Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

The theme of this much earlier post seems to complement the current sequence about death as light and therefore warrant republishing now.

It’s nearly 4 a.m. On this day at about this time 119 years ago, after four decades in prison and in exile, Bahá’u’lláh died near Acre, then an outpost of the Ottoman Empire, now a city in Israel. So on this holy day it seems fitting to begin some reflections upon the meaning of suffering, not just upon His sorrows but upon those of all who fall victim to what Shakespeare’s Hamlet described as the ‘thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.’

On 11 March this year, in the middle of the Bahá’í Fast which, in my experience at least, sensitises us more than usual to the sufferings of others, the BBC posted the following news bulletin:

Japan’s most powerful earthquake since records began has struck the north-east coast, triggering a massive tsunami. Cars, ships and buildings were swept away by a wall of water after the 8.9-magnitude tremor, which struck about 400km (250 miles) north-east of Tokyo. A state of emergency has been declared at a nuclear power plant, where pressure has exceeded normal levels.

Officials say 350 people are dead and about 500 missing, but it is feared the final death toll will be much higher. In one ward alone in Sendai, a port city in Miyagi prefecture, 200 to 300 bodies were found. In the centre of Tokyo many people are spending the night in their offices. But thousands, perhaps millions, chose to walk home. Train services were suspended.

Even after the most violent earthquake anyone could remember the crowds were orderly and calm. The devastation is further to the north, along the Pacific coast. There a tsunami triggered by the quake reached 10km (six miles) inland in places carrying houses, buildings, boats and cars with it. In the city of Sendai the police found up to 300 bodies in a single ward. Outside the city in a built-up area a fire blazed across several kilometres.

Japan’s ground self-defence forces have been deployed, and the government has asked the US military based in the country for help. The scale of destruction from the biggest quake ever recorded in Japan will become clear only at first light. The quake was the fifth-largest in the world since 1900 and nearly 8,000 times stronger than the one which devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, said scientists.

For anyone who believes that an all-powerful and all-merciful God set up the world this way, such events have to pose a problem. Would it not have been possible to do it differently if God were truly all-powerful? If it were possible to do it differently and eliminate the need for suffering, and He did not, then He is not all-merciful. If He is all-merciful and yet set up the world to contain so much pain, he cannot be all-powerful. There is no fudging the issue and those of us with a belief in God, at some time in our lives, will have to confront it or live in a state of denial.

For a Darwinian materialist, of course, there’s not an issue: ‘This is how the universe works and that’s all there is to say.’

So, why don’t I take that option?

It would end the apparently irresolvable paradox and remove the dissonance at one stroke. This is where I’m going to have to short-hand things because proving the existence of God is not the purpose of this post and in any case cannot be done in a way that would convince everyone for reasons that this blog has already explored countless times (see for instance the comments on Reitan’s book in the post on moral imagination).

I can’t revert to the atheism I used to find so plausible because, even if the existence of a purely insentient universe were not a compelling consideration, the fact that there is both life and consciousness is for me completely compelling. Life without consciousness is so utterly improbable that this alone would be enough to convince me, though, in that case, there would be no me to convince. Consciousness clinches it. The conditions to bring that into being are so improbable that I simply cannot persuade myself that they were not created by an intelligence for some purpose.

Once I’m impaled upon the thorns of that conviction, and it does bring all sorts of uncomfortable consequences in its train, I am also on the rack of the dilemma I described. How come there’s suffering?

Evil, in the sense of pain caused by people to other living sentient beings, can be put down to free will, which is a necessary precondition of moral and spiritual development, another complex issue that must get short shrift here as it’s not the main focus for now. Pain that is inherent to the design of the universe, when, as it does, it contains life forms that can feel it, is another issue altogether and the one I turn to now.

It clearly needs a lot more unpacking before I can fairly expect others to accept that disasters, such as the one Japan has so recently confronted, are compatible with the concept of a compassionate creator God. I find it pretty tough to do so myself and I’ve had years of practice now.

Some mileage can be made out of reminding myself that physical pain is a protector. Congenital analgesia ‘is a rare condition in which there is an absence of pain sensation from birth without the loss of other sensations or demonstrable nerve pathology. This can result in the individual unintentionally harming him or herself.’ When our nervous system is intact and our state of mind undisturbed, it is because we feel pain that we do not harm ourselves. This may extend to some degree into the realm of emotional pain. Experience teaches us what social situations hurt us and we learn to avoid them.

Even so, this benign function of pain does not resolve the crucial question for us, because an omnipotent God could, we presume, have made a world where there was no danger of harm and therefore no need for pain as a warning to us about it.

Charles Tart

Charles Tart

Pain as moral developer goes only so far towards resolving this. Clearly, where there is no fear or pain there’d be no need for heroes, and, where no one suffers, none of us would need to sacrifice our comfort to help them. Also pain has been described by Charles Tart as a ‘trance breaker’ that wakes us up to the deeper realities hiding behind matter. Again though, surely, an all-knowing deity could have worked round that one and made a world where moral growth could happen with no uncomfortable choices.

Even if it were possible to accept, for the reasons give, all those kinds of pain as compatible with a merciful creator, what are we to make of all the unavoidable and seemingly pointless ways painful injury and agonising death afflict us? The warning function of pain is of no use to the victim of an avalanche. There is no moral growth entailed for you when you drown in a tsunami. And trances could surely be broken by something less traumatic?

