In the Hindu religion, indeed, there are three planes of consciousness – the subconscious (instinctive and affective thought): the conscious (ideological and reflexive thought) and the superconscious (intuitive thought and the higher truth).
(Jean Hardy – A Psychology with a Soul – page 66)
When I began writing this sequence of posts I thought I knew what it was I wanted to say. As I got half-way through it hit me that I was writing it in a way that missed the most important point of all for me. So, this is now a complete re-write. What was meant as a simple tribute to the value to me of one school of psychotherapy has become something much more complicated. Why shouldn’t that surprise me!
In the Beginning!
To do this properly now I have to go back to the beginning of my psycho-spiritual journey.
After my father died of cancer in 1967, for seven years I anaesthetised myself. As far as I remember I never cried. I can’t check that out because I wrote no journal then.
I gave up smoking immediately, because I didn’t want to die that early, but carried on drinking because I didn’t want to feel. This carried on until 1974.
That was when I had my weekend encounter group experience in London in the early 70s. It was then I first discovered the existence of an intense pain within me, previously undetectable beneath an invisible threshold I didn’t even suspect existed.
This is what happened as I recall it.
I climbed the steep and uncarpeted stairs to the therapy room on that first Friday evening with a degree of trepidation, my footsteps echoing off the bare walls and uncarpeted steps. I walked through the door into a converted bedroom with a spongy covering over the entire floor. Spread around the room were countless pillows. There were about fifteen of us who would spend the entire weekend till Sunday afternoon breathing hard and/or pounding pillows with very little sleep until a small minority of us plunged through the floor to the basement of our minds to confront whatever demons had been locked away there. The process was blended from at least two approaches popular at the time: Primal Therapy and Reichian Therapy.
Those with anger as the dominant emotion were the ones to pound the pillows most, often shouting out their rage to the person they’d been paired with for the purpose. Others, like me, who tried pounding the pillows hunting for anger but failed to connect, and who were completely unable to put any kind of label on the emotional quarry we were pursuing, spent a lot of time lying on our backs focusing on our breathing. Friday night was a disappointment. The rabbits of our primal pain were still deep in their burrows, silent and invisible.
Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.
It was an Emily Dickinson moment:
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .
I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.
Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.
I was still largely blind to my predicament. I had no idea what this well of tears signified. Connecting with it rather than concreting it over was hugely important, though. It showed me previously unsuspected depths to my own mind, even if what they meant remained a mystery. And what I could do about it was still unclear.
My move from teaching into mental health marked the next rung on the ladder, but not for any obvious reason that I could have guessed at in advance.
When I began working in the field of mental health, the main problem for me was not the clients but the staff. The tensions ran very high, so high in fact that at the end of about eighteen months or so, of three people who had been newly taken on at the same time, one of us had had a heart attack and the other two were heading for the exit as fast as possible. One of those two, after leaving, could not pass by the place he had worked without his heart racing at the memory of working there.
Things were so intense initially that I needed two glasses of wine to calm me down when I got back home after a bad day.
I began reading self-help books to assist me in managing the stress. I can still remember one key insight, though I’ve no idea now where I read it. The book raised the question of how we should deal with intense reactions to other people’s behaviour. It asked, ‘Why do we give other people so much power over our own minds?’ This was an early encounter with Frankl’s insight that, while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it.
Sad as it seems, that was a revelation to me. I’d thought that reactions were the almost inevitable consequences of a stimulus.
I needed more than that book though to help.
Transactional Analysis (TA), the creation of Eric Berne, proved to be one of the keys for me to managing this testing situation. I was determined that this bad experience would not drive me out of the career I had set my heart on pursuing.
I attended a TA group for 18 months or so.
It helped me see that interactions between people often took the form of a ‘game.’ In this brief overview I will only explain enough to convey the flavour of this model in simple form: for a deeper understanding a good place to start would be Stan Woolams and Michael Brown’s TA: the total handbook of transactional analysis.
Games are sequences of interactions with a pay off. One person would be unconsciously trying to hook another person into a kind of social dance to their advantage. This is done by acting in a way that consciously and superficially communicates a harmless message, but which also carries a second message beneath its surface with a potentially destructive effect. For example, ‘Can I help you?’ could be an honest offer of assistance. However, if the speaker holds the unconscious opinion that the person he is speaking to is a worthless loser, this is the potential start of a game.
