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In reading Jeffrey Iverson’s book In Search of the Dead, the trigger for my earlier post on psiI was again brought up against something I have always preferred to ignore – the possibility of reincarnation.

When I was studying psychology in my 30s, and unconsciously searching for a deeper meaning in life than was currently on offer within divisive politics, mainstream religion and modern science, I began to learn meditation. I went to the Buddhist Centre, the home of the Buddhist Society, in Eccleston Square. There I was taught the basics of following the breath, which I still use to this day.

As a ‘lapsed Catholic,’ as it was described then and maybe still, and, as a thwarted activist, having become disillusioned with left-wing politics as well as the politics in general, I felt a bit rudderless. I began seriously to consider becoming a Buddhist. The depth and sophistication of its understanding of psychology and the mind struck me as centuries ahead of anything so-called scientific psychology seemed to have discovered: I was studying an academic way of thought that, though strongly appealing to me because of its subject matter, was still in its infancy while pretending to be almost grown up.

During my investigations of Buddhism, as I tried to decide, I found myself in a large hall – exactly where I can’t remember now – to hear a talk by a Tibetan monk. A diminutive man in maroon and yellow robes walked slowly to the platform, sat down and spoke in a low voice, pausing for the translator to convey his thoughts.

I can remember nothing of what he said except for his conviction that reincarnation involved the possibility of returning as an animal of some kind. I have always found the idea of metempsychosis repellant. For a start, I hadn’t turned my back on a faith that preached eternal hell fire, as did the Catholicism of my boyhood, to adopt one that suggested I might come back as rat. Also, I could see that in cultures that had faith in this doctrine, there is a temptation to explain current hardships, including poverty and physical handicap, in terms of transgressions in a previous life, making it somehow the fault of the sufferer and therefore exempt from compassion.

I left the hall stunned by how this, to me, superstitious version of reincarnation doctrine could hold sway in the minds of those who followed what was in other respects such a subtle and penetrating path.

I continued to meditate but, even though I recognised that reincarnation did not necessarily entail accepting the idea we can come back as an animal, for this and other reasons explored elsewhere, I stepped back from committing myself fully to Buddhism. Becoming a Bahá’í some years later did not involve my accepting reincarnation in this or any routine sense, or my believing in an incredible concept of God either, for that matter.

In the meanwhile I have often stumbled across evidence strongly suggestive of reincarnation. This latest encounter suggests to me that I need to examine more closely how I can accept the genuineness of the evidence while still experiencing such difficulty in accepting the doctrine it seems to point towards.

What does Iverson convey in his depiction of the evidence he examines?

I’ll look briefly at three examples along a continuum of intensity, giving his take on what they show, before explaining my own position.

Straightforward Reincarnation:

Damaged handThe most common pattern seems to involve a young child’s believing (s)he is the reincarnation of a recently dead person. Investigations involve checking the story they tell against the facts of the family, often some distance away, whose lost relative is apparently returned in the body of the child.

The programme checked the story of a boy who was born with no fingers on his right hand (pages 151-152). He claimed he was injured by a fodder chopping machine his father was using when drunk. He was still, at the age of 18, faintly aware of the old identity. The family of the dead man accepted his account because of the few convincing details he was able to give. The conclusion of the investigators was cautious though (page 152-3):

Dr Pasricha told [Iverson] the researchers had found no similar case of deformity in the village. Accidents with fodder chopping machines were few. They had also researched back some generations into the two families and could find no examples of deformed hands. The weaknesses of case, she said, where the relative proximity of the two families and the fact that as a child the boy had given few details of his previous life. The strength of the case was obvious to all – the stark testimony of that mutilated hand!

In this kind of case the child, as (s)he grows up, loses the memories of the past life. Also, often temporarily, sometimes longer, (s)he maintains a sense of two identities without completely identifying with that of the past life. In this particular case, the young man ‘treats both houses as his home’ and in that sense lives with both identities.

