Friday, March 10, 2017

THE DEATH OF THE AUSTRALIAN PHILOSOPHER JIM BAKER

'There are only facts, i.e., occurrences in space and time.'
- John Anderson, 'Empiricism,' Australasian Journal of Psychology
and Philosophy
, December 1927, p 14.

On March 3, 2017, which just happened to be my 62nd birthday, an Australian philosopher and university lecturer of some renown passed away at the age of 94. Sadly, his death appears to have gone completely unnoticed in the mainstream media, apart from a death notice placed in The Sydney Morning Herald by his family. Of course, that was to be expected because the mass media caters for the tastes and interests of the hoi polloi, so the media takes the view that talking about philosophy and academics is a complete waste of time except perhaps when some eccentric university lecturer says or do something grossly politically incorrect or otherwise sensationalistic.

The man of whom I speak is Jim Baker, pictured. Allan James Baker was his full name. He was born on July 22, 1922 and he studied philosophy under the Scottish-born Australian philosopher John Anderson who was arguably Australia’s most original thinker and whose philosophy has had a very important influence in my own life.

Jim obtained a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree with double firsts in Philosophy and History from the University of Sydney and, awarded the Wentworth Travelling Fellowship, which is designed to assist graduates of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney to undertake research work in Europe, Jim went on to obtain the intellectually demanding two-year taught graduate degree Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil) in Philosophy degree at the University of Oxford

In the 1950s he lectured in philosophy, and was a colleague of Professor Anderson’s, at the University of Sydney. He also taught at Macquarie University in metropolitan Sydney as well as in Scotland, New Zealand and the United States of America. For many years he was a prominent member of the University of Sydney’s Libertarian Society (the 'Sydney Libertarians') and the Sydney Push. In fact, Jim was a founding Libertarian. The Libertarians were the philosophic core of what became known as the Sydney Push. While a student at the University of Sydney, he had been an active member of two famous Andersonian societies of the era, namely, the Sydney University Freethought Society and the Sydney University Literary Society.

Jim is perhaps most famous – and rightly so – for having written two scholarly books on the realist philosophy of John Anderson, namely, Anderson’s Social Philosophy (Angus & Robertson, 1979) and Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson (Cambridge University Press, 1986). In his lifetime John Anderson never actually fully systematized his philosophy in book form. At the time of his death he was working on the index for a collection of his philosophical essays, the posthumously published Studies in Empirical Philosophy (Angus and Robertson, 1962). It was Jim Baker who subsequently systematized Anderson’s philosophy and he deserves enormous credit for that achievement. 

Jim acknowledged that there were 'difficulties' with certain aspects of Anderson's philosophy and he openly admitted to having 'criticisms here and there' with Anderson's presentation of realism. I do, too. I now think there are some fundamental weaknesses with Anderson's philosophy that prevent it from being fully coherent and internally consistent as a systematic realism (eg a certain undisclosed idealism, problems with Anderson's treatment of negative propositions, the essential unspeakability of the categories, etc). However, that is not important for present purposes. Jim always ackowledged the greatness of Anderson, and the depth of his thinking, without ever treating him as if he were a God ('the Master') and his teaching some sort of sacred doctrine. In short, Jim was very much his own man and not a sycophantic follower of his former teacher.

In his two books on Anderson’s philosophy, especially Australian Realism, Jim sought to demonstrate that the Australian (or Sydney) realism of Professor Anderson is a systematic and coherent philosophical position. Jim also penned the article on Anderson in the Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed E Craig (Routledge, 1999), vol 1. He was also the author of Social Pluralism: A Realistic Analysis (A J Baker/Fast Books, 1997) as well as many articles on philosophy and social theory appearing in journals such as the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Mind, Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, Philosophical Magazine, Dialogue, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Australian Quarterly, Arna, Heraclitus (being his own private circulation journal and newsletter) and Broadsheet.

I met Jim several times at the Sydney Realist Group where he would occasionally speak, as have I once or twice. Jim also penned articles for the group’s journal The Sydney Realist, as have I. I remember once asking Jim if he would autograph my copy of his book Australian Realism. He looked at the book for some time, then looked at me rather oddly, before finally saying, ‘Where do you want me to sign it?’ (I think he must have been accustomed to more difficult problems.) I said, ‘Anywhere.’ He thought for a moment, and then signed the book at the very top of the inside front cover. So much for literalism and realism. No, Jim was a giant of a man and a deep thinker and he deserved to be much better remembered than he was when he left us a week ago. His funeral was held at Sydney’s Northern Suburbs Crematorium on March 9, 2017.

Opposite the title-page of Jim’s book Australian Realism there stand two epigraphs. Both are from the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus or, more precisely, from the Scottish classicist John Burnet’s translation of Heraclitus’s Fragments in his book Early Greek Philosophy. The first of the epigraphs is this:

‘The world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living Fire, with measures kindling and measures going out.’ 

John Anderson loved and often quoted those words. Jim Baker must have liked them, too. So do I.

Thank you, Jim.


Note. Since writing this post, a well-written obituary for Jim Baker, penned by the Australian businessman and former trade union official Dr Michael Easson AM, who is also a member of the Sydney Realists, has appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald. IEJ. March 25, 2017.



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Friday, February 24, 2017

OF MICE AND MEDITATION—HOW IT WORKS

Mice that meditate? Well, why not? In this case, it was a scientifically-designed experiment to assess the effect of theta brainwave activity. Meditation increases theta wave activity, even when people are no longer meditating. The experiment involved creating what was probably the world’s first mouse model of meditation, using light to trigger brain activity similar to what meditation induces. The results were illuminating.

Many previous studies have shown that meditation reduces anxiety, lowers levels of stress hormones and improves attention and cognition. In one study of the effects of 2 to 4 weeks of meditation training, psychologist Dr Michael Posner, pictured left, of the University of Oregon and colleagues discovered changes in the white matter in volunteers’ brains, related to the efficiency of communication between different brain regions. The changes, picked up in scans, were particularly noticeable between the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and other areas.

The ACC regulates activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain that controls fearful responses and other emotional reactions as well as playing a primary role in the processing of memory and decision-making.

Posner’s team concluded that the changes in white matter could be responsible for meditation’s effects on anxiety. What was not known was how meditation could alter the white matter in this way. Posner theorized that it was related to changes in theta brainwaves. To test the theory, the team used what is known as optogenetics, that is, genetically engineering certain cells to be switched on by light. In this way, they were able to use pulses of light on mice to stimulate theta brainwave-like activity in the ACC.


Mice received 30 minutes of this stimulation for some 20 days. Before and after the treatment, the mice underwent behavioural tests to measure anxiety. When placed in a box with a light area and a dark area, fearful mice spend more time in the dark. The team found that mice that received theta wave stimulation were less anxious than mice given light pulses that induced other kinds of brainwaves, or who had no treatment at all.

Posner says this mirrors meditation’s ability to lower anxiety in humans and supports the involvement of theta waves in this effect. The team is still studying the white matter in the mouse brains and hope to report on any changes later.


Study
: Weible A P, Piscopo D M, Rothbart M K, Posner M I, and Niell C M. ‘Rhythmic brain stimulation reduces anxiety-related behavior in a mouse model based on meditation training.’ PNAS 2017; published ahead of print, Feb 21, 2017, doi:10.1073/pnas.1700756114


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IMPORTANT NOTICE: See the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on this blog is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your medical practitioner or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on this blog. In Australia, for immediate advice or support call Lifeline on 13 1 1 14, beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, and for information, advice and referral on mental illness contact the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) or go online via sane.org. In other countries, call the relevant mental health care emergency hotline or simply dial your emergency assistance telephone number and ask for help.




Friday, February 10, 2017

NEW STUDY FINDS THAT MINDFULNESS REDUCES WORRY


Why worry? If it’s going to happen, then worry won't change that fact. And if it’s not going to happen, then there’s absolutely no point in worrying at all. Still, lots of people worry. Indeed, we all worry at some stage or another in our lives. Yes, we worry and we also infect others with our worries.

The English word ‘worry’ comes from the Old English word wyrgan and Old High German word wurgen, both meaning to strangle, to choke’. When we worry, we strangle ourselves, so to speak. Actually, not so to speak, but well-nigh literally. Worry is very bad for the body, the mind and the spirit. People say, 'I'm sick with worry,' or 'I'm worried to death.' Do they really know the truth of what they're saying? People can literally worry themselves sick--and in some cases even to death. 

Worry is a state of mental uneasiness ('dis-ease'), disquiet and anxious apprehension, and it has been described as the 'number one plague of modern time'. 'A certain well controlled carefreeness may be an asset,' wrote the American minister and author Dr Norman Vincent Peale (pictured right). 'Normal sensible concern is an important attribute of the mature person. But worry frustrates one’s best functioning.' What's worse, worry chokes out the joy of living, even the very spirit of life itself.

