Posts Tagged ‘ Philosophy ’

Know Thyself

Knowing others, one is learned;
Knowing thyself, one is enlightened.
Conquering others requires force;
Conquering oneself requires strength.
Knowing contentment, one is rich;
Having perseverance, one is firm;
Abiding in the center, one endures;
Even in dying, one enjoys eternal life.

-Lao Tzu
(As seen on People for Others)

Frederick Buechner

I happened randomly on this author today through a Jesuit blog. I saw a quote of his on the sidebar and had to investigate. I read through more of his quotes and I quite like them. I love it when someone sees the personal significance behind what we claim to believe, and when someone finds beauty without dismissing the bad things in life.

“Many an atheist is a believer without knowing it just as many a believer is an atheist without knowing it. You can sincerely believe there is no God and live as though there is. You can sincerely believe there is a God and live as though there isn’t.”

and

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

And then, after reading all these quotes, I found one by someone I greatly respect.

Annie Dillard (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) says: “Frederick Buechner is one of our finest writers.”

Looks like I may have to read some of his books.

Process

Life is a process,
You have to go through it.

You can avoid it as long as you can,
But it will simmer under the surface
Until it gains enough strength
To tear your world apart.

Don’t avoid it.
Go through it.
Be brave,
Have trust.

One moment
Will not dominate your life
Unless you avoid it.

Repetition of Concepts

It’s very easy to hear something and immediately dismiss it as something already known. If you’ve heard it before, what’s the value in listening again.

I find that sentiment springing up in me now and again when I read books about spirituality and psychology.

It is times like these that I need to step back and think about what part of myself is listening. Why am I reading this? Is it to expand the banks of knowledge in my head? Is it to attempt to find and then accumulate some new way of thinking?

Or is it the heart that should listen? Am I taking the words as inspiration to look deeper within myself?

I may have heard words about outer masks and inner authenticity countless times, but do they prompt me to reflect on the new ways I may be deceiving myself? Or do I dismiss the concept as known?

If I truly want to be authentic, I must take these words into my heart, into my very being, and not just into my head.

Listening

“To communicate with one another, even if we know each other very well, is extremely difficult. I may use words that may have to you a significance different from mine. Understanding comes as we, you and I, meet on the same level at the same time. That happens only when there is real affection between people, between husband and wife, between intimate friends. That is real communion. Instantaneous understanding comes when we meet on the same level at the same time.

“It is very difficult to commune with one another easily, effectively and with definitive action. I am using words which are simple, which are not technical, because I do not think that any technical type of expression is going to help us solve our difficult problems; so I am not going to sue any technical terms, either of psychology or of science. I have not read any books on psychology or any religious books, fortunately. I would like to convey, by the very simple words which we use in our daily life, a deeper significance; but that is very difficult if you do not know how to listen.

“There is an art of listening. To be able really to listen, one should abandon or put aside wall prejudices, pre-formulations and daily activities. When you are in a receptive state of mind, things can be easily understood; you are listening when your real attention is given to something. But unfortunately most of us listen through a screen of resistance. We are screened with prejudices, whether religious or spiritual, psychological or scientific; or with our daily worries, desires and fears. And with these for a screen, we listen. Therefore we listen really to our own noise, to our own sound, not to what is being said. It is extremely difficult to put aside our training, our prejudices, our inclination, our resistance, and reaching beyond the verbal expression, to listen so that we understand instantaneously. That is going to be one of our difficulties.

“If, during this discourse, anything is said which is opposed to your way of thinking and belief, just listen; do not resist. You may be right, and I may be wrong; but by listening and considering together we are going to find out what is the truth. Truth cannot be given to you by somebody. You have to discover it; and to discover, there must be a state of mind in which there is direct perception. There is no direct perception when there is resistance, a safeguard, a protection.”

-J Krishnamurti

Kierkegaard on the Couch (by Gordon Marino)

(this article was originally published in New York Times on Oct 28, 2009)

All progress paves over some bit of knowledge or washes away some valuable practice. Within a few years, e-mail and Twitter moved the art of letter writing to the trash bin. And in an age when all psychic life is being understood in terms of neurotransmitters, the art of introspection has become passé. Galileos of the inner world, such as Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), have been packed off to the museum of antiquated ideas. Yet I think that the great and highly quirky Dane could help us to retrieve a distinction that has been effaced.

These days, confide to someone that you are in despair and he or she will likely suggest that you seek out professional help for your depression. While despair used to be classified as one of the seven deadly sins, it has now been medicalized and folded into the concept of clinical depression. If Kierkegaard were on Facebook or could post a You Tube video, he would certainly complain that we, who have listened to Prozac, have become deaf to the ancient distinction between psychological and spiritual disorders, between depression and despair.

There is abundant chatter today about “being spiritual” but scarcely anyone believes that a person can be of troubled mind and healthy spirit. Nor can we fathom the idea that the happy wanderer, who is all smiles and has accomplished everything on his or her self-fulfillment list, is, in fact, a case of despair. But while Kierkegaard would have agreed that happiness and melancholy are mutually exclusive, he warns, “Happiness is the greatest hiding place for despair.”

Despair is marked by a desire to get rid of the self, an unwillingness to become who you fundamentally are.

Kierkegaard was called “the Fork” as a child because of his uncanny ability to find people’s weaknesses and stick it to them. His lapidary “Sickness Unto Death” is a study of despair, which in the Danish derives from the notion of intensified doubt. Almost as a challenge to keep out the less than earnest reader, Kierkegaard begins “Sickness” with this famous albeit slightly ironic bit of word play:

A human being is a spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation relating itself to itself in the relation.

