I’ve argued for years that listening begins with the self; I’m not retracting that, but what I’ve come more recently to understand is that the self is a complex of many different expressions that manifest in our self-talk despite one characteristic may be overbearing, as in my case, with the self that finds strange comfort in ‘indictment’ — myself, others, society at large. O’Donohue’s Celtic tradition has helped me broaden the conversational dimension within as he discusses below.
THE CROWD AT THE HEARTH OF THE SOUL “Individuality is never simple or one-dimensional. Often it seems as if there is a crowd within the individual heart. The Greeks believed that when you dreamed at night, the figures of your dreams were characters who left your body, went out into the world, and undertook their own adventures; they then returned before you awoke. At the deepest level of the human heart, there is no simple, singular self. Deep within, there is a gallery of different selves. Each one of these figures expresses a different part of your nature. Sometimes they will come into contradiction and conflict with each other. If you meet these contradictions only on the surface level, this can start an inner feud that could haunt you all the days of your life. Frequently, you see people who are sorely divided. They are in a permanent war zone and have never managed to go deeper to the hearth of kinship, where the two forces are not enemies but reveal themselves as different sides of the one belonging. We cannot embody in action the multiplicity of selves we encounter in our most inward meditations. But without a knowledge of these numberless selves, our existence is severely diminished and our access to mystery is blocked. We are talking here of the imagination and its riches; too often we degrade imagination to a problem-solving technique. We need to develop a new sense of the self. We need thought models or patterns that are fair and appropriate to that complexity. When people discover their own complexity, they become afraid, and with the hammers of secondhand thoughts they beat this rich internal landscape into a monoscape. They make themselves conform. They agree to fit in; they cease to be vivid presences, even to themselves.”
CONTRADICTIONS AS TREASURES “One of the most interesting forms of complexity is contradiction. We need to rediscover contradiction as a creative force within the soul. Beginning with Aristotle, the Western thought tradition outlawed contradiction as the presence of the impossible, and consequently, as an index of the false and the illogical. Hegel, alone, had the vision, subtlety, and hospitality of reflection to acknowledge contradiction as the complex force of growth that disavows mere linear progress in order to awaken all the aggregate energies of an experience. It is the turbulence and conflict of their inner conversation that brings an integrity of transfiguration and not the mere replacement of one image, surface, or system by another, which so often passes for change. This perspective makes for a more complex notion of truth. It demands an ethic of authenticity that incorporates and goes beyond the simplistic intentions of mere sincerity. We need to have greater patience with our sense of inner contradiction in order to allow its different dimensions to come into conversation within us. There is a secret light and vital energy in contradiction. Where there is energy there is life and growth. Your ascetic solitude will allow your contradictions to emerge with clarity and force. If you remain faithful to this energy, you will gradually come to participate in a harmony that lies deeper than any contradiction. This will give you new courage to engage the depth, danger, and darkness of your life. It is startling that we desperately hold on to what makes us miserable. Our own woundedness becomes a source of perverse pleasure and fixes our identity. We do not want to be cured, for that would mean moving into the unknown. Often it seems we are destructively addicted to the negative. What we call the negative is usually the surface form of contradiction. If we maintain our misery at this surface level, we hold off the initially threatening but ultimately redemptive and healing transfiguration that comes through engaging our inner contradiction. We need to revalue what we consider to be negative. Rilke used to say that difficulty is one of the greatest friends of the soul. Our lives would be immeasurably enriched if we could but bring the same hospitality in meeting the negative as we bring to the joyful and pleasurable. In avoiding the negative, we only encourage it to recur. We need a new way of understanding and integrating the negative. The negative is one of the closest friends of your destiny. It contains essential energies that you need and that you cannot find elsewhere. This is where art can be so illuminating. Art is full of intimations of the negative in ways that allow you to participate imaginatively in their possibility. The experience of art can help you build a creative friendship with the negative. When you stand before a painting by Kandinsky, you enter the church of color where the liturgy of contradiction is fluent and glorious. When you listen to Martha Argerich play Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30, you experience the liberation of contradictory forces that at every point threaten and test the magnificent symmetry of form that holds them. You can only befriend the negative if you recognize that it is not destructive. It often seems that morality is the enemy of growth. We falsely understand moral rules as descriptions of the soul’s direction and duty. Yet the best thinking in moral philosophy tells us that these rules are only signposts to alert us to the complex of values latent in or consequent upon our decisions. Moral rules encourage us to act with honor, compassion, and justice. They can never be descriptions simply because each person and situation is so different. When we notice something immoral, we normally tend to be harsh with ourselves and employ moral surgery to remove it. In doing this, we are only ensuring that it remains trapped within. We merely confirm our negative view of ourselves and ignore our potential for growth. There is a strange paradox in the soul: If you try to avoid or remove the awkward quality, it will pursue you. In fact, the only effective way to still its unease is to transfigure it, to let it become something creative and positive that contributes to who you are. One encouraging aspect of the negative is its truthfulness. The negative does not lie. It will tell you clearly where you court absence rather than inhabit presence.” (John O’Donohue, Anam Cara pp 112-16)
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What are a few of the contradictions you wrestle with in listening to your self? The practice of iRest® that Sandra Sommers teaches is an effective and frontal approach to integrating these tensions that otherwise war within. Choose presence and learn to walk in welcoming of the gift of contradiction within. For further discussion I encourage you to get in touch with Sandra at email@example.com
Jerry, this is an interesting and challenging post. One thing that gets in my way of interacting with it is all of the “we’s” in the language. I would be much more comfortable if O’Donohue were to own his own tendencies and leave the rest of us to ponder whether we have similar experiences. I can certainly identify with the notion of multiple views of the self or even as he suggests multiple selves that manifest in different contexts. On the other hand, A claim like “It is startling that we desperately hold on to what makes us miserable. Our own woundedness becomes a source of perverse pleasure and fixes our identity. We do not want to be cured, for that would mean moving into the unknown.” seems way over the top in its use of “we and our.” I think each of us would find this a different level of over statement, perhaps identifying with some aspect and feeling others unidentifiable. If I can be forgiven for my invasion of your privacy, How much of it do you identify with?
Another thought. Perhaps one “self” identifies with some part and a different “self” identifies with another?
The nuances of listening. Oh my. It is quite a study, isn’t it?
Oh but isn’t it! I hope you enjoy other Salons and will feel at home here to contribute; while many may not have had a formal study of listening, we all have organic experience that is the basis on which we continue to learn! So please do share your insights.