In Memoriam Brendan M. Connolly, 1941-2009

by Frank Dorr

Brendan Connolly died on May 19th 2009 after a long struggle with prostate cancer, which he bore, despite a great deal of pain towards the end, with wonderful courage and patience.

Brendan was a psychologist with the National Educational Psychology Service (NEPS) for most of his working life. He was also a therapist, supervisor, trainer, and the founder of the Irish School of Awareness Therapy. He was involved with IAHIP from its earliest days. He is survived by his beloved wife and co-trainer Marie, his five wonderful adult children, his first wife Mary, and a wide circle of family, friends, colleagues and students who admired and loved him.

Those of us who knew him, knew him as an ordinary man who choose to live life very fully. He greatly enjoyed hill-walking, which he did throughout the year in Ireland and on summer holidays in Scotland and Austria. He enjoyed, too, kayaking with his children while on holidays in Kerry. He loved to dance and he loved to sing, especially with his children and with Marie, and for many years he generously shared his gift of song in weekly sessions with the patients in Marymount Hospice in Cork.

But though ordinary, he lived his life at a depth of awareness beyond the ordinary. He tried, with unusually frequent success, to live each moment, each breath, awarely. He sought to cultivate an ever-deeper, moment-to-moment, awareness in his life, not only through practices of meditation and breath-work, but by taking up and using in a new way old practices he had learned in childhood. I recall being surprised to see him always bless himself before meals, until I found out he was reminding himself to be aware of, and learn from, what he was eating. Similarly, he would use the sound of the angelus to recall himself to the gift of what was happening in the present moment.

The fruits of such cultivation of awareness were shown especially in the extent to which he was in touch with his own perceptions, feelings and wants from moment to moment, and in his willingness to really take responsibility for them, and avoid blaming others for his discomforts or hurts. In thirty years of friendship with him, I never heard him blame another person. Not, of course, that he did not often disagree with them, or was not shocked or disappointed or upset or hurt by what they said or did. But it was a constant surprise and challenge to me to see how he could avoid responding reactively from his hurts or his anger, and could let what people had said or done be theirs, while he owned his own reactions as his own responsibility. He seemed genuinely able to accept even slights or rebuffs as services which enabled him to learn more about himself.

As someone who enjoys the cut and thrust of argument, I was sometimes challenged by his ability not to respond reactively. Even in discussion he would not flash back with a counter argument, but would pause to let the communication sink in, and also to explore his own heart/mind/body response. I recall thinking that the slight delay before his response made the discussion seem at times like one conducted at a distance, via satellite phone. But I came to recognise that the appropriate metaphor was not one of distance but of depth, and that while I was enjoying the choppy surface of controversy, he was labouring to live in deeper waters. (As I write this I recall a little Japanese poem from the 8th century, Pearl Diver by Lady Nakatomi, translated by Graeme Wilson: “No one dives to the ocean bottom / Just like that: / One does not learn the skills involved / At the drop of a hat. / It’s those skills slow-learnt in the depths of love / That I’m working at.”)

Brendan’s greatest strength was, paradoxically, his willingness to acknowledge and explore his own weakness and uncertainty. In his personal and his professional relationships he never sought to put on a show of competence and power, he never pretended to have the supposed certainty of an expert, he never tried to overwhelm or convince others by the power of his words and arguments. In thinking or talking about people he was reluctant to apply any labels or pre-conceived theoretic categories.  Instead, he preferred to acknowledge and name the ordinary human fears and needs he experienced as he spoke, and to use those experiences as a clue to reaching a compassionate understanding of what might be going on for other people. For me personally, as a lover of theoretical systems and categories, this was sometimes frustrating. But it was also deeply challenging and I learned from his example a great deal about staying grounded and earth-bound rather than soaring into clouds of abstraction.

Brendan was acutely aware of his deep and ordinary human need to be accepted and affirmed and admired. He choose, however, not to act out of that need, and by acknowledging and naming it he transcended it and took away its power to block him from expressing the experiences he had, the sense he was making  of them, and .the way they led him to see the world. So despite his fears, he had extraordinary courage in speaking out when it was appropriate and in stating what was going on for him. The simultaneous simplicity and profundity of what he had to say could be challenging at times for some people. Paradoxically, of course, they also gained him a great deal of the acceptance and affirmation and admiration that he sought not to act from.

