Balancing different aspects

File:Round hay bale at dawn.jpg

When I was young I went on holidays to my uncle’s farm in the West of Ireland and this day, which was a holiday, was seen as  marking the change from the Summer season to Autumn. My aunt would say that the days started getting shorter once this day was over.  Maybe so,  here in this part of Western Europe.  However, there is a different awareness in mainland Europe  –  in countries such as Italy – where this day ,  Fer Agosto , is the central day of the Summer Holidays, characterized by warm weather and family meals.  This is an ancient day of celebration, stretching back to the Roman feriae Augusti  (August break) when horse races were organized, as they are still in the famous Paleo in Siena.  It marked the high point of the Summer heat, realizing a human need for a break before the important work of the harvest began,

The religious calendar often piggy-backed on these human rhythms and celebrations and August 15th is no exception, celebrated by Catholics as the Assumption of Mary,  the mother of Jesus, believing that Mary was taken directly, bodily,  into heaven.   I am not too interested in understanding the theological mystery of this day or looking at things from the viewpoint of what may or may not happen at the end of time. I am more interested in the fact that Carl Jung stated that establishing this feastday was the most important religious event since the Reformation in the 16th Century. He felt it finally gave due recognition to the feminine aspect of the person, emphasizing the role of the anima alongside the animus.

Jung said that this was “the profoundest problem afflicting the human psyche: an imbalance which favored masculine principles and archetypes over the feminine ones”It is an imbalance which seems to have been recognized in all religions and wisdom traditions, as we find representations of female figures from the Virgin Mary in Catholicism and Orthodoxy  to Quan Yin in BuddhismHowever, what  Jung is drawing our attention to, is the need to acknowledge these aspects not just outside us, in our religious figures, but also within ourselves and within society, a task which clearly has a long way to go. 

It is clear that Western Society is built on an over-emphasis of traits and activities that are considered masculine –  logical thinking, analysis, action, and has neglected its feminine,  more contemplative side (while ironically at the same time, having an objectified,  sexualized version of romantic love). So Jung prompts us to reflect on the need to balance aspects within ourself and within society, embrace the energies and understandings that come from both male and female principles.  In simplistic terms this may alert us to the need to hold both logic and creativity, decisiveness and compassion, inner work and outer ambition. He goes on to say that this can fulfil “that yearning for peace which stirs deep down in the soul, and for a resolution of the threatening tension between opposites. Everyone shares this tension and everyone experiences it in his individual form of unrest”. 

Jung seems to suggest that the unrest we experience comes when we do not get a balance between the different elements within us. It seems that becoming whole is a matter of balancing the different intelligences with us, the head, body and heart, and this can be help by a meditation practice which consciously holds the  inner and outer, the self and others.  However,  we frequently overemphasize one aspect over another. working too much at times, such as spending too much energy on the outer while neglecting relationships or leisure. Furthermore, when we do not find the balance inside we tend to project it outside.  This can often be noticed when we are moved to see in another person or in an object or career all the qualities which we think will definitely fulfil and complete us, alerting us to the fact that what we are actually glimpsing are missing aspects of ourselves, or unlived parts of our life. .

The quality of all of our relationships is a direct function of our relationship to ourselves. Since much of our relationship to ourselves  operates at an unconscious level, most of the drama and dynamics of our relationships to others and the transcendent is expressive or our own personal psychology. The best thing we can do for our relationships with others, and with the transcendent, then, is to render our relationship with ourselves more conscious.

James Hollis, The Eden Project

photo Fir0002/Flagstaffotos



Active waiting

Waiting is not popular. In fact, most people consider waiting a waste of time. Perhaps this is because the culture in which we live is basically saying, “Get going! Do something! Show you are able to make a difference! Don’t just sit there and wait!” For many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go. And people do not like such a place.  

But there is none of this passivity in Scripture. Those who are waiting are waiting very actively. They know that what they are waiting for is growing from the ground on which they are standing. That’s the secret. The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun. Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening. A waiting person is a patient person. The word “patience” means the willingness to stay where we are and life the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere. The moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.

Henri Nouwen, A Spirituality of Waiting

Creating space in our lives

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent in the Christian Calendar. It begins a time of reflection, of creating more space in our lives. Traditionally this meant giving up some things to create more focus, dropping our own narrative for a while to have space for  other concerns. A season like this leads us to reflect on the priorities in our lives and challenges us to have the confidence to stop, to be just with ourselves, and to be content with what is there. To notice that we often have a need to distract and reassure ourselves with our plans, our projects, our reminders that we are needed.

In Lent we are encouraged to simplify things. Like the times we are on retreat, when we keep an exterior silence in order to look at our interior chatter, we are asked to reflect on nurturing our inner lives, to see if we are living with direction and with a real purpose.  We can get tired of  always running in our lives, or the way that we can fill our time with distractions such as going online, TV  and other forms of chatter. So even if we are not Christian we can find ways to create some space,  to create some distance from our concerns, to be silent, or maybe to listen to others more than speaking.  Silence has always been part of the world religions and wisdom traditions, as in the life of the Desert Fathers who simplified distractions in order to see what was really important.

To do this we need to get quite specific. Lent is a period of 40 days, so we can look on it as a challenge or an experiment. Try to set aside a  period of quiet at the start of each day, for ten to twenty minutes.  Maybe just sit in the early morning sun, or after some silence write down some thoughts in a journal. Consciously set aside a time of quiet before the activities of the day start and see what effect this has over the 40 days.

