Image adapted from JF Rozier: for source see link.

Image adapted from JF Rozier: for source see link.

Levels of Consciousness 2

Last week I republished a sequence of posts looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD). Because this sequence picks up on those themes from the perspective of a different writer, I thought it worthwhile republishing these as well so that all the related posts have been reblogged close together. There are four posts in this sequence. The first came out yesterday. The third will be published on Saturday and the last on Sunday.   

This re-exploration of Jenny Wade’s book, Changes of Mind, began with a brisk review of her overall perspective followed by a summary of her views on near-death experiences. Before we come to transitions between levels of consciousness, the topic that is closer to the core of her overall purpose, her sense of how the different hemispheres of the brain influence the realisation of different levels of consciousness deserves a look.


Perhaps I should clarify at this point that she is concerned to unwrap the mysteries surrounding human consciousness at least in terms of how it develops and to define more adequately the different stages of that development. When I come to discuss the specifics of this it will be obvious that there are implications for what we term personality or character in the individual and what we term culture or society at the level of aggregates of people. This is very much a concern of McGilchrist as well in his masterly treatment of the subject in The Master and his Emissary.

IMG_0493Her Sixth Level of development is called Affiliative Consciousness. It is one of two stages of development that are open to somebody who has reached what she calls the conformist level of consciousness. All that needs to be said for now is that the choice at that stage, as she sees it, lies between Achievement Consciousness and Affiliative Consciousness (page 147). Achievement consciousness resolves the problems of the conformity level by working on the thesis that you “get it while you can,” whereas Affiliative Consciousness believes that “love conquers all.” We will be exploring the transition aspect in more detail later.

As she unpacks the characteristics of Affiliative Consciousness the lateralisation links becomes clear (page 151: ‘. . . ‘ indicates here and below I have deleted her references):

People at the Affiliative level mainly grasp similarities and patterns rather than differences . . . . In part, the emphasis on similarities comes from the need to avoid conflicts that might threaten their sense of community, but it is coupled with a holistic worldview and indifference to the passage of time characteristic of right hemisphere dominance . . . .

In the same way as McGilchirst does, she feels (page 152) that our culture is biased against right-hemisphere processing. As a result is tends to denigrate this level of consciousness:

The bias against right brain processing has created – and perpetuated – confusion between Naïve and Affiliative consciousness.

Naïve Consciousness, Level Two, is characteristic of early childhood in her classification of levels. It is clearly an insult to see Affiliative Consciousness as a regression to such a state and I find her linking of this to our culture’s disparagement of right-brain functioning completely plausible.

She does not contend, though, that Affiliative Consciousness is without drawbacks (page 153):

Affiliative consciousness is not all sweetness and light, however. Turning now to what may legitimately be considered drawbacks of right-brain processing, Affiliative people often do not perceive inharmonious elements indicative of negative emotions and difference, particularly anger. . . .  They avoid conflict and confrontation. . .  Right-brain-dominant people tend to be much less verbal in response to stress then left-brain-dominant people, more prone to deny problems, hold in hostility, and develop an appeasing ‘peace at any price’ approach to personal conflict.

So, not completely satisfactory then. What she feels is better is a balance between the two hemispheres. Achievement Consciousness is the more left-brain mode and is definitely not without its problems either, as its motif is ‘get it while you can’ (page 147). To do this it figures out ‘the “rules of the game” in order to “cut corners”, “play the angles,” increase [its] “odds” and gain an advantage over less able . . . . members.’ Not a prescription for the ideal personality, then, either.

Balancing these two aspects moves the person to the level of Authentic Consciousness (page 157):

Authentic consciousness requires access to the non-dominant hemisphere, but not exchanging one hemisphere’s orientation for the other’s. It is “whole brain” thinking, in which both hemispheres organise consciousness, suggesting some entrainment of EEG patterns across the neocortex.

McGilchrist would wholeheartedly agree that this is a huge step forward (see YouTube video below). In The Master and His Emissary he wrote (page 203):

[T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.

The next stage after this is Transcendent consciousness, the last one before Unity consciousness. At this stage the synchrony of the two halves of the brain goes beyond intermittent entrainment (page 198):

During meditation, EEG measurements show that both hemispheres slow from beta level activity to alpha and theta waves. Theta is the characteristic brain wave pattern of long-term meditators. Not only does synchronisation of brain waves occur between hemispheres in advanced states, but this entrainment forms harmonic patterns called hypersynchrony.