If courage was a key virtue of Brendan’s, so was generosity. He showed an extraordinary willingness not only to accept people whatever way they were, but he was also willing to sacrifice his time and energy to encourage and hold and support people.  This was done quietly and without fanfare, and I guess that none of us know the extent of it.

There was a paradox in this too, one that I struggled a lot with personally, sometimes in discussions with Brendan, but more often in my own inner debates with myself.  Brendan used to say that one of his deepest “aha! moments”, came decades ago, when he realised that everything he did was done for himself.  So, if he did something really generous for someone he often responded to expressions of thanks by saying “it was for me”. This was a challenge for me, who had spent a lot of time reading and reflecting philosophically about altruism and egoism, and about our fundamental human orientation towards values that transcend ourselves. Eventually my understanding seemed to get below the paradox to the point where I could both agree with his view and also think of him as the most generous person I ever met.

Brendan’s way of being was often so counter-cultural in its simplicity and directness as to be a little embarrassing to someone like myself, more caught in the taken-for-grantedness, the ironic self-protective distance, and the reliably safe clichés of “normal” interactions. He would name what was happening for him, rather than react to, or ignore, what had been said or done. In particular he would constantly take the risk of expressing in words his gratitude and appreciation for every service rendered him by anyone, be they friend, or colleague, or client, or waiter or waitress in a restaurant.  Typical of this, perhaps, was his intervention at the last AGM of IAHIP when, despite his lack of energy and his pain, he publicly thanked the Governing Body for their work.  I recall, too, a letter he had published in the Irish Times after he had visited his missionary brother in Nigeria, expressing his admiration for the work Irish Missionaries were doing there. That letter stood out from the usual angry or blaming or controversial or clever letters for its apparent naivety, i.e. its simplicity and directness of feeling.  Equally typical of him, however, was an article he wrote for the magazine of the missionaries themselves, gently pointing out ways he experienced them as having developed protective shells around themselves.

In his work in the National Educational Psychology Service Brendan’s area straddled the Cork-Kerry border, and Brendan criss-crossed the back roads of two counties, selflessly serving students, teachers, parents, and school principals. A central belief of his was that all of them needed emotional support and understanding, but in particular he believed that if school principals got this, they could support their teachers, who could in turn support the pupils. Offering such support seemed to him as critical to the role of psychologist as providing assessments and psychometric testing. In his counter-cultural way Brendan continued to put forward his views and challenge the dominant approach, though never in a strident or angry or blaming way.

Outside his formal role in NEPS Brendan was, over many years, a central influence in developing the ethos of the Social and Health Education Project in Cork and Kerry, which provides in-depth therapeutic personal development to thousands of people. He believed strongly in the value of its work with ordinary people, and especially those who were disadvantaged, and he gave very generously of his time to support staff and trainers and to run many week-end therapeutic workshops for that organisation, both alone and with his Scottish friend Douglas Finlayson. Generosity was, indeed, central to his way of being and as therapist, group facilitator or trainer his fees varied from minimal to none.

He had a deeply held conviction that each person has the resources within themselves to find their own answers to their life dilemmas, and as a therapist he sought to hold and support them as they did so. As this conviction deepened he was moved to risk establishing his own school of therapy training, which eventually became known as the Irish School of Awareness Therapy. The same conviction was at the core of his approach to training, for he believed that trainees needed to be supported in finding their own inner wisdom and that if trainees experienced such support they would be less likely to play the guru with their clients.

He carried this conviction through with a shocking consistency. He steadfastly refused to sit in judgment on the “suitability” of applicants for his training (for which there was in fact a waiting list of up to five years).  Instead, he allowed them to experience the work for three weekends, before asking them to decide if it was right for them.  So they “interviewed” him, not he them.

On the training, he laboured to give trainees both constant support and continuous straight, detailed feedback. His aim was to help them build their own capacity for being present to themselves and to others. He saw his task not judging them on the basis of his own expertise, but as helping them to be able  to transcend authentically both their ambition to be therapists and their low self-esteem or false modesty, and reach the point where they could authentically declare themselves ready, or not ready, to become pre-accredited therapists. It was striking that a smaller percentage of his trainees declared themselves ready than are deemed ready in courses where trainers hold more hierarchical power and have the final, overriding, say.