A man may seem to be silent, but if in his heart he is criticizing others, he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent, because he says nothing that is not profitable.

The Desert Fathers, Abba Pimen

Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.

Henri Nouwen

How to bring light into the dark places within us

In the Christian Calendar today is the feast of Candlemas. While not as old as the Celtic feast of yesterday, it does date from the 4th Century in Jerusalem, and reflects the same need to mark this period of winter with light and hope. Traditionally it was celebrated by a procession of candles and the blessing of candles for use in the home.

From time to time difficulties occur in our lives which can then seem dark and without hope. Bringing awareness to what is going on inside us at those moments can allow light to shine in the darkness. We sit and observe  what arises and passes away in the mind and body. We  name it – “there is anger“, “there is fear” – thus creating a gap and allowing what we experience to become something known. In this way, our mood and behaviour will not be shaped entirely by invisible, unconscious conditioning, but can become a more reflective response.

When we meditate, we kindle a fire that never dies away.

When we meditate, we’re not idly passing time. In following the breath and learning to deal with our thoughts, we’re laying the foundation for a shift in attitude that has the power to change our lives in a truly meaningful way. There’s a lot of darkness and aggression in our world. Developing our best qualities has an immediate effect on ourselves and others. When we apply ourselves in practice, we’re not only doing something very present; we’re also creating the conditions for how our lives can move forward.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Support in times of difficulty

This week celebrates the feast of Saint Anthony, the founder of monastic practice in the Western Church. He went out into the desert at a young age to remove himself from some of the normal distractions in order to pay attention to what is really necessary. Most wisdom traditions have some reference to desert places, or retreats,  as a time for deepening or as a symbol for certain periods in our lives. We can have periods when we enter our own deserts and are forced to re-evaluate what is important and see what is really needed.

Deserts can be lonely and bleak places, however. So one of my favourite desert stories is that of Elijah who, in a period of danger, ran away into the barren desert. Elijah was a strong, forceful character, but after a setback in his ministry, he lost heart and became frightened. He  had no more motivation and lay down in the shade of a tree, wishing he would die. However what he found was that an  angel touched him gently and gave him bread baked on coals and water, telling him to eat in order to continue on his journey. He ate but had only the energy to sleep again. Again the angel gently touched him and encouraged him on his journey. Eventually Elijah rose and walked for forty days and nights to the Mountain of God.

As I have said before, these stories can be read on a number of levels.  Elijah is like a lot of us when events or people turn against us. It can lead us to doubt ourselves and the direction we have taken. Sometimes we feel we cannot go on anymore.  We may feel totally alone in the world. It is at that point, that frequently an “angel” comes to comfort and support us, someone whose encouragement or understanding simply gives us the strength to go on. An angel is a companion on our journey, sometimes a person, sometimes  other circumstances.  This angel is gentle and wakes Elijah up slowly. In our lives we notice that often others do not give up on us as easily as we give up on ourselves.  They are patient with us. I have found that they come into our lives at moments of difficulty, when we need consolation and comfort, restoring our trust, bringing us back to ourselves. At our deepest level having someone to share our hopes and fears with is what refreshes us most.

This presence becomes the nourishment we need at that time. In the story the angel brings bread baked on coals, symbolizing the ashes of the past experience. The angel opens our eyes and shows us what is right beside us to eat, which we had not seen up to that point. We have strengths within us that we are unaware of. Even in the desert of our difficulties there is bread. With the support from others, encouraged, we move on for forty days –  forty being the biblical number for transformation – leaving behind the past, moving on to a deeper sense of self.

Picture: Elijah in the Desert, Michael O’Brien.

Why we are afraid to show our true selves

It is striking that the first words spoken by the angels in the Christmas story are “Do not be afraid”. It is as if one of the most important messages needed to be communicated to us is for us not to be limited by our fears. Everyday we see that the mind likes to dwell in fear. In fact, it is striking to notice how much of our day-to-day life is governed by an undercurrent of fear, which lurks behind a lot of our behaviours. This is why it is so hard to just sit still or stand still and just be ourselves — not doing anything to prove ourselves — without feeling anxious or fidgety. For these reason, we frequently develop a False Self when young, a mask which we think will be more acceptable to others. This False self is in response to failures encountered when we were growing, which led us to believe that we were not  acceptable just as we are. We feel we are not “good enough” and thus have to create a persona that we believe is better, maybe a “compulsive harder working self,” or an “always trying to please self”,  or an always” taking care of others while neglecting our own needs” self.

However, the different wisdom traditions teach that our True Self is worthwhile in and of itself.  Real freedom and joy is possible,  without hiding, and our exterior self can reflect our ture interior being, provided we know where to start. We need to begin with developing a kindness and warmth towards ourselves, by cultivating the eyes of these angels towards our inner self. Maybe these divine visitors see more clearly into our true nature, and remind us to look to that, and not to the fearful thoughts that discourage us. At times we find it easier to see ourselves in a limited and impoverished way, with our repeated patterns of thinking reminding us that we are weak or struggling. These texts remind us that there is a natural courage deep inside us. They encourage us to believe, to dare, to open up to possibilities. Fully becoming who we are begins with where we are, actually, at this point in our lives. If they can see goodness and courage in us, why can’t we?