There is no way round the conclusion that the universe is set up the way it is because that’s the way God wants it, even if it makes no sense to us and tests our faith to breaking point. So, where can we go from here? Is there a way of reconciling the seemingly arbitrary pain of the world around us with a merciful creator?

Bahá’u’lláh forces our faith to confront all these issues when He writes in the Hidden Words:

51. 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.

When the outward is all we can apparently experience, this statement challenges us to change our frame of reference quite radically. So, we are at the beginning of a journey of understanding which will take us through some difficult terrain. We’re in the territory John Donne describes in Satire III:

On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go;
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so . . .

As traversing it will take some time, it needs the leisure of another post I fear.


O SON OF THE SUPREME! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendour. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom?

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No 32)

cafetiereCan it be true that if someone threatens your worldview it reminds you of your mortality? And the same with self-esteem? Does it explain why a sociopath could kill someone for not showing respect and why one society will seek to destroy another’s culture? Such extreme reactions seem to require an explanation at least as extreme.

Maybe I’ve found one – or maybe not.

A week or so ago I dropped the glass of my cafetière into the sink with predictable results. It died in pieces rather than in peace.

I wasn’t too upset. It was only the second time I’ve ever smashed a cafetière. I coped reasonably well for that week, making coffee in a plastic jug and trapping the grains in a tea strainer when I poured it into my mug. Not much grief there really. It would have been slightly embarrassing if we’d had guests, but none materialised in that time fortunately.

I kept popping into cook shops looking without success for a metal cafetière, until finally I picked up a cheap glass one – the kind that doesn’t let you take the glass out of the plastic frame. In fact there is a clear warning on the bottom telling you not to do so. My half-hearted effort to do exactly what I shouldn’t in the shop was fortunately unsuccessful.

I was standing in the kitchen making my first cup of coffee with this reincarnated cafetière when an explosion of relief and exhilaration burst inside my head. No, it was not because I had a working cafetière again. It was because a penny of insight, which had been dropping from a great height for what might well have been years, chose finally to hit the ground of consciousness. I was so relieved I was close to tears.

Why there and why then I have simply no idea, except that I have been reading constantly this last couple of weeks about death, psychosis and spirituality. Oh, and I had dreamt about my father the previous night: as much of my poetry shows this is something which could have helped trigger the insight that followed later in the day.

Reading in the Park

Put perhaps too simply, I not only continued to understand that most if not all mental health problems have crucially important spiritual dimensions, but that there is a core element of that which is particularly important. Maybe I was so moved because this core element has been a lifelong companion. Perhaps I was so blind to it for so long because I was too close to see it, or else it was too familiar to be noticed.

What is this element?


My lifelong companion and sometime muse.

It’s not the only factor behind these spiritual dimensions, but it’s a crucial one. An extreme inability to come to terms with death – and its children, trauma, pain and suffering – creates what Solomon et al call ‘cracks in [our] shields’ (The Worm at the Core – pp 185 passim). This in turn, as they unpack, brings all kinds of destruction in its wake.

I didn’t like their book much when I had finished reading it well over a week ago now. Too reductionist, I thought. But now something had changed. My unconscious had clearly been doing its own thinking since I finished reading it, and come to a very different assessment of their work.

Yes, they seem to rubbish religion at times, but – and it’s an important ‘but’ – they accurately capture an essential problem. They may see faith as a false fix, as in a way everything is in their eyes, but they pin down exactly one thing that needs fixing, almost above all else perhaps, and demonstrate that how we choose to fix it can lead to dire or delightful consequences.

We have ‘clumsy modes of dealing with terror,’ they quote Yalom as stating (page 190). Unless we establish a firm enough foundation of meaning and a strong enough platform of self to stand upon, death, or rather our fear of death, will always unground us, pathologise our minds – narcissism, anxiety, depression, psychosis, OCD, anorexia (and maybe psychopathy; I’ll have to ponder more on that) are according to them at least partially rooted in a failure of meaning and selfhood in the face of death.

Solomon et al insist on saying ‘self-esteem’ albeit in a healthy rather than an unhealthy sense: I wish they didn’t.

I prefer selfhood for reasons that will become fully apparent in subsequent posts, I hope. For now I’ll shorthand it by quoting a dictionary definition: ‘a complete sense of self.’ A complete sense of self, for me, has to go far beyond anything that makes me more important than anyone or anything else, and has to recognise how whatever I am is connected in some way to the universe as a whole and to all forms of life and life support within it. When I damage you or them, I damage me.

They bring various kinds of evidence into the mix, usually studies showing, for example, that exposure to death stimuli results in higher levels of intolerance for those who are ‘different’ in some way, or in greater use of alcohol or tobacco.

In their summary of ‘psychological disorders as terror mismanagement’ (page 190) the kind of evidence Solomon et al adduce includes a significant link at times between death-anxiety and psychosis (page 191):

One study of 205 hospitalised schizophrenic man found that 80 patients were overtly preoccupied with death, and that death fears coincided with the onset of the schizophrenic symptoms or with times when the symptoms were magnified.

They argue that ‘[s]ubject to bouts of overwhelming terror, schizophrenics construct imaginary worlds – which are as real to them as this book is to you – to counteract the dread.’

In spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I have to admit they are making an important point. More on that next Thursday.

Why fret about the Afterlife Hypothesis?