To do this they would be acting in a way shaped by unconscious negative patterns of acquired behaviour called scripts, which drive them to try and trigger similar states in others.
Scripts are unconscious patterns of action and reaction, either emotional or cognitive, that lead us to feel or think things and which end up with us starting and/or joining in a destructive dance. The aim of the game is for one of the participants to get a pay-off. This confirms that we are bad or useless, or at least that they are better than us, and wins the game. TA defines these kinds of end results as states of being I’m OK: You’re not OK or even, if the instigators are quite damaged themselves I’m not OK: You’re not OK, or even, if their damage is worse still, I’m not OK: You’re OK. The only acceptable position is I’m OK: You’re OK.
Most of us, when we start off, are not in a good place to keep clear of these games. The Adult part of us, as TA describes it, is contaminated by negative messages we have acquired usually in childhood or perhaps from later traumatic undermining experiences. That’s what the diagram on the left is meant to illustrate. We can’t think clearly or constructively because we have a critical parent shouting at us in our heads and a negative adapted child (ie one who has bought into all this criticism and thinks its true) weeping and wailing inside us, drowning out any calm and sensible thoughts and constructive feelings we might have.
From TA’s point of view the first thing we have to do is become aware of this and begin to realise that all this noise is not reality, so that we can begin to quieten it down and tune into our Adult mind so that we can respond to hooks designed to catch us like fish by ignoring them, and choosing to respond in an entirely different way that cuts across the game and leaves us feeling OK, no matter how the other person ends up. We’re not out to destroy them, merely trying not to join them in their folly and damage ourselves.
This is of course easier said than done, and without the TA group I probably wouldn’t have learned to manage the situation as well as I did. Also, it has its limitations, for example about how we learn to enact our highest values in situations that drag us down.
I’ll take a quick look at a working example next time to illustrate the psychobabble before we move higher up the ladder.
Posted in Science, Psychology & Society, Autobiographical | Tagged Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Emily Dickinson, Transactional Analysis, Primal Therapy, Michael Brown, Eric Berne, Reichian Therapy, Stan Woolams | 1 Comment »
The full importance of bees for this this blog will become apparent during the next sequence of posts.
Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.’
When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing the week before last, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This second sequence is about the need to draw on deeper powers than instinct or intellect: this is the second part of the fifth post.
It has taken me much longer than usual to reach the end of the journey undertaken by this series of posts. Jack has been swinging from the pendulum of his dilemma more than long enough to see him killed or cured. Some of you were probably wondering whether this would still be a work in progress in 2014.
Anyhow, for those of you who are still with me, this is going to be the journey’s end – whether it results in lovers meeting or Jack making his mind up, we will have to see. Frankly, at this point, I’m not quite sure myself.
Combining Reflection with Consultation
I ended the previous post after examining the process of reflection as an individual experience and preparing myself to consider whether reflection might be possible in some way for a group of people.
Reflection, as an inner process of consulting with our deepest essence, seems to require silence. Reflecting with others demands words, either spoken or written. How are we to reconcile that apparent contradiction?
Well, there is the model of a Quaker meeting where silence, as a group experience, is punctuated by the occasional utterance, when the spirit moves someone to speak. Given that the focus of this sequence of posts has been on decision making, it would not make sense to advocate that model for this purpose, whatever its value might be when harnessed to other aims.
The faith I follow has at the heart if its community and family life a spiritual process which Bahá’ís call ‘consultation.’ It’s important not to confuse this with the common meanings of this word in our society as a whole, for example when we speak of a ‘consultation document’ where all that happens is the canvassing of views prior to some agency deciding on a line of action.
Crucial to factor in is the point that consultation in a Bahá’í sense is rooted in the same detachment that underlies the kind of effective reflection we looked at before.
For those who follow a theistic religious path, while this may prove difficult to do, at least they have decided on what compass and map to use to give them a sense of where to look for God. It’s not so easy for those without such a belief to see the relevance of this advice for them. However, I do believe it is relevant.
