pulley, which I have already quoted in full on this blog.  He quotes them because they are both doing something to which he wishes to draw our attention in the strongest way possible for a poet. He writes (page xiii):

Both poems are about the way consciousness can be alive to two different and contradictory dimensions of reality and still find a way of negotiating between them.

Those who are already acquainted with my obsession with Iain McGilchrist‘s book, The Master and His Emissary, will recognise one possible direction this could take us, i.e. back into the realms of hemispheric differences. Heaney’s next remark (ibid.) makes this difficult to resist:

I did not notice the this correspondence between [the two poems'] thematic and imaginative concerns until the whole book had been assembled in manuscript.

Once I saw the link, however, I was delighted. It confirmed my trust . . . . that a reliable critical course could be plotted by following a poetic sixth sense.

But this isn’t the only or even the most important aspect of what he is saying. The talk he gave on his birthday last year brings some of these other issues into focus in a most accessible way. (The section of his talk that does so comes 6.09 minutes into the video and ends at 11.90 minutes.) In just over five minutes of reflection upon the meaning for him of the myth of Antaeus and his eventual fight with Hercules we are given a glimpse into his philosophy of life and of poetry. The rest of the video is birthday ritual of little lasting importance – the setting for the gold of the main insights he wanted to share.

Hopefully you will have formed your own view of what he was trying to say. What follows is part of mine.

His ideas clearly go beyond left brain and right, hinting at matter and spirit, earth and heaven, and their relationships. There is humility, realism and balance in what he says. He speaks of the middle way, rather in the same as Bahá’u’lláh spoke of moderation.

Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: page 169)

We would of course be mistaken to think that the balance of the via media that he speaks of is easily maintained. The Spirit Level (1996) makes that very clear in a number of poems but most explicitly in Weighing In (pages 17-19), written in the context of the violence of the troubles in Northern Ireland. ‘Peace on earth’ he writes, using the image of two huge weights counteracting each other on a freshly-greased balance,

Holds good only as long as the balance holds,
The scales ride steady and the angels’ strain
Prolongs itself at an unearthly pitch.

This can become intolerable to the earthbound. His poem continues:

. . . . . . . . When soldiers mocked
Blindfolded Jesus and he didn’t strike back

They were neither shamed nor edified, although
Something was made manifest – the power
Of power not exercised, of hope inferred

By the powerless forever. Still, for Jesus’ sake,
Do me a favour, would you, just this once?
Prophesy, give scandal, cast the stone.

A critic comments:

Yet he does want to make a contribution. In the aptly titled “Weighing In,” he notes that an even balance in a controversy can be vacuous: “Two sides to every question, yes, yes, yes . . . / But every now and then, just weighing in/ Is what it must come down to.” When he voices regret at a missed opportunity to speak up in some long-past political argument, the strength of feeling may shock those familiar with Heaney’s immensely gentle soul: “I held back when I should have drawn blood . . . At this stage only foul play cleans the slate.” Heaney is a gentle man; but there is a fire in him, too.

This links with his discussion in The Redress on commitment and poetry. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

In his introduction to The Redress of Poetry (page xv) he goes on to describe what he feels the imaginative life can achieve that will help move things in the right direction:

. . . . the imaginative transformation of human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it. What Virgil called lacrimae rerum, the tears of things, can be absorbed and re-experienced in the playthings in the playhouse – or in the words of the poem.

While the Bahá’í Writings warn us often about how the abuse of imagination can lead us into danger by blinding us to reality, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also refers to it as a power of the spirit.

Man has also spiritual powers: imagination, which conceives things; thought, which reflects upon realities; comprehension, which comprehends realities; memory, which retains whatever man imagines, thinks and comprehends.

(Some Answered Questions: page 210)

So it is quite possible to imagine how poetry (The Redress: page xvii) can bring ‘human existence into fuller life.’

 

A Link in the Human Chain?

 

This may not be consistent with a strong desire to change the world in some particular way (page 2):

[Poetry] offers a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit, and yet I can see how such a function would be deemed insufficient by a political activist. For the activist, there is going to be no point in envisaging an order which is comprehensive of events but not in itself productive of new events. . . . . They will always want the redress of poetry to be an exercise of leverage on behalf of their point of view.

He sets an important criterion for the reality that poetry seeks to capture (page 7-8):

Poetry . . . whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and of which it is generated. . . . . As long as the co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to those of the world we live in and endure, poetry is fulfilling its counterweighting function.

That would not be a bad definition of what a Bahá’í poetics should aspire to.