A black Swan

A Black Swan

The previous post looked at how the black swan of Pam Reynolds‘ Near Death Experience (NDE) could perhaps be seen as a blow to the white swan theory that there is no possibility of life after death. This focused on the possible truth value  of the Afterlife Hypothesis. There is a critical look at the data in the Wikipedia link above that reveals weaknesses, of which I was previously unaware, in the case as presented in the television documentary. I still feel that mind-brain independence has been established in this case because of the accurate visual experiences gained under anaesthesia (see previous post on this subject — now revised). None the less we still need to consider the usefulness of the Afterlife Hypothesis if we are going to be able to persuade those who are sceptical to rethink.

We saw that Ken Ring’s research, which is summarised in Lessons from the Light, noted how often people who had experienced an NDE felt that their lives had been enhanced and that they wanted to be of service to their fellow human beings.

I said that we would come back to this point — the usefulness of holding the Afterlife Hypothesis to be true. I also said we’d look at why this aspect of the issue is critical if we are to understand why belief or unbelief on this issue matters to us all, believers and unbelievers alike, almost regardless of its truth value.

Some people may find the discussion that follows a bit challenging: it was impossible to write about it clearly without seeming to come on a little strongly. In spite of appearances, though, I respect differences of view immensely and would hope to learn at least as much from those who disagree with me as I do from those who think the same.

I’d like to focus on two aspects of the question of belief in the afterlife: its usefulness and its importance.

Our answer to questions about whether or not we have a soul, and whether or not that soul is immortal, very much determines who we think we are. It shapes our identity. Who I think I am powerfully influences what I decide to do and how I relate to others and to the world around me. It is important.

Then, when we look at the average effect of all our actions, influenced by all our various views of who we are, we will find that we have a vision of the kind of society, civilisation and culture we are creating by these decisions and these actions. This in turn influences who we continue to think we are. What’s perhaps even more important is it influences who our children come to think they are. In this way we enhance or warp our futures.

Because our future depends on it, we will need to address, as a society, whether materialism in its various forms is enough when it causes us to derive our values and our morals only from reason, experience and our shared sense of humanity – not that those are entirely without worth: a society that shuts its eyes to the feedback from experience and blinds itself to the truths that are within the reach of reason will soon fall off a cliff it is convinced does not exist.

But materialism goes too far when it preaches dogmatically that there is no need of any seal of approval from outside, no need of a transcendent point of reference, no need to believe in an afterlife. It claims that we can, as it were, place each of our feet in two different buckets, grasp the handles and heave ourselves off the ground. In my view materialism is trying to persuade us that the tiny candle of reason can illuminate the dark vastness of the entire universe: I find that claim preposterous.

Is getting the best out of ourselves without God really like the bucket problem?

Unfortunately, mobilising the evidence to try and demonstrate that materialistic worldviews fail to lift us as high as spiritual ones will probably fail to convince the wavering and leave the reductionist utterly unmoved. John Hick wryly concluded that the universe has been created to contain just enough evidence to convince the believer that there is a God but not quite enough to convert the sceptic!

However, I have come to the conclusion that a lot really does hang on the decision that we make on this issue.

It’s not just a question of our physical and mental health, and there is a great deal of evidence (Koenig et al) to suggest that religion is good for our state of mind in this world never mind the next. Nor of the efforts religious people make to be of service to others.

Tablets for all ills

Tablets for all ills

There’s also some less clear-cut evidence (see Batson et al for investigations that do justice to the real complexities of this issue) to suggest their efforts are somewhat greater in this respect than the efforts of those with no religion.

Certainly there is enough evidence to make a psychologically sophisticated atheist ask:

If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God.

(Haidt: page 211)

Even more importantly it’s a question of the expectations we harbour about our future, based on our estimate of our capabilities and our assessment of the current reality. These expectations, of course, help form the future.

This needs unpacking. An analogy will help.

Research strongly suggests that pessimists, and even depressed people, are more realistic about the present (See Seligman’s ‘Authentic Happiness‘ for example). On the other hand, optimists and happy people exaggerate, for example, the degree to which they are liked by others or the level of skill they have. They are less realistic: they see the world through rose tinted spectacles.

The sceptical materialist might well conclude “Case closed! You just shot yourself in the foot. I need read no further. You’re all deluded then.” I’m afraid (s)he couldn’t be more wrong!

If we take a snapshot of the lives of these two kinds of people say ten years later, what are we likely to find? You’ve probably guessed it. The optimists, untrammelled by low expectations, will probably have made something better of their lives on most measures such as the quality of their relationships or their level of health. The pessimists are usually very much where they started and generally much worse off than the optimists. A lot of information can be gleaned about the effects of a pessimistic or unhappy style from Seligman’s book (see also the link to the Authentic Happiness website on the front page).

In my view, comparing optimists with pessimists is very much the same thing as comparing those who believe in God with those who believe in nothing (which of course is also an act of faith). To divide the ‘camps’ in this way simply into religious and non-religious would be too simplistic of course. Some spiritual beliefs are narrow, constricting and/or pessimistic about the human predicament. Some materialistic worldviews have warmer perspectives and rosier expectations.

It will none the less be found, I feel, if the evidence is systematically sought and examined dispassionately, that, on average, people with a sense of the transcendent, because they have a more positive view of what they can achieve individually and collectively, will enhance their own and their communities’ lives significantly more each decade than will those who, because they take a completely materialistic view of things, have lower expectations of themselves, of others and of what can be achieved. This is an empirical question: it needs to be properly researched. Ken Ring’s work is already pointing strongly in that direction. I have also explored this at length from another angle in a longer sequence of posts.

Unless someone can produce compelling evidence to the contrary I intend to go on believing the words attributed to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

As ye have faith, so shall your powers and blessings be.

(Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, Vol IV: p 217: )

The Free-Rider Problem

There is one rather disturbing implication of all this.

If this idea is correct, that faith in the transcendent lifts our game and the level of well-being of the communities we live in, the person with a sceptical take on the afterlife, whether (s)he likes it or not, whether that is the intention or not, could well be making a contribution that falls short of his or her capacity as a result. When civilisation is getting as close to the edge of self-destruction as it is at the moment, every little short fall matters and could make the difference between collective survival or collective suicide.

In the worst case scenario, where the falling short is very great, someone who is sceptical to the point of cynicism, or even nihilism (this touches on extremism of all kinds, atheist as well as religious, and will have to wait for another time for a more adequate treatment), could become that bane of all organisations – the free-rider – who reaps the benefits of other people’s efforts without contributing his or her fair share! According to Philip Ball in his book ‘Critical Mass‘, the effect on an organisation of carrying too many such people is to make it unfit to survive.

He writes (page 333):

So why do firms fail? . . . . Once it grows big enough, it becomes a haven for free-riders who capitalize on the efforts of others. So the firm becomes gradually riddled with slackers, until suddenly the other workers decide they have had enough and jump ship. . . . The failure is self-induced.

It is perhaps stretching a point to extrapolate from firms to civilisations, where jumping ship is more like moving to China than changing jobs, but we know that civilisations do fail (See Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse‘).  If there is any truth in this extrapolation, it could therefore mean that our collective survival depends upon enough people waking up to the transcendent, regardless of how the costs of extremism at both ends of the spectrum eventually stack up.

We need to find out what we think for ourselves

I believe it would be very difficult indeed to reach a conclusion about whether faith in a transcendent dimension makes me a better citizen or not. The issue matters so much though that we should not  accept what we’ve been told simply on the authority of other people.

It is worth bearing in mind that nihilism is as much an act of faith as faith in God. If too much nihilism spread across too many people could annihilate us, surely, in all conscience, this is a matter of life and death now and bears painstaking and careful investigation, a scrupulously dispassionate weighing of all the evidence, before finally making up our minds? Bahá’ís believe in the inescapable responsibility of all of us to investigate the truth for ourselves. If you have a thirst to understand these issues you will find much food for thought (though water would of course be more use in quenching a thirst!) at the Baha’i World Centre site as well as through the other links on the front page of this blog.

After such strenuous investigation by everyone, how many of us would then be left to say with any sense of certainty there is no God, no soul, no afterlife?

Pam reynold's surgeryIs it just a question of faith?

I ended the previous post with a question: why should the existence or not of an afterlife matter to you if you don’t believe it, even if it matters to me who does. Why on earth should you consider believing what I believe?

Let’s see if we can make some progress on that one.

Some people believe there is an afterlife and I am now one of them, though it was one of the more difficult things I had to accept when I investigated the spiritual life. After all why should beings so imperfect have an immortal soul? We hardly seemed entitled to such a privilege. To be honest, as a former atheist, I found it easier to believe in God than in an immortal soul.

The Bahá’í Faith is clear on the issue:

The soul is not a combination of elements, it is not composed of many atoms, it is of one indivisible substance and therefore eternal. It is entirely out of the order of the physical creation; it is immortal!

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks: pages 90-91)

It is also clear that how we live now will affect the kind of afterlife we have. This is to do with how well we have fed our souls. When our spirit goes from the narrow womb of this world to the vast expanses of the next we will need all our spiritual faculties in the best possible order if we are to cope.

And just as, if human life in the womb were limited to that uterine world, existence there would be nonsensical, irrelevant — so too if the life of this world, the deeds here done and their fruitage, did not come forth in the world beyond, the whole process would be irrational and foolish.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: No. 156)

I needed help with coming to terms with this improbable hypothesis and found it hard to take it simply on trust, though I did try.

I’m going to be basing a strong case to support the idea that beliefs in transcendence and the afterlife are the strongest possible motivators to building a better world. There is a problem with that though as an argument to defeat people who are sceptical. They could concede the point while still saying that there is no afterlife. There are many examples we could draw on to support the view that mistaken beliefs can be very motivating indeed. People have died and been killed for them – in fact are still dying and being killed. If the only difference is that one person’s belief wreaks havoc while the other one’s creed enhances life, we haven’t moved all that far in terms of truth value: just because a belief seems benign doesn’t make it true.

So if this pragmatic argument were the best one going in support of transcendence and the existence of an afterlife, we’d have to say that the case was at least one wing short of a complete aeroplane! Even high levels of positive usefulness, after all, do not prove truth.

So, before we move in more deeply to the implications for our society of a belief or lack of it in transcendence and the afterlife, it seems a good idea to tackle the evidence issue from another angle.

Black swan bookA Black Swan: the Case of Pam Reynolds

Is there really no evidence for an afterlife and/or the value of transcendence other than indirect and inconclusive notions of how it is better for our society if you believe it than if you don’t?

I think there is. We need to start with the black swan problem.

Taleb has used this as the title for his extremely relevant guide to the inevitability of the market crashes which continue to astonish us despite all the evidence confirming their eventual recurrence, but that is not the point for now.

It’s to Karl Popper that we need to turn. He originated the term in a discussion about falsifiability. If you assert that all swans are white, you cannot prove it even by discovering an extremely long sequence of white swans. You can though falsify it. One black swan will sink the theory.