For those who do not immediately pitch the book across the room, the magister continues, “A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.” Despair occurs when there is an imbalance in this synthesis. From there Kierkegaard goes on to present a veritable portrait gallery of the forms that despair can take. Too much of the expansive factor, of infinitude, and you have the dreamer who cannot make anything concrete. Too much of the limiting element, and you have the narrow minded individual who cannot imagine anything more serious in life than bottom lines and spread sheets.

Though it will make the Bill Mahers of the world wince, despair according to Kierkegaard is a lack of awareness of being a self or spirit. A Freud with religious categories up his sleeves, the lyrical philosopher emphasized that the self is a slice of eternity. While depression involves heavy burdensome feelings, despair is not correlated with any particular set of emotions but is instead marked by a desire to get rid of the self, or put another way, by an unwillingness to become who you fundamentally are. This unwillingness often takes the form of flat out wanting to be someone else. Kierkegaard writes:

An individual in despair despairs over something. So it seems for a moment, but only for a moment; in the same moment the true despair or despair in its true form shows itself. In despairing over something, he really despaired over himself, and now he wants to be rid of himself. For example, when the ambitious man whose slogan is “Either Caesar or nothing” does not get to be Caesar, he despairs over it … precisely because he did not get to be Caesar, he cannot bear to be himself.

In America, there is endless talk of the importance of having a dream — that is, a dreamed-up self that you will to become: a millionaire, a surgeon, or maybe the next Dylan or George Clooney. But master of suspicion that Kierkegaard was, he goes on to note that while the man who has failed to become Caesar would have been in seventh heaven if he had realized his dream, that state would have been just as despairing in another way — because in that giddy self-satisfied condition, he would never have come to grasp his true self.

On the issue of depression of which Kierkegaard and his entire family were very well acquainted, Kierkegaard could have been a reductionist. He seems to have recognized that we could be born into the blues. In 1846, he sighed:

I am in the profoundest sense an unhappy individuality, riveted from the beginning to one or another suffering bordering on madness, a suffering which must have its basis in a mis-relation between my mind and body, for (and this is the remarkable thing as well as my infinite encouragement) it has no relation to my spirit, which on the contrary, because of the tension between my mind and body, has gained an uncommon resiliency.

The spirit is one thing, the psyche another: The blues one thing, despair another.

How might Kierkegaard have parsed the distinction for the Doubting Thomas who will only believe what he can glean on an M.R.I.?

Perhaps he would describe it this way. Each of us is subject to the weather of our own moods. Clearly, Kierkegaard thought that the darkling sky of his inner life was very much due to his father’s morbidity. But the issue of spiritual health looms up with regard to the way that we relate to our emotional lives. Again, for Kierkegaard, despair is not a feeling, but an attitude, a posture towards ourselves. The man who did not become Caesar, the applicant refused by medical school, all experience profound disappointment. But the spiritual travails only begin when that chagrin consumes the awareness that we are something more than our emotions and projects. Does the depressive identify himself completely with his melancholy? Has the never ending blizzard of inexplicable sad thoughts caused him to give up on himself, and to see his suffering as a kind of fever without significance?

If so, Kierkegaard would bid him to consider a spiritual consultation on his despair, to go along with his trip to the mental health clinic.

Letting Everything In

There is a certain comfort in letting certain things in and excluding others from our view.  The same goes with people.  There’s people who have God, and people who don’t.  People who know what’s up, and people who are idiots.  People who pay attention when they drive, and people who should never be let out on the road.  People who have truth, and people who have no grasp of it whatsoever.

This method of looking at others has it’s comforts, has it’s securities.  It is a means by which we can understand the world by translating it into what is approved and what is not.  It certainly makes life much more simple.  Here’s what’s on my list of approved things, ideas, and people, and I reject what’s not on this list.

We all do this, to a certain extent.  And it makes sense.  We *are* trying to constantly simplify our experience to make it easier to handle.

But it’s interesting what happens when you stop putting people and ideas in categories.  You start looking closer, you start seeing more.  Because you’ve stopped filtering things out.  The priest at the church Ben and I go to was leading us through a meditation, and she said for us to stop filtering, and to let everything in.  Do not exclude any sounds, feelings, thoughts…just let it all flow and observe it.  Then, you start to see deeper.

The same is true for people and ideas, I think.  When you stop trying to declare something as either bad or good and just witness it, you see deeper.  And seeing this way allows you to see the truth hidden in everything, because it frees you from your misconceptions and even your opinions.  It humbles you because you *have* to let go of the things that make you comfortable in order to let everything in, and in doing so, brings you closer to truth.

Compassion and love break down barriers.  They stop us from doing this categorization and from simplifying the world.  Love asks us to look at the whole, to see each person, each idea, each moment as valuable in some way.  There is no in group or out group.  There is only truth, and what it is buried underneath.

And when you see things this way, you approach conversations, people, ideas with an entirely different perspective.  You start to understand the subtle language of the heart, and how it is speaking even through people’s so called intellectual ideas.  You start to see how someone’s pure intuition or pure desires were led astray.  And instead of feeling contempt for their ignorance, you can feel nothing but compassion and love.  You see their soul buried under so much weight, and you long to free them.

You are no longer distracted by the wrongness of what people say.  It seems petty to argue about it, almost tragic.  And it gives you patience and strength.  When you talk with someone it’s more like a jazz improvisation…each of you contributing ideas and playing off one another to build something interesting that may open up both of your understandings.  You don’t feel attached to (or the need to reject) any one concept or dogma because you sense the truth in all of them.  This gives you a freedom, a spontaneity, a creativity that you never had before.

And it is all in ceasing to seek comfort, and treating people and even their ideas and their words with compassion and love.  It’s not always about simplification; often, it’s about inclusion and integration.