A comprehensive and coherent set of ideas is presented about how the world is best viewed, what life is, and how best to live it; a philosophy that places life-long personal development at the core. The gist of the presentation is this:
- For each of us, the most important part of the world around us consists of a variety of different beings human and other, natural and created
- None of these should be regarded as a mere physical object; each has its own vibrancy, its own innerness as well as its outerness
- Our aim should be to grow in respect and understanding, in love indeed, for the many and varied beings with which we come into contact
The paper is designed to be read through as one integrated presentation, but the individual sections listed below may be clicked-on for direct viewing.
- Experience – The Basis of All
- Self and Other
- A World of Beings
- Outer and Inner
- Personal Development
- Freedom, Chance, and Necessity
- The Course of Life
- Dealing with Hangups
- Death and What Survives
Experience – The Basis of All
In trying to make sense of life where do you start from? How far back do you have to go? To God? The Big Bang? Sub-atomic particles? The first living organisms? For me, the starting point is simply experience, more precisely, my own experience. Nothing is more basic than that. I may doubt everything else. But my experience – good, bad, or indifferent; clear, or confused – cannot possibly be doubted. It just is.
For all of us, life starts at birth, or perhaps in some rudimentary way before, with a strange, rich, stream of experience – light, colour, noise, movement, pain, pleasure. At first we cannot make much sense of it; it is largely a ‘buzzing, blooming, confusion’ (1). We do not know who we are, or who others are. We cannot hold onto what has happened even a short time before; nor have we any idea of what is likely to happen next. We do not know what we feel or what we need (although we certainly do both feel and need, and make our feelings known with unequivocal signs). Nevertheless, there it is, our experience, and it is certainly real and strong.
Bit by bit we learn, or are taught, how to make sense of what we experience. The learning in the first years is very concentrated, but never (in principle) comes to an end for the whole length of our lives; there are always new ideas to be explored and assimilated. However, whether young or old, we can only assimilate the ideas which are presented to us if, in the end, they do square with our experience as it continues to unfold; if in the test of actual experience, they are found to sit right and feel right.
Is this not so? Is it not in our own experience that all the ways we are taught or told to do things have to be tried out to see if they really work in practice? Is it not only in experience that we find out whether what seems, or is supposed to be, good (or bad) for us actually is? Whether this seemingly attractive person proves to be a truly loving partner or friend? Whether this indicated course ord job turns out to be as rewarding as promised? Whether this or that locale, or group, or life-style, is really the right one for us? Whether this or that set of beliefs, or code of behaviour, actually turns out to be helpful to us?
So, our experience is both the starting point and end point, the alpha and omega of our existence. Throughout our lives we clearly need the stimulation of the views, beliefs, and precepts of others – parents, teachers, leaders, and so on. But in the end, we cannot base our lives on their authority. If we are to develop properly as unique individuals, it is in the authority of our own experience, and only in that, that we should put our ultimate trust. It is ultimately on our own experience that we must build our practices, beliefs, and philosophies.
Self and Other
As the first few months of life proceed, experience starts to acquire shape. From the initial confusion we gradually learn to perceive, and later to recognise, particular forms and objects. At first, we start with little or no idea of our separate identities, or even where our own bodies end, or where others begin. Gradually we acquire a sense of our body-boundaries, begin to recognise our mothers, respond to our own names, start the beginnings of memory, and so on. But – and here is the crucial point –this understanding does not grow in a vacuum. The only way that the sense of human self can ever properly develop is through interactions with other human beings.
Usually, it is our own mothers who are the main protagonists at first (although sometimes it may be substitute carers). It is whilst held on our mothers’ knees, and by constant interaction with our mothers, often for many hours a day, that we gradually learn who we are, and how to express ourselves to them. And, simultaneously, we are learning who these beings are that face us, and how they too express themselves. At some point we start to interact with other adults, and with other children too, and in each case learn something of their individual characteristics at the same time as discovering new aspects of our own. (See Stage 3 ‘The Infant’ in the paper ‘Stages of Life’.)
Early on we start interacting with non-human objects as well; handling and sucking things like plastic, wood, and fabric; and so learning something of their special properties. And again, the learning is two-way. As we bang into chairs or trip over toys, we discover our own basic natures as material beings, subject just like these other things to irresistible mechanical forces. As we annoy domestic cats or dogs, and get scratched or bitten for our pains, we start to learn what we share by way of primitive emotions and responses with the animal world. And so on. It seems to me that there is a general principle here. It is only through interaction with other beings that we learn who we are; and the deeper the interaction, the deeper the learning.
The years go by and the sense of self develops further. As just noted, the first thing to emerge is that of the self as a spatially-bounded body. Later, each of us develops an additional sense of self as not just a body, but a person; a person with a name, an identity, a social position. Gradually, it becomes even more complex, as we start to recognise such different aspects of ourselves as our ‘minds’, ‘hearts’, ‘souls’, ‘higher selves’, ‘personalities’, ‘professional selves’, and so on.
Thus it is a mistake to think that the idea of self is a simple one, or once acquired in youth, that it remains unchanged for the rest of life. Nevertheless, two broad phases in time can be discerned. The first, coincident with ‘growing up’, can be thought of as connected with the gradual development of a strong ego. True, there are parts of us that often want greatly different things; true, that in our more extreme mood-swings we even start to feel like different people; in each case a strong, well-developed, ego will somehow keep it all together. It will stop us fragmenting internally, or crumbling under extreme pressures. It will keep us dedicated to necessary but arduous tasks in spite of temptations to rest or diverge. It will hold a steady image of who each of us really is or needs to be.
But as development proceeds still further, the apparently hard-shelled ego starts to transform and lose its definition and solidity. People often report for example, how in their deepest experiences – a profound love-relationship perhaps, or finding themselves transfixed by a great natural beauty or work of art – the boundaries of the self seem for a while to fade or disappear. Then again, it is a common experience that the more deeply you start to look into yourself, the more difficult it is to pin down the ultimate ‘I’ at the centre of it all; the ‘I’ who is always available to look objectively at any particular aspect of one’s own personality, behaviour, or life. Is this ‘I’ to be regarded as inside oneself, or outside, or neither?
So, whilst in the first broad phase an ever-stronger sense of one’s boundaries, separate identity, and personal ability is created, in the subsequent phase things start to move in quite the opposite direction. In this second phase we come to recognise that our boundaries, physical or spiritual, are not after all so clear or impervious. We begin to see that we are not after all, so separate from the rest of the world, nor ever could be. Although each is unique, he or she is at the same time simply part of a total and continuing system of circulating matter, energy, ideas, and spirit. Whilst each is individual, all are at the same time, indivisible.
However, I do not think that this second phase in the development of self should be seen as simply reversing or undoing the work of the first. During the seven years or so in which I practised as a counsellor or psychotherapist, I not infrequently came across people of strong spiritual or ‘New Age’ beliefs though still quite confused in their general personal development, who expressed the worry that in spite of all their efforts to lose it, they still felt plagued by an insistent ego. My usual response was to suggest to them that before you can, Buddha-like, drop your ego, you have to have a good strong one to let drop in the first place. In other words, the ultimate goal may indeed be self-transcendence, but this can only be achieved from the base of a well-developed personal self.
A World of Beings
Extending the ideas of self and other which I have just described leads to an image which has become central to my own view of things, that of a world which is full of different beings. If, as a young student of science, I had been asked what was the correct basic picture of the world or universe, I should have said it was of course, that of a vast space filled with a multiplicity of physical bodies, from sub-atoms to stars, sometimes in collision, sometimes proceeding on their set paths. (The part of me that experienced a vivid life of feeling, art, and sex, would at that time have had no corresponding ground-plan to offer.)
