Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Underclass

I’m thankful for much in my former career as a journalist, especially the exposure to people and events I would never have encountered otherwise. It all helped to build life experience and a certain degree of knowledge about the world, easing me out of my relatively protected existence and challenging preconceived ideas and prejudices.

I was thinking recently about my first experience of court as a reporter. It was in 2001 and I was still a novice on a local newspaper covering a patch in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. I don’t remember the story, probably something minor, but I found myself at Preston Magistrates Court on a warm summer’s day.

I remember walking into the old courthouse and being met by a whirl of activity. There was a narrow waiting lobby with a long row of seating down the middle and courtrooms on either side. I had arrived quite early for the hearing in which I was interested, so squeezed myself into a seat among the waiting throng.

It would be fair to say I was instantly out of my comfort zone. Many of the people around me seemed well-acquainted with the wrong side of the law, some rough in appearance, others quite edgy and volatile, many probably with experiences of drugs of various kinds. There weren’t just single men there, but whole families with children waiting for one thing or another, forming a miserable and disjointed picture of humanity.

It was the first time I seriously considered the idea of an underclass. It’s not a new concept – Karl Marx had discussed what he called the lumpenproletariat in the 19th century – but that day in Preston the existence of a dysfunctional underbelly of society seemed very real to me. I imagined it to be a class of people on the margins marked by poverty, addictions, abuse and crime, as well as social neglect, exclusion and shame.

I wonder if the notion of an underbelly or shadow would be helpful in understanding and addressing what is seen as the threat of Islamism to the West. Such an explanation would see the extremism not as an external menace or enemy to society, but as inherently belonging to it. Just as an underclass belongs to and is a product of the society as a whole – created by legal, social, historical and political dynamics as well as all the consequences of the choices of individuals – so the danger of Islamism could be seen as one of the outcomes of a globalised community and its tensions. Realising that we are part of a world community could allow us to tackle problems more holistically, drawing every person and every thing within our concern. With appropriate consciousness, no-one need be an “other” to whom we would have no responsibility or care.

What troubles me about the response to the Islamist violence in Paris and other places is the tendency to partiality: to see “us” and “our cause” as just and right, while decrying “their” evil and barbarism. We see ourselves as committed to values, while the “terrorists” are hell-bent on destruction. The reality is, of course, far more complex: even as we praise ourselves for tolerance and freedom, our security forces are operating in a shadowy world of state-sanctioned violence. Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, there has been significant curtailment of civil liberties and enormous growth in a largely secret security apparatus. Could the West’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, with thousands of people dead and ongoing chaos, be attributed to our decency and good values? Or what about our continuing alignment with Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most repressive regimes that has funded and armed the very Islamist groups we are now afraid of?

Behind the tragedy of lives lost is the spectre of power: who has it, who is challenging it, who wants more of it. “We” want to maintain and extend our power while denying it to those outside our circle. Islamism is but one response to global power dynamics, feeding on patterns of injustice. It is not a movement for liberation, for the enrichment of the human community, but a life-denying mirror-image to the worst aspects of Western power.

In the new globalised world our challenge is to move to a consciousness of unity and welfare for all because all of us are citizens of this planet. Liberty, fraternity, equality are not just ideals for me and my group but for everybody and every thing that lives under the great blue canopy of the Earth. We will only produce more wars, more suffering and strife if we continue along the old road of self-interest, grabbing what resources we can for ourselves, dominating because we have the money and power to do so. The underclass, the underbelly will always be in our midst, calling us to face the whole truth and to accept the whole of humanity as one.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Personality and Spirit

I’ve been enjoying the wonderful work of Bede Griffiths, particularly his autobiography The Golden String. Griffiths was an English Benedictine monk with a great interest in Eastern spirituality who travelled to India and was the central figure of the Shantivanam ashram from the 1960s until his death in 1993. The ashram follows a universalist faith where Hindu, Buddhist and Christian scriptures are read and where the rituals and iconography have an intriguing east-west blend.

Griffiths believed in the “perennial philosophy”, the idea that at their heart all religions point to the one Truth, the mystery of Love and its manifestation in the world. As an interpreter of Western and Eastern religious traditions, I have found none better than him; he writes earnestly and directly in the style of a wholehearted spiritual seeker and has a loving concern for the welfare of the world.

I joyfully discovered a few days ago that a documentary had been made about him – by an Australian film crew only a few months before he died. I picked up some ear phones and walked to my library to watch it on a computer.

That which intrigued me most and sparked my imagination occurred towards the end of the film. For most of it I followed the narrator’s description of Griffiths’ life story and interviews with him and members of his Indian community with a mixture of interest and delight. One person described him as a “prophet”, and his spiritual wisdom was, indeed, very deep. Then we saw him before a stream about to perform a ceremony with attendants by his side and a group of devotees behind him. One of the assistants said something to him and Griffiths, suddenly confused and cross, grumbled audibly “Tell me what I should do!” His face soured for a few seconds and the attendant smiled in embarrassment, then Griffiths’ demeanour changed as he bent over and splashed water in the different directions and towards the crowd.