We are all capable over sufficient time and with sufficient sincere and dedicated thought to develop an idea of what for us is the highest good, something greater than our own limited values and projects, which are all too often self-interest in disguise. For example, there are those who see the earth in the form of Gaia perhaps, or humanity as an idea transcending arbitrary divisions derived from race, nation, religion or ideology, as the highest good to nurture for which they would be prepared to sacrifice a great deal, maybe everything. Having a credible self-transcending Good to hold in mind in place of a god we can’t believe in, helps us all, theists and atheists alike, let go of our unhelpful attachments in service of the greater good, whether that process takes shape within inner meditation or takes place as part of outward consultation.
Mutually Reinforcing Processes
The purpose is to emphasize the statement that consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion . . .
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 72)
We need to remember what we learned last time about meditation before looking more closely at how the two processes work together. They may be mutually reinforcing: they may even effectively be the same thing!
Meditation, for an individual, seems to be equivalent to consultation for the group. It serves the same purposes and requires and creates the same personal qualities. We want to draw closer to the truth which demands and reinforces detachment. Both meditation and consultation grow from and result in unity, either within the individual or within the group, and in detachment, which may in any case be one and the same process and end-state. Bahá’u’lláh speaks of ‘the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment’ as though they are deeply interconnected if not identical.
When we suspend our assumptions in reflection, separating consciousness from its contents, we receive intimations of a higher and more accurate kind. This sounds remarkably similar to the understanding achieved in consultation. It seems possible, at least in principle, to use meditation to improve our consultation skills and consultation perhaps to practise and refine our meditation. It also raises the question whether consultation, at least in the West, would benefit from more silence.
It’s fairly clear that a reliable awareness of the remedial and active presence in our mind of the Highest Good we are capable of apprehending will entail a great deal of practice, whether we call it God or not. If we can maintain such a sense of this Presence then it is extremely unlikely that we would be inclined pig-headedly to bludgeon our friends, family, colleagues and neighbours into submission with our own opinions when that so clearly interferes with wiser states of mind and spaces for decision making.
There are ways, it needs to be said, in which we can become so over-identified with our limited understanding of that Good, that we are prepared to torture and kill other people in our attempts to bring that understanding into reality. That is the kind of idealism that Jonathan Haidt has pilloried as the trigger for more murders than any individual psychopath could perpetrate in several life times. I am talking here, though, of our ability to generate an idea of the good that widens what Robert Wright calls the ‘expansion of the moral imagination’ or what we could term ‘our compass of compassion’ rather than the narrowing of it in a way that creates a tyrant and torturer.
It may feel like a lifetime’s work to get to the point where we have grasped such an idea and have truly become capable of holding its essence in mind most of the time.
We also have to remain mindful, though we often forget, that investigating the truth is a goal whose pursuit does not guarantee that we will always find it. What we can do though is be resolute in developing increasing levels of humility about the value of our opinions, so that the consensus becomes richer and an ever closer approximation to the particular truth under investigation. Developing that kind of humility in such an opinionated world is easier said than done. Processes of disidentification described in the previous post, if we have practised them in a disciplined way will clearly help us step back from our opinions once we have shared them, and help us listen more objectively to the views of others even when they differ widely from our own.
Detachment as the Key Process
Is this becoming one of those counsels of despair which can seem so characteristic of the spiritual life? Can we only consult if we are completely detached? If not shouldn’t we bother?
Perhaps though detachment is more of a process than an end-state at least in this life.
We need to consider the possibility that consultation is also a process that can help us become more detached. If so, it’s goal is clearly more than simply the investigation of truth. It is a spiritual discipline in itself and leads to personal as well as group transformation. It perhaps could rightly be called a Bahá’í yoga from which everyone, whether Bahá’í or not, could benefit from practising – even an accomplished meditator.
Meditation, then, might help us achieve the detachment necessary for consultation. Consultation will almost certainly strengthen our ability to be detached and thereby facilitate our meditation. They are clearly not unrelated disciplines sharing as they do this same outcome.
We also have to be open to the views of other people when we consult and to the Bahá’í Scriptures when we meditate upon them or to the promptings of our higher self when we commune with it in meditation. So these skills are clearly not all that different: they similarly enhance our understanding of reality.