A recent randomised study of 77 participants examined the impact of the following types of mindfulness on the frequency of intrusive negative thoughts and measured subjective anxiety levels: (i) guided acceptance-based mindfulness meditation; (ii) attention-based breath meditation; and (iii) progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). 

The most effective technique for reducing the frequency of negative thoughts was a guided acceptance-based mindfulness meditation. The essence of this form of mindfulness – it is at the heart of all mindfulness practice – is acceptance. Thoughts come and feelings arise. Let them come. Let them arise. Watch. Look. Observe. But don’t judge or evaluate them. And don’t resist them or struggle against them. Let them be … and they will pass. If you give them no power, they cannot and will not trouble you.

The second form of mindfulness studied was attention-based breath meditation. Here, one focuses on one’s breath at the point where the sensation of in-breath – the first moment of in-breath – is most prominent for you in terms of sensation. It is not a matter of following your breath in and out but of staying at the point of sensation and bringing your attention back to that point when the mind wanders. According to the study, breath awareness was slightly less effective in reducing negative thoughts but it was still quite useful.

The third form of mindfulness – progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) – was found to be the least effective in reducing the frequency of negative thoughts. Actually, PMR is not really a form of mindfulness meditation. It has its place – as a method of relaxation. PMR was developed by the American physician Dr Edmund Jacobson (pictured left), in the early 1920s. Jacobson developed over 200 exercises and techniques which, taken together, relax the entire body by releasing muscular tension that accumulates as a person experiences a stressful situation. You focus your attention on different muscles in the body and tense and then relax these muscles. 

Let's be careful not to disparage PMR. Other studies have shown that PMR can not only alleviate tight muscles and cramps but also reduce the intensity of pain, relieve stress and anxiety and reduce depression. However, this particular study found that PMR was not all that effective in reducing the frequency of negative thoughts.

When a negative thought or feeling arises, simply watch it. Observe it. There is no need to replace it with a positive thought. Some find that helpful. I prefer to give the negative thought no attention – and thus no power over me – and quickly move on in consciousness. Non-resistance – another word for acceptance – is the key.


Study: Ainsworth B, Bolderston H, and Garner M. ‘Testing the differential effects of acceptance and attention-based psychological interventions on intrusive thoughts and worry.’ Behav Res Ther. 2017 Jan 24;91:72-77. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2017.01.012. 


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IMPORTANT NOTICE: See the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on this blog is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your medical practitioner or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on this blog. In Australia, for immediate advice or support call Lifeline on 13 1 1 14, beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, and for information, advice and referral on mental illness contact the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) or go online via sane.org. In other countries, call the relevant mental health care emergency hotline or simply dial your emergency assistance telephone number and ask for help.



Sunday, January 29, 2017

MEDITATION IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK

Those words – meditation is not what you think – were written on a bookmark I once received when I purchased a book from a metaphysical bookshop.

For some time – I must be slow or dim-witted – I pondered what those words meant. They seemed to be saying to me that meditation was something different from what I thought it was. Well, that was certainly true, for I was to learn that meditation was indeed something very different from what for many years was my limited understanding of the practice. Then, one day, it dawned on me what was the real ‘meaning’ of the phrase. Meditation is not what you think. Meditation is not about thinking. Meditation is not thinking at all. Meditation is something other than thinking.

What, then, is meditation? Well, meditation is many things such as waiting, listening, sitting in silence, observing, being attentive, being aware – that is, choicelessly aware – of the content of the action of our mind as well as the action of our surrounds.

Now, when we think about the activity of our mind – in particular, our conscious mind – we come to be aware of, and observe, what J. Krishnamurti (pictured) referred to as ‘the activity of the self’. Actually, there is more than one self in our mind. There is, for example, the ‘self that is judgmental’, the ‘self that hates immigrants and refugees’, the ‘self that loves pleasure’, and so on. Each of our innumerable likes, dislikes, views, opinions, beliefs, attachments and aversions is a ‘self’ of sorts. They are all our little ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ – and there are literally hundreds, even thousands, of them. The combined activity of these ‘selves’, none of which is the true person each of us is, is known as the ‘activity of the self’. This activity causes us no end of trouble. What sort of trouble? Self-obsession, self-centredness, self-absorption as well as addictions, obsessions and compulsions of various kinds. The activity of the self results in all manner of thoughts, words and deeds that are selfish

