Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Fairy tales are rarely about fairies and generally have an inner meaning. I have looked at several famous fairy tales in the past including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by the Brothers Grimm. Here’s another fairy tale—from Germany—involving a character called Snow White: ‘Snow-White and Rose-Red’.
The tale goes something like this. A poor widow lives in a small cottage by the woods with her two young children, Snow-White and Rose-Red, whom she adores. There is a garden in front of the cottage in which there are two rose bushes. One of the roses bears white roses, and the other red roses. The symbolism of that is revealing. The rose represents the individual's unfolding consciousness although, depending on the context, it has a myriad assortment of additional meanings associated with it, such as purity, passion, heavenly perfection, virginity, fertility, suffering and sacrifice, death and life.
In the context of this fairy tale, the white and red roses represent the thinking and feeling aspects of our consciousness respectively. Now, the two young children, who play together and love each other dearly, are just like the above mentioned roses. Rose-Red is outspoken and cheerful and loves to play outside whereas her sister Snow-White is quiet and shy and prefers doing housework and reading. The two girls love to go out into the forest where they like to sleep. On one occasion, whilst sleeping unknowingly on the edge of a precipice, they are awakened by a figure in shining white apparel (apparently, a ‘guardian angel’, variously a symbol of power, guardianship, inner guidance and personal transformation).
One winter night, there is a knock at the door. Rose-Red opens the door to find a bear. At first, she is terrified, but the bear tells her not to be afraid. ‘I'm half frozen and I merely want to warm up a little at your place,’ he says. They let the bear in, and he lies down in front of the fire. The girls beat the snow off the bear, and they quickly become quite friendly with him. They play with the bear and roll him around playfully. They let the bear spend the night in front of the fire. In the morning the bear leaves, trotting out into the woods. The bear comes back every night for the rest of that winter and the family grows used to him.
When summer comes, the bear tells the family that he must go away for a while to guard his treasure from a wicked dwarf. On parting, the bear catches his fur on the door-hook, and it seems to Snow-White that she sees gold glittering underneath.
During the summer, when the girls are walking through the forest, they find a dwarf whose beard is stuck in a tree. The girls rescue him by cutting his beard free, but the dwarf is ungrateful and yells at them for cutting his beautiful beard. He seizes a bag of gold which lies behind him and hurries off angrily. The girls encounter the dwarf several times that summer, each time rescuing him from some peril each time, but the dwarf is always ungrateful. On the second occasion the dwarf runs off with a bag of pearls. On another occasion he hurries off with a bag of precious stones. Then, one day, they meet the dwarf once again and he is seen counting his treasures. This time, the bear rushes out of the forest and strikes the dwarf dead.
Instantly, the bear’s skin falls from him, revealing a handsome prince. You see, the dwarf had put a spell on the prince by stealing his precious stones and turning him into a bear, but the curse is broken with the death of the dwarf. Snow-White marries the prince, and Rose-Red marries his brother. And yes, as in all fairy tales, they all live happily ever after.
Have you ever noticed how many fairy tales involve a widow? A widow represents those who are cut off, so to speak, from their true being as a person among persons. They are people who have lost connection with their inner potentiality. In this tale, however, there is still some contact with the elemental world represented by the garden and the rose bushes.
Snow-White and Rose-Red represent two different aspects or sides of human experience. Snow-White (cf the white roses), who likes to stay indoors, represents the thinking part of us that is introspective, introverted contemplative and meditative. Rose-Red (cf the red roses), who likes being outdoors, symbolises the perceiving, more extroverted part of us that is more interested in the outer world of sense impressions. The fact that the two girls play together and love each other is highly symbolic. It means, among other things, that these two sides of our nature are equally important. Both are needed and belong together. In other words, they are complementary. Never forget that.
The bear is an out-picturing of us—body, mind and soul. There is the outer, physical part of us and the inner mental and spiritual ‘parts’ of us. The dwarf represents negative, evil forces, both within and outside of ourselves, that make for separation, division and strife. These forces or tendencies within us must be overcome if we are to grow into the persons we are capable of being and which, in truth, we really are. The gold, pearls, and precious stones referred to in the tale represent spiritual riches and wisdom—the non-physical things ‘not made with human hands, eternal in the heavens’ (cf 2 Cor 5:1). The dwarf is seen seizing, appropriating and running of with these gifts, not realizing that they are not yet his by right of consciousness. There are things that we must give up in order for these gifts to be rightfully ours. That is an important lesson we all must learn. Our false selves (the little ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’), in the form of our various likes, dislikes, views, opinions, biases and prejudices, seek to appropriate these treasures even though they are not yet ours by right of consciousness.
