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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)

I have embarked on a sequence of new posts which examines a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme.

This is the last of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014. I don’t usually republish things so quickly but their relevance to the idea of levels of consciousness made it seem a good idea.

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 consciousness: 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)

I have embarked on a sequence of new posts which examines a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme.

This is the second of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014. I don’t usually republish things so quickly but their relevance to the idea of levels of consciousness made it seem a good idea.  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.

Kazimierz Dabrowski

Suffering is both a reminder and a guide. It stimulates us better to adapt ourselves to our environmental conditions, and thus leads the way to self improvement. In every suffering one can find a meaning and a wisdom. But it is not always easy to find the secret of that wisdom. It is sometimes only when all our suffering has passed that we become aware of its usefulness. What man considers to be evil turns often to be a cause of infinite blessings.

(Shoghi Effendi: Unfolding Destiny pages 134-135)

I have embarked on a sequence of new posts which examines a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme.

This is the first of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014. I don’t usually republish things so quickly but their relevance to the idea of levels of consciousness made it seem a good idea.  The next will come out tomorrow.

Suffering

Sometimes an issue keeps poking you harder and harder until you simply can’t ignore it anymore. Suffering is one such issue for me at the moment. I did a couple of blog posts on the topic fairly recently and felt I had laid it to rest, if not for good, at least for a very long time. No such luck apparently. I kept producing poems that were locked into its gravitational field. The news keeps thrusting it before our eyes. I began to realise it was not finished with me yet even if I thought that, for my part, I had completely done with it.

Just before I made a recent visit to the Bahá’í Shrines in Haifa and at Bahji, I started a series of blog posts on mental health related issues. A comment was made on one of them:

. . . . two things that have encouraged me to see . . . mental suffering as growth have been developing a deeper spirituality, and learning about a theory of personal growth developed by Kazimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist/psychologist, known as the “Theory of Positive Disintegration.”

I have to admit I’d never heard of Dabrowski but I’ve learned to catch at the hints life gives when I manage to spot them and I spotted this one. It was the first strong hint of something new in 20th century thinking, a different angle on the issue, and fortunately I snatched at it and obtained a book about his Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD).

I began reading it on the plane out, continued reading it in the Pilgrim House at the Shrine of the Báb after my prayers, and carried on reading it in the plane home. Conversations in the Pilgrim House explored the issue of suffering and some of his ideas. Even BBC iPlayer programmes I was watching on the plane out rubbed my nose in the possible value of suffering.

I heard Dave Davies of the Kinks, in Kinkdom Come, stating at 58 minutes in: ‘If there hadn’t been bad times I might not have have got interested in spiritual things.’

So, here I am blogging about it yet again.

The Effects of Suffering

Stephen Joseph

Perhaps the best place to start is with a recent article in ‘The Psychologist.’ To my surprise, when I got home I found that the latest issue contains an article by Stephen Joseph about the psychology of post-traumatic growth. Trauma can shatter lives, it is true, but for some it seems rather to be an opportunity for growth. He draws an interesting distinction between two kinds of reaction to trauma (page 817):

Those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.

Work has begun on teasing out what specific factors might be involved in creating this difference in approach (ibid):

Research shows that greater post-traumatic growth is associated with: personality factors, such as emotional stability, extraversion, openness to experience, optimism and self-esteem; ways of coping, such as acceptance, positive reframing, seeking social support, turning to religion, problem solving; and social support factors (Prati & Pietrantoni, 2009).

I wasn’t pleased to see that introversion is not included in the list of factors associated with ‘greater post-traumatic growth’ though it’s good to see that ‘turning to religion’ is definitely one. I remain quietly confident that the positive value of introversion will finally be recognised.

Joseph concludes (ibid):

Psychologists are beginning to realise that post-traumatic stress following trauma is not always a sign of disorder. Instead, post-traumatic stress can signal that the person is going through a normal and natural emotional struggle to rebuild their lives and make sense of what has befallen them. Sadly it often takes a tragic event in our lives before we make such changes. Survivors have much to teach those of us who haven’t experienced such traumas about how to live.

Suffering is not all bad

I have been aware for a long time that suffering is not all bad. In 1993 I had read Charles Tart’s Waking Up.

He argues, in the first part of this book, that most of us are to all intents of purposes asleep, or more accurately in a trance (page 106):

Each of us is in a profound trance, consensus consciousness, the state of partly suspended animation, stupor, of inability to function at our maximum level. Automatised and conditioned patterns of perception, thinking, feeling, and behaving dominate our lives.

He discussed ways of breaking this trance. Self-observation is a key tool. In describing its usefulness he also brings in a crucial insight (page 192):

Self observation is to be practised just as devotedly when you are suffering as when you are happy. Not because you hope that self observation may eventually diminish your sufferings – although it will have that effect – but because you have committed yourself to searching for the truth of whatever is, regardless of your preferences or fears. Indeed, suffering often turns out to be one of your best allies once you have committed yourself to awakening, for it may shock you into seeing aspects of yourself and your world you might never notice otherwise.

Dabrowski’s position, though, is far more complex than this, placing suffering in the context of a whole theory of personality development. A fuller explanation of this will have to wait for the next post. For now it is perhaps useful simply to note how Dabrowski’s idea of suffering seems closely related to Tart’s concept of a trance breaker. Sam Mendaglio, in the book he edited on the subject of TPD, writes (page 23):

Intense negative emotions and moods, typically regarded as impediments to growth and development, actually set the stage for advanced development by their disintegrating power. Intensely negative affective experiences begin the process of loosening a tightly integrated mental organisation. Though painful to individuals, negative emotions – the hallmark of inner conflict – allow people to achieve a more advanced level of human development.

His definition of what he feels lies at the end of this path through pain is of intense interest and concern to anyone seeking to gain support for a spiritual perspective on human suffering (page 23):

A developed human being is characterised by such traits as autonomy, authenticity, and altruism.

That seems as good a place as any to pause for now until the next time.

Interconnectedness

After re-posting the sequence of articles about Jenny Wade’s theory of the levels of consciousness, I finally got round to reading a book by Ken Wilber that has been lurking on my shelves for 10 years at least, I suspect. It is modestly titled A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality. (This is not to be confused with a Bahá’í book by Robert Parry with a slightly more unassuming title, A Theory of Almost Everything, which had come out seven years earlier in 1993 or with Stephen Hawking’s unauthorised The Theory of Everything, which came out in 2007.)

The title, of course, is partly tongue in cheek but not entirely. The book does have an ambitious agenda and one that understandably excites me given my attempts to organise my experience and thinking around the idea of interconnectedness (see diagram above).

Hang on a moment though. While reading Wilber’s book and drafting the review, in rapid succession I gobbled up two other tomes.

First, after something like four years, I finally finished reading The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. Such a time span is not unusual for me as I read books on rather the same principle as they make Russian dolls. Each book I start triggers me to start reading another until I have several books in progress nested one within the other. Often the one I started last is finished first before I trace my steps back to its predecessor (or not, as the case may be). You can see elements of this pattern as I describe my process now with these three books.

I very much want to record my response to this massive survey of the current state of our civilisation and its origins but I am aware that it overlaps with Wilber’s thesis in some of it themes.

As if that were not complicated enough, a friend left a comment on my blog recommending I look at John Fitzgerald Medina’s book, Faith, Physics & Psychology. Not only does this book contain a detailed critique of Wilber, and cannot be ignored for that reason alone, but it also torpedoed some of my blindly accepted assumptions about the Native American civilisation and if they sink completely upon further investigation of the facts they were clearly prejudices. His book also caused me to rehabilitate Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from my relatively low opinion of it.

There is no way I can do justice to the combined 1000 plus pages of these two books and Wilber’s theory all in one sequence of posts without driving you all nuts. So, I have decided to go ahead and publish this sequence on Wilber, with some acknowledgement of Medina’s caveats and Rifkin’s perspectives, before then exploring in appropriate depth the other two books at greater leisure over a longer time span.

Did I hear a sigh of relief?

The Quadrants

While I particularly want to focus on certain aspects of Wilber’s model in detail, especially where he deals with how his way of looking at things helps us analyse current challenges (the second post) and how we might focus our energies better on progressing our own personal development (the third post), I do need to give a sense of the overview first, I think.

KW 4 Quadrants brief

The best place to start the overview is with a series of diagrams. The first is a very simple schematic (page 71).

First of all we need to understand the distinctions he is making which will be located in four quadrants. The left hand quadrants are what he terms ‘subjective,’ by which he means experiential i.e. located within our consciousness. Consciousness can be either individual and concerned with our thoughts, feelings and decisions (Upper Left), or collective and concerned with our shared understanding of the world and what we derive from that (Lower Left). The right hand quadrants focus on the external, material and objectively observable and measurable. The Upper Right focuses on the individual, for example studying the brain, and the Lower Right focuses on the collective, for example social structures.

The next diagram goes into more detail about the individual in relation to his model of reality. It is important to hold these in mind as an aid to understanding the eventual full complexity of what he goes on to unpack in terms of all the implications of the quadrants. The Lower Right terrestrial or earthly, which includes social structures and systems in the observable world, correlates with the body/brain. The Mind-Soul-Spirit hierarchy at the individual level is an Upper Left system and as a culture is at the bottom left. The latter two obviously interpenetrate. I will say more about that later. Reality is the ground on which all this stands.

Finally, we need to take a closer look at this more complicated diagram in order to see how different levels are at work in each quadrant.

KW 4 Quadrants full

It is best not to get too concerned about some of the detail in the diagram above, especially when terms such as ‘uroboric’ (cyclical, self-devouring) will probably mean nothing at all without a dictionary at hand and even with one the exact implications will still not be clear.

His theory of quadrants is not without its critics, among them Michelle Mairesse. She feels they are ‘rather Procrustean.’ She also takes issue with specifics. She quotes, for example, A Brief History of Everything – page 99):

Wilber goes on to adduce many things from his display of nests. “Whereas everything in the Right Hand has simple location, nothing in the Left Hand path has simple location. This doesn’t mean that value, consciousness, pride, desire aren’t real, and this is where interpretation comes in. Surfaces can be seen, but depth must be interpreted.” . . . .

Unfortunately, his Quadrants appear to be skewed to favor his interpretations. His upper Right-Hand Quadrant, for example, begins at the atomic level. Why not the sub-atomic level? Is it because not all sub-atomic particles have simple location?

Levels and Holons

What most needs to be understood for present purposes is that each quadrant contains its own form of development. This is perhaps easier to see in the right quadrants. Atoms are, perhaps misleadingly, the simplest form in the Upper Right and the sequence from there is easy to track until SF1 arrives.

I don’t plan to deal with those conceptual challenges in detail as they are not core issues for present purposes. What is important though is to understand one of his main points: that every lower stage in all quadrants is contained in the next one above. This constitutes a ‘holarchy’ in his terminology. He explains as follows (page 40):

The ingredients of these hierarchies are holons. A holon is part of a whole that is a part of other wholes. For example, a whole atom is part of a whole molecule; a whole molecule is part of a whole-cell; a whole cell is part of a whole organism. . . . . Reality is composed of neither holes nor parts, but wholes/parts, or holons. Reality in all domains is basically composed of holons.

An acceptance of the reality of holons, as per this model, is what for Wilber constitutes second tier thinking, a higher level than the far more prevalent first tier thinking.

He is very keen that we should understand the power of the Left Hand Quadrants, which he feels have been underexplored and undervalued in current materialistic narrow science paradigms. A key point for him is that this means we have failed to understand fully the depth effects at work on the consciousness side of the diagram: this, combined with a failure to understand the way this kind of nested hierarchy works, accounts for many of our problems and our blindness to their possible solutions.

Levels of Consciousness

We need next to look at his analysis of the different levels of development in the two left hand quadrants by means of one of his more user friendly diagrams. His model is similar but not identical to that of Jenny Wade, already explored on this blog (see links in the opening sentence of this post).

We’ll start with his diagram, hopefully made easier to digest by the numbering and colours I have added. From a Bahá’í point of view, that he as well as Wade has nine levels is a bonus.

KW Diag 5 v2

1. Level of basic survival (Archaic-Instinctual): Seen in first human societies and in new born infants. Approximately 0.1% of the world’s population.

2. Level of animistic thinking, good-bad dichotomies (Magical-Animistic): Seen in magical ethnic beliefs, gangs and corporate ‘tribes.’ Approximately 10% of the world’s population.

3. Level of the self as distinct from the tribe: egocentric (Power Gods): Seen in feudal kingdoms, gang leaders, and New-Age Narcissism. 20% of the population: 5% of the power.

4. Level of meaning, direction and purpose (Mythic Order): based on a ruler and rules. Seen in codes of chivalry, totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism. 40% of the population: 30% of the power.[1]

5. At this level or ‘wave’ the self seeks truth and meaning in individualistic terms (Scientific Achievement): highly achievement-oriented. Seen in the Enlightenment, Wall Street, secular humanism and liberal self-interest. 30% of the world’s population: 50% of the power.

6. The level of communitarian bonding, ecological sensitivity and networking (The Sensitive Self): Seen in postmodernism, humanistic psychology, liberation theology, Greenpeace etc. 10% of the population, 15% of the power.

You can see from what he describes that the level of development in the individual can be closely paralleled by the social/cultural level and vice versa. A person functioning at the same level as the social culture (s)he inhabits will be more comfortable than someone who is not.

From there it gets even more interesting for me.

With the completion of the green meme, human consciousness is poised for a quantum jump into ‘second-tier thinking.’

(I will ignore the fact that a quantum jump for a physicist is tiny. As the BBC put it, when talking about the Bond series ‘most of us are familiar with the term quantum leap, to describe a sudden and large-scale-shift in something. Physicists however also use this in the opposite sense, a typical quantum leap being the smallest possible change in the energy level of an electron.’ So, I’ll see this as a metaphor of the qualitative difference between the two tiers.)

He quotes Clare Graves (page 11) as describing it as a ‘momentous leap’ where ‘a chasm of unbelievable depth of meaning is crossed.’ We can then think ‘both vertically and horizontally.’ We ‘vividly grasp the entire spectrum of interior development.’ We see how important ‘each level, each meme, each wave’ is and that ‘each wave goes beyond . . . its predecessor, and yet it includes or embraces it in its own makeup.’ He gives the example of the cell again, which ‘transcends but includes molecules, which transcend but include atoms.’

He contends (page 12) that ‘none of the first tier memes… can fully appreciate the existence of the other memes.’ They each think their own world-view is correct and attack if it is challenged. On the other hand, ‘second-tier thinking appreciates the necessary role which all of the various memes play.’ It is ‘instrumental in moving from relativism to holism, or from pluralism to integralism.’

We’ll be looking at aspects of that in more detail later.

He then goes on to complete his description, at least as far as he can.

7. At this integrative level life is seen as a kaleidoscope of natural hierarchies. 1% of the population: 5% of the power.[2]

8. At this holistic level energies unite feeling with knowledge. It sometimes involves the emergence of a new spirituality and detects mystical forces. 0.1% of the population: 1% of the power.

Second tier thinking is, in his view, the ‘leading edge’ of ‘collective human evolution.’

He gives no detailed description of level 9, probably because he feels no one alive is there yet.

Getting Bogged down in Green

A problem he is acutely aware of is that level 6 (green) gets stuck.

He gives it credit for its tolerant pluralism. It has protected human rights and the environment. It has rightly criticized the ‘often exclusionary, patriarchal, sexist, and colonialistic agendas’ of the blue and orange levels below it. But, ‘it has also turned its guns on all post green stages as well, with the most unfortunate results.’ It is highly ‘subjectivist.’ Individual preferences largely determine truth values, if no harm is being done: ‘what is right is simply what individuals and cultures have agreed upon at any given moment; there are no universal claims for knowledge or truth; each person is free to find his or her own values . . .’

In his view, and he goes on to explore this in a whole chapter to itself, ‘because pluralistic relativism has such an intensely subjectivistic stance, it is especially prey to narcissism.’ This attraction is so strong (page 28) people get ‘fixated to the green meme’ and will not let it go so they can move onwards and upwards.

Rifkin has much to say about this trap of narcissism to which I will be returning in far more detail in a separate sequence of posts. A brief quote will have to do for now (page 417):

The countercultural movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was not without its own shortcomings. More than a few observers looked into the eyes of the young free spirits and saw not a new level of empathic sensibility but only a rampant, carefree narcissism.

He also quotes an American sociologist, Philip Rieff (page 418):

Comparing theological consciousness with the new psychological consciousness, Rieff snorted that while ‘religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.’ . . . . [T]he evocation of feelings becomes the ultimate “turn on” and being a person of good character, accountable to immutable truths is replaced by an actor playing out various identities while engaged in pleasurable mind games.

In the interests of brevity and moving onto other key areas I have simplified his argument here and anyone interested in grasping his full meaning should read chapter 2 –  ‘Boomeritis’  – for themselves.

We will need to wait till the next post to explore some of the implications of all this. Hopefully things will become a bit less technical then.

Footnotes:

[1] It is perhaps worth adding that, in Wade’s view expressed in Changes of Mind, conformist awareness (page 117) ‘is thought to represent the mainstream consciousness in civilised cultures, and it is tellingly labelled institutional, conventional, traditional, and conformist – the designation used here.’ The implication is that a huge proportion of people will currently live their whole life at this level in our culture. Studies such as those by Pettigrew of discrimination under apartheid in South Africa and discrimination in the American south of the 60s, strongly suggest that as much as 60% of any population could be in the conformist category. Stanley Milgram’s and Philip Zimbardo’s separate but equally disturbing findings point in the same direction.

For a recent discussion of where this desire to conform can lead us see the Guardian article on whistle blowing. This is why people who blow the whistle on powerful organisations are all too often left isolated, deserted even by those who said they would stand by them. Andrew Smith in the Guardian piece explains: ‘. . . even the strongest-willed individuals find the burden of standing out from the crowd unbearable over time . . . .  and we have a clear picture of ourselves as social creatures who, for the most part, would rather be wrong than isolated.’

[2] I have found it helpful to bear in mind Wade’s views on those levels, which in her hierarchy precede this one and in my view correspond to Wilber’s fairly closely. Her affiliative consciousness (his ‘communitarian’) is seen by Wade as one of two possible developments from her conformist level (his ‘mythic’). To simplify somewhat, if a developing self is inclined towards right-brain functioning with an emphasis on intuition and affect, the next stage will be affiliative. A left-brain bias, with a greater interest in rules than feelings, will move a developing self towards Achievement mode (Wilber’s ‘individualistic/scientific’). People may shift between these two levels before moving higher, if they ever do.

In this and many other ways I have found her model both subtler and more flexible than I understand his to be, and therefore more convincing. Rather than repeat hers here instead of his, as I was initially tempted to do, I thought it only fair (as well as less confusing) to quote his model and his colours. There are also other theories about levels of consciousness, Dabrowski’s for instance whose ideas I will be posting about later this week, and Maslow’s whose perspective I will be looking at when I come to consider John Fitzgerald Medina’s book Faith, Physics & Psychology.

For source of image see link.

For source of image see link.

Religious-textI am embarking on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I will be posting links to related topics as and when I find them as this sequence of posts unfolds. Below is an extract from an article by Greg Hodges on the problems organised religion can pose: it’s the first of two. For the full first post see this link: the second post is at this link.

But do not therefore attribute to the Masters and Prophets the evil deeds of their followers. If the priests, teachers and people, lead lives which are contrary to the religion they profess to follow, is that the fault of Christ or the other Teachers?

Abdu’l-BahaParis Talks, p. 41.

Countless people today feel the importance of spirituality in their lives, but remain uncommitted to any specific faith tradition.

For a great many of them, the reason is the same: they do not believe in organized religion. They don’t necessarily reject the teachings of historical figures like Jesus, the Buddha, or Muhammad–quite the contrary. Instead, they understand that once the spiritual paths those great teachers represent become institutionalized, they start to lose their power to enlighten souls and instead become tools for violence, exploitation, and fame.

It takes a willful ignorance of history to deny that. In fact, much of what humanity remembers about its collective past centers around large-scale, religiously-legitimized violence. This passage from the Baha’i teachings describes the pattern and the problem in a brief but powerful analysis:

…the foundation of all religion is brotherhood, comradeship and friendship to all. But alas, a thousand times alas! Religion, which should serve to promote oneness and love among men, has become an instrument of animosity and hatred. Religion, which was established to build up and gladden hearts, has become a means of darkening the world. All the prophets appeared that oneness of men might be taught. How much suffering these prophets had to endure to unfold this illumination among men. His Holiness Jesus Christ offered His life. He endured the greatest humiliation; His head was crowned with a crown of thorns. He endured all things so that the world might again unite and that He might cement the hearts of men through His love. But today the first duties of religion are neglected. The first duty and the basis of each religion is the love of God. Love has vanished and hate and animosity have taken its place. Instead of these simple principles we now have dogmas and imitations, and because the dogmas and imitations differ we have constantly strife and war. Fanaticism is the only aim. These fanatics are actually thirsty for their brother’s blood, they condemned one another and considered each other unclean.

Abdu’l-BahaStar of the West, Volume 3, p. 156.

So what should we do about organized religion?

The Quarry

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This includes poems such as the one below.
The Quarry v3

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. The post below comes from 2011 and relates both to the sequence recently republished on cultural creatives and to the general issue of civilisation building. 

Among the issues raised in the series of posts on the Cultural Creatives, an important one concerns how to sustain motivation for action over very long periods of time – something absolutely essential if we are to engage in the civilisation building processes under discussion there.

Previously I tackled the challenges of overcoming inertia. One of the issues there, that is also relevant here, was becoming able to see that what you could do would lead to what you wanted if you kept at it, in spite of how incredible that might seem. But, to be honest, the problems of getting started pale into virtual insignificance when compared with those connected with persisting in the implementation of a plan over decades or even generations.

Concerning one movement examined in the book The Cultural Creatives the authors put this bluntly:

In the consciousness movement, the people who can persevere for ten, twenty, and thirty years are the ones who can have a dramatic impact on the culture – because that is the true time horizon of effective action.

(The Cultural Creatives: page 203)

Within the Bahá’í community the issue is the same. A currently serving member on the most senior institution of the Faith wrote recently:

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality. . . . . . . .

(Paul LampleRevelation and Social Reality – page 48)

It therefore seemed worthwhile having a look from a psychological perspective at what that challenge might involve. It should complement the spiritual one. I am only just beginning the process of stretching my mind to encompass at least some of the implications of an important message from our sovereign body, the Universal House of Justice, whose rich, subtly textured and multi-layered analysis unfolds in detail what such complex work stretching over many decades demands of us. They have clearly taken into account the factors I am about to discuss and many more besides. I am not yet in a position where I can even hope to integrate the two kinds of discourse into a clear explanation. Some aspects of the psychological point of view will have to suffice for now, and maybe that is enough as it does help me (and hopefully others) get to better grips with at least some of what the world centre of our Faith is saying.

When I was working as a member of a rehabilitation team in a mental health context, I had reason to adapt into a simpler form Fishbein and Bandura’s ‘s model as a way of assisting people who were stuck in a kind of learned helplessness to free themselves from the unrelenting grip of that quicksand.

The first step was to help the trapped person define the ultimate destination (s)he wished to attain if at all possible. Once that had been defined, whether it was a return to work, completion of a college course, creating a pleasant place to live, finding friends, developing interests, preventing relapse or some combination of several of them, there was another question to be answered:  was the goal as defined highly enough valued to be intensely desired, particularly when ego boosting immediate rewards might be in short supply?

If the answer to that question was a resounding ‘yes’ we could move onto the next stage. If not, we had to work at making the vision clearer, more positive and more intensely desirable and, above all else, easier to hold on to. It is easy to see how this stage of the process can be applied to creating a motivating vision of civilisation building such as cultural creatives, Bahá’ís, and other people who care about the state of the world, need to develop. Because the next steps will take some explaining I won’t dwell on the obvious at this point.

 

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

The next few questions are of critical importance. Obviously, once the vision was clear and sufficiently compelling, we had to look at what steps needed to be taken to get from where the person was to where (s)he wanted to be.

This inevitably led fairly rapidly to considering  two other interconnected questions which had to be answered before these ideas consolidated into a plan: did the steps as defined relate convincingly to the achievement of this goal and did they seem within the person’s power to execute?

We need to look at those one at a time.

Sometimes people don’t make a forwards move because they feel external demands are requiring them to do something that they can’t see is relevant to what they really want to do or they don’t believe that the step they can make at this point really will lead to where they want to get to. Such doubts have to be dealt with sympathetically and not discounted out of hand. There is often more than a grain of truth in them, and even if they are largely irrational, it does no good simply to say with a wave of the hand, ‘It’ll work out, don’t you worry.’ Often, the act of surfacing them in a supportive and sympathetic conversation with someone else dispels their paralysing power. It can cut them down to size and allow the person to see for themselves how it all might work.

Sometimes people can see that the step would work, but don’t believe they can perform it. It feels beyond them. Either they lack the skill or the courage or both. There may be material or other objective obstacles such as lack of money that may have to be addressed, but in the absence of those, what has to be tackled is making action possible by reducing the size of the step, increasing the level of support, practising and acquiring the missing skill or possibly all three.

Accompaniment and encouragement play a huge part in helping us embark on challenging adventures of this kind, and this is well recognised within the Baha’i community as well as outside it. Without those two supports many of us might well never move an inch.

There are some useful thoughts from another tradition of psychology that also have a bearing here.

Our society sells a very disabling illusion: a good life is a life without pain and discomfort. Even though it is fairly easy to prick this bubble – you only have to look carefully at how much painful effort and determination generally has to go into even the most apparently straightforward achievements – the lie slides back into our minds and tells us we shouldn’t have to exert ourselves to make something of our lives. We deserve it just for being here. Buying the lie is completely paralysing.

This lie relates also to the fixed mindset that the book Bounce deals with so vividly, its author Syed drawing heavily on the work of Dweck and others:  ‘If I’m talented I should succeed without trying: if I have to try I’m not talented.’ There are countless other insidious variations.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) gives this kind of life lie short shrift from a slightly different angle than the one Dweck, Syed and others are speaking from. Discomfort, pain even, are inevitable concomitants of life, they argue. Building a life around their avoidance is deadly: it paves the way to addiction, escapism, exploitation of others, loss of meaning and ultimately a frozen state of spiritual suicide, a living death that may even lead to someone taking their own life. Pain and discomfort are not to be made excuses for doing nothing on the grounds that they make everything too difficult. You learn to enact your values regardless of the discomfort they bring. The rewards ultimately far outweigh the costs. That is the good life.

There are many other aspects to consider which enrich the picture and reflect the full complexity of life more effectively, but I feel I will be in a better position to look at those when I have moved forward a bit more in my own thinking and developed a deeper understanding of what the House of Justice has so recently explained. So, these will have to wait for another time.

For now it is probably enough for me to repeat that there is more to healing a wounded world than recognising the tasks and making a start. Keeping going is the difficult trick to master, and remembering, as dear friend of mine put it, “You can’t sprint a marathon.’ That’s how you get from something like the building site in the first photo to the glory of this one.Upper Terraces View

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