The exact relationship between the hemispheres is not clear at the Unity level (page 260):

It is not know whether people with Unity consciousness have significantly different brainwave patterns than those at the high end of Transcendent consciousness, especially concerning hemispheric influence…

The Transcendent level can be reached via the Authentic level from either Achievement or Affiliative levels of consciousness provided sufficient degrees of dissatisfaction are there to spur us on, but that issue needs to wait until next time. This is the aspect to which she has, in my view, made her most telling contribution.

McGilchrist RSA Version

Levels of Consciousness

Last week I republished a sequence of posts looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD). Because this next sequence picks up on those themes from the perspective of a different writer, I thought it worthwhile republishing these as well so that all the related posts have been reblogged close together. There are four posts in this sequence. The second will be published tomorrow and the other two on Saturday and Sunday.   

When I first read Jenny Wade’s book, Changes of Mind, I was carried away when she hypothesises that the highest possible stage of the development of human consciousness is Unity Consciousness. As ‘unity’ is a Bahá’í mantra, this was enough in itself to guarantee my complete attention and disarm my disagreements.

But there was more. This level of development was the last of nine. In Arabic numerology nine is the numerical value of the word at the core of the name of this Revelation: ‘Bahá.’ I was entranced. I wrote ‘Brilliant!’ inside the front flyleaf after I’d finished the book.

Because my recent reading of Dabrowski (see three earlier posts) has sensitised me to the possibility of categorising levels of consciousness and perhaps even character development, I decided to re-read her book.

I have decided this time round that it is brilliant (for different reasons though) but flawed.

Still brilliant after all these years

Why do I think this? My reasons fall into three main groups for present purposes: near death experiences, lateralisation of brain function, and the IMG_0493drivers of transitions from one level to the next.

The first topic is, in my view her weakest, and why I feel the book is flawed. Her treatment of this topic does not stand up well after reading Mark Fox’s thorough examination of the issues.

Her reflections on lateralisation and its relationship with the development of consciousness are intriguing and will probably prompt me to revisit Iain McGilchrist to check them out more thoroughly, but as it stands I resonate strongly to what she says. She maps out her levels of consciousness against the back drop of lateralisation and mounts a compelling argument for the value but extreme difficulty of achieving a proper balance in our lives between the operation of the two hemispheres of the brain. But more of that in the next post.

Her most interesting observations to me at present relate to the way that her model maps closely onto Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration in key respects. She analyses, in a more close-grained fashion than Dabrowski, which kind of conflict and discomfort spurs us to move up from the comfort zone of our present level of consciousness to the next step up the ladder of awareness.


David Bohm

It is probably only fair to add that I am completely incapable of properly evaluating the foundation of her thesis in Bohm’s work on the implicate order as I simply do not understand Bohm’s thinking well enough. You may well wish to stop reading at this point if you feel I have totally disqualified myself from commenting on her other lines of thought.

My simple summary of what I think she means in terms of Bohm is this. There is a hidden order and a visible one. Both are inextricably intertwined. The visible, or perhaps more accurately, the accessible order is the material world as we commonly experience it. The hidden order (though transcendent, timeless and placeless) is also expressed in and through the physical world here and now. Our highest self exists fully realised already in the hidden order but remains invisible to almost all of us. The purpose of our lives is to come to a realisation and expression of and identification with that self, consciously in the visible order. When we do so all ego and desire will fall away, and self in any sense we currently understand it fades away completely. If we fail, in her view we are reincarnated again to have another go. Moving up the levels of consciousness is primarily about cleansing the lens of perception so that we can experience in its true nature what is currently hidden from us.

For those of you who have continued reading, we need to look slightly more closely at the first of the themes I mentioned, and later at the other two in even greater detail.

Near-Death Experiences (NDEs):

One of the key problems here is that she fails to recognise, from the evidence available to her at the time, that NDE-type experiences are not uniquely linked to close encounters with death as she contends (page 324) on the basis of evidence drawn from Morse. Fox’s access to the RERC data enabled him to recognise the common elements between so-called NDE experiences and other mystical and spiritual states where there was neither a threat to life nor any kind of trauma. She does though accept (page 239), but more cautiously than Fox, that ‘near-death consciousness . . . appears to share some characteristics of Transcendent consciousness.’

She also rather too uncritically accepts a long list of core elements (pages 225-226), something about which Fox’s critical re-examination has caused me to be rather more sceptical.

Given that NDEs are very much secondary to her main thesis and her treatment of the issue covers a mere 24 pages out of her total of 341, it is perhaps not too surprising that it falls short of Fox’s focused and thorough treatment.