Now, the bear is not what it appears to be. Inside of it is a prince, that is, a higher self—our true self. Here’s a famous Zen story on the point. A distraught man approaches a Zen master and says, ‘Please, Master, I feel lost, desperate. I don't know who I am. Please, show me my true self!’ The master just looks away without responding. The man begins to plead and beg, but still the master gives no reply. Finally giving up in frustration, the man turns to leave. At that moment the master calls out to him by name. ‘Yes!’ the man says as he turns around toward the master. ‘There it is!’ exclaims the master.
Our true self is the person that each one of us is. However, when we see and experience ourselves we do not ordinarily see and experience the person that in truth each one of us is. Instead, we tend to see and experience any one or more of a number of self-images (those ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ held in our mind). At one point in time we may see and experience the ‘little me’, or the ‘frightened me’, or the ‘inferior me’. At another point in time we may see and experience the ‘confident me’.
These ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ are nothing more than self-images in our mind. They are images felt and experienced as real, that is, as the real person that we think we are. Jointly and severally, these ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ constitute in varying degrees our sense of who we think we are, and whichever image is most dominant in your mind at any point in time will constitute your sense of ‘me’—that is, what to you, in you, is you—at least at that particular point in time. There is a feeling component to these mental self-images, with the result that many of the images can be quite strong and persistent over time and their persistency over time only reinforces the mistaken belief that these images are really us. This also makes change seem very difficult indeed. However, none—I repeat none—of these felt self-images are real. They are not the real person that in truth you are.
Fulton J Sheen wrote, ‘Death to the lower self is the condition of resurrection to the higher self.’ That is what this fairy tale is all about. We must die to our false selves so that we might become the real person that we are. Some call that the ‘higher self’, but please don’t confuse that with those little, false selves of which I spoke. The ‘higher self’ is the real person that in truth you are. I am referring to a power and presence ‘not-oneself’. You see, we are much more than just those pesky false selves—all those waxing and waning ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’—with which we tend to identify, in the mistaken belief that they constitute the ‘real me’.
Freedom from the bondage to self comes when we get real, that is, when we start to live from our true being as a person among persons. We come to know our higher or real self—symbolised in the fairy tale ‘Snow-White and Rose-Red’ by each of the marriages that take place—as a result of thinking (Snow-White), perceiving (Rose-Red), and overcoming the evil spirit of separateness (symbolised by the destruction of the dwarf by the bear).
When this happens, you become what the American psychologist Carl Rogers, pictured left, referred to as a ‘fully functioning person’. The mystics refer to this as coming to ‘know the Self as One’. Yes, we are one with all Life, even though few know or understand what that truly means.
Tuesday, March 6, 2018
My favourite comedian Groucho Marx was a lifelong insomniac. He tried most things to help him sleep, but apparently to little avail. ‘I can sleep anywhere but in bed,’ he once exclaimed.
According to a 2015 study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, mindfulness meditation is one of the most powerful tools for improving your sleep ... and the quality of your sleep.
In the study, 49 adults, all of whom reported having sleep troubles prior to being enrolled in the study, were split into two groups. One group was instructed to complete a mindfulness meditation program while the other simply attended sleep education classes which mostly focused on instructing the participants on various ways to improve their sleep habits. Each group participated in their respective programs for six weeks. By the end, the results showed that those who were meditating experienced less insomnia, fatigue, and depression compared to those who weren't practising mindfulness meditation.
The results confirm a 2008 study which demonstrated that wellbeing and mindfulness are positively associated with sleep quality and with a morning circadian preference. Results from a sample of 305 undergraduates revealed positive associations among measures of emotional, psychological, and social well-being, mindfulness, sleep quality and morningness (that is, the characteristic of being most active and alert during the morning).
As I see it, there are two elements of mindfulness that are helpful in dealing with insomnia—choiceless awareness and non-resistance. You can’t sleep? Don’t resist it. Stop fighting against it, for whatever we resist persists. Simply be aware—non-selectively aware—of whatever passes through your mind. Watch it. Observe it. Don’t fight against it. Give those mental movies no power, by being only barely attentive to their content. Let it pass … for it will. And let it go. Try this—and you will be amazed at the difference it makes.