The same can be said of mind/brain independence. I accept that a near death experience (NDE) which happens to involve the mind apparently functioning without any support at all from the brain does not absolutely prove there is life after death, but it is a necessary if not sufficient condition for maintaining that belief. I believe that this necessary condition has possibly been fulfilled at least once under completely controlled conditions. I think it may constitute a black swan for those that say an afterlife can be ruled out as completely impossible.

What is this black swan?

In Atlanta Georgia, the case of Pam Reynolds was investigated in the 1990s by Dr Michael Sabom (page 184 passim). His account is incorporated into a wider discussion of NDEs by David Fontana, a professor of psychology, in his book “Is There an Afterlife?”. Sabom states, and the surgical team corroborates it, that Pam was fully instrumented, under constant medical observation and completely unconscious as indicated for part of the time by the flatline EEG (a measure of brain activity: flatline would mean no brain activity at all that would support consciousness). It was as close to a controlled experiment as we are ever likely to get, he said on a television documentary on NDEs some time later. The surgical procedure she needed required a complete shut down of brain and heart activity in order safely to operate on an aneurysm at the base of the brain.

None the less, after being anaesthetised for 90 minutes but not as the video suggested when she was flatlined, she accurately observed aspects of the surgical procedure which were either a departure from what would have been the standard order of events or had unusual features, such as the bizarre appearance of the “saw” used, of which she could have had no prior knowledge. The surgeon in the case, and others who commented such as Peter Fenwick, felt that the usual methods of registering visual perceptions and memories in the brain would certainly have been  unavailable to her and could offer no explanation of how she could have subsequently had access to the experiences she described.

There is a huge literature on NDEs which many people with a materialist perspective refuse to inspect on the grounds that no amount of evidence can prove the impossible. This is scientism, not science, and I would urge everyone, no matter how sceptical, to investigate this thoroughly for themselves. The arguments parroted by so many that NDEs are the results of material causes such as anoxia or drugs just don’t stand up in this case (or in many others, according to Peter Fenwick).

What is of additional interest here is that the investigations of Ken Ring plainly indicate that NDEs are life transforming. His list of the changes they induce includes: appreciation for life, concern for others, reverence for life, antimaterialism, anticompetitiveness, spirituality, sense of purpose, and belief in God (pages 125-127). These are all things that we will hopefully come back to in more detail in the lifetime of this blog (though for some people it may already seem to have gone on far too long).

That list of Ring’s is a very significant one that paves the way for the next more pragmatic approach to the issue of why it should matter to everyone, why everyone needs to investigate carefully before they jump to the conclusion that an afterlife is impossible. A sense of the transcendent allied to a belief in life after death does seem to create a different more life- and community-enhancing pattern of behaviour in the individual who possesses them.

Time for a break, I think: more on that next time.

There’s a sequence coming up that relates to the issue discussed in my very first sequence of posts in 2009. It seemed a good excuse to republish them at this point. They will be posted on consecutive days. 


Can you take it with you when you die?
A very rich man was close to death. As death grew closer he grew more and more unhappy at the idea of leaving all his wealth behind. Night and day he prayed fervently to God: “God! I know everything is possible to you. I beseech you to let me take some of my riches with me when I die.”

This went on for days without an answer. Finally, after hours of constant prayer, he heard a voice from the sky say: “Very well. You can take what ever will fit into one small suitcase.”

The man was overjoyed and spent at least a minute thanking his maker effusively before he set about the important work of deciding what to take. After long hours of solitary  deliberation he made up his mind that the best thing to do was fill his suitcase with gold bars. This he did at the dead of night and dragged the suitcase to his bedside.

Much to the mystification of his family he insisted on keeping the suitcase at the side of his bed from then on.

Sure enough, on the night he died God kept his promise and he found himself at the gates of heaven dragging his heavy case towards Saint Peter. But St Peter found the situation highly irregular and wouldn’t let him take the suitcase in with him.

“But God has given me a special dispensation. I can take just one case of worldly goods into heaven with me,” the man insisted desperately. Saint Peter, inwardly thinking this was all some kind of delusion, reluctantly sent an angel off to ask God what the deal was here.

Ten thousand years later (our time but in a twinkling of an eye up there) the angel returned and to the astonishment of Saint Peter, confirmed the man’s story.

“Streuth!” the Saint muttered, having been too busy to update his oaths since the population explosion of the twentieth century, “I’d better let you in then. But I can’t let you through these gates until I’ve seen what’s in that suitcase. You can’t be too careful, even in heaven. The devil still has some scary tricks up his sleeve.”

So, the man proudly opened his suitcase to display the wonders of his wealth. Saint Peter’s eyebrows shot up over his head: “All this hassle and you brought paving stones!”

[I have adapted this joke  from a wonderful book called “Plato and a Platypus walk into a bar . . . understanding philosophy through jokes”  – pages 177-178]

The joke has more than one sting to it.

We know we couldn’t take a suitcase up to heaven and, in the present security conscious climate, you’d probably be gunned down by a guardian angel long before you got within ten thousand leagues of the pearly gates if you were foolish enough to try. We may even feel there is no heaven to which we could carry anything at all. If there is a heaven and, when we go, we could take with us the stuff that is precious to us here, it would count for next to nothing up there anyway.

Image scanned from the cover of the Norton Coleridge

Image scanned from the cover of the Norton Coleridge

What can’t be lost in a shipwreck?

“You possess only what will not be lost in a shipwreck.”

[El Gazali: I met this first in Tahir Shah’s “In Arabian Nights” ]

And what is that exactly?