In the end, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that meditation will help us consult and consulting will help us meditate. It certainly seems to me that meditation and consultation used in conjunction as the Bahá’í Faith recommends would constitute a wrecking ball of sufficient power to bring even the most obdurate of our dividing walls crashing to the ground and pave the way for greater unity within and between us. Such a degree of unity is imperative if we are to become capable of solving the problems that currently confront us.
Consultation has links with justice, too complex to go into now, which add further strength to this position:
To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.
(From Section II: The Prosperity of Humankind)
Increasing our Leverage
Where does all this leave us?
Once conversation between reflective minds is possible two powerful tools, implied in all that has been said above, can become available. First, some space will have been created between consciousness and its contents, and secondly there is a chance for more than one mind to be brought to bear upon the experiences. The space can be used for people to compare notes as equals – as two human beings, both with imperfect simulations of reality at their disposal, humbly and tentatively exchanging ideas about what is going on, with no one’s version being arbitrarily privileged from the start. There is a wealth of information that suggests most strongly that this process of collaborative conversation (Andersen and Swim), of consultation in the Bahá’í sense (see John Kolstoe), of inquiry (see Senge), of interthinking (see Mercer), can achieve remarkable results: Neil Mercer talks of the crucial function of language and says:
[I]t enables human brains to combine their intellects into a mega-brain, a problem-solving device whose power can be greater than that of its individual components. With language we are able not only to share or exchange information, but also to work together on it. We are able not only to influence the actions of other people, but also to alter their understandings. . . . . Language does not only enable us to interact, it enables us to interthink.
I’d like to slightly alter the wording of one sentence there to capture the essence of what I think I’m describing:
We are able not only to influence the actions of one another, but also to alter one another’s understandings.
I feel that the conditions that I have sought to describe in this sequence of posts go a long way towards making effective interthinking possible. Effective interthinking and meditation as a spiritual practice are closely related activities. Perhaps neither can unfold in their best and most constructive form in the absence of the other.
Where does all this leave Jack?
It’s hard to imagine that he would take easily to dream work. However he has been practising meditation. This could give him a head start in the sense that he should have an excellent platform from which to move towards more effective reflection. He might find the Disidentification exercise both attractive and useful as he moves towards finding other perspectives on his conflicted ideas.
If he were to begin to achieve some skill in stepping back to some degree even from his most cherished beliefs, he might be ready to consider approaching his brother Sam for a consultation on the question of a loan for a new business. Whether that gets him anywhere will depend not only on how well he has mastered the new skills but also on whether Sam is prepared to get on board with them to his best ability as well. If they got stuck consulting alone they might be able to move forwards in consultation with a trusted and objective third person. Mediation is a widely used model that builds on this possibility – an interesting word that looks like meditation if you’re reading too fast,
In a way we are all in the same boat. We are none of us experts in or masters of these new techniques. Even skilled practitioners of meditation may find it testing to exercise the skills they’ve learnt in a new way involving interaction with others. That’s no reason not to try of course.
So perhaps we ought to leave Jack to apply these principles as best he can and worry instead about how we can practice and make use of them ourselves.
If it helps, it might be a good idea to have a listen to Neil Mercer should you have skipped the video above. What he says both endorses the value of true consultation in the sense I have been discussing it and suggests that it probably should be taught in schools. In my view, the same is true of meditation.
I am very aware that there are some puzzling issues, particularly around the question of the ‘heart,’ that I have skated over in this sequence because of the main theme I wanted to explore, which was where and why in my view Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 model breaks down. (I am aware, though, that consultation with its dependence on language must draw on System 2 as well as upon the heart in the sense I have been exploring it.)
Posted in Civilisation Building | Tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, consultation, Harlene Andersen, John Kolstoe, Karen Wilson, Meditation, Neil Mercer, Peter Senge, reflection | Leave a Comment »
If you are anywhere close you may want to save this date in your diaries. It would be great to see you. The service was an inspiring experience last year.
When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing the week before last, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This second sequence is about the need to draw on deeper powers than instinct or intellect: this is the fifth post.
The previous posts in this sequence have attempted to illustrate the problem that certain kinds of dilemma pose for Kahneman‘s model of decision-making. He explores two basic modes of human cognition, which he labels System 1, which I have short-handed as instinctive, and System 2, which I have short-handed as intellectual. He shows how drawing on the powers of System 2 enhances our decision-making very significantly. He does not seem to consider that there is anywhere else for us to go beyond that.