Black D S, O’Reilly G A, Olmstead R, Breen E C, and Irwin M R. ‘Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Clinical Trial.’ JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(4):494-501. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8081
Howell A J, Digdon N L, Buro K, and Sheptycki A R. ‘Relations among mindfulness, well-being, and sleep.’ (2008) Personality and Individual Differences, 2008;45(8):773-777. doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2008.08.005
Friday, February 2, 2018
The great American comedian and writer Groucho Marx, pictured, could be serious at times. In his 1959 autobiography Groucho and Me the thrice-married star had this to say about what he referred to as ‘true love’:
I believe … that real love only appears when the early fires of passion have cooled off and the embers just lie there smoldering. This is true love. This relationship has only a bowing acquaintance with sex. Its component parts are patience, forgiveness, mutual understanding and a high tolerance for each other’s faults.
A meta-analysis published in the February 2016 issue of the Journal of Human Sciences and Extension provides empirical evidence that the current literature on mindfulness and relationship satisfaction indicates that more mindful individuals have more satisfying, connected relationships.
The meta-analysis looked at the results of 12 studies, including two mindfulness intervention studies. Overall, mindfulness was shown to enhance relationship connectedness and satisfaction. The authors stated (at pp 96-97):
… [M]indful practices are typically taught as an individual practice. There are, however, mindful practices that have an explicit focus on others, such as loving kindness meditations or aikido communication practices, which focus on caring for others. In addition, mindfulness practice is about noticing many dimensions of the self, including feelings and thoughts related to relationships and interactions.
The results of this meta-analysis further validate the recent efforts to include mindfulness training in relationship education. The authors of the meta-analysis state that future basic and applied research to inform enhanced models of best practices for community education focused on promoting relational health is encouraged.
Study: McGill J, Adler-Baeder F, and Rodriguez P. ‘Mindfully in Love: A Meta-Analysis of the Association Between Mindfulness and Relationship Satisfaction.’ Journal of Human Sciences and Extension. 2016;4(1):89-101. ISSN: 2325-5226 (Print).
Acknowledgment. Groucho and Me, by Groucho Marx. Originally published: New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1959. Copyright © 1959 by Groucho Marx. Copyright renewed © 1987 in the name of Arthur Marx as son. All rights reserved.
Monday, January 1, 2018
Dr Alison Gray (pictured), chair of the spirituality special interest group at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and a liaison psychiatry consultant working in Hereford and at the Beacon Clinic, Malvern, has recently said that those who engage in more ‘inward-focused’ types of spirituality – and that includes mindfulness meditation – ‘can become self-involved’.
‘In as much as religion is about binding people together, spirituality can become inward looking and selfish,’ Dr Gray said. ‘In no way does that happen to everyone … But there's a potential for it to become inward-looking and basically self-centred.’ To counter this, Dr Gray recommends that people practice mindfulness and other forms of spirituality in groups rather than alone.
Well, what do I think of that? Dr Gray is right. Damn right. Religion, at its best (note: I said, ‘at its best’), binds people together. After all, the word religion has an affinity with the Latin verb religare, which means to bind, bind back, bind up, and bind fast together. Spirituality is more personal, informal and unorganized in nature. Of course, not all religion is good. Indeed, it can be quite toxic and harmful at times, but at its best it binds people together and binds them to a power-other-than-themselves, that is, to what has been referred to as the largeness of life. We all need to get our minds off ourselves. Unfortunately, far too much spirituality makes us more self-centred, self-focused and self-absorbed. New Age spirituality tends to do that. It’s all about me, me, me. My inner growth, my health, my goals, and so on. Too many of our attempts at divesting ourselves of our little selves only heighten our obsession with self—and that is not good!
True mindfulness makes us increasingly aware of a power and presence greater than, and other than, our little, tiny, puny selves. The regular practice of mindfulness increases our awareness of the flow of life of which we are but a small part. There is the inner content of our mindfulness but let’s not neglect the outer content as well, that is, all that is going on around us and outside of us.
The truly mindful person grows in love, compassion and tolerance for their fellow human beings, indeed, for all life in all its myriad forms and comes to know that he or she is one with all life.