It certainly does not seriously blemish the overall case she is seeking to make. More of that next time.


For source of image see link

Yesterday I was wrestling with my difficulty experiencing pure consciousness separate from some of its key contents. I felt there were other issues that it would be better to take up in this next post.

First of all, before I move onto another aspect, I need to register a discomfort with the idea of the observing ‘self.’ I want to keep an open mind about the exact nature of what I am experiencing at present. To that end, I am going to speak of the ‘Watching Mind’ to describe this aspect of my being. I’m sure it is an aspect of mind at least, though I’m not convinced yet it will be a self. I indicated in my first post on this process that I would be uncovering other aspects of mind as things progressed, so now we have the Watching Mind as well as the Writing Mind.

In terms of the Watching Mind, in repeating the ‘watching my thoughts exercise’ again later, it seemed that I experience my thoughts as emanating directly from my centre of consciousness as though I am blowing them like bubbles from a ring. As they float away, they come into my Watching Mind’s field of vision but by that time I may have been floating off on some bubble or other. When I am anxious about something, my mind is more like a geyser, with hot bubbles coming up constantly, disturbing the surface of consciousness so much there is no calm surface for reflection to float on.

Later I came to feel that the best image for my relaxed state is experiencing my thoughts as rain drops on a skylight. Sensations and perceptions are what I can see through the skylight. Thought, and to some extent feeling, is still my window of consciousness to which my observer is so closely linked that, when thoughts blur its clarity, it’s hard for me to stand back and watch them rather than be confused along with them, and they also distort what I am looking at in terms of perceptions and sensations. I have attempted to capture this and the effects of feelings such as anger and anxiety in the poem at the bottom of this post. None the less, as this spider photo shows, I’m catching many subtle details of the world around me, which is enriching my experience greatly. Just in case you’re wondering I did spend some time simply looking at the spider and its web before realising it might be good to take a picture for my blog. I’m not in Writing Mind all the time! 

Car Spider v2

I have faced some testing situations recently and every one has given me an opportunity to dig deeper into understanding how my mind’s weather works. I have seen them as problems to solve with the Fixing mind (I may come back to that new character in a later post), perhaps with some help from subliminal hints. I had not thought of them, not so much as puzzles to be solved but as opportunities to grow wiser, more compassionate and fairer by getting into ever deeper contact with my own mind, its nature and its responses. I will be returning to a more detailed examination of one of the simpler examples in a subsequent post.

I have spent too much time trying to second guess and interpret other people rather than seeing them as spurs to exploring the hinterland of my own consciousness for the treasures it contains that might lead me to truly understand what is going on. This would not necessarily solve it by changing the situation, so much as help resolve interpersonal conflict, and other problems too of course, by changing my whole understanding of an experience.

It was intriguing to note that as the days passed, I discovered that I was experiencing some faint leaks of emotion connected with one of the supposedly dynamite situations I had been using to try and elicit the strong reaction I was meant to be getting. Now I think that the Difficulties Exploration had lit a slow fuse on what was in fact a tiny firework left over from my original feelings about that particular situation.

A low key testing situation, which I was also experiencing at the same time as I was doing the exercise, eroded my remaining defences. This meant that, when I was asked to dig out some photographs relating to the ‘dynamite’ problem, the residual rip-rap kicked off. The meditation had worked, it seemed, but not in the way I had expected, nor perhaps in the way that had been meant by the authors. Certainly not with anything like the force I had been expecting for the reasons I have explained earlier in the first post of this pair.

Interestingly, going back to the exploring difficulties meditation again the following morning created a tension in my neck. I breathed into it as suggested by the CD that comes with the book. For me, tension in the neck, along with a feeling of not being able to get enough oxygen, seem to accompany moments of negative emotion and/or stress. This kind of stress, it seems, even interferes with the functioning of the Fixing Mind in its own domain, as we will come to see later.

It sounds like an attempt at self-guillotining, as though to detach my head from the feelings in my body. Not a good idea.

Better to look at other ways such as those I will be dealing with in a subsequent sequence of posts.

Skyblind v4

Observer Objects Eye v2

The much earlier post on interconnectedness included a declaration of intent – I was going to seek a deeper understanding of the concept both by reading and by the practice of mindfulness, amongst other things.

So, once more I face the question: how have things been going in this latest phase of mindfulness practice derived from  Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s  book  on  Mindfulness?

Last time I shared how hard I was finding the Exploring Difficulties exercise. ‘Why were you so surprised?’ I hear you ask. I’m just hopelessly optimistic, I suppose.

