Seeking Wholeness: Preface

Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
— T. S. Eliot (from Burnt Norton)

Each of us must find out who we are and where we are going.  You could say this has been the underlying theme of my life.  It seems to have started with my early attempts to understand a bewildering home life.  Although not particularly traumatic, my family experience was odd; it certainly did not fit the normal social molds.

My parents were separated, so as a young child living in Wales I spent most of the time with my mother and five siblings in cramped public housing.  We were poor, though not deprived.  My mother worked, but also stole chickens and vegetables from farms and gardens around the district — including those belonging to my wealthy grandparents.  To put it simply, she was headstrong and difficult.

Weekends and holidays we children would go to Ffrwdgrech, my grandparent’s country estate.  There we slept in the ‘night nursery’ near the nanny, played hide and seek throughout the 35 rooms of the mansion, and could walk all day and still be on the family land.  My grandparents were restrained and somewhat Victorian in their manner, quietly disapproving of our childish exuberance.  My unassuming father came whenever he could get

The transition from chaos to ordered calm, from poverty to faded luxury, from tight ‘council house’ to endless spaciousness was strange, yet taken for granted.  It left a question mark around who I was supposed to be.

This question extended into the rest of my life.  We children went to a convent school run by Irish nuns in a small Welsh town where Catholics were very much the separate minority.  Within that school, we were the only children who were nominally protestant — my grandparents being upper-class Anglicans.  So although I learned my catechism and went to mass on Holy Days, I was the one left sitting while my friends went up to the altar rail for communion.

I was never sure whether I was Irish and Catholic because I was born in Ireland, or Welsh and protestant because my father’s family came from Wales.  This was very important for my early sense of identity — to be able to say who I was and where I came from.  Wherever I found myself I was not sure I belonged; I was always on the fringe, somewhat of an outsider.

The urgent dilemma of, “Who am I?  What am I supposed to be?” intensified in late adolescence.  On the small rugged Irish farm where I lived and worked, yearning for something more profound, I would look out across the westerly waters of Bantry Bay.  The sunsets were rich and extravagant — wild banners of changing color and light framing rocky headlands and bleak islets.  I wanted desperately to hold that beauty, to hear what it was trying to tell me.  Something vibrated deep inside me, gouging out space for experience.  It is hard to imagine anything more grand, more expansive, yet more transient.  Then the sunset was gone and soft dusk would fall.

I began to sense the inner mystery to being human that cannot be expressed.  Trapped on the outside of life, I could feel a reality just beyond my grasp, hidden behind an obscuring veil.  I wanted to know and experience the mystery, to capture whatever hides behind our five senses.  But I couldn’t get in deep enough.

Later, I thought studying psychology at Edinburgh University might offer some insight, but was quickly disillusioned.  Academic psychology’s dogmatism was oppressive, determined to dismantle the human being into pieces — bits of cognition and affect, personality traits, stimulus and response.  None of that came close to capturing the texture of my experience.  Consciousness, spirituality, creativity, communion — all the things important to me were ignored or relegated to a back ward of crazy and irrelevant ideas.

I remember my excitement at accidentally discovering systems thinking.  Here at last was an antidote to reductionism.  Writers such as Arthur Koestler and Gregory Bateson, with their emphasis on relationship and wholeness, gave me hope that there might be a different way of understanding my own experience.  But they also seemed too constricted by the rules of scientific logic and rationality to contain the whole of what is humanly possible.

Training as a psychologist I became resigned to the fact that there was no adequate model of human experience.  The theories behind therapy made little sense; they seemed to emanate from a parallel universe, totally different from the one I live in.  Certainly I could never get my clients to fit the diagnostic boxes; each person seemed too unique and complex.

It took me a long time to remember something fundamental: I had come to psychology through spirituality, not through rational decision.  At eighteen I joined Subud, an international spiritual organization.  Its spiritual exercise, the latihan, has been the mainstay of my life and a reliable source of guidance ever since.  Inner promptings and synchronistic events steered me toward psychotherapy; I knew it was ‘right’ for me.

Yet when working with my clients, I excluded this whole transpersonal dimension of knowing.  I believed that, while helping others, I should keep my most central understandings and experiences hidden.

Like most psychologists I was taught not to contaminate psychotherapy practice with my private concerns.  This ‘rule’ is put in place to protect clients from proselytizing or self-indulgent therapists who use others to satisfy their own needs.  So it is important.  But it often gets interpreted narrowly, that the only ‘correct’ way to help others is to keep at a distance and use simplistic models of human beings.

For years I kept the two ways of knowing – rationality and mystery – tidily separated.  Yet this was not true for the people coming to consult me.  They were encouraged to express and experience all aspects of their being and my task was to help them.  Eventually I was forced to recognize my double standard: how could I exhort my clients towards wholeness if I remained split in myself.

I see now that every person walks into my office “trailing clouds of glory”, as Wordsworth says so beautifully.  Welcome or not, spiritual experiences and metaphysical questions are constantly present.  We are all human and so we are looking for answers that create inner meaning and completeness.  The transcendent cannot be wrenched away from the personal.  Psychology and spirituality are different vistas, complementary perspectives on the same path.  We need the insights of both to understand our humanness as best we can.

In my work, I sense that what makes us human can never be fully captured.  We swim through our lives as in a depthless ocean.  Only a part which is self-aware rises above the surface; the great bulk of our being is submerged — and working hard to keep us afloat and in motion.  All is fluid and ever-changing and we are flowing and changing with it.

It is the flowing nature of our experience that I address here.  I seek to reconcile the mysterious with the obvious, to connect the multitude of threads of our humanity.  These words join your experience with mine.  As with all relationship, there is something trying to happen beneath and beyond the known.  Perhaps you can extract what you need out of these pages and weave your own tapestry of meaning.  Perhaps you will begin to see the obvious in a slightly different light.  And perhaps some story will evoke a way of knowing that goes beyond words, that is vital and alive.  This is my hope.

When you live in the Irish countryside, there are those days when the mist and drizzle sets in.  The landscape softens and all is drenched.  This is a “fine soft day” for the farmer.  The shape of the world is shrouded; everything seems closer, all sense of distance erased.  Sometimes the light changes and colors fluoresce.  No green is as vivid as an Irish green; no yellow vibrates so intensely.  On such days life slows.  Only essentials are attempted as the damp penetrates everything.  It is time to huddle around the turf fire with a cup of tea.  It is time to engage in a conversation that seeks to penetrate the enigma of our human experience.

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