Many years passed by. A time came when, on a particular self-development programme, I was asked to address the simple question ‘what is another?’ (another person, animal, physical object, or whatever). I was to focus on this question all day long and for several days on end if necessary, with only the stimulus of a series of different hearers to my efforts, until such time as an answer welled-up in me that felt profound and utterly valid. (I have found this method, applied to a range of similar questions, a very powerful way of gaining deep insights.) The answer that I eventually received was ‘another is itself, a being in its own right’.
I have meditated on these gnomic words many times in the years since. Gradually, it has led me to a picture of our world not as some sort of immense billiard table, but as a theatre or arena in which a multitude of different beings of greater or lesser consciousness and vitality co-exist in constant interaction. Again, there is a sharp contrast here with the typical image adopted in the academic philosophy of recent centuries, which depicts at the human level at least, a series of isolated individuals each facing a bombardment of ‘sensations’ from some rather-impersonal ‘external reality’. In my picture no being is or ever could be, in isolation from other beings. The basic ‘molecule’ of existence is not one being in isolation, but two in interaction.
Essentially I see a being as something that can be touched, seen, or heard; as possessing distinct boundaries; as unique; and as capable of arousing feelings of liking or disliking. Obviously, all humans meet this description. So do individual animals, trees, and even pieces of rock. They are all very real (look at them, feel them: the vivid simplicities of the dog; the slow, patient life of the oak tree; the absolute is-ness of the boulder). Each is unique, and you can certainly have feelings about any one of them. Most human artifacts – buildings, tools, computers, sculptures, pieces of played music, and so on – also meet the bill. They too can all inspire affection or the opposite, (though some may lack, or at least appear to lack, a unique character).
So it is wholly through interaction with other beings – people, animals, plants, toys, books, tools, whatever – that we learn and come to love. But herein lies a deep poignancy. For it is the destiny of all the beings which we come to love, of all beings that exist indeed, eventually to wear away or die (even granite rocks eventually wear to nothing). There are certain things in our experience that are timeless, eternal: ideas, symbols, mathematical forms, aesthetic patterns. Such things we may appreciate, even thrill to. But all the things which we may actually love are transient. Each has its own time. Each has its own beginning and its own particular life story, sometimes dramatic, sometimes uneventful. But all must come sometime to an end. That is the way things seem to be.
(See further discussion of these ideas in the separate paper ‘A World of Beings’)
Outer and Inner
One of the great steps in early life is learning how to distinguish what is real from what is imaginary. At a certain point the young child starts to say things like ‘when I was asleep Daddy was talking to me but it was only in my head’, or ‘I thought this witch was waiting outside the door for me, but she wasn’t really there, was she?’. At first the boundaries are often suspect or vague, but gradually they sharpen up. Gradually the growing child comes to recognise the difference between the inner theatre where events and scenes can to a considerable extent be shifted at will, and an outer world that is much less tractable. And as this process is going on, the child will be taught of the somewhat similar distinction between its body (very obvious to see), and its mind (an invisible substance somehow connected with its head or brain).
Now, the difference between real and imaginary is valid enough. However, the related and conventional distinction of body and mind leads, as I see it, to all sorts of miss-judgments and confusions – as for example, futile debates as to whether certain kinds of disease inhabit mind or body, or the classic mind-over-matter question (how could it ever be possible for our minds to change the way our bodies or other physical objects behave, governed as all the latter seem to be by the inexorable laws of physics and chemistry? Rather than speaking of body and mind, I am convinced we do far better to think in terms of outer and inner. The central idea here is simple, powerful, and clears away many apparent problems.
In this view outerness is what can be objectively observed, inspected, weighed, measured, cut-into. As regards ourselves, it includes our skin, bones, hearts, brains, and so forth. Innerness is our subjectivity, whatever we feel, think, imagine: our experience, our consciousness, our inner landscape – this nobody else can directly observe. (You may wonder why I am describing hearts, brains, etcetera buried deep within our skin surface as part of our outerness? It is because one’s brain, for example, can be seen and touched by a surgeon. However, he or she can never see or touch one’s feelings, thoughts, or fantasies.) Every human being has these two sides. So, presumably, do animals. Perhaps even plants or stones have some sort of innerness, though infinitesimal in development compared to our own. (The idea that all beings have an innerness of some kind as well as an outerness is a very simple and attractive one.)
The best image of the relationship between outerness and innerness is gained as follows. Hold up your hand and flex it. One side represents the outerness of things, the other their innerness. As with your hand, every change on the outside is accompanied by an absolutely-corresponding change on the inside, and vice versa. As everybody understands perfectly well in practice (and quite takes for granted without getting lost in philosophical niceties) you can initiate changes equally from your inner side or your outer side. Whenever you pause to think what to do next before moving your arms or legs, you are demonstrating the first. If you lose consciousness following a blow to the head, or start to feel elated after a strong drink, you are exhibiting the second. Nothing whatsoever that occurs in our thoughts or feelings fails to be manifested simultaneously in some physical change, however minute, in our nervous and glandular systems. Nothing whatsoever that directly effects changes in these same or other bodily systems is not simultaneously manifested in change in our subjective experience at some or other level of consciousness.
It is in respect of our outerness that we tend to feel most obviously distinct and separate from one another. Our bodies have clear boundaries, and there is often or usually a significant space between one body and the next. However, even as regards outerness, this complete separation of self and other, or self and world, is, as already suggested, illusory. For the first nine months of our lives we are carried inside of, and vitally joined to, another human being. And even after birth we can survive only through the constant interpenetration of our bodies by food, fluid, and air.
As regards innerness, the idea of clear separation and boundary is even more questionable. For a start, unlike our outer bodies, our innerness is not precisely definable in terms of either space or time. As a typical modern man I may feel that my innerness is centred in my head (although in earlier times it seems that people felt it to be centred in the chest or belly). I have, however, no corresponding sense of where its outer boundaries lie. When for example, I find myself in warm conversation with another person across a room, our respective innernesses seem to be in immediate contact, not separated by several metres as our outernesses may be. And as for time, my inner vision can be switched in an instant from present to past or past to imagined future.
Looking deeply within ourselves – within our own innernesses – reinforces the same conclusion. The deeper we go, the more universal the material, and the less we can conceive ourselves as completely separate and unique entities. Of course, there is much that is largely if not wholly personal: things like our own particular observations, memories, and plans. But increasingly, as we look further within, we come to what is archetypal, universal . Here, the innerness of all humanity merges into common ground (2).
(See further discussion of these ideas in the separate paper ‘Outerness and Innerness: the Two Sides of Life‘)
Experience does not just have the quality of perceiving things or having feelings about them. If examined closely, it always reveals some aspect of wanting, being dissatisfied-with, striving-for; in a word drive. Sometimes the drive is powerful, sometimes less so. Even when one seems to be sitting quite at peace, after a while some tiny urge will appear: to scratch, get up, say something, have a drink, or whatever. We are in our deepest nature beings that are not just content with observing, reflecting, or passively feeling, but always wanting or needing to do.
Our most basic drives are of course, those to do with survival and with reproduction. Then there are our powerful social needs: to gain the support, companionship, and regard of our fellows, and to win due social status. There are many however, for whom this is not enough. They feel a constant urge to make their lives more meaningful, to increase the depth and range of their interests and capabilities, the quality of their relationships with others, their spirituality; that is, to actively and consciously pursue what in some form or other may be generally described as personal development.
The pursuit of personal development may often demand difficult and radical action: making significant career-changes perhaps, or major changes in relationships with current life-partners. Some may feel a strong need for further education, with or without the support of formal courses. or for the regular practice of various meditative or related exercises. Some may feel compelled to engage in extreme sports or dangerous and demanding expeditions, in order to push their experience to its limits. Some may feel the need of frequent spirit-healing retreats, or even that of committing themselves to a full monastic life. In none of such efforts can a productive outcome be guaranteed; many will inevitably stall, or go awry.
I firmly believe that one essential recipe for a good life is to be at all times properly responsive to one’s strongest needs and drives as they spontaneously arise, Inevitably, there are occasions when, though well aware of what you would really like to do, you have to sacrifice it to other considerations. If this happens too often however, life becomes pretty miserable. And in any case, conscious suppression is a very different thing from unconscious repression, a situation in which all sorts of perversions and distortions of natural drives starts to happen.