This is what Krishnamurti has to say about the activity of the self and meditation (This Light in Oneself, Seventh Public Talk in Saanen, July 1973):

Where there is the activity of the self, meditation is not possible. This is very important to understand, not verbally but actually. Meditation is a process of emptying the mind of all the activity of the self, of all the activity of the ‘me.’ If you do not understand the activity of the self, then your meditation only leads to illusion, your meditation then only leads to self-deception, your meditation then will only lead to further distortion. So to understand what mediation is, you must understand the activity of the self. …

Meditation can assist a person to become free from the bondage to self – free from the activity of the self. The ‘secret’ is to sit quietly and watch, non-judgmentally, the activity of the self. In the words of Krishnamurti (The First and Last Freedom, Chapter 19 (‘Self-Centred Activity’)):


If you watch yourself and are aware of this centre of activity, you will see that it is only the process of time, of memory, of experiencing and translating every experience according to memory; you also see that self-activity is recognition, which is the process of the mind. … Is it possible for the mind ever to be free from self-centred activity? That is a very important question first to put to ourselves, because in the very putting of it, you will find the answer. That is, if you are aware of the total process of this self-centred activity, fully cognizant of its activities at different levels of your consciousness, then surely you have to ask yourselves if it is possible for that activity to come to an end - that is, not to think in terms of time, not to think in terms of what I will be, what I have been, what I am. From such thought, the whole process of self centred activity begins; there also begin the determination to become, the determination to choose and to avoid, which are all a process of time. We see, in that process, infinite mischief, misery, confusion, distortion, deterioration taking place. Be aware of it as I am talking, in your relationship, in your mind.

In his many talks and writings Krishnamurti would often talk about the futility of self-forgetfulness, pointing out that there is no means of forgetting the self. In his Commentaries on Living, Series I, Chapter 41 ('Awareness')), we read:

Problems will always exist where the activities of the self are dominant. To be aware which are and which are not the activities of the self needs constant vigilance. This vigilance is not disciplined attention, but an extensive awareness which is choiceless. Disciplined attention gives strength to the self; it becomes a substitute and a dependence. Awareness, on the other hand, is not self-induced, nor is it the outcome of practice; it is understanding the whole content of the problem, the hidden as well as the superficial.

‘Problems will always exist when the activities of the self are dominant.’ How true that is! It is especially true of the addict – and we are all addicts of one kind or another. Not all of us are addicted to alcohol or other drugs but each one of us is addicted to certain ways of thinking, feeling and acting. We are addicted to our own views, opinions and beliefs, our own likes and dislikes. Meditation, practised as choiceless awareness, helps us to disengage, to dis-identify, from the objects of our addictions. When we observe – non-judgmentally – the activity of the self diminishes and reduces in intensity. In the words of Krishnamurti, we come to understand ‘the whole content of the problem, the hidden as well as the superficial’.

Meditation is not what you think. Meditation is not thought or words. Learn to empty your mind of the activity of the self. Refuse to identify with it. You are not those false selves that cause you so much grief and angst. You are a person among persons. A person caught up in the activity of the self is never free. He or she is in perpetual bondage to self. However, it need not be so. Meditate. Practise emptying your mind of the activity of the self. Let it go. Don’t hold onto it. Then, and only then, will you be free.




Saturday, January 14, 2017

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS—OR HOW TO BE RELIEVED OF THE BONDAGE OF SELF

‘Relieve me of the bondage of self …’ from Chapter 5
of the book Alcoholics Anonymous (the ‘Big Book’ of AA).

There’s nothing like fairy tales for telling it like it really is. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one of the best. It depicts just how terrible it is to be in bondage to self.

An old queen sits sewing at an open window during a winter snowfall. She pricks her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fall onto the snow on the ebony window frame. The queen admires the beauty of the red on white. ‘Oh, how I wish that I had a daughter that is as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as that wood of the window frame,’ she says to herself. Shortly thereafter, the queen indeed gives birth to a baby girl as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and with hair as black as ebony. Snow White is her name. Then the old queen dies. A new era begins.

A year later, the king marries again. His new wife—the new queen—is beautiful but also wicked and terribly vain. As in other fairy tales such as Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel we have the familiar appearance of an evil stepmother. It makes you wonder if there are any nice stepmothers out there! Of course, there are plenty of them—nice ones, that is—but never, it seems, in fairy tales. The new queen has a magic mirror. Every morning she turns to the mirror and asks, ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest in the land?’ The mirror always replies, ‘You, my Queen, are the fairest in the land.’ This new queen is very much involved with herself. Indeed, she is in total bondage to herself. Far too many of us are like her. It’s a terrible predicament to be in, for there is no joy being in bondage to self.