Brendan’s most recent dealings with IAHIP involved his effort to have the validity of this approach recognised as congruent with the humanistic ethos of the organisation. He was aware that this might cause discomfort for IAHIP in acceptance in Europe or in negotiations concerning state recognition of the profession; but he did not see therapy, or even ordinary authentic human living, as about comfort or acceptance by others. Here too he was counter-cultural, in this case standing against the common culture in the field of therapy, and more widely in the world of higher education, that sees it as obvious that not only must standards must be upheld, but that they must be upheld in a particular way and, in the last resort, by those with power and authority. He was always at pains to point out that he had no evidence that proved that his approach was successful, but he would then add that he knew of no evidence that proved that other approaches were successful either.

He worked tenaciously to have space made for his position, but without insisting that others follow the same route. He was delighted that the 2008 AGM of IAHIP agreed to his proposal to change the Training Recognition Manual so that it no longer excluded his approach. He was deeply moved and pleased by a meeting that he and others from the Irish School of Awareness Therapy had, not long before he died, with the group of three appointed by the Governing Body to work out detailed criteria to implement that decision. His joy was that he felt the meeting moved from being “them and us” to a single group working with openness and mutual respect to explore deep values. If this was so, it was due in no small measure, I believe, to Brendan’s way of being.

I will finish by offering two poems which may provide a glimpse of the man. The first, by one of his former trainees, Greg Ahern, (reproduced here with his permission) was written the month before Brendan died and was shown to him, giving him much pleasure.

Brendan by Greg Ahern  (April, 2009)

You stood Alone,
Unsure,
But sure enough to follow
Your Simple Insight:
That we all,
Are deeply Wise.
 
Your selfless touch,
A caress, to let
That wisdom flutter,
And fly,
Softly cradled,
In strong, forgiving, hands.
 
Your giving held us safely,
’Till we gave to ourselves,
From deep, frightened, corners,
Our lost love and joy.
 
Your Selflessness unending,
As you nurtured and withdrew.
Each careful touch
Measured to uphold.
 
Intuitions, Insights,
Offered, unsure.
Like child paintings:
Colour; Joy; Mine;
To take or leave.
 
Vulnerability, uncloaked
Walked the room freely.
Giving courage and permission
To come out and play.
Self service with a smile.
 
Arjuna on the battlefield.
Unafraid and fearful,
was free to act.
Each moment attended with
Awareness and breath.
 
And now you Are.
Brendan, a Navigator
Standing. Strong. Alone.
On this Earth.
Loved and held by many
On feathers outreached,
To lift you,
And love you,
Forever.

The second poem arose from a moment shortly before the funeral mass for Brendan, when Marie and I pondered what, if anything, could be used at the offertory procession to symbolise Brendan’s life. We realised that the empty hands of his daughter Felicity were all that was needed, and so this was the symbol that was used at the mass, with some words spoken to explain. That night I re-cast the words spoken at the offertory into the following poem.

Offertory Procession, 22nd May 2009  by Frank Dorr (23rd May 2009)

Bring bread, bring wine,
As we bring again to mind
The way that Jesus Christ,
His teacher and his guru,
Lived and died.
 
But what are we to choose
To offer at the altar
To symbolise his life?  His shoes
For his dancing?  His boots
For his walking?  Maybe his guitar
For his singing?
But none of these can reach
To the heart of the heart
Of this more-than-song-and-dance man.
 
Nothing could.
 
So let us choose instead this “Nothing”:
Let Brendan’s much-loved daughter walk
With open, empty hands
To call to mind his life-long letting go,
His emptying of ego,
His accepting of helplessness,
His opening to others,
His withholding of judgment,
His owning his hurting,
His refusing to blame.
 
And let these empty hands invite us
To fill them with our own symbols,
Our own reminiscence,
Remembering his constant, non-insistent, invitation
To breathe our own breath,
To feel our own feelings,
To reach our own insights,
To own our own answers,
To use our own wisdom to find our own way,
To let the beauty and the blessing that we are
Bud and break from within
Into the blossom
Of an empty fullness.
 
Without empty hands
How can we receive this gift?
 
So: let it be empty hands!
 
 

Frank Dorr