My Irish Soul

It’s St. Patrick’s Day again, reminding me of how much my ideas about what my soul is and how it functions were created during my trip to Ireland last summer. The trip was so amazing that I built an entire weblog around it, but in working through some writing about the soul, I had to keep referring to my tripblog so frequently that I decided to excerpt the spiritual lessons into a single place. So in honor of the day, and before the whiskey and dancing begin, is the story of my Irish soul

I’m going to Ireland- the land of my genetic past to see my favorite band play their hometown. The trip is a gift from my husband. I would never have conceived of this trip, much less already have departed on it, had it not been- in every aspect- given to me.

Three years ago, when what was likely a brush with postpartum depression erupted into a full-blown existential crisis, I began a survey of religious, philosophical and psychological writing on morality and happiness, searching for my own of each. My son starts kindergarten in the fall and while I don’t have a complete map, I no longer feel bruised by the terrain. I feel like I know what I believe in, what is real, and what the meaning of my life is, but I’m not sure where souls fit in.

Am I going to Ireland to find my soul? The timing is fantastic. The trip was given to me before I had finished the existential portion of my journey, but arrives as I have and whisks me off in this other direction- a search for my soul. Are soul discoveries, I wonder, always gifts from people who love you?

I’m driving to the ancient monastic center at Glendalough, home to a swarm of churches, shrines and holy spots all open to the public without a chaperoning guide. It takes me an exceptionally long time to reach it though. Like so much else in Ireland, Glendalough is marked only once you’ve arrived. I get very, very close easily and then spend an hour and a half systematically going down every road that radiates from the last sign until I chance upon the right road on the fourth of five options.

The holy men and women who made their home here beginning in the 500’s passed their days in what the information center calls “spiritual meditation and devotion to God.” As I stroll alone along the beautiful forest path, I wonder what that means. I don’t meditate and I don’t pray much. I feel like I ought to do one or the other- to have a regular spiritual practice of some sort, but I don’t. I’m a woefully pragmatic person, and even though I feel like it should be obvious to me, I just can’t see the utility in either. I wonder if it’s like regular maintenance for your car, or exercise for your body, but I think you’d feel the gears gum up or muscles weakening without it and I don’t feel any part of myself suffering a lack, aside from a vague self-image concern that it seems the sort of thing I ought to do. If prayer and meditation are maintenance or exercise for the soul, I think it’s possible that I don’t have one.

It’s beautiful here, but I think I’d get restless. I like to see fruits for my labor, and I think day and after day with nothing to show for it would make me a little impatient. Of course, they believed that there would be something to “show for it” when they died and that they were preparing their souls to meet God.

I don’t know where the whole soul thing fits in though, in the sense of a spirit version of self which would continue after death. I think I could choose to believe that I have a soul or I could choose to believe I don’t. In the interim, I’m certain that if I could ever find experiential, empirical, existential proof of a soul, I’m in the right place to do it, so I intend to keep my eyes open.

By the time I reach Tipperary, I’ve learned not to order the fabled Irish Breakfast which, in turns out, is four varieties of fried animal product (one each crusty, wrinkled, chewy and slimey) and eat four slices of wonderful dense Irish brown bread with jam and coffee instead. This so worries the host of the tiny Fethard B&B that I have a yogurt I don’t want to placate him. Two brothers in their forties arrive as I’m finishing it, in town from England for the funeral of their grandmother. They were born in here but moved to London with their parents when IRA bombs regularly killed both Irish here and British there, and I became so engrossed in their stories that I manage the unprecedented feat of throwing myself behind schedule without driving.

When they turn eighteen, the Irish living in England are offered a choice between an Irish (EU) passport and a UK one and I was fascinated by the allegiance and identity questions implicit in such a decision, and we got into a discussion about why the brothers made opposite choices. It came down to personality- are you the sort to please or defy, fit in or rebel, lose yourself in the crowd or find yourself alone? But they both felt very Irish, despite an accent which now marks them as English in Ireland and Irish in England, and whether angry with England for the ethnic discrimination they both suffered or grateful to it for the economic advantage they both received, the brothers agreed that you’re not really Irish until you’ve lived away from Ireland. Paradox, it seems, is intrinsic to the national personality, even though the color of your passport may come down to individual character.