Possession:

Cases of possession are more extreme even than this (pages 156-160). The person is totally identified with the old identity, and refuses adamantly to adopt or even partially accept the new one.

Sumitra is the case Iverson cites. She seemingly died in July 1985 but recovered to insist that she was someone else, A woman who had been murdered two months previously – ‘Don’t call me Sumitra. I am Shiva.’ Her detailed account of her previous life was found to be accurate. The investigators concluded (pages 157-58):

Is it possible the whole story is a hoax, a pretext got up by these peasant farmers, perhaps based upon newspaper accounts of the death of Shiva and the prosecution of her in-laws?

Dr Pasricha thinks it unlikely. One newspaper is delivered to the village and is available for anyone to read. Newspaper reports of Shiva’s death have been analysed and Sumitra has given sixteen correct items of information not carried in press reports:

How then could Sumitra have acquired her information about Shiva’s life? One would need a private detective in Etawah or several accomplices to put together a plot for which no clear motive has emerged in the past five years. The idea of an elaborate con-trick gives a sophistication to simple villagers this is ridiculous to anyone who has been to this inaccessible spot and met them.

There are two issues to note here at this point. First of all, facts were confirmed that Sumitra would not have been likely to access by normal means. Secondly, she was adamant that she was no longer Sumitra and identified completely with her new self. Both these aspects are in need of coherent explanation.

Intermediate:

Shanti Devi

Shanti Devi

The case of Shanti Devi (pages 167-175) seems to fall in-between these two ends of the spectrum. When she was eight years old she surprised the world with a credible and confirmed account of reincarnation. She claimed to be the dead Lugdi Devi returned to life. Her claims had been investigated by a committee of solid citizens and she displayed remarkable knowledge of the dead woman’s life in the full glare of the public gaze, so far had the news spread of her remarkable story. This knowledge included the place where the dead woman had hidden a cash box. The widower was convinced, by this and other knowledge, that she was indeed his dead wife returned.

Iverson was unable to meet her. She died two months before he got to Delhi in 1988.

I am placing this as somewhere between a ‘routine’ reincarnation experience and ‘possession,’ whatever that may be, because (page 175):

[T]he child told her questioners that because of her experience as Lugdi Devi, she would never remarry. When Shanti died a few years ago, in her early 60s, she was still a spinster. And her brother told me she retained to the end her total conviction of having lived before as Lugdi Devi.

In fact, I am not really sure that it was not ‘possession.’ Iverson does not categorise it as such, perhaps because she adopted the identity as a child rather than being taken over by it as an adult, and seemed to acknowledge her current identity to some degree at least.

The Original BBC Programme

The video below is of the episode of the original programme that focused on reincarnation. It may help to take a look at this before reading the next post which focuses on a possible explanation of the data which does not involve reincarnation.

Seven IllusionsI am moving after years of only using a meditation based on following the breath, which serves to keep me reasonably grounded, to practising mindfulness meditation, which is designed to go somewhat further. It’s for this reason, I think, that I am on the look out all the time for hints and ideas to help me move forwards.

There is a recent post on Karen Wilson’s blog which hits a very important nail on the head for me about why attempting to achieve such a goal is so important, and why we need to be teaching it in schools as Layard and Clark suggest in their book Thrive. It deals, amongst other things dear to my heart, with the need to balance left- and right-brain modes of thinking as per Iain McGilchrist’s excellent book The Master and his Emissary.

I also downloaded her book recently and have just begun to read it: it contains many useful insights and I expect I will be posting a review about it sometime fairly soon.

Below is an extract from the blog post: for the full post see link.

CONTROLLING THE MIND

Learning how to control the mind is work that we should all learn at elementary school.

We do learn to develop the left side of our brain, and to focus and concentrate our mind on some given problems. But we are not taught that it is also important to use our mind wisely outside the school facilities. And more importantly we are not taught how not to use the mind when we do not need it.