For my part, I have been arguing that there is evidence, such as the effectiveness of dreamwork, to support the idea of a System 3, a genuine deeply intuitive mode, which draws on right brain and possibly spiritual capacities which are both slower and more holistic than System 1, and less verbal and more visual-kinaesthetic than System 2. I used the powerful image of the heart when referring to this mode of being, and suggested that because it whispers, we cannot hear its wisdom unless the mind is quiet.
This post and the next will examine first of all how silence is key to mobilising System 3 for an individual, and then look at how interthinking/consultation works for a group, especially if its members understand how to connect with their hearts. Both contexts, to my understanding, depend upon a state of what is usually termed ‘detachment’ and a process best captured by the word ‘reflection.’
Those who prefer not to accept the idea of a transcendent spiritual reality can still make use of these concepts up to a point, as the enhancement of cognitive therapy by the addition of mindfulness compellingly testifies. Those who embrace the idea of soul or spirit can, if the evidence of Dossey is to be believed, resort to prayer as a way of further strengthening the process without justifiably being accused of irrationality. Maybe Jack, who has been ruminating on his quandary for six weeks now, could do something with this to break his ties to the pendulum of indecision from which he is suspended.
How Golden is Silence?
Some time ago I watched a series of television programmes which illustrated how important silence can be in assisting us to gain access to aspects of our being which are extremely elusive. I blogged about it and in the process included what are for me two key quotes from the Baha’i writings on this subject. The first asserts (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: page 156) that ‘The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.’
I cannot pretend to plumb the depths of this statement. I have quoted it because I feel it not only establishes the critical importance of silence but it also links silence with detachment. As we will see in a moment, even at its most basic level, one that does not necessarily challenge a materialist to believe in God or accept the reality of the soul, detachment is a state highly conducive both to accessing our deepest intuitions and to apprehending accurately what others are seeking to communicate to us. More on the second point later.
Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate. It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.
I have already blogged at length about the difficulties presented by our terminology when discussing mind, soul, spirit, and so on. I will not rehearse all that again here and would request that no one reading this allow themselves to get sidetracked from the essence of what I am seeking to convey here by the fact that the translator of this passage has used the word ‘intellect’ instead of ‘mind.’
Contemplation, reflection, mindfulness and meditation are words that are often used to mean closely related states of mind and modes of thinking. This is not to say that there are no differences at all between them that could be illustrated by different schools of thought. What I am going to be focusing on, though, is their illuminating common ground.
Almost every exercise in mindfulness involves a process of breaking old distracting patterns of thought and substituting a different mode of consciousness. Whether we are asking ourselves to focus on a candle flame, a raisin (as many psychologists begin by doing), a mantra or a melody, what we are doing is unhooking our consciousness from its usual flow of self-talk and imagery, and choosing instead one thing and one thing alone to concentrate all our attention upon.
It is easy to see how this step shifts us from a cacophony of distractions in the head to a state of relative quiet where the flow of our breathing or of a melody, the taste of a raisin or the glow of a candle, helps us tune out the din.
In describing these exercises I have used a key expression: ‘unhooking our consciousness.’ For me, this is an aspect of detachment. If it is not a pure state of detachment, it is certainly a step towards it. It also suggests that silencing the mind and achieving a state of detachment of some important kind are related, are mutually reinforcing.
It seems to involve stepping back from our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and plans. Psychosynthesis calls this process Disidentification (see link – Disidentification exercise). This approach to psychotherapy believes it is a path towards recognising the essence of our true nature, towards connecting with what we truly are.
In Existentialist Philosophy this process is called reflection. Reflection, in their terms, is the capacity to separate consciousness from its contents (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. We become capable of changing our relationship with them and altering their meanings for us. We may have been trapped in a mindset. Through using and acquiring the power of reflection, we do not then replace one “fixation” with another: we are provisional and somewhat tentative in our new commitments which remain fluid in their turn. Just as a mirror is not what it reflects, we are not what we think, feel and plan but the capacity to do all those things. Knowing this and being able to act on it frees us up: we are no longer prisoners of our assumptions, models and maps. We come to see we are consciousness not its contents.