The core problem, as I explained, was that I was finding it tough to park a problem on the work bench of my mind and then focus on the effects it was triggering in my body. I recalled that I am kinaesthetic rather than visual or auditory in my processing and remembered my last successful attempt at using breathing to connect with memories that seemed to be stored kinaesthetically.

Thought Train

I was considering looking again at the ACT version of this exercise where they use the analogy of standing on a bridge and watching the cars of thought pass beneath. This led me to go back and explore the whole ACT model again more carefully for the first time since I retired and recorded my enthusiasm for it on this blog.

As I did so it occurred to me that my problem with Exploring Difficulties may not be so much in me as in the fact that the method was not appropriate for my issues. The penny dropped that it shared its key characteristics with models of therapy used for treating PTSD, for example Eye Movement Desensitisation (EMDR):

Phase III Assessment

During phase III, the therapist will ask the client to visualize an image that represents the disturbing event. Along with it, the client will describe a thought or negative cognition (NC) associated with the image. The client will be asked to develop a positive cognition (PC) to be associated with the same image that is desired in place of the negative one. The client is asked how strongly he or she believes in the negative and positive cognitions to be true. The client is also asked to identify where in the body he or she is sensing discomfort.

Phase IV Desensitization

At this time, when the client is focused on the negative cognition as well as the disturbing image together, the therapist begins the bilateral gestures and requests the client to follow the gestures with their eyes. This process continues until the client no longer feels as strongly about the negative cognition in conjunction with the image.

The elements in common are the summoning up to consciousness of the troubling experience combined with a distractor activity that helps induce greater calm in the presence of the stress stimulus. This allegedly works well for those with readily accessible and strongly negative emotions connected with a clear experience. It may be, I reassured myself, that I had already done enough effective work on the troubling situations I was using to have defused them reasonably successfully.

Swaddled in this comforting assumption, I felt released to re-explore ACT quite freely.

There was much there to intrigue me but I homed in on one particular exercise in which we are asked to experience ourselves as the observer of our thoughts rather than, as in the Disidentification exercise I’ve mentioned before, simply learning to tell ourselves that we are not our thoughts, feelings etc.

I found it moving to read about the idea of experiencing my ‘observing self’ and, to my surprise, tears were in my eyes as I started to practice it at the dimpled-glass garden table in the afternoon sunshine, simply staring at the parasol pole and becoming clearly aware that I am not what I observe in the external world. Not too difficult that, of course.

Observer Objects Eye v3

I then moved from object to object on the table – my notebook, pen,  stylus, highlighter pen, iPad – to reinforce the same sense of separation before closing my eyes and trying to achieve the same awareness in relation to my sensations. This was relatively easy – the sense data from my body seemed to parallel the stimuli from my eyes.

My thoughts and feelings, however, were a very different matter. This was far more difficult and a sense of separation was only imperfectly achieved for fleeting moments.

It left me with a sense that there are objects and sensations that are very easily experienced as out there somehow. Then there seems to be a window or lens, of thought and feeling fused, through which I experience everything else and from which it is very hard to separate any kind of observing self.

The closest I can get is to imagine I am a mirror in which all this is reflected. It is still hard even then for me as mirror not to be entangled with what is reflected in that mirror. I have written intellectually about the mirror analogy many times, and am crystal clear it describes one aspect of the nature of consciousness very well. I have used it in conversation and in writing so often I thought I thoroughly understood it.

However, when the ACT book challenged me to experience the separation between mirror and the reflections in the mirror, I couldn’t or at least not for long and not strongly. I’m sure there are many of you out there wondering why I am making such a meal of what seems a doddle to you. All I can say is that I am telling it as best as I can as I am experiencing it, and nobody could be more surprised than I am that this simple idea is so difficult to put into practice.

I sense that until I can more consistently and more clearly experience the split between the mirror of my consciousness and what is reflected in it, I am not going to make much progress with mindfulness, so I’m going to work on that.

I will complete the issues raised at this point with a second post tomorrow which will fully explain the raindrops idea.