The roads in Ireland probably have names, but there’s no indication of such on my maps or on the streets themselves. They are exactly one lane wide, with a line down the center indicating that you can drive them in either direction. In the country, tall grass and even taller trees or steep and unforgiving stone rise immediately on both sides and shrubs and grass have long horizontal divots taken out of them at side mirror height. You hurtle forward along this fecund tube with no indication of where you’re going- broken by sudden points of choice which present themselves in the moment it is too late to choose, but I am beginning to learn the correct way to navigate Ireland. You drive whatever direction you’re facing until you see a signpost; pull over (or simply stop mid-road if grass and rock loom too high too close) and locate where the signpost says you are on the map; if the map has deigned to include your current location, locate the place you want to go and search between that place and your current one until you find a name which is both on the map and on the signpost and head that way. You spiral in on destinations here.

I have only one scheduled stop between Tipperary and Dublin, and I head out feeling confident I can make the drive in the four hours says it should take me, even if our routes have nothing in common, and thinking about the brothers and about a conversation I’d had with my daughter before I left. She’d asked me to explain the difference between Republicans and Democrats, and I’d told her that some people believe there is only one right way to act and other people think there is more than one answer to the same question made political affiliation sound like a personality quirk, which bothered me at the time. I come back to now, in light of the personality/political conversation I’d had over breakfast. Of the brothers, one had chosen a British passport because he wanted to integrate into the country in which he lived despite not being wholly welcomed there, while the other had chosen the EU because he treasured the country from which he’d come despite it’s inability to sustain him there.

The tension between the brothers’ desire to be both true to themselves and to be a part of something larger than themselves, as well as their position that you can’t be Irish until you’ve called some other country home, returns me to a familiar place- the pull between the poles, the arch between opposites. I can feel myself stretching. Like my body after the long spiral routes that I can’t chart between points on the map where I begin and end, something cramped and stiff pulls painfully, and I can’t name it. It’s not my mind, although these are intellectual exercises, nor is it my heart despite the emotional exorcism, and on a street unnamed on map or sign, I wonder– is this spanning and tugging the verb of my soul?

I use my body’s sense organs to sense my body. I experience my emotions by feeling them. I know my mind in thinking and in thinking about thinking. Do I span with my soul the paradox of what it means to be human?– a individual who must integrate, a relativist who stakes out an absolute position on extremism, the object of subjective study, the order in chaos, the reality of idealism. And when I stretch my soul this way I sense what lies beyond even the tension of duality, I see into the nondual, into Truth, were every polarity meets its opposite coming around the other side.

I have knelt at the monastery in Glendalough and the standing stones on Knocknockilla looking for my soul, expecting a manifestation of self, some divine spark, or part of the eternal that will return to the godhead or be reincarnated when I die, but I’ve found instead a sense organ, a way of seeing into the undivided non-dual, beyond the veils, beyond the illusion of what I daily experience in a world that is dualist and four dimensional, and into what is non-dimensional pan-dual, and real, and ultimately, yes, immortal and divine.

My soul is to Spirit as my eye is to Vision- not a thing with a separate existence but a sensory part of myself. I’m a four dimensional creature cocooned within dualities, within the tension of everything and nothing, self and other, when really it’s entirely non-dual which means there is no Me and no God, which means there is just me. And only God. And when the eyes of my soul are open, I see there is no difference between the two. My dimensional self opens up, becomes a conduit, and the divine shines through. In those moments, the non-dual has length and width and breadth and the time-bound being attains the mind of god.

I drive the beautiful back roads away from Tipperary, navigating tiny town to tiny town by the markers on the roads, thinking about the soul as sense organ that “sees” the divine. I feel completely at peace and tremendously excited- I’m getting the hang of driving over here, the U2 show is tomorrow, the landscapes roll out, arresting vista after tranquil glade, and I’m having a ball trying to wrap my mind around new thoughts. I try to remember the other times in my life when I’ve felt this in tune with the deeper rhythm of the universe. The earliest moments I can recollect were when I was studying ballet, working very hard, dancing, and would, only very occasionally, have these perfect moments of being calm, focused and timeless, keenly aware, and yet suspended. Everything brilliant, defined and in exactly the right place. When I was in love, I’d felt it again, a perfect alignment, moving with the stream of energy, in synch with the universe. It’s the feeling Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” and I’m beginning to see it, not only as the sensation of the perfect match of skill to challenge, but the moments of access to the larger truth.

My dad likes to say: “Pride cometh before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a mighty downfall,” and it tends to make me jumpy around joy, but for now, I’m having a magnificent time running to the M8 and on it, driving the fast lane, listening to U2. I’ve been riding Bono’s coattails to transcendence a long time, and today is a day wide open to it. I have always believed in the power of art to open us up to the holy, but I have a new way of thinking about it on this glorious Irish Friday. Art takes us into the symbolic, into the space of spanned polarities and open us to the flow of timeless, dimensionless truth streaming through.

It’s an intense force to channel, and many artists seem so frail before it. It leaves a trail of broken pipes. But I don’t fear for Bono’s safety when he offers himself so exposed. He’s built like a boxer, and I believe he can kick the ass of whatever endangers us in the wide openness of his voice. He has the emotional muscularity to deliver the fierce tenderly and a throat untorn when the divine pours down. He has a conduit voice, open mouth to the non-dual, to no distinction between himself and god, between me and you too.

I’m watching the island fly away below me. I came to Ireland to see my favorite band, and I stood front row to feel them torque their hometown on a Saturday night. I came to see the physical remnants of a country which historically ranked the arts of storyteller and singer with those of lawyer and priest, and I saw theater, ruins and landscapes which brought me to tears. I found my soul, and lost my god.

I came with packets of maps to guide me, pages printed from and theories charted from philosophy, theology and psychology. I believed I had a way of understanding the terrain of myself, and had routes planned down Irish roads to discover how my soul mapped. But I had only a topographical map of the ocean – a snapshot of the waveforms as they stood in that moment, frozen as the Atlantic below me, and it while it was a crystalline moment of harmony between what I held in my mind and what I saw reflected in the world, I have learned how much movement below (and even on) the surface is unseen at elevation but definitive at sea. The Irish terrain is unique, the water roils and the waves rise or vanish. You can’t map chaos, and if life is the tension of order and chaos, half of life un-mappable. My terrain is the ocean, it’s going to keep changing. I’m giving up on maps.

I didn’t stay any one place long enough to have real depth of experience, but I did manage to get an awful lot in, to see a range of things from the utterly obscure to the nationally significant. It was a hodgepodge of things I saw, but I think it was representative, if not of Irish history or culture or architecture, then perhaps of Irish spirit. It was a paradoxical mix, and that- that torque of paradox, is what I have come to think of as the gift of my trip. It is in the moments that my heart spans the poles of opposite desires and contains them both without breaking, that I feel most Irish now, and the ache of that stretching I now recognize as my soul’s verb. I know I have one now.

I know longer have any idea whether or not there’s something Out There or not, but I chose to believe that there is. I chose to believe, not in the existence of an anthropomorphic God-with-a-plan who cares for me personally, but in the existence of an Ultimate Truth- an absolute, nondual, unknowable, everything-that-is-and-everything-that-isn’t Mystery which isn’t accessible to the rational mind anymore than color is accessible to the heart. My mind- call it intellect, thought or reason, is not the correct sense organ for Truth. To try and know Truth with thought is like trying to know geometry with your tongue.

Geometry is apprehended in thought. Truth, I’ve come to believe, is apprehended in soul, But just as your eyes can fool your mind when you look at an optical illusion, so my mind tricks my soul when I try to see Truth. I am so weighted with dogma, so tangled up in religious THOUGHT that thinking obscures whatever the verb form of soul is. I have sensory experience, thought experience and soul experience. And to capture soul experience in thought, to convey it in language, to share it with others, is the root of dogma. But I keep opening myself to the non-dual experience, stretching to reach myself across the span of dualities, of paradox, of polar nodes. I keep holding myself open to the mystery. I don’t know much. What does Sir Galahad do when he learns that there is no grail? If you know who you are in relationship to that which you seek, who are you if there is no sought thing? You are a paradox. You are a soul. I’ve been trying to figure it out and it isn’t figure out-able. But I can still learn as much as I can. Still try to fit new information into my pet patterns or make new patterns when it won’t fit. I can keep trying to interact with it, even if I know I’ll never conquer it, because even if there isn’t a grail to hold it, there is still the wine. Cheers!

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