Saturday, April 21, 2012

Mind Yourself Now

I don't choose to listen to the Marian Finucane show. I am a passive Marian Finucane listener. On Saturday, it's on the radio in my house, and I can't help catching bits and pieces of it as I pass in and out of the kitchen. (My exposure to RTE radio is, thankfully, rarely for longer periods than it takes to boil a kettle.)

Today, Marian interviewed advocates of a new, non-religious spiritual discipline. One contributor was careful to point out that it did not conflict with her Catholicism (nothing too surprising there-- more and more Irish Catholics find Catholicism to be an extraordinarily elastic life philosophy). This latest consciousness-raising fad is "Mindfulness".

One lady with an Asian accent explained how it worked. It was all about joy. If you lose your job, you still have your health. And you still have your family and friends. Then she told a touching anedote about a time when she was in the dumps and, walking out into her garden, suddenly noticed that her trees were in bloom. In that moment, she realised the joy had been there all along. All we have to do, she told Marian, is to access the sources of joy.

Then a male voice, in educated and clinical tones, explained that worrying doesn't actually achieve anything helpful.

I don't want to be too cynical. Depression can be truly horrific, and anything that helps to lift depression (and doesn't actually do more harm than good) is to be welcomed. And we are always in danger of looking past the beauty, awe and marvel that is all around us every moment of the day.

But isn't there something soul-witheringly banal in platitudes like "turn back to the sources of joy"? It seems anti-climactic beyond words. It doesn't do justice to the fathomless yearning and excitement that we all carry about inside us, the faith that we all had since infancy that we were destined for something that would transcend all our wildest dreams-- not anything, not everything, but something.

It seems to me that only the particular fulfils this yearning, or even promises to fulfil it. This craving cares nothing for abstractions like world peace or social justice or harmony with the pulse of the cosmos. It cries out for an object, something concrete.

Romantic love can absorb its titanic pressure, at least for a while. "A real girl in a real place", to quote Philip Larkin, can satisfy it-- the way she folds her hands together, or the suddenness of her smile, can somehow become the focal point of all knowledge, all history, all time and space and possibility.

Patriotism can serve this purpose too-- for a whole generation, sometimes, although the fever seems to subside after that. The image of the white cliffs of Dover, or of green fields, or barefoot children playing on the streets of little towns in Connacht, can fill the caverns of the soul to overlowing, and make any devotion and commitment and sacrifice seem a little thing.

But-- surprise, surprise-- I think nothing answers this deep inner call better than revealed religion. Not just Catholicism or Christianity, though I believe Catholicism is the true religion and the others are mere shadows. For all that, I am aroused the images and stories of other faiths-- the seagulls that saved the crops of the pioneer Mormons from the insects that were devouring them, for instance. I find nothing to despise in these scenes and stories, and I fully understand how they move ordinary men and women to heroics, or at least to lives of total dedication.

There is one thing common to all the great faiths-- and by great, I mean those that survive more than a few generations. They are not banal. Islam is not banal. Mormonism is not banal. Sikhism is not banal. Texts and stories and rituals that are practiced for centuries can't very well be dreary or inspid-- even in false religions (to put it bluntly), the folkloric genius of the collective mind rubs away the trite, the platitudinous and the obvious, leaving only those elements which can truly ignite the imagination and set the soul trembling.

Partisans of a "rational religion" seem to be missing the whole point to me. Those who want to distill the supposed core meaning from out the morass of rituals, myths and revered texts are, almost if not quite, throwing away the orange and eating the skin. Nobody's soul was ever exalted by the thought of Kant's categorical imperative, as it might be by the image of a child asleep in a manger, or a picture of a man hanging from a cross, a mocking inscription above him proclaiming who he truly is.

At the very least, I would rather be told to consider the lilies of the field, how they toil not neither do they spin, than be advised of the cognitive advantages of mindfulness and the ever-present sources of joy. And it seems somehow more uplifting to be told that I cannot make one hair of my head black or white through thinking about it, than to be informed in a fussy voice that worrying has been found to be a counter-productive approach to personal problems.

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