He gives a good definition of a ‘fully realised poetry’ when he writes (page 10) that it is:

a poetry where the co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to and allow us to contemplate the complex burden of our own experience.

Then, on page 15 of the book, he goes on to look more closely at what he means by ‘redress,’ which needs to be understood in the context of this definition of the poetic enterprise. ‘Redress’ can be ‘reparation.’ As a verb it can mean to ‘set upright’ or ‘restore.’ A rare archaic meaning from hunting is ‘to bring back to a proper course.’   He explains that this need not have an ethical connotation:

[I]t is more a matter of finding a course for the breakaway of innate capacity, a course where something unhindered, yet directed, can sweep ahead into its full potential.

Deeper consideration of what might be entailed in realising a full potential of any kind will have to wait for a later post when I’ll be looking at the spiritual and social implications of the effort versus natural talent debate to which Matthew Syed has made an eloquent and accessible contribution in his book Bounce.

For now I simply want to highlight how a relatively unpopular art form, poetry, has the potential to make a major contribution to our efforts towards excellence and understanding in both our individual and social lives.

 

So, that why I say I’m glad that Heaney is still writing, even after a stroke whose aftermath he describes (pages 14-16) in his most recent volume, Human Chain.

Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked
In position for the drive,
Bone-shaken, bumped at speed,

The nurse a passenger in front, you ensconced
In her vacated corner seat, me flat on my back -
Our posture all the journey still the same . . . .

The word ‘still’ is placed to convey exactly the right quiet emphasis on continuance and motionlessness with all that that implies.

The collection celebrates our common humanity, cutting across barriers of time, space and prejudice, sometimes held together by nothing stronger-seeming than a bus route – Route 110 (pages 48-59). The second poem in this sequence has him in Smithfield Market, hurrying to the bus stop with a second-hand copy of Virgil in his bag. He interweaves echoes of Virgil with echoes of his past, Lake Avernus, Charon‘s barge, adolescent antics, wakes, sports days, to culminate at the end in a new life coming into this world.

Long may he continue to offer us his contribution to the redress of poetry, without which there would be less hope for the future and which gives us a richer understanding of what our experience means, of what we should avoid and of what we might achieve. And at the end of the book, as a symbol perhaps of the heights our souls might lift our heart and minds to, we have a kite (page 85) -

. . . . my hand is like a spindle
Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower
Climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher

The longing in the breast and planted feet
And gazing face and heart of the kite flier
Until string breaks and – separate, elate -

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.

 

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[S]election is what the egrets teach
on the wide open lawn, heads nodding as they read
in purposeful silence, a language beyond speech.

(White Egrets: page 10)

For those with little enthusiasm for poetry my current obsession must be getting somewhat tedious. However, I can’t quite let go of it without one more post at least on the subject.

Walcott has just produced a short collection called White Egrets, a series of beautiful meditations on old age, ageless works of art, loss, love and the beauties of nature. Not a big ask then at the age of eighty. It is no coincidence that egrets rhymes almost perfectly with regrets.

Derek Walcott is one of my favourite poets. He is an  inspirational figure whose identity cuts across so many cultural boundaries. His reputation as a poet has thankfully survived the personal innuendoes of the election campaign for the 2009 Oxford professor of poetry contest. His poetry is far more accessible than that of Geoffrey Hill, the winner of the 2010 election for that post, whose verse is, to put it mildly, maddeningly and elusively allusive. (It is good to see that since this post was first written Walcott has been awarded the T S Eliot prize.)

The Guardian quotes Adrian Mitchell disapprovingly when he said, “[M]ost people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people”. I’m with Mitchell on this and am happy to say that Walcott is a great poet who writes for everyone.

Obviously he’s not the first poet to tackle the experience of old age in his verse. Yeats had more than one idea about it. He looks at the power of art to offset mortality in Sailing to Byzantium.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence . . . .

(W. B. Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium)

In 1934 the Steinach rejuvenation operation has a less exalted effect on him:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

(W.B.Yeats: Politics)

If we want to find out how bleak old age can be, then most poetry enthusiasts would agree that Thomas Hardy is a good place to start. And we would not be disappointed if we took their advice.

Strozzi: Old Woman at the Mirror

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

(Thomas Hardy)

There are shades of the late Janáček here, to my ear at least.

Those with more faith than he had will have noticed the comfortless notion of ‘endless rest.’ Hardy’s pessimism may be courageous but that does not, of course, make it true: nor does it make a deluded coward out of every believer as some of the evangelical atheists would have us think.

Shakespeare’s approach is more measured and more stately perhaps because he had fewer years behind him and also the sonnet tradition of his time was not used as a medium for baring all the agonies of your soul.