In the context of the whole documentary, little should be made of this scene. However, it did send a shock through me. The prophet was also a man with a man’s foibles and limitations. For most of the film my mind had cruised in the wake of the spiritual beauty that it revealed, but now I was reminded of the concrete personality and the everyday material dimension of life.

I can’t comment on Bede Griffiths the man because I didn’t know him, and he was quite frail at the time the documentary was made, but I would like to make some general observations about personality and the spiritual journey and the way they inter-relate. By personality I mean ego, the constellation of forces and influences that make up an individual and the variety of ways an individual presents to the world and to him/herself.

The first observation is that a personality has to be reasonably robust to be able to meet spirit in a functional way. Usually that means some level of discipline has to be attained that allows a person to act as a container or conduit for spirit. Discipline comes over time through various ways like meditation, prayer or yoga, which strengthen the personality’s ability to meet spirit and create pathways for their relationship. The process is helped by life experience – the rough and tumble of the everyday world that doesn’t overly scar a personality but leaves it generally healthy. Spirit is inherently powerful and potentially dangerous and needs a sufficiently tempered ego for its vehicle. Sometimes, particularly in childhood, a spiritual experience can simply slip past us because we lack the development to properly assimilate it, while at other times it can be outright harmful – I think of the ways that intense types of meditation or drugs like LSD can bring on visions that psychologically damage people who are unprepared. The rule is that, exceptional people aside, personality and spirit need time to grow together.

The second observation, obvious thought important, is that a person has to will a connection with spirit. That is, they must actively seek it out. Random soulful experiences – like a holiday by the ocean, listening to music that is deeply moving or reading a powerful book – are good things but on their own don’t lead to the spiritual path. What does is the desire of the personality towards spirit and the exercise of will in that direction. The twist is that will can be exercised unconsciously, particularly in the early stages of personality-spirit development, so that for years we may be moving towards spirit without our rational, everyday self being able to name it as such. When there is a conscious link between personality and spirit, when the ego realises it is moving towards the divine, the spiritual path is strengthened and quickened as an individual organises their life in relation to spirit. The process is never smooth and at different times and in different ways the personality is usually still resistant to the demands of spirit, nevertheless the way is laid out. Once the conscious connection is made, the holiday by the ocean or the soulful music or book are no longer discreet experiences but build on one another in a chain of development that is the personality’s choosing.

Thirdly, the development of the personality can run separately to its meeting with spirit, and it does not necessarily follow that a spiritually developed person is also someone whose personality is highly mature. Once the ego is capable of holding a certain amount of divine energy, it is faced with a choice of progressively surrendering itself to spirit or maintaining a status quo. If the latter, spiritual power can distort the ego over time and create all kinds of shadow and chaotic effects; or the ego may try to harness spirit for its own ends, again producing shadow and chaos. Some Indian gurus are examples of this, milking spiritually hungry and naive Westerners for money and their own ends.

Personality-spirit relationship requires the ego to gradually surrender its autonomy to the divine, but in the process the ego is transformed (or purified) through many stages of development. All religious traditions emphasise morality and right conduct not just for good inter-personal or communal relations, but to shape the ego in relation to the divine; temporal human form has to be perfected enough to ascend to the level of divine union. However, even for those who are well-advanced on the path, faults and limitations that are subject to being human remain. I see the scene of Griffiths’ petulance by the river in this light – the eternal is perfect and we are perfect, but we are also human. The perfect can only be recognised as such when there is also imperfection, which is the condition of everything that exists in time and space.

Lastly, the personality has to embrace mystery. This is perhaps its greatest challenge as it progresses down the path of union with spirit. Mystery is the great nothingness that cloaks and thoroughly penetrates the material universe. From this nothingness we and everything else emerge and to it at death return. It is inescapable and ultimately ineffable – there is no way to describe or comprehend it. A relationship with it, however, can be built if we approach with an open heart and fashion an awareness attuned to the subtle behind the appearance of things, the language of symbols and the power of ritual.

Mystery surrounds the very choice that is made for a life of wholeness – why some people take the path and others don’t – and what becomes clear is that it is not us who choose spirit, but spirit who chooses us.

In the course of spiritual development, when the ego eventually stands at the precipice of its own extinguishment in union with the divine, the great terror of mystery, the fear of the abyss, must be faced. Wisdom traditions tell us that what lies beyond is Love, pure and simply Love. It is not a sentimental love, such as we are used to in popular Western culture, but something that is the bedrock of all existence, the spark and fulfilment of all creation. It is what Buddhists call Nirvana, the ultimate reality, and what in the Judeo-Christian tradition may be described as the experience of God or the Godhead, when a personality is simultaneously null and void and completely full, at its absolute centre in the universe. Griffiths concludes The Golden String with a reflection on Love, quoting from The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, the words of the prior of a monastery in which the brothers met:

“Brothers, have no fear of men’s sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of divine love, and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf and every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”