The western way of teaching has created children with a very intelligent mind but which quickly becomes out of control because of its overuse.  We make them forget it is just a tool, and encourage identification with the mind. That is one of the causes of the many depressive and suicidal tendencies developing during teenage years. The burden of the mind and negative thoughts become so overwhelming that the person cannot cope with their own thoughts. They do not know how to find the peace and the awareness of who they really are outside the mind.

In an ideal world, school would teach children to develop equally both sides of the brain. And they would learn how to focus and use their mind to solve problems, as well as how to turn the mind off in order to not over load it and stay stress free.

Power surges of the brain have become way too common in our western world. How many people have turned to drugs, alcohol or medication to find, even if it is for a short time, that peace and quiet inside them?  And then it becomes an addiction. We want to stay high. We want to stay happy. We want to stay blissfully peaceful. We`ll do anything to escape the incessant chatter inside our head.

If only someone had taught us that we do not need any outside substance to turn it off. If only someone had taught us that we could be in control. People are telling you right now, all over the world. Don`t search for any more excuses not to start doing the work. It is never too late. You`ll never be too old or too young to learn meditation. It is just a question of will. Do you want to be controlled, or do you want to be in control?

The Singer

For source of image see link.

For source of image see link.

solo-0311

As an example of what mindful observation can achieve, this post by Sue Vincent would be hard to beat. By mindfulness practice I am seeking to learn how to enter and remain at will in this kind of mind-state. It’s partly about learning to balance being with doing, a very valuable skill in our machine-minded achievement-besotted world.. Even now, I’m still tending to spend too much time fixing and planning. I admire Sue’s ability to do a lot and yet still have time to smell the roses so intensely. Below is an extract: for the full post see link.   

For the past three days there has been a young heron beside the road on the five mile drive back from my son’s home. It stands, arrow thin, shadow blue and perfectly still, almost invisible, watching the drainage ditch that runs along the edge of the fields. So far I have been unable to stop with the camera… I will try again tomorrow if it is there.

No-one appears to notice it as they drive by, focussed as they are, quite rightly, on the fast moving traffic. I notice a lot of things as I drive. The road is familiar, yet changes daily. For the past three days also there has been a fox, now paper thin with the passing of lorries, yet its coat is still that burnished copper and its tail, apparently undamaged, waves in a semblance of life as the traffic passes. Yesterday a tiny Muntjac deer hopped under the hedge as I drove out of the lane, right in the centre of the village. Today the kites were flying low, diving over the fields in the wake of the farmer, harried by crows.

The trees are heavy with fruit… dark clusters of elder and blackberry, red haws and frosted sloes. Apples bend the branches over the skeletal seed heads of grasses and the pale stems of hogweed. Yet summer is not over and the cranesbill still flowers. A weasel skitters between the cars at the traffic lights.

Mindful Eye Coffe cup

The 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. I began my first practice using Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book on Mindfulness some time ago. It comes with a CD of guided exercises.

They write of how mindfulness changes the brain in ways that make us healthier, happier and more compassionate (pages 47-49):

[Research demonstrated] that mindfulness training allowed people to escape the gravitational pull of their emotional setpoint. [The] work held out the extraordinary possibility that we can permanently alter our underlying level happiness for the better. . . . Another unexpected benefit of [mindfulness] was that [peoples]‘s immune systems become significantly stronger. . . . [In addition] the insula becomes energised through meditation.  . . . This part of the brain is integral to our sense of human connectedness as it helps to mediate empathy in a very real and visceral way.

As a result of even these early stages of this practice, I have slowly become aware of how my mind spends at least 50% of its time in writing mode, flooded with suggestions about how to improve the wording of a blog post I’m drafting and squandering a significant amount of the remainder on aimless daydreams. I’ve decided to label the former tendency the Writing Mind. The other main aspects of my mind, as I’m experiencing it, I’ll come back to in a later post as they weren’t discovered at this point.

I am chastened and amazed to discover so graphically how much time I spend locked inside my thoughts. I have known for a long time that I have a mildly irritating version of Transactional Analysis’s Hurry Up driver which I seek to counteract whenever I spot it, but I don’t think I realised before how very driven I am in a more general way.