There is a species of religiosity that declares you should always put the needs of others before your own. In practice, this invariably seems to lead to a sort of sickly, insincere, sweetness. The truth is that we are made to respond first and foremost to our own needs and drives (though of course, we should certainly keep well aware of the needs and drives of others with whom we interact). If our own needs are properly recognised and consciously cultivated as far as things will allow, they will evolve of their own accord. Childish, crude, or grossly egotistical needs will gradually change to more mature ones , just as they do in normal childhoods.
Moreover, in this process of development, our actions will gradually become more outgoing and caring of others. If we work well at developing ourselves, then so-called ‘selfish’ behaviour becomes gradually transformed. In the ultimate, it appears that the person of Christ-like or Buddha-like development has one overpowering motive: to love and succour other beings; that is what they are spontaneously driven to do. For all of us, the only sort of love worth giving is that which springs from the heart; and the sort of love that comes from guilt, or some effort of morality, is hardly worth having.
Personal development of the sort just described is closely linked to social or cultural development. The prevailing culture in which the individual is raised always stimulates, or limits, as the case may be, how far and in what regard that individual develops as a person. Conversely, cultural development is entirely dependent on individuals; it only happens when certain individuals of advanced outlook are able through persuasion or example, to get new ideas and practices accepted in their societies. As the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead put it ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has’.
Over a hundred thousand years or more the development of homo sapiens was chiefly governed (as for all other species of being) by the process of natural selection acting upon the random mutations in offspring. In the last few millennia, however human progress has increasingly been effected through cultural development (that is, development driven, as just suggested, by the beliefs and actions of extraordinary individuals) rather than by natural selection The advanced societies of today are, no doubt, more fragmented than those of earlier times, and certainly not so well in touch with the intricacies of the natural world. But in the most advanced, massive gain is evident in some or all of such generally-prized things such as personal freedom and diversity of choice; arts, sciences, political and legal institutions; the way in which children are treated and educated; the status accorded to women and minority groups; and in the opportunities to participate in government. (It is the case of course, that many such societies fall short of adequate standards in some or all of these things, and as history has shown, outstanding cultures of the past have been far from proof against eventual deterioration and collapse.)
Not surprisingly, both cultural and individual developments are underpinned by the same basic values: greater respect for and care of others;; a greater tolerance of difference and diversity; better ways of handling dissension and conflict.
We cannot know where the development of social culture and the individuals within, will end (assuming that it has the chance to proceed indefinitely on this planet). But at least we can perceive something of the way it heads. The example offered by the most outstanding and admirable human individuals provides a strong indication that it is in the direction of greater love. And there appears to be a second essential characteristic of advancing evolution: greater consciousness. Human beings must be supposed to have a generally higher level of consciousness than less-evolved forms of life like plants or animals (even the most-developed of the latter, for example, appearing to have little real sense of self-identity). And again, those amongst humanity widely regarded as the most outstanding usually seem to exhibit not only greater loving, but a greater breadth, depth, and subtlety of consciousness than those at the opposite extreme. Many of the religious approaches of the East hold increased consciousness, increased awareness, as the key to self development, and make it a central aim in all meditative exercise. Towards ever-greater consciousness and love: this is the grand path that we all appear to be on.
Freedom, Chance, and Necessity
I have talked of personal development, but just what choice does any of us have in such a matter? Just how free are we? Is the whole idea of freedom an illusion? Are we not in fact governed at every point by forces beyond our control: by constitution or conditioning; by fate or predestination? And what part does chance play in it all?
Theologians and philosophers have been debating such questions since the beginnings of human speculation. However, as regards the central question of freedom, whatever the fine philosophical arguments, normal people usually behave in practice as though they do have real choice in their lives. Their parents think so, their friends think so, their employers think so, the law thinks so. Obviously, the actual scope for choice varies enormously from case to case, and seems sometimes slender indeed. But even in the extreme situation of the concentration camp, where inmates are deliberately stripped of all individuality and brutally coerced at every turn, there is still, so certain survivors tell us, a crucial possibility of choosing one’s attitude to what is happening (3).
However, although the assumption of significant freedom may be universal in practice, this does not mean that it is unnecessary to acknowledge the power of necessities or constraints of various kinds. For a start, we are all subject to obvious physical and biological constraints. Nobody is free to jump across a broad river, to survive for hours without oxygen, or to defy gravity in a fall from a tall building. None is free of the basic drives, demands, and programmes built into the genetic make-up of humanity in general, or added specifically in his or her own personal inheritance. Obviously too, there is in any country of the world, a multitude of social constraints, some very binding indeed. In most societies you are barred from, for example, wandering naked in public places, or taking goods from shops without paying; and in others you are not even allowed to express your views in public or travel about as you please.
In addition to social constraints, and those of innate biology, there are others of a psychological kind which are not always so obvious, and therefore, all the more insidious. Early upbringing or schooling may have strongly (though wrongly) persuaded you that you altogether lack the ability to sing, say, or play sport, or pursue a career in science. Or you may have been conditioned to believe that certain expressions of sexuality are totally unacceptable, or that you should never take the initiative in social situations, or that you should never trust others, and so on, and so on. And of course, all such beliefs have the effect of cramping and limiting choice.
Whatever else then, there is certainly no lack of constraint or necessity in our lives. But what about the factor of chance? Here again, I would suggest that most people do, quite spontaneously, assume that it plays a significant part in life, and particularly when they are starting to plan extended practical schemes of any kind. But what is not so clear is exactly what the term is held to signify. At one extreme it can indicate a situation of extreme uncertainty or unknowability – as when we use expressions like ‘bolts from the blue’. Or, although we may not know for certain what is going to happen, we may nevertheless have some feeling of likelihood or probability, as for example when we consider the odds on snowfall on a cold winter day. At the other extreme there are those who claim to see behind all apparent chance, an over-riding providence at work, intent on giving us at each turn just the sorts of tests and opportunities that will help us develop. Somewhere short of this are to be found those who, following Carl Jung, recognise in many apparent chance coincidences, a ‘synchronicity’ between outer events and the deep inner needs and processes of those who experience them (as when say, somebody taking a walk comes across a signpost whose words seem strangely apposite to the inner turmoil which they happen to be going through).
When the word ‘luck’ is used, something which is rather more than blind chance is usually implied, if still short of, or differing from, the constant supervision of a kindly providence. In earlier times, luck was always seen as in the gift of some or other god, who might perhaps be brought to one’s aid by recourse to the appropriate prayer or sacrifice, and there are no doubt many who still think this way. But there are more subtle ideas. When Napoleon Bonaparte was asked what quality he valued in his generals, and replied ‘luck’, he was not perhaps being quite as wayward as might at first seem. We all know of people whose constant run of bad luck looks suspiciously like that of their own making in some way; and what is described as ‘good luck’ may often perhaps signal the exercise of a deep, though largely unconscious, process of wise intuitive choice on the part of the person concerned. Here, we come to views of luck or chance which are not far removed from hidden compulsion on the one hand, or hidden choice on the other.
So then, there are a variety of ideas as to what chance really means. But short of accepting the claim that it is totally illusory, being always underlain (in one view) by a hidden, all-seeing providence, or (in another) by some totally determinate if yet unknown necessity, it must I think be accorded its own significant place. Thus to summarise as I see it: even though we do have significant freedom of choice in our lives, it is always seasoned by chance, as well as being circumscribed more or less tightly by necessity. Moreover, neither the power of necessity nor the play of chance can ever, in principle, be eradicated. But this does not mean that their effects cannot be diminished. It appears in fact, that one of the most important aspects of evolution, for the race as for the individual, is the constant pushing-back of constraints of various kinds, and the constant reduction of areas where we are vulnerable to adverse chance; or, to put it more positively, the constant increase of the area of our experience of freedom and control.
