Blog Post No. 145
By Dr Jim Byrne
27th May 2016 – Updated on 26th April 2020
Dr Jim’s Counselling Blog: Great books and quotes; morality; and learning and growing…
Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, 2016
I am sorry it’s taken so long to get around to writing this blog. I have been so busy proof-reading my new book on Holistic Counselling in Practice.***
Today, I have finished proofing the Conclusion (Chapter 8), so I thought I’d take a break and get this blog post out to you.
(PS: See also our 2020 new book: Cutting through the Worry Knot! How to reduce and control your anxiety level.***)
Books and quotations
I have often read a book – like Catch 22 or One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and felt like I’d been hit by a hammer of enlightenment! Woken up to a whole new dimension of reality that had previously escaped me.
I am feeling that at the moment – during my occasional evening readings of a few pages of A Little Life***, by Hanya Yanagihara – the story of the troubled life of Jude St Francis. Sometimes I am so deeply moved by his horrible childhood, that I feel I’ve grown a new chamber in my heart. My heart which was frozen for most of my own childhood. (See the parallels in Daniel O’Beeve’s autobiography.***)
There is no way to quickly and easily sum up those emotional learning experiences. They are written into my sinews and bones; adjusting my nerves like the strings of a lute.
Perhaps this ‘unspeakability’ of the long, involved novel or autobiography is why many of us seem to love quick but impactful quotable quotes.
The problem with quotes
However, quotable quotes are a two-edged sword, in that they have been ripped from their original literary context, and we have to make up our own context for them. When we make up our own contexts, we may seriously misconstrue the original intent of the author.
The worse example of this kind of misunderstanding – which I have come across in recent times – is when the author is a Zen master, who has spent his life living in a monastery, surrounded by individuals who are steeped in Buddhist moral teachings – individuals who have grown up in devout Buddhist families. Those Zen masters can often say things which, in that original context, may seem slightly risqué – but which would have been understood by the listeners as not at all undermining their decades of moral teaching. And in any event, their moral intuitions would have been so solidly encoded in their guts that no single statement would make any difference to their behaviour in the world.
But today, in the degenerate atmosphere of western neo-liberal amoralism, it is very dangerous to bandy about quotes that can be taken to be permissions to be amoral or immoral. For example, from a book of Zen quotes that I frequently use, let me quote one passage:
“I am…the divine expression exactly as I am, right here, right now. You are the divine expression exactly as you are, right here, right now. Nothing, absolutely nothing, needs to be added or taken away. Nothing is more valid or sacred than anything else.”
Tony Parsons, page 20 of ‘365 Nirvana: Here and now’, edited by Josh Baran (2003).
Clearly, that final sentence (in bold type) would not be a good message to give to a young child, growing up in a family which has little moral training. “Nothing is more valid or sacred than anything else!” Really? Not the law of the land? Not the right of your neighbours to be left to live their life in peace, without being victimized by you? Not moral rules about sexuality – such as the important principle of consent between adults? Not the question of ownership of personal clothing, personal effect? Not the importance of equality in romantic relationships?
When Tony Parsons’ “Zen enlightenment” is translated into the lives of economically and culturally deprived individuals, in modern Britain, it is clearly insane! A recipe for disaster.
When it is shared with City of London Bankers it is even worse! The bankers of the UK, the US, and elsewhere need to be re-taught the basic morality of our forefathers. It is not okay to steal. It is not okay to lie. It is not okay to oppress and exploit others. It is not okay to corrupt politicians!
Morality is not relative!
The last thing we need in the modern world today is ‘Zen masters’ pumping out quotes that promote moral relativity. Morality is not relative. There are some core principles of morality – some of which come from the Golden Rule – which are recognized by every culture on this planet. There is no fundamental difference between our societies in terms of the basic morality of the people (which means the good people). There are some variations between the expressions of those basic moral emotions. But every society on earth – at the level of the good citizen – holds that there are some things which are more sacred and more valid than other things!
In E-CENT counselling we define the ‘good person’ or the ‘good citizen’ as somebody: (1) who has had a good moral education in childhood, which ensures that they have good moral intuitions in their day to day decision making and action taking today; (2) who has not had any corrupting experiences which have diluted their basic morality from their family and schooling; and/or: (3) who has explored some moral education of their own, and made a commitment to be a moral person.
In E-CENT counselling, we use the concept of the ‘Good Wolf’ (from the native American Cherokee people) to describe such a person, or such a manifestation in the world. We each have a Good Wolf and a Bad Wolf inside of us, and the one that grows is the one that is fed. (And Tony Parsons’ quote is food for the Bad Wolf, and not for the Good Wolf!)
I used to read ‘empowering quotes’ very uncritically. Now I read them with a fine-tooth comb, for they often contain nuggets of pure Bullshit! And sometimes such amorality or immorality that even a modern neoliberal carpetbagger – or unprincipled wheeler-dealer – would blush to utter those words themselves (while they conduct their ‘nasty trade’ under the cover of darkness!)
If you want to feel how wrong Parsons’ quote is, then ask yourself this: Would I be willing to go and see a counsellor (or a medical doctor – or any other kind of helper) whose website said this: “Nothing is more valid or sacred than anything else”. ?
I think you will agree that most people would be too sensible to accept such an immoral stance in a professional helper. They would see it as being dangerous and unacceptable. So therefore they should also be able to see that this is actually an unacceptable (immoral) stance to adopt in life!
Maintaining moral standards is important if we want to survive and thrive. The current tendency towards gross immorality in the ruling classes of our planet threatens the survival of us all: and the daily happiness of most of us. We do not need Zen masters making that worse!
That’s all for this post.
Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling,