Spirit of the Age: Adrift on the River of my Life
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester and a senior research fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester. He writes on ethical, political and cultural issues. He has a fortnightly column in the Independent on Sunday and also writes for the New York Times and the Church Times. His latest book is Pope Francis – Untying the Knots. He was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa and has chaired several development charities.
Saturday 23 January 1999
This was not a dream. I tell you that because - as is well known - other people's dreams are possessed of a mysterious quality which renders them fascinating in their every detail to their owner and numbingly boring to the rest of us. So you must persevere.
There was a broad river somewhere to the right. It may have been the fleet waters of the Swale. But I knew that my river was to the left, a tributary, somewhere through the trees. And then I found it, not much more than a wide stream, really - quiet, deserted, tranquil, as it passed between tree-lined banks.
The bank opposite was in full sun but mine was dappled pleasantly enough as I turned to trace its path upstream. I leapt over the muddy confluence where a little brook entered, and out through the trees on the climb up a steep, rock-strewn valley to its source on the moors
OK, this was not a dream, but I am making it up. Or rather I was making it up for Ruth White, after she had stilled me with a series of breathing exercises in the upstairs room of her modern little cottage in a bustling village somewhere in the far reaches of the Berkshire countryside.
Quite what we were up to I was not sure. I had been told to imagine a journey up the River of my Life. Was it free-form counselling, transpersonal psychotherapy, or a spiritual exercise? Ruth White does all three and the New Age tends to blur the boundaries rather a lot. The former infant- school teacher is now a full-time guru whose services stretch from common- sense counselling to the wilder reaches of chakras and rebirthing (over which we will, for the time being, allow the veil to remain drawn).
She says she has also had, since childhood, a discarnate spiritual guide called Gildas who was, in a previous life, a 14th-century French monk. "There was never a time when I was not aware of his presence," she says, with the same disarming matter-of-factness with which she talks about the auras, fairies and angels she has communed with since she was a girl, and her eyesight began to go.
Her father - a worker on the Cadbury's line at Bourneville - and her mother - a trainee Christian missionary before Ruth's arrival - were unimpressed by such stuff. "I was given a clout round the ear and sent to bed early," she recalls. Until she went into psychotherapy, when she was at college, she assumed she was going mad.
But the Jungian therapy convinced her that she had a gift rather than a curse and she began to train as counsellor. Then she discovered transpersonal psychology - which goes beyond the behavioural and explores the drive to find symbolic meaning in life. It is in this field that she has recently been accredited by the UK Counsel for Psychotherapy, though presumably she did not tell them too much about Gildas.
Gildas, it has to be said, sounds like a fairly sensible discarnate. He does not offer Ruth's clients sibylline readings of the future. "He says that it's attitude, not events, we should be concerned with," she insists. But I decided, on this occasion, to give the monk a miss, along with the option to explore my "past lives" (which is not on offer as a one-off session anyway). Instead I plumped for exploring the River of My Life. Which is where we came in.
I am not taking the mickey here. The images - about the speed of the water, the sunshine, the rocks, the muddy pool - offered metaphors that were as good as anything else as jumping-off points for therapy-style discussions about the state of an individual life. And Ruth's questioning and tentative interpretations of what they might mean seemed sensible enough.
This is, after all, the modern way. Once the grounding of our identity, spirituality and ethics were all bound together in the basket of religion. But that has dissolved in our times. Today we want our spirituality to be spontaneous, and we find our ethics in utilitarian consensus and our identity through consumerism. It is apt enough, then, that we explore our inner life and look for spiritual growth by paying someone else for guidance on a one-to-one basis, at pounds 40 a hour.
What we need, after all, in our post-modern times, is choice. You can opt simply for "heightening your sensitivity" or "centring yourself"; or, if you prefer, you can have the full panoply of talismans, amulets and crystals, which are the latter-day equivalents of relics, indulgences and smells and bells.
There are equivalents of medieval dogma, too. Gildas has revealed, Ruth White informs us, that we choose our own parents when we enter this life, which sounds pretty rum to me.
In the established religions there was a complex tradition in which the instinct of faith interacted with centuries of powerful intellects and saintly self-sacrifice to produce a yardstick against which judgements could be made about the acceptability of individual dogmas. One of the chief characteristics of New Age spiritualities is that they have none of this, but are cast adrift on a sea of if-it-feels-good-do-it.
As I left I noticed a large bowl full of crystals. "They can concentrate the powers within you," Ruth explained. Was that metaphor or magic, I asked. "Something of each," she replied. That is their attraction - and their danger.
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