Here again, there is clear evidence of general progress over the ages. As regards pushing back physical and biological constraints, modern sciences and technologies allow us healthier bodies, a better control of procreation, hitherto unthought-of abilities to travel at will by land, sea, and air, instant communication across continents, and so on. Moreover, the advance of science has revealed that a great many things formerly believed to be matters of chance, or in the lap of the gods, are clearly explicable in terms of so-called natural laws and processes; and being explicable, thus controllable at choice. Social freedom too, has clearly extended in many parts of the world; although progress here is a lot slower and harder won. As for the process of liberating ourselves psychologically, that is, of freeing ourselves from the unnecessary internal constraints that we all inevitably acquire in the course of our upbringing, this too is something we are perhaps gradually learning how better to go about.
Finally: a paradox. It was the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch who pointed to the fact that when one makes a really important decision – like who to marry, or what profession to follow– and the choice seems deeply right, we feel simultaneously that we act with complete freedom and yet that we could not have chosen other than we have done. There seems to be a sense of necessity here which is very different from the feeling of compulsion or constraint which (I believe) always hovers around when we pursue bad or indifferent courses. I am inclined to think that the crucial difference lies in the quality or level of consciousness that we bring to bear at the moment of choice. The greater this is, the more we are inevitably led to choose what is good (that is, in the direction of our own proper development), and that failing to identify what is best, proceeding randomly, or even wilfully opting for something inferior, always betokens a failure to develop sufficient awareness of the full nature of the situation and the full nature of our own feelings. But these are mysterious areas.
The Course of Life
The course of life may be viewed in various ways. One common though usually unstated assumption, is that life is essentially about satisfying one’s ambition. Once that is done – the persistent enemy vanquished, the coveted job or position won, the ideal partner secured, or whatever it is – then things may be expected to run more or less happily ever after. Then there is the equally-common religious view, of life as an unceasing struggle to obey the given commandments, constantly fighting the temptations of original sin and the blandishments of evil forces. Thus, when the day of final judgement comes, you may pass the test, or in spite of manifest failures, win divine forgiveness, and so pass to eternal bliss.
Led by successive mentors and teachers, I have come to view the course of life in a different way. It is as though each of us is dealt at birth with a particular hand of cards. It may include many court cards, or be no more than a mishmash of low denominations. Thus (to illustrate this idea more concretely) each is given at birth a certain constitution and temperament, maybe robust, maybe weak or positively defective. Each is given a certain range of natural aptitudes, well-represented in some areas, fainter or missing in others. Each is presented with certain parents and other relatives, maybe kind and loving, maybe not. Each is placed in a certain society, locale, and class, perhaps in a comfortable home in a developed country, perhaps in the situation of a third-world street child.
Understandable though it may be, it is as useless for those who have been dealt a poor hand in life to complain, as it is for those who think that they have had a good deal, to feel complacent. Whatever the cards dealt to us, however promising or poor they look, our task in my view is to use them with every ounce of skill and determination at our disposal so as to develop or evolve as individual beings just as far as we possibly can. As I see it, we are to pursue this task for the full length of our lives right up to our death beds, and indeed, on them as well if needs be.
What counts is not how successful we are in absolute terms, but just how much we make of the hands which we have been given. And we may be surprised later by the way in which what seemed a very good initial deal (that of a crown-prince of England, for example) turns out to be shot-through with difficulty; whilst what seemed a relatively-poor one turns out to have many things which, given perseverance, can be used to good advantage. Although in the course of life it may seem that the constraints which we encounter are sometimes very harsh, and the chances apparently running against us, there will always be some degree of freedom, some choice between this response and that. And every situation, however adverse or bleak, will provide some new opportunity to learn and progress.
Looking overall at the courses of various people’s lives, many different patterns emerge. Some seem to be following a general upward curve, whilst others are going gradually down. And again, it is not just a question of from where people start. The story is age-old, in one form or another, of two brothers born into poor circumstances, one of whom manages to make good, whilst the other sinks into crime and degradation. Again, it depends on how people use what freedom they have; how strong and clear is their own developmental drive.
Whatever their choices, neither people’s ascent in life nor their descent is likely to occur in a straight line. Typically, the graph of anybody’s life shows periods of comparative stability broken by occasional moments of short but dramatic crisis. The crises may be few or many, sometimes crowded together, sometimes separated by years or decades of stability. Sometimes they may be precipitated by external events: a difficult move to a new school, job, or place of living; the death of a child or partner; subjection to violent accident or dangerous illness. Sometimes they may manifest inwardly without any apparent external stimulus: the sudden realisation that one is following the wrong career, or linked to the wrong spouse; or simply finding oneself in some deep and inexplicable depression or spiritual malaise.
The Chinese sign for ‘crisis’ is a combination of two elements, one standing for ‘danger’, the other for ‘opportunity’. A crisis is not just another, albeit larger, problem of the kind we are already familiar with and used to facing. In essence, it demands something new from us: the old framework is no longer applicable; well-practised responses will no longer serve. The challenge cannot be avoided. Somehow, we must transcend, move to a point of higher understanding, a new mode of action. If we manage it, we develop: this is the opportunity. If we fail, we inevitably go down, more or less quickly: this is the danger.
In the paper ‘The Stages of Life‘ it is suggested that each stage brings a characteristic conflict which is somehow to be dealt with. In adolescence, for example, there is a conflict between, on the one hand, wanting to break away and experiment with new people, ideas, and experiences; and on the other, wanting to keep safe and secure within the family and social milieu in which one has been raised. Somehow a way forward has to be found in which elements of both sides are synthesized in what might be described as rooted independence. (See Table of Characteristic Dilemmas in the paper ‘The Stages of Life’)
Here again is an example of the way in which life presents us with the necessity to transcend existing frameworks if we are to move properly forward. And if the necessary work is not commenced when the problems – in the example just quoted those of adolescence – first start to manifest, you may be sure that a full-blown crisis will eventually result -as when tackling the characteristic issues of adolescence is pushed further and further into adult life.
Life is full of apparently-irreconcilable opposites: doing as we ought, versus attending to our spontaneous wishes; sticking to the old and well-tried, versus striking out for the new; accepting, versus fighting; risking, versus securing; thinking things through, versus acting on impulse; living for the day, versus providing for the morrow; and so on, and so on. Often of course, a simple compromise will get us by. But if we are to develop to some new level of awareness or competence, an outcome has to be found in each case which takes account of both poles without sacrificing either; an outcome which is not just a compromise or fudge but a true synthesis.
The whole notion of development implies that problems and responses are not simply repeated as time proceeds, but transcended; risen above. Then a new layer of problems come into view which require a further transcendence; and so on. Whether the upward movement is urgently contrived in response to crises, or whether it occurs more gradually in between times, or before things have grown to crisis proportions, the continual repetition of this dialectic process (as it is known in philosophical studies) is the way in which all lasting progress is actually secured. This is, in my belief, the essential mechanism behind all inner-driven development.
Sigmund Freud was once asked what he considered to be the purpose of life. Given his distaste for metaphysical speculation it is surprising that he responded at all, but his answer was a good one: to work and to love. I have already suggested that the most general purpose in life which it is possible to discern is to evolve as best we can given our own unique conditions and circumstances. But the idea that this overall aim is necessarily brought about by developing in work and developing in love is good and useful. During the years when I was acting as a counsellor or psychotherapist to people who were finding their lives difficult in some way, I often used to check out for myself at an early stage in new encounters how exactly they were doing in these two crucial areas. Had they managed at any point to hold down some worthwhile job or occupation? Had they managed at any stage to establish and maintain a strong relationship with any partner, relative, friend, or lover? If the answer to both these questions was in the affirmative, then, whatever the current distress, things did not look to bad; but if in the negative, sustained work was likely to be necessary, going back to the very basics.