For source of image see link


Had the life and growth of the child in the womb been confined to that condition, then the existence of the child in the womb would have proved utterly abortive and unintelligible; as would the life of this world, were its deeds, actions and their results not to appear in the world to come.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í World Faith: page 393)

My recent post on the plight of Ramin Zibaei, as well as the recent executions by IS, called to mind my various attempts to grapple with problem of  the existence of intense suffering in a world created, as I believe, by an all-powerful and all-loving God. This entails factoring in natural disasters, the Ebola outbreak being perhaps the most significant recent example, as well as human atrocity, the latter being also something I have attempted to understand

I felt it might be timely to republish some of my earlier posts on the issue of suffering. For reasons I explained in the second of this first sequence of posts republished last week, they are not meant to convince a sceptic that God exists, but may help to persuade him that believing in God is not completely irrational in spite of all the pain there is in the world. 

This is the last of three posts.

In the previous two posts, I have been looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD) most particularly for what it has to say about suffering.

Both TPD and a rich and interesting approach to psychotherapy – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – owe much to existentialism. Mendaglio acknowledges his debt in the last chapter of the book he edited on this subject (page 251):

However, there is a great deal of similarity between existential psychology and the theory of positive disintegration. Both emphasise similar key concepts such as values, autonomy, authenticity, and existential emotions such as anxiety and depression. A more fundamental similarity is seen in the philosophical underpinnings of TPD, which is in large measure existentialism.

In spite of my own immense debt to existentialist thinking, only rivalled by my debts to Buddhism and to the Bahá’í Faith, I have certain reservations about Dabrowski’s take on the degree of choice we are able to exercise.

Crucial Caveats

His take on suffering is truly inspiring. Care needs to be taken though that we do not adopt this view in a way that assumes that those who are crushed by their sufferings are somehow to blame.

It is true that his model presupposes that each of us will probably meet a challenging choice point sometime in our lives, where we can either cling to the familiar comfortable half-truths that have failed us or strive to rise about them to higher levels of understanding. It is also true that he feels that many of us are capable of choosing the second option, if we only would.

However, not everyone is so lucky. I include here a brief summary of the life history of Ian – the man whose interview I have quoted extensively in the first three posts on An Approach to Psychosis.

His history shows very clearly that he could only make the second choice at times and then meet the pain and work through it to alleviate his tormenting voices. At other times the voices were preferable to experiencing the guilt and he chose what we might call madness rather than lucidity. Given the horrors he had faced it was clear that he should not be thought a failure. I would probably have done the same had I gone through what he had experienced in his life, from his earliest days.

Dabrowski seems to feel that our capacity to choose is genetically determined. Mendaglio explains (page 250):\

Dabrowski . . . . postulated the existence of a third factor of development, representing a powerful autonomous inner force which is rooted in the biological endowment of individuals.

It seems to me that it would have taken a truly exceptional individual to make the choice to experience Ian’s level of pain in order to progress. If that does not seem quite convincing, there is another case history I would like to share very briefly.

Among the sequence of posts related to mental health there is a poem called ‘Voices.’ The woman upon whose experiences that poem is based, was brutally abused by her father, sexually, and by her mother, physically, from her earliest years through her mid-teens.

She came to us to work on her father’s abuse. We developed a safe way of working which involved starting with 15 minutes exploring how things had been since we last met. Then we moved on to 15-20 minutes of carefully calibrated work on the abuse. Then the last half hour of the session was spent helping her regain her ordinary state after mind after the work on her early experiences had intensified her hallucinations.

After almost a year of this work things seemed to be going well. Then came the unexpected. She found herself in a building that closely resembled the building strongly connected with the worst episode of abuse she had experienced at the hands of her father. Just being there was more than she could cope with. She became retraumatised in a way we none of us could have anticipated or prevented. The next time we met she could not stop sobbing.

We discussed what she might do. There were two main options.

She could, if she wished, continue on her current low levels of medication and move into a social services hostel where she would be well supported while we continued our work together, or she could be admitted onto the ward and given higher levels of medication in order to tranquillise her out of all awareness of her pain.

She chose the second option and I could not blame her in any way for doing so. It would be a betrayal of the word’s meaning to suppose she had any real choice at that point but to remain psychotic while the medication kicked in rather than deal with the toxic emotions in which she felt herself to be drowning.

It is when I consider these kinds of situation at my current level of understanding of his theory, that I feel it could leave the door open to destructive attitudes.

He believes, if I have understood him correctly, that some people’s genetic endowment is so robust they will ultimately choose the harder option regardless of the environment in which they grew up. Most of us are in the middle and with an environment that is not too extreme we will do quite well. The endowment of some is so poor, he seems to be saying, that it requires an optimal environment if they are to choose to grow even in a modest way.

