Boarding School Survival: Part 2

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Advertisements

Boarding School Survival: Part 1

 

Mental Health has become more prominent on the socio-political agenda in recent years so it feels the right time to write this more personal blog.

Boarding School Survival Syndrome is a recognised psychological condition rarely talked about. It is similar in some ways to Post Traumatic Stress Diagnosis. Here is one comment about it:

[Children] who were sent away to boarding school from their family homes often learnt to endure unacceptably brutal interpersonal practices … When these kinds of trauma emerge in adulthood in the form of stress related disease, inability to sustain meaningful intimate sexual relationships, and mental and emotional breakdowns, adults often don’t even know how to begin to acknowledge their long-hidden pain to themselves, let alone talk to someone else (such as their medical practitioner) about their suffering. This, as we know from the psychological research evidence, often leads to further psychosomatic difficulties in terms of overworking to the point of burnout, multiple serious health problems, and drug and alcohol misuse.”

Petruska Clarkson BMJ, Vol. 322, 31/3/2001, reviewing Nick Duffell (2000) ‘The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System‘.

And, to reiterate some of the common symptoms:

  • problems with relationships

  • fear of emotional intimacy

  • sexual problems

  • substance/alcohol abuse

  • inability to express feelings

  • learning quickly to suppress painful feelings

  • workaholism/career addiction

  • depression and other mental health problems

  • fear of spontaneity/unable to enjoy life

  • fear of authority

Just as not all war combat personnel will experience PTSD not all ex-boarders will experience these symptoms to the extent that their lives are seriously impacted. However, even some of those who don’t have explicit symptoms may well have buried the hurt so deep within themselves that neurosis will possibly surface eventually.

It was not until my late thirties that I recognised, or acknowledged, I had depression and not until much later that I really made the link between my going to a boarding school and my mental ill-health. You are lucky in the UK(and probably financially well-off) if you manage to get psychotherapy; I had to deal with the trauma by myself.

There was no pastoral care, or what today we call safeguarding, at the school I attended from age 12-19yrs. Some of the teachers were sadistic and psychological abuse was common.

I did these paintings when I was 72 and they ‘process’ the emotional damage in a sequence. The first one shows a boy alone – this is the crucial point; on no account did you let on that you were homesick, or sad, to others. It is even the case that you didn’t let on to yourself that you were sad or stressed!

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The second shows the anguish and feelings of abandonment: again completely private and suppressed. I was influenced by Munch’s Scream when creating the main figure in the composition and in painting the background.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

The next blog will show the final two paintings and conclude the description.

Love & Diotima’s Ladder

socrates

I did an online course about Plato and one of the assignments was to rewrite part of a dialogue where Socrates is asking Euthyphro what justice and piety are. As usual. Plato makes Socrates’ debating partner look a bit dim so I have redressed the balance. ‘Love’ in Socrates’ philosophy is ‘love of knowledge’ as well as love in relationships.

SOCRATES: As it is, I know well enough that you think you have true knowledge of what’s holy and good and what is not. Tell me, then, most worthy Euthyphro, and don’t conceal what you think it is.

EUTHYPHRO: Well, dear Socrates, as you know there are the four virtues; justice, prudence, courage and wisdom. You yourself have talked endlessly about your Theory of Forms, where the virtues reside as universal perfections. In my understanding they reside with the gods.

SOCRATES: Goodness, Euthyphro, I am amazed you remember my discourse of a year ago! However, you still haven’t told me what holiness or goodness actually is.

EUTHYPHRO: I remember your Allegory of the Cave where you talk about true goodness being like the sun but that we humans live in semi darkness mistaking the shadows for reality.

SOCRATES: Again I am humbled by your memory and understanding. Please continue; tell me how we become the best people we can be.

EUTHYPHRO: Can I remind you of another person who sheds light on this subject as well as yourself Socrates?

SOCRATES: Of course.

EUTHYPHRO: Do you remember the wise lady Diotima?

SOCRATES: Of course. Are you going to tell me about her Ladder?

EUTHYPHRO: Yes, Diotima says that a young man should first of all love a person for their beauty. This is how most of us are attracted to each other isn’t it Socrates?

SOCRATES: Yes, indeed.

EUTHYPHRO: After a while, say a few years, the young man should realise that many other people are just as beautiful. He will ascend a few steps on Diotima’s Ladder.

SOCRATES: So, is the idea that he becomes less obsessed with his first love?

EUTHYPHRO: You could say that but really he must venerate wisdom above physical beauty.

SOCRATES: Yes, but this demands a complete change in how we usually view love.

EUTHYPHRO: Exactly, we must have an experienced guide at this stage on the ladder.

SOCRATES: So, tell me about the next few rungs of the ladder.

EUTHYPHRO: Next he should widen his love and appreciation to include animals, institutions, buildings and anything else in the world which is beautiful. In short he must learn not to take sense-experience as his main source of knowledge.

SOCRATES: Now we are getting to the crux of the matter. Please go on Euthyphro.