Let me start by stating some thoughts on work. In comparison with all that has been written and said over the years on the subject of love, the sphere of work has suffered a marked neglect. This is strange, given the universal imperative that humanity must work or die. If nothing else, crops must be raised, houses built and repaired, the young and sick cared for, and natural calamities dealt with. And this is thinking only of basic needs.
By ‘work’ I mean any activity which is undertaken not for the immediate pleasure or satisfaction which it provides, but for some relatively distant objective which is desired. Thus portrayed, work goes far beyond paid employment of course, and includes such diverse things as weeding a garden, organising a social gathering, teaching your children some new skill, improving your tennis serve, or exploring your problems in psychotherapy.
The definition highlights two important features of work, both of which are captured or implied in the phrase ‘deferred gratification’. The first is that a certain effort of will is required in order to resist the lure of more immediately-pleasurable alternatives for the sake of better things to come. (How much nicer it would be to go off larking-about for the day than sweating away for the forthcoming examination!) It is easier to get into the right frame when a habit of self-discipline has been established, or if of course, subjected to pressing external demand, but nevertheless, some degree of sustained concentration is always called for. The second fundamental feature of work is that there is always some time-lag, minutes, hours, days, or even years, between the conception of what is required and its possible realisation. Some tasks, say building a house, are in the nature of things longer than others, say putting in a front door. And the greater the time-span of the project, the longer one has to carry the inevitable anxiety of possible failure (with whatever dire consequences that may follow, including the invariable waste of time, resources, and goodwill), and the longer does willpower has to be sustained. Even if there is minimal physical effort, work is hard! To say this is not however to suggest for a moment that work always is or need be miserable. There is often a real pleasure to be had in facing a new challenge, or in exercising well-developed mental or physical skills. And bringing to completion work of a valued sort normally generates a feeling of satisfaction and personal worth.
Contrary to the common view, the essence of human work is neither exercising muscle-power, nor applying set skills and know-how. Most work does of course involve some degree of physical effort, but where that is all that is required it can, in principle at least, be handed over to machines. And although knowledge and application of the appropriate rules and procedures may also often be required, again if that were all, it could in principle be left to the operation of suitably programmed computers. What humans can do uniquely, within any given constraints of method or practice, may be described in general as exercising discretion or judgement. Just how should the usual rules and practices be applied or modified in these particular circumstances? And just what indeed do the apparent circumstances amount to in the first place? How much weight should be given to this person’s needs or feelings? What are the probabilities of this particular course of action working out better than that? Should more time be spent on bettering the task in hand, or is it more important to finish it quickly? And so on (4).
It is, I believe, in this last unique and characteristically-human activity of exercising judgement in striving to some desired goal, and not just in muscular exercise or blindly following rules or training, that we may all learn and grow. We learn the self-imposed discipline of sustaining necessary effort in the face of diverting temptation. We learn how to carry the inevitable anxieties of uncertain success. We learn how better to judge the needs and capabilities of our fellow creatures and the characteristics and potentialities of our world.
Sweated labour, de-skilled processes, and despicable tasks, are all things which we may hope that humanity will gradually learn how to banish. But using all one’s best efforts, talents, and determination, in pursuit of ends which are believed to be truly valuable is surely not something which will, or ever should, come to an end. It is, I firmly believe, an essential component of all human development.
Whatever may be the attention given to the subject of work, few will dispute the importance in life of love, and its central role in personal development. But – the classic question – what exactly is love? Are we talking of craving, desire, affection, pity; of erotic love, mother love, brotherly love, or what?
My own answer to this question was arrived at by undertaking the same sort of exercise that I earlier described in discussing the nature of beings. In pursuing over a number of days in a concentrated way the question ‘what is loving?’, I came to, or was given, the simple answer ‘loving is relating’. Combining this with my earlier discussion of self and others, I would now elaborate this as ‘loving is relating fully to another being’. For as I see it, it is other beings that we must learn to love, that is, to relate properly and fully to: human beings, animals, plants, and terrains, as well as created-beings like houses, gardens, tools, or works of art.
For each type of being there is an appropriate type of relationship. Although for example, we may often be tempted to treat pet dogs as though they were human, in doing so we impose the mask of make-believe people between ourselves and them, and so run the danger of failing to experience the essence of dog-ness. All animals have important things to teach us, but they are not the same things that people have to offer. Again, such an activity as hugging trees (a favourite New Age exercise) is fine, so long as we do not expect a human, or even animal, response, but are content to sense as best we can the infinitely-muted life which lurks in their solid trunks.
Proper loving, proper relating, is of course much more than a flow of warm emotion. In assessing the necessary constituents it is helpful to employ the four types of mental functioning described by Carl Jung: sensing, intuition, thinking, and feeling. Sensing: in order to relate fully to another being you really have to be ‘in touch’– seeing, hearing smelling, or, literally, touching, whichever is possible or appropriate. There can be love of a kind for an absent being – friend, pet, home, whatever – but if the love is real, there will always be a hike of joy when actual contact is renewed; and one cannot love a being never yet actually met. But even for those constantly present, there is a danger, through over-familiarity, of not bothering to keep open vital sensory channels: in the case of human beings for example, failing to observe significant changes in their outward appearance or voice. Intuition: intuition is the deeper counterpart to sensation. A true love will not only delight in the immediacy of the other, but in its lasting character, its potential, its essence, its soul. These are the aspects that our intuitive powers can alert us to if they are allowed free and natural exercise. Thinking: love that merely feels without any thought can be blind and cloying. Proper consideration of the other is just as important as overflowing sentiment. We need to think about our loved ones: non-human as well as human. What do they need? What do they like? What will help them (within their own particular potentialities) to develop or function to the full?
So, proper loving must include sensory contact, intuitive understanding, and thoughtful consideration. However, loving that does not include some feeling or emotion as well is a strange love indeed. Feelings of joy in, delight in, or desire for, are at the very heart of love. But how can you make sure of creating such feelings? The simple answer is that you cannot. Feelings happen when they happen. They cannot be brought into being by effort or willpower – a fact that is often lost sight of in conventional religious practice. However, they can be facilitated by the right sort of work. That is to say, the ground can be prepared for them, so that they may more easily spring up, as and when they will.
In trying to repair or improve your love for another person, the way forward is neither by simulating emotions which you do not spontaneously feel, nor by demanding of the other that he or she somehow changes character so as to accommodate better to you. In such situations the best preparatory work for the growth of stronger or better feeling turns out in the long run, I believe, to be nothing less than attending fully to your own personal development. This means doing things like recognising and facing-up as best you can to your own personal hangups; deliberately grappling with new ideas and experiences; and above all, endeavouring at all times to keep as vivid as possible an awareness, a consciousness, of all the processes going on, within yourself as well as without. The longer and better you do such work, the more likely you are to be swept by sudden joy – to experience divine grace, as the deist might say. But such comes of its own accord or not at all, and rarely if ever when bid or expected. (Here is the Zen-like paradox at the heart of all personal development: work will get you nowhere, but without work, you will get nowhere either.)
I have just made the obvious point that although proper loving involves more than feeling, it is feeling that lies at its heart. However, feelings change – minute by minute if you watch them closely enough. The person you adore today, you feel cooler about tomorrow, and may even come to dislike the day after; perhaps your erstwhile passion will return, and perhaps not. Moreover, there may be some people (or animals, or places, or books, or films) that you positively hate; and many, no doubt, that leave you quite cold. So where does all this fit in with loving and relating?
It is true that anger is not love. And it is also true that you cannot love every one and every thing. Nevertheless, feeling anger or dislike towards some person or other being is still relating of a sort. If it is a person or thing newly encountered, some kind of problem or challenge is indicated. There is at least, a degree of excitement in evidence (a situation which has been well explored in the romantic literature). An energy has been aroused, which desires movement or change. Perhaps it is an apparent enemy who might, if things were sorted out between the two of you, become a friend. Perhaps it is a piece of equipment which once mastered, could offer interesting or profitable use.