To the materialist it’s obvious. There is nothing that can’t be lost in a shipwreck – goods, friends, family, consciousness, individuality, life itself. (Well, strictly speaking you probably won’t lose your house in a shipwreck exactly, but you get the point.) Nothing left over. Death = zero, the great black void. All that remains of you lies rather than lives, for a few more years, in the memories of those you leave behind. And when they die too, those few faint traces of your life die with them.

Those who feel there might be something else can give a different answer, with very varying degrees of confidence admittedly. “My mind lives on,’ they might say, “because I have an immortal soul. And I’ll meet my loved ones on the other side.”

“Yeh, right!” the sceptic responds, shaking his head at the follies of his fellows. Too many people, he feels, still believe too many impossible things before breakfast and for the rest of the day as well!

Most of the answers in the monotheistic religions I grew up with take on some variation of the “I’ll meet my loved ones” form.

In the East – and it’s India, China and the Far East I’m thinking of here – they’re not so sure about whether I have a soul in exactly that sense and whether I will remember who I was in the shape I take on next. I was put off Buddhism, many years ago, when I attended a talk by a Tibetan monk, who insisted I could well come back as a rat or a dog.

This seemed a far cry from the sophisticated analysis of mental states I had come to admire so much from reading about Buddhism’s core teachings and about the meditative experience, which I was experimenting with myself at the time. While other views of reincarnation are less shape-shiftingly dissonant with our sense of self, they all entail a greater reduction in our sense of who we are than the Christian or Islamic traditions do.

Eastern traditions would generally agree, though, that my mind is able to function in some way and to some degree independently of my brain and that therefore there will be something that is not lost in the shipwreck, though it may not be immediately recognisable to me or anyone else who knew me.  The Dalai Lama, for example, is extremely sceptical about Western near death experiences (NDEs) that describe being met by loved ones after what may or not be an experience of death as it will really be. He feels the predeceased would already have been reincarnated and therefore unavailable. They’d be otherwise engaged, so to speak, unavoidably detained elsewhere, reaping what they had sown perhaps among the scent-drenched pleasures of a dog’s life, if my unfortunate and possibly misleading encounter with the monk is anything to go by.

The Bahá’í view is that we take with us into the next life what we have made of our souls in this one. This world is the womb of the next.

The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh LXXXI).

What we have learned of love and wisdom, what has nurtured our innate character – the soul, goes with us. We leave all else behind. Clearly that matters to me as an individual if I am a believer: why should it matter to you if you are not?

That is something we can explore together in the next post.



I ended the previous post with a brief explanation of Myers’s concept of a threshold between conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind. How does this relate to psychosis?

A key passage to help us here in the context of psychosis is quoted from Thalbourne by Gordon Claridge (Psychosis and Spirituality: page 82):

As defined by Thalbourne, transliminality refers to individual differences in the extent to which ideas, affects and other mental contents cross the threshold between subliminal and supraliminal: in some people, he argues, the barrier is simply more permeable. Thalbourne paints across a broad canvas in outlining the consequences and correlates of transliminality. Quoting a range of psychometric, clinical and experimental evidence, he argues that a high degree of transliminality is associated with strong belief in and reporting of paranormal phenomena; enhanced creativity; a greater tendency to indulge in magical thinking; more frequent mystical experiences; and a susceptibility to psychotic and psychotic-like symptoms.

Isabelle Clarke’s book, published in 2010, relies exclusively for its explanation of transliminality upon Teasdale and Barnard’s 1993 interacting cognitive subsystems model, being presumably unaware at that point of McGilchrist’s 2009 hemispheric model brilliantly explored in The Master & his Emissary.

Chris Clarke, writing in 2012 (page 58-59 in Exploring the Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship), regards these approaches as two ways of explaining basically the same phenomena:

It seems that, without too much over-simplification, the two models are different views of the same system of knowing, whose components I will refer to as rational (left-hemisphere based, propositional) and relational (right-hemisphere based, implicational).

Some Implications

For now that is all I need to explain before proceeding to draw on the transliminal model, in book Isabel Clarke edited, and its implications for the nature of psychosis.

She writes (page 108):

It’s a short step to recognise that, when the two central meaning making systems are not communicating or in asynchrony, to use Barnard’s term for this (Barnard 2003), and the precision afforded by the propositional is temporarily displaced, a different quality of experiencing becomes accessible. Hence, the everyday, scientific state is one where the propositional and implicational subsystems are working nicely together in balance, whereas the spiritual/psychotic state is one where the two are disjoint, and the system is essentially driven by the implicational subsystem.

The displacing of the left-hemisphere/propositional system and the unbalancing access to the right-hemisphere/implicational which then occurs is what Clarke terms transliminality.

She explains the consequence of this in a later chapter (pages 195-96):

By temporarily stepping out of their experience of a self bounded by individuality, a human being can experience a greatly expanded sense of reality. As well as frequently being an exhilarating experience, this could open the door to personal development, to new insights of wisdom and in some cases, the accessing of psychic powers… However, such a course is in no way guaranteed. This opening also puts the individual in touch with unresolved issues from their personal past. Where these concern problematic formative relationships and/or trauma this can be highly destabilising. Thus, for many, the journey into the transliminal loses its way; unable to conduct ordinary life with accustomed skill and unable to distinguish between threaten and no threat, between danger and safety, the person can flounder around, acting in ways that are causing concern to themselves or those around them. In our society, this tends to result in the involvement of the mental health system.

This concept of threshold, which I think is tenable regardless of whether we accept the particular details of the divided function models, clearly requires that we accept that ‘psychotic’ experiences are meaningful and that we need to distinguish between spiritual and trauma-related transliminal experiences.

This is for two main reasons.

If we can do it successfully, we will not be pathologising the spiritual and life-enhancing aspects of such experiences, and we will also be able to address the root causes of a ‘psychosis’ by recognising what it really means. Denying these experiences meaning, and labelling them as an illness, with all the stigma that entails, risks making them destructive by blocking their progress towards healing. Diagnosis thereby becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy further fuelling our misguided responses.

Writing of ‘visionary spiritual experiences’ Lukoff makes a statement that in my view applies strongly to both spiritual and trauma-based ‘psychotic’ experiences (Psychosis and Spirituality – page 209):

The clinician’s initial assessment can significantly influence whether the experience is integrated and used as a stimulus for personal growth, or repressed as a sign of mental disorder, thereby intensifying an individual’s sense of isolation and blocking his or her efforts to understand and assimilate the experience.


It is not just a clinician’s reaction that counts here. Mike Jackson’s excellent chapter in the same book shows how far the impact of other people’s reactions extends. Quoting Thornton’s research he writes (page 151):

Non-clinical voice hearers in her sample who had disclosed to others about their experiences, all had social contexts where their voices were accepted and where other people had similar experiences. By comparison, the patients who heard voices had not discussed them with others, and did not know others who had similar experiences. Interestingly, within this group there was a more pathologising view of other people who heard voices: “Yeah, I think it’s a mental health problem, yeah, I think they’re nuts . . .

If someone’s journey had led them into hospital, the prospects could be bleak (ibid.):

In the domain of acute and florid psychotic disorder then, there is often no context which allows the acceptance and integration of experience. Instead, psychosis is socially punished through diagnosis and the intrusive apparatus of the mental health system (hospitalisation, compulsory medication, community treatment orders). In terms of the PSP [paradigm shifting process] model, this level of invalidation would be expected to lead to repeated cycles of the process, by keeping emotional arousal high.

Social validation, as incorporated into Mike Jackson’s lucid diagram above, is usually critical to the achievement of a good outcome. (I will be returning to his model in a later sequence of posts.) Our culture, both within the psychiatric system and beyond, is changing but too slowly and too patchily. More needs to be done to speed up the spread of this kind of awareness. The price of our failure to do so is too high. I may be blogging about all this for some time yet!

What is the dust which obscures the mirror? It is attachment to the world, avarice, envy, love of luxury and comfort, haughtiness and self-desire; this is the dust which prevents reflection of the rays of the Sun of Reality in the mirror. The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 244)


Because my current sequence of posts refers to the Kellys and their thought-provoking text Irreducible Mind, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence from March 2013. This is the last of the three parts.

In the previous two posts I’ve been moaning about how I was robbed when my training in psychology steered me away from the work of thinkers such as FWH Myers as though they had the plague. What I probably need to do to redress the balance is mention how much I was influenced by thinkers who were deeply influenced by Myers. In one case I know that for certain because I still have Roberto Assagioli‘s introductory text on psychosynthesis, which I read in 1976 and which cites Myers in the list of references at the end of Chapter I. Another was a seminal book I borrowed but never bought, so it is impossible to say whether the influence was direct and acknowledged: this was Peter Koestenbaum’s New Images of the Person.

Assagioli explained in his book the importance of what he calls a ‘disidentification exercise’ (page 22):

After having discovered [various elements of our personality], we have to take possession of them and acquire control over them. The most effective method by which we can achieve this is that of disidentification. This is based on a fundamental psychological principle which may be formulated as follows:

We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves.

(For the psychosynthesis disidentification exercise see the following link.)

Then, in another exciting moment, I came upon Koestenbaum’s ideas about reflection six years after I had read Assagioli. Reflection 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. It is like a mirror learning to see that it is not the same as what is reflected in it. So here was a writer in the existentialist tradition speaking in almost the same terms as psychosynthesis. I had practised Assagioli’s exercise for a long period after reading his book. Now I was triggered into resuming the practice again by what Koestenbaum had written.

I came across Koestenbaum’s book just before I discovered the existence of the Bahá’í Faith (for a fuller account see link). It helped me take what I had found in Assagioli and fuse it with what I had found in the Faith and create an experiential exercise to express that understanding in action in a way that helped me immensely to adjust to spiritual concepts which until that point had been completely alien to me for decades – all my adult life in fact. The Baha’i Writings talk about certain key powers of the soul: loving, knowing and willing as well as introducing me to the idea of the heart, the core of our being, as a mirror. I pulled this into my version of the exercise (see below). What I didn’t realise until later was that Assagioli had corresponded with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and had therefore to some degree been influenced by Bahá’í thought. (See Disidentification exercise for the final version that I used myself rather than this one I revised to share for the use of others).

Separating the Mirror from its Reflections

How amazing then to find Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quoting Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):

The conviction which every man has of his identity . . . needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it.… I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment…; But that Self or I, to which they belong, is permanent…

What I regret therefore now is that the usefulness of this exercise did not make me trace it back to its source and find out more of what Myers thought about this and many other things of great importance to me. So, better late than never, that is what I am about to do now.

Myers’s the self and the Self

The disidentification exercise rattled the cage of my previous ideas about who I was in essence. While I didn’t quite buy into Assagioli’s other ideas about consciousness at that time I felt, both intuitively and from the experiences I was having, that his idea was completely right that there is some form of pure consciousness underpinning our identity.