EUTHYPHRO: He must develop intellectual contemplation and leave behind likes and dislikes dependent upon sense experience.

SOCRATES: I am astonished once again at your understanding Euthyphro. And next?

EUTHYPHRO: Well, the culmination of his meditations is nothing short of a glimpse of the Eternal, Socrates. What he’ll see doesn’t come and go or cease to be and doesn’t increase or diminish.

SOCRATES: So starting off with worldly love he ascends from the things of this world until he can bear the brightness of the sun in our allegory Euthyphro?

EUTHYPHRO: Exactly.

SOCRATES: You mentioned a guide before. Who is this Guide?

EUTHYPHRO: We all remember you talking of your Daimon Socrates! It is the inner voice of conscience sent by the gods to be our guide in choosing right from wrong.

SOCRATES: Well said Euthyphro. So, the Daimon is the mediator between we humans and the gods. Is that what you mean?

EUTHYPHRO: This is what you yourself have said Socrates and Diotima agrees with you.

SOCRATES: I think we can sum up now. For us to be truly happy we have to live a virtuous life. We have to listen to our Daimon and cultivate contemplation of the Forms. The highest good is unchangeable (like the sun) and if we catch sight of it gold and clothing and good-looking youths will pale into insignificance beside it.

EUTHYPHRO: Well put Socrates. And what about rebirth? Do we come back again and again until we learn these lessons?

SOCRATES: I’m afraid Euthyphro, that question will have to wait for another day.

 

 

 

Skylark Between Generations

I listened to, and watched, skylarks at Corbridge on Sunday. Along by the River Tyne.

 

I set off with a sack of cares upon my back;

though the sunshine bathed my face with warmth;

and after spotting goosanders in the river

ended walking an inch above a sandy track.

*

I started out in bright sunshine

my mirror-mind besmirched with black.

My mood began to lift when I heard a tune:

a skylark singing a song I knew was mine.

*

My distant uncle heard the self-same sacred word

cut down in youth along with many men;

he answered another’s call but to his cost;

a soldier who sang about a wonder bird.

*

As I watched the dark envoy soar

I made a vow to John there and then:

to live my life in homage to his memory,

and to aspire to reach the other shore.

 

 

 

 

Life On Alien Planets

exopicture

It has been the darling of science fiction; inhabited planets in other solar systems. I started reading SF in my teens and fondly remember the hard-sf of Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov in particular. Has science fact finally caught up with SF?

All stars were formed out of huge swirling clouds of gas and it is surmised that most have planets orbiting them. Because of the glare of the host star it is impossible to see any planets directly. Our sun, for example, is 100x the diameter of the Earth so comparative size compounds the problem

Since 1995 astronomers have found firm evidence of exoplanets using indirect methods.

Two of the indirect methods for finding exoplanets are The Transit Method and the Doppler/Radial Velocity Method.

In the Transit Method the faint dimming of a star is recorded as the planet orbits across the star relative to the observer. The occurrence of transits may be very infrequent and only last a short time so multiple data taken over months and years is required. The Hubble Space Telescope has been one of the telescopes used for transit recording. It is possible to determine the size of the planet with this method. The Kepler space telescope is another instrument which has found Earth-like planets and even planets orbiting binary star systems.

Stars called M-Dwarfs have been found too and they have a lower mass than our sun and a longer life so that there is potentially more time for biology to have developed. It has been estimated that these M-Dwarf stars could have five billion Earth-like planets.

The Transit Method relies on sensitive instrumentation so that a star dimming by as little as one percentage of the star’s light can be recorded.

The Doppler Method is possible because in any star-planetary system there is a common centre of gravity which causes the host star to ‘wobble’ around the centre of gravity. This wobble is too small to be seen directly so that is where the Doppler Shift comes in, recorded by special equipment. If the star is moving towards the observer ( that is; the telescope) the wave-lengths of light will be ‘bunched up’ or shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum. And if moving away, towards the red end of the spectrum.

If you imagine looking down on our solar system from ‘above’ there would be little movement of the planets towards or away from you. So, for this method to work the star system has to be observed in the equatorial plane which obviously will mean only a small percentage of all systems will be viable.

This ‘radial velocity’ method has been used by the Keck Telescope in Hawaii amongst other instruments looking for exoplanets. The method can be combined with the transit method and with the use of spectroscopy the composition of the planet can be roughly determined.

What about life on these exoplanets? It would seem incredible if ours was the only planet in the universe which has life! Through spectroscopy ‘biomarkers’ can be detected – that is, the gases which may be signs of life such as oxygen, carbon dioxide and water. The James Webb Telescope is the next space-telescope to search for exoplanets in the infra-red spectrum so watch out for news in the coming years.

Astronomy: Mother of all Sciences?

Insight Lander on Mars – it will drill down into Mars’ crust to analyse the rock

Is the ‘Scientific Method’ Different in Astronomy?

The scientific method is common to all the sciences; however, in astronomy the ‘objects of study’ are often millions of light years distant!