The experience of anger or hate within an established personal relationship raises many of the same issues. It must be recognised that no long term partnership or friendship can be sustained at the same high and uniform level of affection all the time. None of us is made that way. The tide of feelings naturally flows out and back (and recognising this makes such long-terms relations much easier). But the fact that we sometimes feel active dislike for our friends or partners does not prevent the relationship from being, overall, a loving and evolving one. Such angry feelings should, I believe, be seen as more grist to the mill: something to be accepted and worked upon, with the aim of learning and development for either or both concerned.
Indifference is something else. If it settles upon any long-term relationship, it suggests a more serious problem than outbursts of anger and the like, or at any rate occasional ones. Again though, if the fact of its existence is squarely faced, it does provide either or both of the people concerned with something to work upon; though whether the relationship can be resuscitated is another matter. More generally, although one cannot possibly hope to respond with equal enthusiasm to every person or thing newly encountered, a widespread reaction of indifference is perhaps more worrying than even hate or dislike. Hate has at least vitality: life is flowing even if it is not yet finding its proper course. Indifference is anti-life. In the extreme it becomes catatonia – a complete withdrawal from life.
To love then, is to relate fully to other beings. And to do this demands that we try to keep as conscious as possible of them in all regards – their current realities and their potentialities, their needs and feelings, their strengths and weaknesses, and so on – as well of course, as trying to keep as conscious as possible of our own complex responses to them. Proper loving demands full consciousness: developed consciousness leads inevitably to love. Love and consciousness: simply two aspects of the mysterious end to which all evolution seems ultimately to be set.
(See also ‘Further Thought on Love’ added to the end of this paper)
Dealing with Hangups
None of us comes out of childhood without hangups. (There is no really satisfactory label: ‘neuroses’, ‘complexes’, ‘distress-patterns’: ‘hangups’ is perhaps the most straightforward.) My seven years acting as a personal counsellor confirmed this belief for me, already established by my reading of the psychological literature, as well as my own general observation. Naturally, the degree of hangup varies greatly from person to person, according to temperament and life history. But nobody receives perfect parenting, and the idea of a perfect environment for growth is meaningless. Every child at some time or other experiences a degree of real terror at the possibility of, or in some cases the actuality of, abandonment, or of ceasing to be loved, or of being attacked, abused, or ridiculed. Every child at some time experiences, even if it is not able to express it, the ferocious anger that naturally arises when its deepest drives are blocked by external reality. Every child experiences some moment of despair when it seems to be quite powerless to do anything which might earn its parents’ approval, or equal the achievements of its brothers or sisters. Every child knows some moment of abject shame when it comes to, or is led to, the belief that something it has just done is terribly wrong.
Now, deep feelings of fear, rage, despair, and shame are not, to put it mildly, very comfortable to live with. And the little humans concerned find that there are various possible ways of avoiding continued distress on such counts (as has been well traced out in the psychological literature). One way is by repressing, that is, simply pushing down out of consciousness, the painful feelings concerned, as well in many cases, as any recallable memories of the actual events which caused them. Then again, the child concerned can develop, according to natural temperament, some particular pattern of behaviour which appears to offer the optimum chance of both satisfying its primitive urges and avoiding nasty situations (strategies such as, striving always to be a ‘good little boy – or girl’; throwing tantrums at the drop of a hat; making continual bids for sympathy; retreating into a private world when things get tough; and so on). Still further, certain attitudes or beliefs can be adopted which serve to soften the impact of unpleasant realities or avoid the pain of having hopes for good things repeatedly dashed (attitudes like, don’t expect anything of life and you won’t be disappointed; you can’t trust anyone in this world; I’m just hopeless at this sort of thing; I’m a totally unlovable person; or whatever). One may note in passing that such repressions, fixed strategies, and protective beliefs make their mark outwardly as well as inwardly of course, where they manifest themselves in characteristic facial casts, vocal inflections, bodily postures, or unconscious movements.
The consequence of all this is that each and everyone coming to maturity finds not only external challenges to be dealt with but also a greater or lesser range of hangups which undermine effective action and development. Repressed feelings tie up energy, and tend to trickle or gush out in inappropriate and unpleasant ways from time to time. Fixed strategies prove to be far inferior to varied or flexible ones, when facing ever-changing reality. Protective beliefs block initiative, experiment, and change. It follows therefore, that some significant part of any effort to develop as a person has to involve attempting to recognise one’s own particular hangups and trying as best as possible to deal with them. This means work, painful work, hard work. (As suggested earlier, work is an essential element in all human progress.)
There are various ways of proceeding. Usually the witness and help of another person is necessary. Nowadays, many go to professional counsellors or therapists when distress presses hard. In the past it might have been a priest or wise-woman. Friends who can listen properly without rushing to offer advice are an important resource. Certain activities pursued alone may also help, provided that full energy and awareness is given to them, and a willingness is allowed to express deepest feelings and take risks (things like free-running, spontaneous dance, action painting, therapeutic writing). And there are many other ways.
Experience of working on my own hangups, as well as helping many others to work on theirs, has led me to a principle which I believe to be profoundly important. It is this: when addressing hangups always go forward as well as backward; to the positive as well as the negative.
Firstly then, be prepared to go as deeply as possible into the negativity, the pain, the misery, and the anger; which means in effect, going back to where it all started. Express it, explore it, try to understand its ramifications, its repetitive power (cushions can be beaten, stifled shouts, cries, or tears finally released, sad or bitter words put to paper, and so on). We all need to regress from time to time, not only to root-out old pains, but also to correct any tendencies to be too refined, too spiritual, too good; tendencies which may be encouraged by religious ardour or over-concern with current moralities. Provided that it is done consciously so allowing an easy return, the deliberate exercise or allowance of regression puts us in touch again with primitive sources of energy with which we may, for one reason or another, have lost contact. (And we do not always have to go back to miseries; sometimes it is good to revert to the behaviour of the joyful or mischievous child.)
When enough clamped-down pain has been allowed release, then, and most importantly, it is time to swing to the opposite pole: to move forward. Again, there is a wide choice of useful practices. Entrenched negative attitudes which have been identified can now be countered by the constant repetition of positive affirmations (things like, ‘I am basically fine just as I am’, ‘I am well able to assert my needs and feelings’, ‘I am quite competent to deal with the problems facing me’, ‘Less-than-perfect is OK’, and so on). Mental images can be constructed of how you will smoothly handle difficult situations: internal videos that can be run and re-run, showing how you will look, comport yourself, speak, and so on, when the testing moment comes. New methods can be tried and practised of improving your habitual posture, movements, breathing, and relaxation; of keeping yourself better grounded and centred (for of course, when the outer is deliberately changed, then the inner inevitably follows). New philosophies of life can be explored, and new life-strategies adopted (precepts such as, taking full responsibility for your own feelings and actions; being more experimental and taking more risks in life; viewing everything that happens to you, however unpleasant, as another opportunity to learn; listening better to others; and above all, trying always to keep your consciousness high – to keep watching it all). And finally, when all the positive steps seem futile, and all the affirmations hollow …. Go back into the negativity again. And so forth.
Backwards and forwards, from negativity to positivity. Many established therapies and spiritual practices fall down on this score. Some constantly force you back to pain and gloom. Others make the opposite mistake of trying to keep everything sweetness and light, hoping that the dark things can be ignored or banished. But darkness always has its time and place (as night follows day). Hangups never completely disappear. Every one of us has his or her shadow side. The true task is not to banish dark, but to come to terms with it, and connect or integrate it with the light. Here again, a synthesis of apparently-irreconcilable poles is somehow to be made.
According to many commentators, marriage is going slowly out of fashion. Where couples do marry, they leave it increasingly later in life, and in any case, a third to a half of them subsequently divorce. Nowadays many couples live together unmarried, whether with children or without (an arrangement that was regarded with horror by all respectable people in former times). Prospective spouses are urged to agree legal or informal contracts saying how a possible break-up is to be handled – almost wishing an end upon their marriage before it has begun. Why should any bother nowadays to go through such an antiquated, unsafe, ceremony?