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang:
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest . .

(Sonnet 28)

That word ‘rest’ again. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that George Herbert drew out the power that word has over our minds in his brilliant poem, The Pulley. I quote it in full. The implication is that weariness is the pulley that will hoist man up to God. The background idea, adding to the layers of meaning, is Pandora’s ‘box,’ a mistranslation, as Herbert would have been aware, of the word in the original Greek meaning ‘jar.’

Pandora's Box

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottome lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.

This is reminiscent of the Bahá’í view.

O SON OF MAN! Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven, yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to Our command and humbleness before Our Face.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Arabic Hidden Words: No. 40)

So, after all that, how does Walcott sound?

He’s a modern poet so his music sounds somewhat different, but his roots go deep into the tradition from which I’m quoting as well as drawing on the very different cultural influences of St Lucia.

Perhaps the most striking difference between his treatment of this theme and the poets I have quoted is his humour:

. . . . . . . . . In the cool lobby
the elderly idle. I was now one of them.
Studying the slow, humped tourists was my only hobby,
racked now by a whimsical bladder and terrible phlegm.

(page 33)

And these are not isolated touches. There are many more, of which the most outrageous is the pun in these lines about the British Empire:

He hears the mocking cannonade of battle
from the charging breakers and sees the pluming hordes
of tribesman galloping down the hills of sand
and hears the old phrase “Peccavi. I have Sind.”

(page 41)

He also has command of the elegaic tone:

. . . . . . . I have come this late
to Italy, but better now, perhaps, than in youth
that is never satisfied, whose joys are treacherous,
while my hair rhymes with those far crests, and the bells
of the hilltop towers number my errors,
because we are never where we are, but somewhere else,
even in Italy. This is the bearable truth
of old age; . . . . .

(page 29)

You will not find such a flood of half-rhymes as these poems display – ‘treacherous’/’errors’, ‘else’/’bells’ – in the older poetry we saw earlier, but here their lack of full closure adds to the melancholy of his musings. Ironically, only ‘truth’ and ‘youth’ rhyme fully.

In Barcelona his own aging is echoed in that of his friend, Robert Antoni:

. . . . you take time in portions
one cough at a time, your personal thunder
that turns compassionate heads.

(page 85)

This paves the way for his wry reflections on his own state:

I could never join the parade; I can’t walk fast.
Such is time’s ordinance. Lungs that rattle, eyes
that run. Now Barcelona is part of the past.

(ibid.)

It takes a skilled poet to hit on the contrast between what his eyes can do that his legs now can’t, and introduce the humour without taking away the pain.

And there is no sense of self-pity. The backdrop to these musings is an undiminished love of nature and of art. It reminds me of Landor‘s wonderful lines composed on his 75th birthday:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Walcott’s book of poems is like an extended examination of that idea. It opens with a reference to an astonishing work of art:

The chessmen are as rigid on their chessboard
as those life-sized terra-cotta warrriors whose vows
to their emperor with bridle, shield and sword
were sworn by a chorus that has lost its voice; . . .

(Page 3)

It draws on many other references, from the Pharaohs (page 8) to van Gogh (page 68). The egrets combine with a reference to art (page 8) as well as representing nature at its most wonderful:

The perpetual ideal is astonishment.
The cool green lawn, the quiet trees, the forest
on the hill there, then the white gasp of an egret sent
sailing into the frame then teetering to rest
with its gawky stride, erect, an egret emblem!

(page 8)

The beauty of nature comes in at many other points but it is in the sequence of poems from which the volume takes its title that one of the clearest links with age and death is made.

. . . . Some friends, the few I have left
are dying, but the egrets stalk through the rain
as if nothing mortal can affect them . . . .
Sometimes the hills themselves disappear
like friends, slowly, but I am happier
that they [the egrets] have come back now, like memory, like prayer.

(page 9)

Among all the celebrations of art and nature, the memories of love in a variety of forms, the reminders of old age, that twine their threads together in a complex pattern throughout the book, one of the most straight forwardly lyrical that can perhaps stand for all the rest is on page 70:

Wake up again to a dawn trembling with joy,
the silver beads on a dasheen leaf; the dew
of the small morning at Vigie when you were a boy,
a vessel, a trembling branch, a nodding acolyte
with the blackbird, not in the geometry of galleons
or abstract museum openings. Cherish the uninterpreted light
of approaching eighty, let your ignorance increase
as fashion fades, and cities decide what is right.

(page 70)

As with all poetry, this book has to be experienced to be understood. I think it’s well worth its purchase price and is a worthy companion to those long-established favourites on my shelves.

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