The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict and indecision and opens us up to new experiences, different perspectives: the adaptation and change that this makes possible enhances the potential usefulness of our models and their connected experiences. It is the antithesis of drowning where we are engulfed in our experiences and sink beneath them. As we will see it paves the way for exchanging perspectives with other people and learning from that exchange to find transcendent positions.
That so many different systems of belief converge on this one idea suggests that it is real, implies that it is a powerful way of connecting with the deepest levels of our being. Koestenbaum is no theist, but the image by which he chooses to summarise this insight speaks volumes.
He explains it as follows in his book ‘New Image of the Person: the Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy’, (page 73): ‘The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’ Reflection, he says (page 99): ‘. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.’ This links back to an unexpected core idea he had already presented (page 49): ‘The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.’
We are not so far away from the words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. ‘It is an axiomatic fact,’ He states, ‘that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.’
This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.
It must say something important when such divergent traditions of thought converge on this one point. Why would we then deny that deep inside us is a source of wisdom it is well worth tapping?
At the bottom of this post is a simple exercise anyone can try that takes a small step in the direction of connecting us with the ground of our being. Hopefully any experiments with this will clear the path for tackling the challenges of the next post which will deal with group processes. It could be that this would also have helped Jack find a way to transcend his dilemma, on the horns of which he has been pinioned uncomfortably for weeks now. Perhaps we’ll see.
Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge. Be ablaze as the fire, that ye may burn away the veils of heedlessness and set aglow, through the quickening energies of the love of God, the chilled and wayward heart. Be light and untrammeled as the breeze, that ye may obtain admittance into the precincts of My court, My inviolable Sanctuary.
When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing last week, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This second sequence is about the need to draw on deeper powers than instinct or intellect: this is the fourth post.
Some time ago we left Jack struggling with his unsolvable dilemma:
His reading of Buddhist writings had taught him that he needed to go deeper into his mind to find wiser answers but he didn’t seem to be able to get past the blocks at the end of each pendulum swing. Anger versus pity. A good trade he disapproved of combined with Sam’s fecklessness. Don’t give him a penny. Give him a good leg up. There must be a way of getting past the stand off, transcending the conflict.
He found himself fruitlessly analysing the moral issues. What passed for compassion in his head said he should pay, for the kids’ sake. His version of wisdom said he shouldn’t because he’d be indulging Sam, he’d never learn from the consequences of his actions and it’d be throwing good money after bad. In any case it wasn’t fair as Sam hadn’t paid him back a penny of the money he owed for his education.
He shook himself. He tried counting his breaths again. He needed to go deeper, but how?
How deep can dreamwork take us?
I want to draw on my own experience for this again. Mainly this is because I know what I dreamt and I know what I learnt from it. The evidence in that respect is as solid as it gets for me. It therefore interposes fewer filters between anyone who reads this and the raw experience it relates to. The drawback is that I have never had a dream that was stunningly prophetic or profoundly mystical, so the example I am going to give might seem a bit run of the mill. However, because I found an apparently simple dream profoundly enlightening, I thought it was worth sharing. What kind of dream might have helped Jack we may be able to come back to later.
I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug. The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.
I worked on this dream using the methods described in the previous two posts. Various elements were profoundly meaningful, such as the rug made by my aunt, not least because of what she represented to me. For a sense of that those of you who are interested could read the poem The Maiden Aunt (see below). I want, for present purposes, to focus on what for me has become the core of the dream’s meaning, a meaning which is still evolving even though this dream is now more than 15 years old – still in adolescence really so there’s probably more to come.
There were two kinds of clue to this core meaning: one derived from word play and the other from role play.
I’ll take the word play first as it’s easier to explain. The ‘chewing gum’ element of the dream can be dealt with quickly. It related to various ways I was stuck and perhaps still am!
More richly significant was the image of the hearth. The fact that it was in a chimney ‘breast’ helps convey the power of the realisation that came to me. The word ‘hearth’ is comprised of several other key words: ‘ear,’ ‘hear,’ ‘earth,’ ‘art’ and most powerful of all ‘heart.’ All of these words were separately of huge significance for me though I had some sense of how they might all fit together.