This approach, if I have got it right, has two problems. The first, which is less central to the theme of this post, is that it is perhaps unduly deterministic because of the power that is given to inherited ‘endowment’ to determine the life course of any individual. The second problem is more relevant to current considerations in this post, though related to the first point. By placing such a determining role upon heredity, the force of the environment may be unduly discounted.

I am not claiming that he attaches no importance to environment. In fact, education for example is much emphasised in his work and he is clearly aware that limited societies will be limiting most people’s development – and he would include the greedy materialism of Western cultures in that equation. I’m not sure where he would place the impact of natural disasters in his scheme of things.

He may though be minimising the crushing impact of such experiences as the two people I worked with had undergone, in the second case throughout almost all her formative years. Could a strong genetic endowment have endured such hardship and come through significantly less damaged? If you feel so, you may end up not so much thinking ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I!’ but more ‘They broke because they were weak.’ Empathy, which Dobrawski values so much, would be impaired because we can start to define people as essentially different from us, not quite part of the same superior species.

More Complexities

This is a truly complex area to consider though, and I will have to restrict myself at this point to a very brief examination of one approach to it which does justice to that complexity.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his description of the various components of our character, suggests that what we inherit is a source of either strength or weakness (Some Answered Questions: page 213):

The variety of inherited qualities comes from strength and weakness of constitution—that is to say, when the two parents are weak, the children will be weak; if they are strong, the children will be robust. . . . . . For example, you see that children born from a weak and feeble father and mother will naturally have a feeble constitution and weak nerves; they will be afflicted and will have neither patience, nor endurance, nor resolution, nor perseverance, and will be hasty; for the children inherit the weakness and debility of their parents.

However, this is not quite the end of the matter. He does not conclude from this that moral qualities, good or bad, stem directly from the inherited temperament of an individual (pages 214-215):

But this is not so, for capacity is of two kinds: natural capacity and acquired capacity. The first, which is the creation of God, is purely good—in the creation of God there is no evil; but the acquired capacity has become the cause of the appearance of evil. For example, God has created all men in such a manner and has given them such a constitution and such capacities that they are benefited by sugar and honey and harmed and destroyed by poison. This nature and constitution is innate, and God has given it equally to all mankind. But man begins little by little to accustom himself to poison by taking a small quantity each day, and gradually increasing it, until he reaches such a point that he cannot live without a gram of opium every day. The natural capacities are thus completely perverted. Observe how much the natural capacity and constitution can be changed, until by different habits and training they become entirely perverted. One does not criticize vicious people because of their innate capacities and nature, but rather for their acquired capacities and nature.

Our habits and choices have a crucial part to play. Due weight though has also to be given to the power of upbringing and the environment (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 95, pp. 124–25):

It is not, however, permissible to strike a child, or vilify him, for the child’s character will be totally perverted if he be subjected to blows or verbal abuse.

This theme is taken up most powerfully by the central body of the Bahá’í Faith ((Universal House of Justice: April 2000):

In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate. Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially. Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty. This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere. The social dislocation of children in our time is a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition–it cuts across them all. It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are employed as soldiers, exploited as labourers, sold into virtual slavery, forced into prostitution, made the objects of pornography, abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention. Many such horrors are inflicted by the parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

This position allows for the fact that we need to take responsibility for our own development while at the same time acknowledging that we may be too damaged by the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous’ upbringing to do so to any great extent without a huge amount of help from other people. And most of us are the other people who need to exert ourselves to protect all children and nurture every damaged adult who crosses our path to the very best of our ability. Maybe Dabrowski is also saying this, but I haven’t read it yet. Even so his thought-provoking message is well worth studying.

In the end though, as the quote at the beginning of this post suggests, any consideration of suffering that fails to include a reality beyond the material leaves us appalled at what would seem the pointless horror of the pain humanity endures not only from nature but also from its own hands. I may have to come back to this topic yet again. (I did in fact return to a deeper consideration of Dabrowski’s model in a sequence of posts focused on Jenny Wade’s theory of human consciuosness: see embedded links.)

‘Greed is Good’

The mind and spirit of man advance when he is tried by suffering. The more the ground is ploughed the better the seed will grow, the better the harvest will be. Just as the plough furrows the earth deeply, purifying it of weeds and thistles, so suffering and tribulation free man from the petty affairs of this worldly life until he arrives at a state of complete detachment. His attitude in this world will be that of divine happiness. Man is, so to speak, unripe: the heat of the fire of suffering will mature him. Look back to the times past and you will find that the greatest men have suffered most.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks page 184)

My recent post on the plight of Ramin Zibaei, as well as the recent executions by IS, called to mind my various attempts to grapple with problem of  the existence of intense suffering in a world created, as I believe, by an all-powerful and all-loving God. This entails factoring in natural disasters, the Ebola outbreak being perhaps the most significant recent example, as well as human atrocity, the latter being also something I have attempted to understand

I felt it might be timely to republish some of my earlier posts on the issue of suffering. For reasons I explained in the second of this first sequence of posts republished last week, they are not meant to convince a sceptic that God exists, but may help to persuade him that believing in God is not completely irrational in spite of all the pain there is in the world. 