So, as good a place as any to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (page 83):

These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.

Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supraliminal experiences, used here by me in the sense of things that leak through the membrane from above, is strong enough to warrant serious consideration and he distinguishes between that and subliminal experiences that come, as it were, from underneath (page 87):

Supernormal processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.

He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91)

The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.


Midsummer Night’s Dream

Thin Partitions

He also has much that is interesting and valuable to say about the implications of a proper understanding of these upper and lower thresholds, especially when they are too porous, for both genius and mental health (page 98):

When there is ‘a lack of liminal stability, an excessive permeability, if I may say so, of the psychical diaphragm that separates the empirical [conscious] from the latent [subliminal: unconscious] faculties and man,’ then there may be either an expansion of consciousness (an ‘uprush’ of latent material from the subliminal into the supraliminal) or, conversely, a narrowing of consciousness (a ‘downdraught’ from the supraliminal into the subliminal). The former is genius, the latter is hysteria.

His use of supra- and subliminal is slightly confusing here but the main point is that genius expands what we are aware of, and more comes above the threshold, whereas hysteria narrows our experience so that less comes into consciousness. This is partly clarified by Kelly explaining (page 99):

In short, Myers believed that hysteria, when viewed as a psychological phenomenon, gives ‘striking’ support to ‘my own principal thesis’, namely, that all personality is a filtering or narrowing of the field of consciousness from a larger Self, the rest of which remains latent and capable of emerging only under the appropriate conditions.

Even the expanded consciousness of genius, in this view, is still filtering a lot out – in fact, it still leaves most of potential consciousness untapped.

There is in addition a common quality of excessive porousness which explains why, in Shakespeare’s phrase, the ‘lunatic . . . . . and the poet are of imagination all compact.’ Myers’s view is that (page 100):

Because genius and madness both involve similar psychological mechanisms – namely, a permeability of the psychological boundary – it is to be expected that they might frequently occur in the same person; but any nervous disorders that accompany genius signal, not dissolution, but a ‘perturbation which masks evolution.’

For Myers dreams, though they may indeed be common and frequently discounted, they are nonetheless important sources of data (pages 102-103):

Myers argued [that] dreams provide a readily available means of studying the ‘language’ of the subliminal, a language that may underlie other, less common forms of automatism or subliminal processes. . . . Myers’s model of mind predicts that that if sleep is a state of consciousness in which subliminal processes take over from supraliminal ones, then sleep should facilitate subliminal functioning, not only in the organic or ‘infrared’ region, but also in the “ultraviolet” range of the psychological spectrum, such as the emergence of telepathic impressions in dreams.

This has certainly been my own experience. A post I wrote two years ago will perhaps serve to illustrate that for those who are interested. My dream of the hearth, recounted there, was, incidentally, the only dream I have ever had in which I experienced the presence of God, another reason for my attaching such great importance to it.

An important related topic he also addresses is that of ‘hallucinations.’ People tend to be quite closed minded on this topic, seeing visions and voices as the sign of a mind gone wrong. This is quite unhelpful. There is a mass of evidence that I may come back to some time to indicate that ‘hallucinations’ range from the darkly destructive to the life enhancing and it important to pay close attention to the details of them and the circumstances under which they occur before coming to any conclusion about them. Our society’s default position, the result of exactly the backward step under discussion here that both psychology and psychiatry took in the name of pseudo-science, is harmful rather than helpful quite often (I have explored a more positive approach on this blog – see the six links to An Approach to Psychosis). Pim van Lommel’s research into NDEs replicates the same kind of pattern in that patients whose families and friends were unsympathetic took much longer to integrate their experiences and found it a more painful process than those who were met with support and understanding. He summarises this (page 51):

When someone first tries to disclose the NDE, the other person’s reaction is absolutely crucial. If this initial reaction is negative or skeptical, the process of accepting and integrating the NDE typically presents far greater problems than if this initial reaction is positive, sympathetic, or neutral. Evidence has shown that positive responses facilitate and accelerate the integration process. In fact, without the possibility of communication, the process of coming to terms with the NDE often fails to get under way at all.

We tend to underestimate the frequency of ‘hallucinations’ in the ‘normal’ population, something the Myers was already aware of (page 108):

One of the most important accomplishments of Myers, Guerney, and their colleagues in psychical research was in demonstrating the previously suspected, but as it turns out not infrequent, occurrence of hallucinations in normal, healthy individuals.

Not all them should be dismissed as fantasy (page 109):

These studies and surveys also demonstrated that such hallucinations are not always purely subjective in origin. Some, in fact, are veridical – that is, they involve seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing some event happening at a physically remote location. . . . . Using their own figures for the frequency with which people recall having hallucinations in a waking, healthy state, together with statistics regarding the incidence of death in the United Kingdom, they concluded that hallucinations coinciding with a death happened too frequently to be attributable to chance.

All in all, Myers’s mould-breaking approach to the mind and to the problems of consciousness is refreshing to say the least, and maps onto my own long-standing interests in spirituality, creativity and ‘psychosis.’ It was icing on the cake to find what he said about science and religion, a point to savour and a good note to end this post on (page 113) :

On the one hand, . . . he believed that science could ‘prove the preamble of all religions’ – namely, that the universe extends far beyond the perceptible material world. On the other hand., religion could contribute to ‘the expansion of Science herself until she can satisfy those questions which the human heart will rightly ask, but to which Religion alone has thus far attempted an answer.’