Williams and PenmanI’ve a long way to go to catch up on Sue Vincent whose rewarding blog conveys how far ahead of me she is in mindfulness. The breathing meditation I have been regularly practicing for some years now is so much second nature that it comes relatively easily. It’s far harder simply to watch my mind as it distracts me from a simple body scan and notice what it’s doing, without getting on every train of thought that passes by and being taken vast distances into the deserts of fruitless rumination.

It’s not helped by the fact that being asked to focus on my feet regularly draws a blank. As far as my scanning mind is concerned my feet don’t exist.

Anyway I’m determined to keep going for the necessary eight weeks.

As I sit to eat my lunch now at the garden table, I see a spider hanging from a thread of its web and struggling to immobilise the prey intended for its next meal – definitely more demanding than peeling a banana as I’ve just done.

It is strange to see this completely silent fight for life and for food, survival at stake on both sides, enacted in miniature merely inches away. It sets me wondering yet again why God, if He exists and I believe He does, built so much pain into existence. (I’ve shared my thoughts on that at length before so I won’t go there this time.) Interestingly, I actually noticed this battle was happening despite my determination to focus on my own munchings, and I was also drawn into the hunger and the anguish of the protagonists.

Maybe there’s something in this mindfulness practice as a means of engendering compassion after all.

Two quotations from my favourite poet come to mind, the first from Measure for Measure (Act II Scene 1):

. . . the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

The second is from Venus and Adonis (lines 1034-1037):

. . . the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,
And there, all smothered up, in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to creep forth again.

I have always been captivated by his capacity to identify with even the tiniest of creatures, though recent research suggests that Shakespeare was not always so empathic when his interests were at stake, as in the case of his alleged response to the starving who needed some of the corn he had hoarded.

The Bard of Avon, who championed the downtrodden in plays like “Coriolanus,” was a conniving character in his personal life, British researchers claim — a tax dodger who profiteered in food commodities during a time of famine.

William Shakespeare was fined repeatedly for illegally hoarding grain, malt and barley for resale during a time of food shortages. . . . . The profits were channeled into real-estate deals, the researchers wrote, making Shakespeare one of Warwickshire’s largest landowners.

It would seem that Shakespeare was drawing on personal knowledge when he wrote “Coriolanus,” a political tragedy that includes an early 1600s version of an Occupy protest against the 1%:

“They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain . . . ”

But then, even geniuses are human – but there’s been more than enough about genius on this blog recently.

Within a few short moments of spotting the mortal combat, I was distracted from the scene of battle by the soft whispering of the wind in the long grass of the meadow we call our back garden. Nature’s redness ‘in tooth and claw’ has been balanced, yet again, by her ‘dearest freshness deep down things.’

Anyway, back to my banana. Being mindful of what I’m eating is trickier than I thought.

Mindfulness is not, at my level at least, about solving such mysteries of the universe. It’s simply about freeing my preoccupied mind to notice them, fully experiencing them and resisting the temptation to philosophise about them. And to that extent it’s been a mixed success. Encouraging enough to continue, though.

I’ll let you know again soon how things go unless it’s a complete disaster.

Our garden meadow

Van Gogh's Prisoners Exercising: nine out of 10 prisoners have mental health issues when they enter prison. Photograph: Alamy.

Van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising: nine out of 10 prisoners have mental health issues when they enter prison. Photograph: Alamy.

It is an indictment of our society’s approach to mental health that effective treatment for many forms of mental problem is not sufficiently available to meet the need. The strength of Layard and Clark’s book - Thrive - is to draw this forcefully to our attention. The Guardian Review quoted at length below gives a good sense of the case they make.  

The data the authors refer to in the book include the fact that (page 381):

. . . while over 90% of diabetes sufferers receive treatment for their condition, under a third of adults with diagnosable mental illness do so. This is largely because good evidence-based psychological therapy is not readily available. 

