This third painting shows the ‘dark winds’ of karmic consequences in later life; the fire symbolises the anger and perhaps the redemptive power of self-awareness. Mortality is also an obvious theme, with the skull-like mask.
The school I attended was burnt down many years after I left; perhaps a fitting end to the building. The seven years I spent at the school were not unmitigated hell though: I found some enjoyment in activities such as sport, art and walking in the Lake District. (Hence the mountains in the first two paintings.) However, I believe the seeds of my adult difficulties were planted and cultivated during these years. Along with other psychological wounds, I became institutionalised: of course, without knowing it at the time.
Ironically the school motto was, We Seek the Truth; this would become an unconscious mantra for the rest of my life. As an adult, I became quietly obsessed with finding a spiritual refuge, first joining a Gurdjieff Group in Bradford in the 1970s, attending Krishnamurti’s talks in the 1980s and many years later embracing Buddhism.
The last picture shows the beginnings of release from suffering – among many interpretations here, even depression could be seen as a mask. ‘Buddha-nature’ is the intrinsic ‘goodness/perfection’ at the heart of all of us and that which Buddhism says cannot be harmed by circumstances. The burning school could be seen as ‘burning up the painful memories’ – once I acknowledge these painful feelings, in a spirit of deep acceptance – very difficult, as anyone who has experienced abuse will know – I can, hopefully, live without anger or resentment. It’s an ongoing process. (Meditation and living an ethical life are the two main supports of Buddhist practice. (Ethics here includes how we treat ourselves and others. Buddhist practice involves the transformation of hatred, greed and delusion into compassion, generosity and wisdom.)
Perhaps you could say that I wouldn’t have been so determined to find a spiritual path if I hadn’t been subject to the school heartache and trauma. I have had to ‘dig deep’ to find any sense in life and I believe I’ve put Carl Jung’s assertion into practice. His life’s work and psychology is based on recognising the shadow self; integrating and transforming it within the whole psyche. He wrote:
No tree grows towards heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.
Buddhism has a similar image; the lotus blossom whose roots reach down to the mud (symbolic of hatred, greed and delusion). After sufficient time, the flower opens in immaculacy above the water.
We are cautioned in Buddhist practice not to get stuck with ‘our story.’ We have to move on from the hurt and not see ourselves as victims. This is not always easy and I have found paradoxically that going over and over my past circumstances has enabled me to get it into perspective. Today, I can live in the present moment more often without the past intruding, and, as you may read in my other blogs, appreciate the simple things in life such as bird-song or walking in the countryside with friends.
5 thoughts on “Boarding School Survival: Part 2”
Very moving post, Eric – both the artwork and the commentary. My own adolescent trauma involved eight years in a Catholic seminary for candidates to the priesthood – different of course in many ways from your boarding school experience, but similar in its long-term effects upon my emotional well-being in adulthood. I too have found a healthy grounding, late in life, in the Buddhist ethical teachings of generosity, compassion, and wisdom. To paraphrase from your closing paragraph, living in the present moment without the past intruding is an amazing step forward from where I was years ago.
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Thanks Tom, for your comment.
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Lovely account, Eric. Coming out of some degree of darkness. In response I’ve simply chosen to remember things from my past as I seem to be doing more and more as I get old/older/oldest. I think I’ve led a charmed life really – or perhaps it was just that I put up a personal perspex shield in front of everything that might have adversely affected me. Teachers terrified me but accidentally taught me how to be eccentric – part of the shield. So-called National Service (finished 1958) which most found thoroughly alienating was a dream of an escape from middle class absorption and provided me with the ability to address a multitude without batting an eyelid – part of the shield – the what-the-hell-of-it defence & it led to fifty years of teaching in various contexts. The Army bit of it was just an absurdity and I embraced pacifism as a direct result!
There’s common thread here though, Tom & Eric. Colin Wilson, Gurdjieff, Buddhism. And above all – Survival in spite of…Things just come to us at different times in our lives. And for me Richard Jefferies & Huxley’s ‘Perennial Philosophy & ‘Whitehead’s Adventures of Idea’ – all around 15.16.
The images in your paintings, Eric are very powerful.
Sorry to ramble on…
Bird-song is all! Our garden is full of chaffinches!
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Thanks for your comment Colin. I also like Nietzsche’s amor fati – love of one’s fate/loving in spite of. In the sense of accepting one’s personal karma, to put it in Buddhist terms.
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Some time ago I concocted a found poem from several pages of John Cowper Powys’ ‘Art of Happiness. It has often sustained me. It goes like this:-
ancient ritual tricks
the Ichthian Act
lump all your evils
together and contemplate them
in the mass; there you see
in your spiritless apathy
a lumped-together world
composed of a mass of hurting reality
and a few flickering will-o’-the-wisps
of barely conceivable enjoyment
into this mingled world-mass
into this compound of much wretchedness
and a few oases of pleasure
plunge your soul
and then with a terrific leap
like the leap of a fish into the air
plunge into the unknown dimension
above it and around it
project your soul
from your troubled brain;
from its new position in air by your side
let it watch you and your misery
here is your soul
like a broken-winged Space-Bird
watching cursorily this bubble
of an earth-life; watching it
without love without hate without curiosity –
just watching in weary detachment
watch it a little longer now
(o persecuted soul)
just one second longer
and you will perceive
(if I am not mistaken)
a mysterious feeling slowly
beginning to take possession of you
as though a strange sort of trance
were stealing over your senses –
a waking trance that will soon become
(if you continue staring
at this lumped-together world)
a sensation as if you were waiting
(along with the whole universe)
for some withheld clue
the Panergic Act
the embrace of the things you were born to enjoy:
food and drink and love and sleep
and the magic of the elements and reading
of exciting books and the fitful expressions
on the face of Nature and the motley spectacle
of the streets of towns – your sense of the weight
of the multitudes of the dead behind you
calling on you to fill up the quota of such as
overcome futility; an emphatic gathering up
before your mind of those little-great
which make your existence bearable
not a moment of your life
when (from the magic of those mysterious aspects
of the universe which appeal to your particular
human senses) your soul has roused itself
to snatch its secret joy is lost in futility:
this moment’s triumph – the mental life
of the whole human race resembles the accumulative
invisible novel of a super-Dostoievsky
a spiritual battle-cry
rising up from your solitary navel:
you utter it as if
you were the ideal stoic philosopher
who can abide impavidus
while the orbis terrarum crashes
about him – the in-spite-of act
asks nothing desires nothing hopes nothing
it just asserts your own solitary will-power
bent on resistance and resolved to be cheerful
John Cowper Powys
The Art of Happiness pp40/42, 61,
And I’ve just received from my favourite Charing Cross Road high-class Bookseller a whole book by John Cowper Powys called ‘In Spite of…’ which I’m looking forward to reading!
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