This is the second of three posts. The last will come out tomorrow.

The Role of Suffering in Personal Growth

After the first more general post on this issue, this one brings me onto a more detailed consideration of Sal Mendaglio’s book about Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD).

I have to own up. I’ve not quite finished the book yet and it is rather uneven. Some of the chapters are excellent while others leave too many gaps in the thinking to do full justice to the aspect of his theory they are tackling. However, I am already convinced that this approach to the human predicament has a huge amount to offer – not least on the issue of suffering and a related issue, sacrifice.

I will have to summarise fairly brutally here if I am to avoid seriously over-inflating this series of posts.

Rather as in the British Psychological Society (BPS) article I quoted from last time, Dabrowski sees suffering as triggering a process that can move in either of two directions. In his terms, it can lead us either to negative disintegration, regression to ineffective ways of being, and even to possible illness, or to a positive disintegration, an unusual take on the world, conducive to higher development and growth.

Where he differs from the BPS article is in the way he privileges suffering, even when it is apparently close to mental illness, as a necessary and powerful means of personal and moral development. This is all closely allied to his model of human potential which is hierarchical. It hypothesises that there are levels which rise from the lowest, least conscious and least developed (biological & social), through the next highest level which is somewhat more conscious and conflicted but still too automated and blindly conformist, via two higher levels of inner conflict which are more autonomous, consciously choosing higher rather than lower values, to level five, where the highest ideals the person can envisage are chosen and enacted regardless of social disapproval and discouragement.

The diagram above is a very crude approximation of his model just to convey a general sense of it. Mendaglio explains that Level I (page 35):

. . . . is a cohesive mental organisation dedicated to gratifying an individual’s biological instincts, drives and needs, including social needs.

The social aspect is not ultimately beneficial (page 36):

. . . . some individuals characterised by primary integration are overly socialised; their way of being in the world is highly socially conforming.

Level II involves a challenge to this comfortable conformity which makes it distinctly uncomfortable (page 37):

Dabrowski postulated that when crises have the effect of loosening the integrated mental organisation of individuals, they have limited choices. Individuals return to the previous integrated state or they move to the next level. Remaining in Level II may lead to bad consequences such as psychoses or suicide.

At Level III (page 38):

Inner conflict arises from the individual’s growing awareness of the way personal and social phenomena ought to be is discrepant with the way they are. The ideal-real discrepancy intensifies as the individual becomes increasingly self-aware and aware of societal values.

Without the suffering that spurs a person to abandon lower levels of integration which involve biological urges and social conformity, there would be no growth to start with, and without the determination to pursue the higher path in spite of the suffering it can involve, there would be no final peace of mind as the person lives out their highest values.

When a person reaches Level IV something Dabrowski calls the ‘third factor’ comes into play (page 26):

. . . . It is described as the force by which individuals become more self-determined, controlling their behaviour through their inner voices and values.

Level IV is a distinct leap forward (page 38):

Whereas Level III is dominated by disintegrating dynamisms, Level IV sees the rise of developmental dynamisms such as autonomy, authenticity, self-education and autopsychotherapy, and the third factor. Under the direction of the third factor, individuals deliberately select higher values and courses of action, abandoning lower ones. In addition, individuals develop a strong sense of responsibility for self and others.

The diagonal line on the top surface of the diagram is meant to represent the idea that as dissolving dynamisms fade, developmental ones increase in power.

In Dabrowski’s model at Level V (page 39):

[individuals] conduct their lives by enacting the personality ideal, whereby behaviour is directed by their constructive hierarchy of values. Virtually no inner conflict is experienced, since the lower forms of motivation have been destroyed, and replaced by the higher forms of empathy, autonomy, and authenticity.

Chrysalis from Music of Nature

Where suffering can take us if we let it

There are certain issues to clarify here. For example, in Chapter 3 of the book, Piechowski makes an important point (page 75):

I feel that the Dabrowski extolled the virtues of inner conflict perhaps too much, as he believed in the ennobling value of suffering but failed to mention that the ennobling is possible only if one accepts the suffering as something to grow through. Acceptance is essential.