They are also quite scathing about the absence of adequate provision for children, a position which Wednesday’s BBC News item suggests is apparently shared by the government:

Mental health services for young people in England are “stuck in the dark ages” and “not fit for purpose”, according to a government minister. Norman Lamb told BBC News he was determined to modernise the provision of psychiatric help for children.

Although some reviewers have reservations about some aspects of the book, in my view the relevance of its message to the desperate needs of this group of people makes it vital that it be read, understood and implemented in terms of its basic case.

It is interesting also, from my point of view as a retired clinical psychologist and Bahá’í, that they recognise that there need to be changes in the thinking, practice and values of the wider society if we are to prevent, rather than simply fight, the fires of depression, addiction and anxiety to name only the commonest problems.  

Emotional well-being should be taught in school (page 387), our society should become ‘less macho, with more emphasis on collaboration and less on competition.’ We also need to see a continuing ‘feminisation of our values – with more importance attached to relationships and to peaceable and harmonious living. This will be helped greatly as more women come to the top of their professions.’

They also recommend (page 388) that there should be ‘a cabinet minister for mental health’ and, no surprise this one, they hope that ‘mindfulness may become a regular practice taught in schools and practised by many adults.’

Some reviewers have felt that this prescription for society goes way beyond the evidence and, by implication, their brief. I don’t share that view. The book is a powerfully worded invitation to think about the issues facing our society in its approach to mental health. Obviously there is far more to be said, but this is a good place for anyone to start.

Below is an extract from the Guardian Review: for the full article, see link.

Guardian Review

“I once broke my leg in 10 places. As I was taken to hospital, someone shut the door on my leg. You can imagine the pain. But I can tell you the pain of depression is many times worse.”

This powerful quote from businessman Dennis Stevenson illustrates how mental pain can be just as real and even more agonising than physical pain. It opens a punchy polemic that demands action to tackle the misery of mental illness, pointing out the strange inequality that sees broken bones treated but shattered spirits ignored.

Many readers will know this from personal experience. One in six British adults suffers from depression or anxiety disorders that disrupt, even destroy, lives. Mental illness is often more disabling than chronic conditions such as angina, arthritis or diabetes, while it shortens life expectancy as severely as smoking. One in three families contains someone who suffers mental illness, with one in 10 children having diagnosable mental disorders – yet fewer than one-third of these people receive treatment.

Such shocking statistics litter the pages ofThrive, the latest blast by former “happiness tsar” Richard Layard in conjunction with David Clark, professor of psychology at Oxford University. Lord Layard is a celebrated labour economist who deserves plaudits for promoting the concept of placing wellbeing alongside wealth as a government goal – an idea promoted by David Cameron in opposition, then sadly shunted aside in office after coming under fire from critics who failed to understand the issues.

The book’s central point is that the failure to place mental illness on a par with physical illness costs the country dearly. This is perhaps most obvious with suicide rates. The vast majority of people who kill themselves are mentally ill – and as many people die worldwide at their own hand as from murder and warfare combined. Twice as many men take their own lives as women, something I have seen from traumatic personal experience like too many people – and perhaps most poignantly, youth suicide is rising in most nations.

Beyond these individual tragedies, the authors argue, the entire country suffers from this mental health crisis since it imposes such costs on society. “The scale of mental illness is mind-boggling,” they write. It accounts for almost half of absenteeism, keeps big numbers out of work and drives up the benefits bill; the combined effect on the economy reduces national income by an astonishing 4%. Nine out of 10 prisoners also have mental health conditions upon entering prison.

This barrage of data is bad enough. “But what is really shocking is the lack of help,” say Layard and Clark.

It may not make for the most scintillating reading but it is hard to argue with their case that the failure to help those in mental distress is an injustice. Anyone with the slightest experience of mental illness knows how crushing these conditions can be; we should be thankful that the courage of some sufferers, in discussing the impact in public, is starting to end an irrational social stigma. It also makes economic sense, since helping people to recover from their problems generates immense savings for national economies.

See here for the original Spanish. For source of image see link.

See here for the original Spanish. For source of image see link.

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