The scientific method, per se, can be illustrated by considering how Galileo used his telescope in 1610. When he aimed it at Jupiter he saw four points of light, rather like stars, strung out in a line from the planet’s disc. Subsequent views showed the star-points in many different positions. Galileo then made a hypothesis to explain the data; he wrote that the objects were orbiting Jupiter and were in fact, moons. He calculated their orbits and predicted their motions.

Although astronomers cannot usually experiment on tangible substances in the laboratory (unlike chemists and biologists) they can, nevertheless, use instruments such as telescopes to make many thousands of observations and make hypotheses to explain the observations. The hypotheses can then be tested by predicting an event, for example, and confirming it. A large part of the method involves rejection or refinement of hypotheses once they have been found in error.

Astronomers nowadays use other types of telescope such as radio, infra red, X-ray – these advances have established that the universe is expanding and that what we can see visually with a telescope is only a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Spacecraft have landed on bodies such as our Moon. Instruments on board have been able to do experiments similar to those done by a chemist in a lab. Astronauts have also brought back rock samples from our Moon. Our knowledge of the origins of the solar system has thus increased by these more lab-based analyses. Probes have landed on Mars and other planets and sent back interesting data. For example, a small moon of Jupiter called, Enceladus, was found to have geysers containing sodium. Titan, a large moon of Saturn, has lakes and rivers of methane and ethane. These solar bodies are far from inactive and may even harbour primitive life.

Another huge area that has contributed to astronomical knowledge has been mathematics and its use in theoretical cosmology. Stretching from the Ancient Greek’s measurements of the Earth to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and beyond – we can see how logic, calculation and measurement are embedded in the scientific method. Hipparcus (170-120 BCE ) even measured the length of the year with great accuracy – 365.2467 days, whereas the modern figure is 365.2422 days. A foundation for modern astronomy was laid with feats of calculation such as this.

We only have to think of the Four Forces in the Universe to sense how much science and theoretical cosmology have developed in the last hundred years. The Four Forces in nature are:

  1. Gravity
  2. Electromagnetism
  3. Strong Nuclear Force – (holds the atomic nucleus together)
  4. Weak Nuclear Force – (radioactive decay)

In this respect – the use of mathematics and making theoretical models– astronomy is no different to the other sciences. And, of course, chemistry, physics, and even biology, play their parts in astronomy. Perhaps that suggests astronomy is the ‘mother’ of all the sciences.

Aliens Have Landed – Really?

Alien-Pyramids-940347

This is a longer version of something I wrote for an online astronomy course I’m doing.

Ancient monuments such as Stonehenge, Chacon Canyon and Chichen Itza were clearly built with astronomical functions in mind. There are many alignments in these structures which, when used, predict solstices, equinoxes, moon positions, star positions and even eclipses! Those who argue that they are evidence of alien intervention underestimate the knowledge-base of ancient civilisations.

Knowledge of the movements of heavenly bodies was of vital importance. There were so many practical reasons for this knowledge. Firstly, the people needed a calendar in order to carry out activities such as crop planting and hunting in different seasons– the sun was a convenient object which determined the length of daylight in latitudes away from the equator. The moon was also a convenient ‘clock’ which went through phases in a predictable way and formed the time-interval of the month.

Knowledge of how the constellations changed throughout the year would consolidate understanding of time-intervals. Hence, in Ancient Rome, the year was divided up – first of all into ten months and later into the more familiar twelve months. We can see how much the religion of the Romans was incorporated into sky observations by noting the names of the months and days of the week.

Knowledge of the sun’s, moon’s and star’s movements was also important for navigation. The Ancient Greeks used instruments such as the astrolabe which enabled them to predict when a star would rise.

In the northern hemisphere the star named Polaris appears to be stationary and the other stars rotate round it. This would have been observed by prehistoric people and would have been a reliable means of navigation at night. The Great Bear constellation appears to rotate during the night and would also have been used for navigation and time-keeping before the advent of clocks.

Finally we should remember that religious beliefs were part and parcel of astronomical knowledge in ancient times. The structures I mentioned at the beginning were most likely overseen by priest-astrologers. For example, the Aztecs carved a Megalithic calendar stone known as Montezuma’s Watch which is 12 feet in diameter and intricately carved with astronomical details and life-cycles which are concerned with ceremonial ritual as well as astronomical alignments. According to Aztec religion the world passes through five ages and Quetzalcoatl – one of their gods – was the ruler of the second era. The priest-astrologers had to know when was the appropriate time for a human sacrifice!

Recent research has established that Stonehenge was a meeting place for thousands of people who came from as far away as Scotland.1 It was not only an observatory but a social centre for ceremony and feasting.

We may never know the details of our ancestor’s beliefs but we can be sure they included veneration of the sun, moon, stars and planets. There are many puzzles remaining as to the exact function of many of these structures but there is no need to invoke aliens to explain them. Indigenous people were very knowledgeable and there were vast numbers of people with the skills to build these wonders.