Drawing on the experience of my own marriage, and close observation of those of others well known to me, I believe that marriage continues to offer a unique and important human experience, although many of its functions are changing. Looking far back in time we may suppose that the prime and original purpose of marriage was for the procreation of children and their safe upbringing under the protection of both mother and father. It has served various other functions, of course. As the church service recognises, marriage provides for the couple concerned a settled place for the expression of their sexuality, and a reassurance of continuing mutual support through thick and thin. Then again, marriage has served over the ages as a convenient means of legitimising the otherwise-difficult business of securing the transfer of property and power (for those who hold any significant share of either) from generation to generation.
However, it can be argued nowadays that all these things can be readily achieved without the need to resort to such an all-embracing and demanding solution. In these more open times, sexual and romantic needs can be met in a variety of ways other than marriage; not, it is true, totally without conflicts, jealousies, or other attendant difficulties, but certainly without anybody’s being forced to contain them within one set partnership for a whole lifetime. As regards providing for hard times, illness, or old age, it is now readily possible for people to take out specific insurance against these things; or they can fall back on the safety-net of state provision; or, as ever, they can call upon such support from blood-relations, friends, or charities, as may exist for them. Property can be bequeathed on death to whomsoever one wishes; and as for power and privilege, we in developed societies now pay at least lip service to the principle that such things should be awarded on merit rather than passing automatically down family lines. So where does this leave the raison d’être of modern marriage?
It is my belief that the main purpose of marriage which emerges at this stage of history is essentially that of providing in the form of a living-together relationship with life-long commitment, a powerful stimulus to personal development for each and both of the two people involved. To put it another way, the main purpose of marriage now is to help the developing together of two human souls – which is not to say that it cannot still serve various of the other functions just described. And it appears the case that only with a commitment of this kind – to life-long, living together – underlined by some sort of public declaration, is there the necessary precondition for the stimulus for such development to operate with full force. Living together without a life-long commitment is simply not in the same league (which is not to say that it is in any way wrong in itself).
Doubtless another precondition for achieving this purpose is that the two people concerned are properly suited to each other. It seems that they must in certain respects be similar, but in others, very different. If things go well it is likely that the two concerned will come to recognise each other as ‘good mates’, ‘best friends’, or even ‘soul mates’. They need to have a similar sense of what life is about, and it probably helps if they come from similar cultural backgrounds. However, in order for the dialectic of progress to operate, that is, for both to feel a pressure to evolve by synthesising or transcending contrasting aspects of life, they must in some important respects be polar-opposites. The opposition of male and female provides a huge such difference in polarity. But it can be a source of additional stimulus (though not always of comfort) if the two concerned are, in the Jungian sense, different personality types: one extrovert and one introvert say; or one basically a feeling-type and the other a thinking-type, say.
Love stories of earlier centuries all tend to end with a marriage. By contrast I am talking here of love stories, or potential ones, that only really start with marriage. By ‘love’ I mean, as earlier discussed, relating. And the deeper that relationship becomes, the deeper the love. (Being ‘in love’ is, I think, something quite different: an absolutely delightful experience that has more to do with idealisation and enchantment than the long and difficult work of learning to relate properly to the full reality of another.) And of course we are not talking here of a life-time’s flow of ever-constant mutual affection. In marriage, given the continual exposure of the partners to each other in every sort of circumstance and stress, each gets to know every little detail of the other’s quirks, weaknesses, and hangups. There are bound to be crisis points in marriage from time to time, as there are in every other area of life; and many times when you feel at odds with, or even strong dislike for, your partner. (From this point of view it is doubtful if even the best of marriages could be said simply to be ‘happy’; perhaps ‘good’ or ‘true’ would be more accurate descriptions.)
When such times arise, the best way in the long term of improving your relationship with your partner seems to be, as I suggested earlier, working on yourself; that is, on your own personal development. What rarely if ever serves, tempting though it often is, is giving your partner various suggestions for how or he or she needs to improve if the relationship is to survive and prosper (but I am not suggesting that there is no possibility of doing joint work on the problems concerned)
To repeat a proposition already made: it is only through interaction with other beings that we learn who we are, and the deeper the interaction, the deeper the learning. As I see it, marriage provides a forum or workshop in which intensive learning is possible. But that is not all of course. Provided always that we feel basically to be with our right partners, then as learning more about oneself and one’s partner grows, so does an ever-deepening feeling of love and affection. And if in any given case this last is not happening, then the possibility has to be considered that this particular marriage is mistaken; in which event it should be brought to an end as soon as practicable. As far as I can see, this is the only valid reason for breaking a marriage; not the occurrence of frequent rows, not practical difficulties, not extra-marital affairs, but a recognition (which is likely to be a shared one sooner or later) that there is simply no potential for the relationship to develop and for each to grow within it.
I do not suggest that marriage is an essential component in personal development. There are evidently good numbers of people who need to pursue their journey without being permanently linked to any one fellow traveller. But for many, perhaps most, marriage is a natural and powerful means for learning and the growth of love.
Death and What Survives
At the end of our lives, however far we have then evolved or failed to, lies the darkness of death. All beings die. The loss of my own wife forced my attention to this reality in the strongest possible way. I cannot yet say either that I have come fully to terms with this bereavement, or properly prepared myself for my own death to come; but such thoughts as I have on this subject I now put forward.
Shakespeare described it as ‘the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’. Although we have many accounts of near-death experiences, we have precious few, or few of any credibility, of after-death experiences. One cannot of course know anything for certain, but my own strong supposition is that the experience of after-death is exactly the same as the experience of before-birth (or more exactly, before-conception) namely, nothing whatsoever.
I am reinforced in this supposition by my other strong belief, earlier described, that the idea of separate mind and body – what has been aptly caricatured as the ‘ghost in the machine’ view (5) – is an extremely misconceived and misleading one, born of a relatively crude stage in the development of human thought. Far better, as I have already argued, to think of every human being as having an innerness and an outerness: simply two sides of the same thing, and totally inseparable. When at death the outerness of the human individual changes from a working entity to a decaying assembly of chemical constituents, so too must the complex inner unity collapse. There is a sense (which I shall return to shortly) in which the soul or spirit may be said to survive, but it is certainly not as some kind of continuing physical presence, however vaporous or intangible; no kind of being that is, with a perceptible outerness of any kind. Nor for that matter can most of us nowadays believe in a physical heaven somewhere above the clouds where such a soul might take up permanent residence. Nor (given the stance which I am taking here) is it possible to believe in the other common vision, that of a soul surviving to be reincarnated in some new body – the same innerness with a different outerness?
Generally, any view in which our souls are seen as leaving our dead bodies and surviving in some or other state of independent personal consciousness must give rise to the same question: what new outerness could this innerness possibly be seen as corresponding to? Whenever souls are conceived as surviving without bodies, it seems to imply the existence of two worlds, a material one and a spiritual one; in some sort of interaction, but basically independent. My own strong assumption, as will now be quite clear, is very different. It is of the existence of one world only: this one, the one we all directly experience.
Thus as I see it, when any human (or other being) dies, it dies completely: both its outerness and its innerness simultaneously vanish, or undergo reversion to simpler (that is, less evolved) forms. But is that all there is to say? Is there no form of immortality? Nothing whatsoever that survives the death of any being, even a human one? (How poignant these questions become when somebody very close to you is taken from your life!)
It is easy to see the various shifts by which humanity over the millenia has tried to lessen the tearing pain of the loss of close-others, and indeed, the primary fear of one’s own dissolution and death. Perhaps (they have said) if I preserve the body well enough, and bury it with food, tools, and so on, my loved one will be able to survive in the great land beyond. Perhaps she will at some time re-materialise in front of me, and address me just like she used to do. Perhaps, even though her body decays now, it will one day in the far future be resurrected, just as mine will, so that we can be reunited in much the same state as formerly. But modern or post-modern people find such formulations impossible to believe.
