Mind the gap

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I’ve been thinking about the gap between society’s definition of mental health and the journey towards spiritual health, between my rights to express and assert myself as an individual and the religious path which aims at eventually overcoming the ego through detachment.
On the same forage in the charity shop, I picked up two books which wrestle with these questions. One is ‘A book of Silence’ by Sara Maitland, who converted to Catholicism in her forties. The other is ‘Spirit and the Mind’ by the American psychiatrist Samuel Sandweiss who travelled to India in the seventies and experienced a complete turnaround in his goals and values after encountering the guru Sathya Sai Baba. Even though I struggled with his belief that Sai Baba is an avatar, or incarnation of God, I valued his discussion about the gap between psychology and spirituality.
What is a healthy person?
In writing about psychoanalysis, Sandweiss says:
… the goal in treatment is to develop a greater sense of a separate individual identity and a greater capacity for unconflicted gratification of basic animal drives and impulses.
In other words, a psychologically healthy individual is someone who can recognise their own desires and take steps towards fulfilling them, whether these are for food or exercise or sex or meaningful work or friendship.

In contrast, he describes the spiritual search as opening ourselves up to the Divine and overcoming what he calls duality, or the delusion that we are separate and unconnected to others, the environment and God. He writes that this requires:
detachment from and renunciation of the mind itself, as well as of the outer world. … It means giving up attachment to, and need for wine, women, wealth, personal status, reputation and the fruits of our labor as being essential for our sense of self worth and personal identity.
The goals of psychoanalysis, a shoring up our sense of identity, seem almost diametrically opposed to the spiritual goals of overcoming the ego. Sandweiss explores this apparent paradox, and comes to the conclusion that psychology, in its present form, can only take a person part of the way along the road to fulfilment and health. He quotes Ernest Becker (‘The Denial of Death’):
Psychology narrows the cause for personal unhappiness down to the person himself, and then he is stuck with himself…. All the analysis in the world doesn’t allow the person to find out who he is and why he is here on earth, why he has to die, and how he can make his life a triumph. It is when psychology pretends to do this, when it offers itself as a full explanation of human unhappiness, that it becomes a fraud that makes the situation of modern man an impasse from which he cannot escape.
Two kinds of silence
Sara Maitland explores a similar paradox in her pursuit of two different types of silence. She went on a retreat in the Sinai desert where she meditated on the hermits who went into the desert to overcome their ego by self-discipline and acetism.  After this, she explored the silence of the romantic poets, who retreated from society and sought out lonely places with opposite aims. They wanted to find themselves and strengthen their sense of who they were. She writes:
Religious or ermetic silence … is about inner emptiness – emptying the mind and the body of desires, being purged and therefore pure: a kind of blank, a tabula rasa, on which the divine can inscribe itself. … Whereas romanticism uses silence to exactly the opposite ends: to shore up and strengthen the boundaries of the self; to make a person less permeable to the Other; to assert the ego against the construction and expectations of society, to enable an individual to establish autonomous freedom and an authentic voice. Rather than self-emptying, it seeks full-fill-ment.
Although they are achieved in different ways, I see a parallel between what she calls romantic silence and modern psychology; both help a person establish a stronger sense of their own rights and identity. They produce a certain type of mental health, but religion goes further. It strips away the illusion that we are independent individuals, detaches us from false securities and shows us our dependence on God.

A choice

Most of us don’t have the choice of retreating into the desert to find God. However, I think that suffering or trauma can have the same effect.
When I first thought about becoming Catholic, I imagined that it would lead to more peace, security and happiness. What has happened has been extremely fail. I have lost the things which I thought gave me peace and security. This has included failure at work, supporting one of my children through a serious illness, as well as carrying the silent burden of converting to Catholicism in the place where there is a strong Protestant tradition.
Should I seek out a psychoanalyst and try to rebuild my broken-down sense of self (romantic silence isn’t an option in a noisy family), or should I be like the desert fathers and not only abandon myself to this process of loss and detachment, but seek more of it. Perhaps there is a middle way.

In the end, Sara Maitland decided that she wanted to explore both types of silence, the desert type, in which she abandoned herself to God, and the romantic type, in which she worked and built up stories and narrative. Samuel Sandweiss describes an experience in India where he felt such harmony and peace that the inner world seemed more attractive than the outer one. However, he knew that he had to leave this place where he had found peace in order to return to his family and his profession.
Christ tells us that those who seek to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives will save them.

I would never deliberately choose illness and loss. However, it has brought me towards a realisation of my utter dependence on God.