Time passes. Snow White is now aged seven. She is very beautiful and much more beautiful than her stepmother, the new queen. So, when the stepmother queen asks her magic mirror, it responds, ‘My Queen, you are the fairest here so true. But Snow White is a thousand times more beautiful than you.’ This comes as a great shock to the queen, to put it mildly. Funny, isn’t it? We only like to hear what we want to hear. The stepmother queen becomes yellow and then green with envy. Her heart turns against Snow White. Indeed, with every following day she hates Snow White more and more. So, the stepmother queen orders a huntsman to take Snow White into the deepest woods and kill her. She orders the huntsman to return with Snow White’s lungs and liver. That way, she will know for sure that Snow White is finally dead. The huntsman takes Snow White into the forest but is unable to kill her. He leaves her behind alive. ‘She will be eaten by some wild animal,’ he says to himself. Instead, he brings the stepmother queen the lungs and liver of a young boar, which is prepared by the cook and eaten by the queen. (This is an unsuccessful attempt on the queen’s part to relieve herself of her bondage to self.

Snow White wanders through the forest for some time. Eventually, she discovers a tiny cottage which belongs to a group of seven dwarfs. (In sacred numerology—that is, in myths, fairy tales, sacred literature and so on—the number ‘seven’ represents such things as fullness, individual completeness (the number ‘twelve’ representing corporate completeness), the perfection of the human soul and grace. It is considered to be the divine number and thus the most spiritual of all numbers. Read the Bible and the sacred texts and you will see that I am right on that.

No one is at home in the dwarfs’ cottage. So, Snow White decides to eat something, drink some wine and then test all the beds. Finally, the last bed is comfortable enough for her and she falls asleep. In due course, the seven dwarfs return home and discover Snow White asleep. (Life is very much trial and error. We experiment and we experience.) The dwarfs come home and find Show White there. She wakes up and explains to them what happened. The dwarfs take pity on her, saying: ‘If you will keep house for us, and cook, make beds, wash, sew, and knit, and keep everything clean and orderly, then you can stay with us, and you shall have everything that you want.’ (A bit old-fashioned, that. Where are the feminists?) The dwarfs warn Snow White to be careful when alone at home and not to let anyone in when they are away in the mountains during the day.

Meanwhile, the stepmother queen asks her mirror once again: ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest in the land?’ The mirror replies, ‘My Queen, you are the fairest here so true. But Snow White beyond the mountains at the seven dwarfs is a thousand times more beautiful than you.’ The queen is livid. She realises she was betrayed by the huntsman. Worse still, Snow White is still alive. All the stepmother queen can think of is how to get rid of Snow White. So, she disguises herself as an old peddler, walks to the cottage of the dwarfs, and offers Snow White colourful, silky laced bodices. She convinces Snow White to take the most beautiful bodice as a present, then she laces it so tight that Snow White faints. The queen leaves her for dead. However, the dwarfs return just in time and Snow White revives when the dwarfs loosen the laces.

Next morning, the stepmother queen consults her mirror again. Shock, horror! She is told that Snow White is still alive. The queen is incensed. She is aflame with rage and hatred. She decides to dress up as a comb seller and pays Snow White a visit. She manages to convince Snow White to take a pretty comb as a present and proceeds to brush Snow White's hair with the comb. Unfortunately, the comb is poisoned. Snow White faints again but is revived by the dwarfs. The next morning the mirror tells the queen that Snow White is still 'a thousand times more beautiful' than the queen. The queen is now apoplectic with rage. She makes a poisoned apple and, in the disguise of a farmer's wife, she offers it to Snow White, who is at first hesitant to accept it, so the queen cuts the apple in half, eats the white harmless part, and gives the red poisoned part to Snow White. (I am a bit like Snow White. I can resist anything except temptation.) Snow White takes a bite of the apple—the poisoned part—and falls into a state of suspended animation. This time the dwarfs are unable to revive the girl because they can't find the source of Snow White's poor health and, assuming that she is dead, they place her in a glass coffin.