With old myths like these no longer useful, what then can we in our time recognise with some confidence as surviving death? Firstly, there is I believe, an important though limited sense in which people’s souls or spirits can be experienced as continuing on. We may not believe nowadays that such are to be located or objectively observed anywhere in the outer world, but they are certainly to be found in the inner worlds of those who knew and loved them. I am talking basically of memory, but the word by itself is hardly sufficient. The images which exist in our inner-theatres (our ‘minds’) of loved ones who have died, although decisively lacking the presence and quality of living beings, have nevertheless a considerable power. They offer not just a series of inner snapshots of the person concerned in various remembered situations, but a place where the very essence of that person may be re-contacted. Such images within us seem to radiate to some extent with their own independent life and energy. We may address these inhabiting spirits, and hear or imagine their characteristic responses; although this is not by any means the same as it was to have converse with them when they were alive. So here certainly, is the first thing that survives. It is decisively less than what was there before – this bitter fact has to be accepted. But it is nevertheless something to be treasured, and remains available for the rest of their lives for all who had close contact with the particular person now gone.
What else survives? Another answer, an obvious enough one, is the physical legacy of human offspring. It is true that this provides some sort of indirect immortality, but I cannot feel that it should be given much weight if the view is restricted to biology and that alone. For a start, it is not unusual for men to know nothing of the children they have conceived, or even that conception has taken place. Nor is there any lack of instances where women lose contact with their offspring immediately after birth. And in any case, there are large numbers of people who never produce any children of their own. Even though there are many who evidently, and understandably, get considerable satisfaction from the feeling of living-on through their children, I doubt if this constitutes in general our best bid for some sort of survival of death; at least again, if we are talking primarily in genetic terms.
Conceiving children is one thing. The arduous task of bringing them up is a very different matter. In this, there is potentially something of much greater significance. Throughout our lives we ceaselessly interact with other beings: our children (if any), other relatives, friends, work-mates, casual acquaintances, and so on (as well as animals, plants, etc). Some of these interactions will be largely indifferent in tone, some even hostile. But many, particularly if our lives are evolving as they should, will be more positive. They will be marked by authentic relationship of some depth or other; that is, by some kind of love. And all such interactions are in a degree, and in a broad sense, creative.
In every interaction that we have with every other human being (and also with non-human beings) we leave for better or worse, some mark, some effect. Which of us does not remember an encounter when young, with an older relative perhaps, or a teacher, which in a particular way helped to shape or energise our future lives? And as we receive from others, so we give in turn. I am inclined to think that this is the most important thing that remains of us after death: the total of all the effects, good or bad, that we have brought about in a whole lifetime of encounters, great or small, with others. To this may be added of course, the indirect effects of any artefacts which we have made and put out into the world for others to use or enjoy (this is creativity in the more conventional sense). In this category must be included not only great paintings, music, and books, but more homely things like pieces of domestic craft-work, or well-cared-for houses and gardens, provided each incorporates something of ourselves.
Not all can be great artists or thinkers. But most can leave more modest creations behind them. And we all have the opportunity to influence in a thousand small ways the lives of others with whom we come into contact, so that they in turn are caused to pass on something of us in their subsequent interactions with yet another circle of beings. This I believe to be a true immortality, for it never completely ends. ‘Our echoes roll from soul to soul, and grow for ever and for ever.’(6)
What on earth is it all about? Why was the whole thing created like this, and who or what did it? How do I come to have this strangely-shaped, squashy, bony, hairy, form? Why was I born given this strongest desire to live for ever, whilst knowing nevertheless that I must sometime die? Why is there so much pain and mindless violence in the world? (Why does the dear little robin on our lawn have to spend most of its time ripping apart other minute creatures?) And – even stranger perhaps – how can there also be pleasure, and joy, and laughter at times?
As my teacher Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh said ‘Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be enjoyed’. I have an image of our collective lives as a small centre of light in a vast surround of darkness. As our knowledge and consciousness develop so the light swells in size, but in doing so inevitably increases too the area of dark-unknown with which it makes contact. We can never know the total frame of things, the founding principles. All each of us can know and develop is the bright centre of our own experience and consciousness.
Slowly I am finding that the image of myself as a lonely, isolated ‘I’ in a difficult or alien universe is being replaced by that of myself as just one in a rich world of beings, each with its own special life, but all joined in some level of commonality; all short-lived manifestations of some great eternal It. Increasingly, I see my task as trying to make as deep as possible a relationship with that all-comprehending It, and with each and every one of the individual beings in which it is manifested: all the people in my life, the animals I come across, the trees, plants and rocks around me, the pieces of music I listen to or play at my piano, even the rooms I live in and the meals I eat……… A constant effort is demanded to see, feel, appreciate, be aware of. It is all work, but where good work is done, I know that love follows.
I recognise that a great part of the work, as it progresses, is learning to accept the transience of things, immensely difficult though this is; not trying to hang-on to what is loved – to stop time, as it were. As we are taught, there is an eventual state of consciousness to be reached in which the mortality of all beings including ourselves, is fully accepted; and that, integral with this consciousness is a love which is not narrowly-focused on some few preferred beings, but inclusive of all.
‘In the end, there is only love’ (JMR)
Further Thoughts on Love
Genuinely loving someone, or just attached to them?
Attachment (7) is not the same as love. Evolutionary-wise, attachment is no doubt the precursor of love (any intermediate stage might well be called ‘proto-love’, perhaps). The attachment of mother to off-spring and vice versa, or of individual animal to pack, is an extremely powerful thing, but a purely instinctive one with no necessary consciousness of itself. Many human couples – husband and wife, mother and son – are attached to each other with little actual love between them. And where there is little or nothing present except bare attachment, few will be conscious of the nature of this bond itself.
By contrast, love proper always has some degree of consciousness in it. The parties concerned are usually aware of the existence of such a relationship between them; often, they may refer to it, or declare it in explicit terms. And if it is proper love, each will be likely to have some awareness, even if only partial or imperfect, of the other’s nature, feelings and needs in addition to a simple affection for them. Furthermore, both are likely to be aware of the necessity at times to do things to maintain or develop the relationship; an awareness that does not arise in a simple attachment.
Of course, there is often a degree of basic attachment in any love-relationship. Nor is it unusual for what starts with simple attachment to develop into love.
Is being-in-love the same as loving?
It is sad to see the terms ‘loving’, and ‘being in love’ or ‘falling in love’, used indiscriminately, for they are very different things, and confusing the two causes many problems in life. If you imagine there is not really much difference between them, you have only to try this test. Ask yourself first if you have a child, or parent, or aunt, that you certainly love. Then consider whether you could happily describe yourself as in love with this same person.
Mixing up these two things can have, and often does have, disastrous consequences. You may be sure of this: if you fall in love with someone, sooner or later you will fall out again. In the meantime you may, of course, have come to love them. If so, well and good: loving is what matters. Falling in love is just a delightful and transient illusion – in psychological terms, an affair of projection and idealisation.
(1) Words of William James, the nineteenth-century psychologist
(2) What I am describing here somewhat relates, of course, to Carl Jung’s concept of the ‘collective unconscious’ and its distinction from the personal unconscious
(3) So says the psychotherapist Victor Frankel, who survived several years within a Nazi concentration camp
(4) Much of what is written in this particular section is a transcript of the ideas of my old chief, the psychoanalyst and sociologist, Elliott Jaques
(5) A frequently-quoted phrase from Gilbert Ryle’s book, ‘The Concept of Mind‘
(6) The lines are from Tennyson’s ‘Blow Bugle, Blow‘.
(7) See the fundamental work of John Bowlby on this subject of attachment.
All readers are welcome to use this material for what ever purposes they may have. When doing so, please attribute authorship to Ralph Rowbottom.