For example, I had latched early onto the words of Walter Savage Landor, long before I had the dream:
I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved; and next to Nature, Art.
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
The art of listening had separately been extremely important to me in my work as a clinical psychologist which made finding the ‘ear’ so closely tied into this central image not entirely surprising. Also having an ear to hear the intimations of the spirit is emphasised in Bahá’í literature as being of critical importance to moral progress.
This only got me so far though. I needed some other way of decoding the full import of the dream.
If you remember, when I was explaining dreamwork, I spoke of how each dream element is part of the dreamer and we can unlock the meaning of the symbolism not only by tracking our associations with it, but also by pretending to be the element in the dream and speaking as though we were it.
The result in the case of the fuel burning in the hearth was dramatic. I had been really struggling to make sense of this part of the dream. What had a coal fire got to do with my situation, except as a memory of childhood with relatively little relevance? I decided I needed to sit right in front of the hearth of the house I was living in at the time and speak as the fuel itself.
The Fuel: I am peat. You dig me from the earth and I burn. You feed me to the flowers and they grow.
Need I go any further really with what I said? That first moment contains the key to unlocking a whole treasure chest of meanings.
On the 26th April 2003, at least five years after beginning to work on the dream, I wrote in my journal, trying to summarise some of my insights:
I’m part poet/writer, part psychologist, part educator, (both subsumed by the term mind-wright) – the words wright and writer catch one part of my essence – my tools are words by and large – mind does not quite catch the other part – soul is too grand and beyond my competence – the nearest I can get is being a wordsmith and a heartwright. The word heart helps because it includes in itself the words art and (h)ear, an essential combination of skills or qualities entailed in heartwork. It leads back to my concept of heart-to-heart resuscitation. Hearts have to connect. That it also links with my archetypal dream of the hearth, where the fire of spirit burns to give warmth to the mansion of being, makes it all the more powerful a word to use in this context. The essence of my being – peat – is to fuel this process. An additional thought: 28.04.03 – if you place Heart and Earth overlapping you get Hearth. Each is also an anagram of the other. In the Bahá’í Writings the heart is often spoken of as a garden and of having soil. Also I have prayed for God to ignite within my breast the fire of His love and Bahá’u’lláh refers to the ‘candle” of our heart. Hearth eloquently combines these notions of the heart as a garden and as a container of fire. What does this mean in practice?
I’m still trying to answer that question.
The progression up to this understanding and beyond is also intriguing.
When I first had the revelation that the fuel was a pun on my name in its shortened form, I took a narrow view of what it meant. The name my parents gave me was ‘Peter’ with all the associations of rock. When I first began to work on the idea of ‘peat,’ I felt that the dream was saying that I should draw on the essence of who I was, not the persona my upbringing had fabricated in me after the image of my silent and stoical father, hiding his undoubted love behind a wall of reserve.
Then, pushing it somewhat further, the idea of burning Pete came to mind, which suggested the idea of self-sacrifice. But increasingly, as time went on, an even deeper meaning, complementary not contradictory, began to come through: perhaps ‘peat’ was not ‘me’ but came from something outside me and far richer and much more substantial. The earth became a symbol for the realm of spirit and peat came to represent the power that could flow from that realm into my being to give me the strength, energy and wisdom to do far more, far more effectively than I could ever do by any other means.
Of course, none of this exhausts the implications of the dream. The quotation at the head of this post was one of the associations that came to mind when I was working on the dream very early on. It gives yet another level of meaning to the dream to interpret it in the light of that quotation.
I don’t expect to get to the bottom of this dream’s meanings in this life. I just think I have to keep referring back to it to see what else it can teach me. I think it is a dream about the heart that came from my heart. I feel the heart in this sense is the experience of soul or spirit in consciousness. Heart is used in other ways, I know, in our culture, and many of these ways connect it primarily with our emotions – anger, envy, desire, what passes for love, sadness and so on (I’ll be returning to that in a later sequence of posts). That is only one way of looking at what the heart might be. The heart is also a source of inspiration, and, while our emotions shout, the heart whispers its wisdom and we do not hear it unless our minds are quiet.
And that is where the approaches we will be looking at next time come into their own. We’ll have to leave Jack swinging from his pendulum of doubt for at least another week.