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.

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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.

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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.

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The Death Of Ivan Ilyich

Ivan Ilyich

It is difficult to do justice to this masterpiece. It is a book of profound spiritual teaching about mortality and values. Poor Ivan has an existential crisis which would do justice to Jean Paul Sartre! He asks of his life, “What is it all about? It can’t be that life is so senseless and loathsome.” His crisis is triggered by illness, which – along with loss or other traumatic experiences – is an all too common factor in forcing us to question our lives. As we get older and, if we have the courage, we start to review our lives honestly without flinching from the ‘mistakes’ we have inevitably made. It takes a long time for Ivan to face himself in this story but eventually he says: “What if in reality my whole life has been wrong?” Once he asks this question he struggles to suppress it but it gradually becomes more insistent in his thoughts until he has to accept it. He wonders if all his career moves, ambition and marriage have been a sham and perhaps qualities such as compassion and kindness ‘might have been the real thing.’ He reviews his early life and recognises that childhood had something which he lost as he grew older – innocence and honesty perhaps!? His peasant servant, Gerassim, epitomises simple, honest kindness. There are many moving passages where he simply helps poor Ivan in his distress. The ending is far from depressing too; I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it but just to say it is a perfect resolution to all that has gone before.
I can’t imagine many young readers understanding the deeper aspects of this story as when you are in your twenties your energies go into strengthening your ego and pursuing material and emotional security at the expense of more universal, lasting contentment. It was living his life in the light of everyone else’s opinion which created the sham of Ivan’s life.
This is a novella that bears repeated readings. If you haven’t read this masterpiece you simply MUST! Surely it counts as one of world literature’s timeless jewels.