It may be possible in a later sequence of posts to explore the parallels and differences between this view and the position of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an approach already explored in previous posts (see links) where the need to face pain in order to enact one’s values is central, but there seems little emphasis if any upon suffering as a primary spur. It may also be appropriate to bring in ideas from Jenny Wade‘s book ‘Changes of Mind‘ which also sees an hierarchical structure to our personality development. But more of that eventually maybe.

Tillier in Chapter 5 (page 119) quotes passages of great importance from Dabrowski’s own writing:

‘Crises are periods of increased insight into oneself, creativity, and personality development’ . . . . And: ‘Every authentic creative process consists of “loosening”, “splitting” or “smashing” the former reality. Every mental conflict is associated with destruction and pain; every step forward in the direction of authentic existence is combined with shocks, sorrows, suffering, and distress.’

This resonates with the view of spiritual traditions, including that of the Baha’i Faith, which place great emphasis upon the crucial importance of crises and ‘tests’ and the way we deal with them (Arabic Hidden Words: nos. 18 & 51):

O SON OF SPIRIT! Ask not of Me that which We desire not for thee, then be content with what We have ordained for thy sake, for this is that which profiteth thee, if therewith thou dost content thyself.

O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.

At the end of this path lies the highest development of the human personality. There are examples given of people who seem to have achieved this. The degree of empathy they have realised seems to make possible supreme acts of self-sacrifice, for example (page 99):

Janusz Korczak, physician, writer, and above all, educator. He was Polish and of Jewish origin. When the decision was made in the Second World War to burn in the crematorium at Treblinka all the children attending his school, he decided to go with them even though he had received an amnesty from the Nazis. . . . . The decision arose from the compassion and love he had for the children and his fidelity for them.

Or (pages 134-135):

Henri Bergson was born in France in 1859 and lived and taught there all his life. When, after the fall of France in 1940, the Vichy government introduced anti-Semitic measures based on the Nazi model, it was proposed, because of Bergson’s international reputation, that he be exempted from them. He refused to be treated differently, resigned his various honours, and, although at that time an enfeebled old man who had to be supported while standing in line, registered with the other Jews.

Part of this empathy seems to have derived, at least in some instances, from a strong sense of unity with all creation. Tillier quotes the Peace Pilgrim (page 62):

. . . . In the midst of the struggle came a wonderful mountain-top experience, and for the first time I knew what inner peace was like. I felt oneness – oneness with all my fellow human beings, oneness with all of creation. I have never felt really separate since.

Universal Values

There is a tricky issue lying behind this. Dabrowski places great importance on the value of autonomy. Suffering, in his view, spurs a person to discover what their highest values are in order to live by them. He also believes there are universal values and that some people, as a result of suffering, will autonomously choose to work towards these values. He is contemptuous of any education system that creates conformity. He trusts that we can and will choose these universal values, rather than be dogmatically forced towards them. Mróz explains this succinctly (page 231):

Dabrowski . . . . assumes the existence of absolute values prior to their experience by the individual. These values are only discovered in the process of disintegration and the discovery is associated with the achievement of advanced levels of development. . . . . . The values consciously selected and adopted by the individual . . . . become the building material for the personality ideal formed at these levels.

This raises various questions. A relativist, which Dabrowski is not, will ask, “Are there really any absolute values?” Someone with a strong sense that there are, if (s)he feels (s)he knows exactly what they are, might question whether it is safe to leave anyone free to decide for themselves what these values might be.

Interestingly, the Bahá’í Faith offers a way past this dilemma. On the one hand, it insists that people should be left free to investigate reality for themselves and come to their own conclusions. At the same time, it explains that, at this stage of human development, we must recognise the essential oneness of all humanity and the principles that can be derived from that recognition. If we do not, we risk taking, to paraphrase the Porter in Macbeth, ‘the primrose way to the . . . bonfire’ that destroys our whole civilisation. The principles we need to take on board include the detailed operational definitions of universal compassion and universal justice to be found in the Bahá’í Writings (see links to get started on that one!). So we can feel free, if we are so minded, to choose the destruction of all that mankind has created – no pressure there then.

Also this position leaves open the intriguing possibility that at a higher stage of human development we will be able to grasp even higher values. This in a way may be inherent in the Bahá’í concept of ‘progressive revelation.’

In the next post I will explore some further implications of Dabrowski’s view of suffering.


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