A prince travelling through the land sees Snow White. He strides to her coffin and, enchanted by her beauty, instantly falls in love with her. The dwarfs succumb to his entreaties to let him have the coffin, and as his servants carry the coffin away, they stumble on some roots. The tremor caused by the stumbling causes the piece of poisoned apple to dislodge from Snow White's throat, awakening her. The prince then declares his love for her, and soon a wedding is planned. The couple invites every queen and king to come to the wedding party, including Snow White's stepmother. Meanwhile, the queen, still believing that Snow White is dead, again asks her magic mirror who is the fairest in the land. The mirror says: ‘You, my Queen, are fair so true. But the young queen is a thousand times fairer than you.’


The stepmother queen reluctantly accepts the invitation to attend the wedding. Why? Well, call it fate, karma or destiny. We cannot escape our destiny. A pair of glowing-hot iron shoes are brought forth with tongs and are placed before the queen. She is forced to step into the burning shoes and to dance until she drops dead.

Well, what are we to make of all this? I have already given you a few clues above. Remember, this is my take on the fairy tale.

The story begins with the old queen who has a vision of a beautiful, joyous human being. Such a person will have overcome their bondage to self. He or she is enlightened, so to speak. Of course, we don’t become such a person overnight, and the path to becoming a fully functioning human being is fraught with difficulties. Inside each of us are hundreds of little, false selves in the form of our many likes, dislikes, opinions, beliefs, attachments and aversions. The process of dis-identifying with self is never easy. The new queen appears. Unfortunately, she is very vain and proud, and she seeks to use selfish powers and wisdom for her own entirely selfish purposes. As I see it, the new queen represents any one or more of our false selves which we mistakenly believe are the person that we are. The seven dwarfs symbolise different aspects or facets of the person each of us is. For example, among others there’s Happy, and Sleepy, and Bashful, and Dopey. The latter is especially me! Anyhow, take your pick. One thing to remember. These ‘dwarfs’ are very important and they can help you and me. They are all facets of the spiritually developing person.

The spiritually developing person Snow White, like you and me, is attacked in various ways. Of course, our worst enemy is ourselves—that is, our ‘selves’. The task for each one of us is to overcome the bondage of self. Ultimately, as I’ve said over and over again, we need a power-not-ourselves (that is, a power-not-our-false-selves’) to be relieved of the bondage to self. In the fairy story of Snow White and the seven Dwarfs that power comes in the form of the prince.

The stepmother queen is a graphic representation of all our inner demons—our unruly passions, hates, aversions and attachments. Our ego-self, if you like. It is a paradox of immense proportions that, for something which has no separate, independent existential reality of its own, the ego-self causes us so much damn trouble? Why? Because we let it.

The ego-self has to be thrown off-centre, and if we wish to be truly happy we must give up all things that stand in the way of our spiritual development—things like bad habits, obsessions, addictions, hatreds and resentments. In fact, all forms of self-obsession. Norman Vincent Peale (pictured left), who for 32 years was the senior minister of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, wrote in his book Sin, Sex and Self-Control (Doubleday, 1966) that each of us must experience ‘a shift in emphasis from self to non-self’. However, there’s a problem. Self cannot overcome the problem of self. The ‘self that tries to overcome self’ is just one more self, having no power in and of itself. In my many blogs and other writings I have quoted often these immortal words of William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘For the trouble is that we are self-centred, and no effort of the self can remove the self from the centre of its own endeavour.’ What this means is that each of us needs to find a power-not-our-false-selves to overcome the problem of self and bondage to self. In one of his memorable so-called ‘Zen sayings’ Jesus said that we must lose our ‘selves’ in order to find ourselves (cf Mk 8:35). So true.

Snow White—the real person each one of us is—wanders from the path that leads to being a fully functioning human being. The illusory power of our false selves can and does cause that to happen. Eventually, she comes to see the false as false and the real as real. The prince opens her eyes to what is real. Experience, and trial and error, can do that. So, can mindfulness, that is, living with choiceless awareness of what is.

When we practise mindfulness, we learn, bit by bit, to dis-identify with our false selves. It may be our angry self, our resentful self or our frightened self. We learn to give those selves no power. They are not the person that we are. They are images in our mind which we have created over time. Yes, they are quite persistent and, if we allow them to dominate and take over, they can almost come to define the person that we are. However, they are never, never, never in truth the person that we are. You and I are persons among persons. Live as such. Overcome the bondage to self. No effort of the self can do that, but you, the person that you are, is power-other-than-self. Only the latter is real.

I will finish with these words from G K ChestertonIn his book Orthodoxy, in the chapter titled ‘The Maniac’, Chesterton wrote, ‘How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it … .' Indeed.



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