Detachment doesn’t necessarily mean renunciation, but it does mean accepting what comes, whether it is success and health or failure and illness and loss. This is the difficult bit: accepting what is, being thankful for it and trusting that God is in charge. I hope that it will eventually lead to a different kind of peace.

PS – Things have been difficult and I haven’t been able to write much or to keep up with reading other peoples blogs. I’m sorry about that.

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Dispossessed

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A house of cards

Is life like a precarious house of cards with only the rich enjoying even an illusion of security?  If so our cards have been scattered in the air and are still fluttering downwards. I have no idea where they will land.

We are in the middle of a family crisis. One of our children is in hospital (away from home) and may be there for some time. All our carefully-laid plans are in disarray. We don’t even know where we will be living in a month’s time.

On top of the distress of my child not being with me, and the feelings of guilt (perhaps I didn’t love enough, try hard enough) I have been worrying about practical things. What is going to happen about dog, job, schools and above all, a place to live?

The distress comes not just from what actually ‘is’ happening, but from not knowing what is going to happen. I wanted to own the future, but this crisis has meant that most of our plans will have to be scrapped.

If God has a plan, it’s not clear yet. It is hard to trust that He has a plan, and even more difficult to accept that this illness is part of it.

The illusion of possession

In all this, some of my distress comes from dispossession, or rather the illusion of possession. The things I had planned to happen will not now happen. The future was never mine. I haven’t actually lost anything. All that is gone is an idea of security, my thoughts about how things should be.

I am reading ‘From Suffering to Peace’ by the Spanish priest Ignacio Larrañaga. He says that a lot of psychic suffering comes from the ego. It is full of desires, fears, illusions and above all, a desire to possess. He argues that the only way to eliminate suffering is to lose your ego (yourself) with your fears and desires. Only by freeing ourselves of our ego and desires and by becoming poor, can we become pure in heart and see our situation as it really is. He connects this to the beatitudes (Matthew 5): ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: the kingdom of Heaven is theirs’ and ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: they shall see God.’

“From Suffering to Peace” is written for everyone, both those with a strong faith and those with none. Ignacio Larrañaga recommends exercises to reduce psychic suffering, such as emptying your mind through becoming aware of your body, sounds and what you see. These techniques help us accept and embrace the gift of the moment rather than lassooing our desires around some future idea of fulfilment. In the final chapters, Ignacio Larrañaga discusses the meaning of suffering in the Christian context.

Lack of possessions

Somewhere deep inside me I accept that crisis is an opportunity to recognise my own poverty and thank God for what I have, even if it isn’t what I expected or hoped for.

I think of Jonah the prophet. He was understandably tired after being swallowed and regurgitated by a whale, and then going to preach to the Ninevites. He made a shelter to rest in and God caused a plant to grow around it. Jonah enjoyed the shade until the plant was attacked by a pest and died. Jonah was very angry with God for letting this happen to ‘his’ plant. God replied that Jonah did nothing to grow the plant. It was a gift, coming up in the night and dying in the night.

When he began his ministry, Jesus gave up his possessions. He set off to find John the Baptist, leaving behind ‘his’ family, ‘his’ home, ‘his’ career as a carpenter and ‘his’ community. I imagine that he took very little money and didn’t know where he would sleep that night. For three years he wandered his country preaching. He had no fixed abode and was essentially homeless and yet God provided.

Jesus sent out seventy-two apostles (Luke 10), commanding them to take no money or possessions with them, not even a change of clothes. Whenever I read this Gospel, I can’t help wondering if they got a bit stinky. Did they manage to wash?

Despite the lack of possessions, they came back rejoicing at how well their mission went. Jesus referred to this at the Last Supper (Luke 22), but he said that the next time they went out on a mission they should go well prepared: ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and the same with a haversack; if you have no sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’ (Luke 22:36)

Sometimes it seems that it’s all right to make plans, and at other times when our plans don’t work and we are left with nothing to prop us up, we have to just trust in God.

Thanks

In every Mass, the priest says ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord’ and the congregation replies, ‘It is right and just.’

I can’t pick and choose when I give thanks. God is the same and His love for me is the same whether things are going what I label ‘well’ or whether they are going ‘badly’.

I am very lucky. My child is alive and receiving care. I have to let go and leave her in other peoples’ hands. We have a roof over our heads and even, unlike the seventy-two apostles, a few changes of clothes. The sun is shining and I hear wind in the leaves. For the moment, I have done all I can and I remember the words of Eckhart Tolle, ‘When there is nothing you can do, rest in peace, rest in God.’