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At the end of the previous post I indicated that I would be exploring Assagioli’s perspective in more detail, as well as looking at the three levels of body, mind and spirit along with some of Jenny Wade’s levels of consciousness, all in the context of interconnectedness.

Not too much ground to cover, then, but it’ll take one more post after this to traverse it all.

At every level, it is important to emphasise, there are degrees of connectedness with aspects of reality outside ourselves. Our failure to realise those connections has seriously damaging consequences not just for us but for our relationship with all these aspects of our environment.

Ring and Valarino in their book Lessons from the Light, as I was already hinting at in the previous post, are clear that an NDE generally leads to a compelling realisation of our connectedness with all life. It is not only Mellon-Benedict’s experience, quoted in the diagram, but many others as well, and not just from their own studies. They quote Moody, one of whose respondents wrote:[1]

One big thing I learned when I died was that we are all part of one big, living universe. If we think we can hurt another person or another living thing without hurting ourselves we are sadly mistaken. I look at a forest or a flower or a bird and say, ’That is me, part of me.’ We are connected with all things and if we send love along these connections, then we are happy.

That is all very well, and Ring and Valarino are convinced that immersing ourselves in such descriptions of NDEs will help us move towards a similar level of consciousness, albeit somewhat diluted. However, even for those who find this works, and there are many who will not, this will probably fall short of creating deep and enduring changes in their perspective and ways of operating.

What else can we do to create and strengthen such a sense of connectedness?

Assagioli[2] sees the conscious self as ‘submerged in the ceaseless flow of psychological contents.’ The Higher Self, on the other hand,[3] is ‘above, and unaffected by, the flow of the mind-stream or by bodily conditions.’

The term he chooses to use to refer to the ‘psychic environment’ is Jung’s phrase ‘’collective unconscious,’ though he admits that Jung has not clearly defined the term. Different phrases have been used in different traditions in attempts to name some form of collective but subliminal consciousness which is hypothesised to exist. Yeats refers to it as the Anima Mundi. The Bahá’í Writings refer to the ‘universal mind’ as when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá responds to a woman’s letter advising her: ‘to forget this world of possession, become wholly heavenly, become embodied spirit and attain to universal mind. This arena is vast and unlimited . . . .’

For Assagioli the conscious self is simply[4] ‘a projection of its luminous source.’ Again there are parallels with the Bahá’í perspective. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains (Some Answered Questions), ‘the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit.’

We are not completely oblivious of all aspects of the spiritual dimension. Assagioli refers to a kind of ‘psychological osmosis’[5] that permits a degree of interpenetration. The barriers between us and a transcendent dimension are to some degree permeable.

Emily Kelly in Irreducible Mind quotes Myers in terms of his sense of the divide between spirit and matter:[6]

“The line between the ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial,’ as these words are commonly used, means little more than the line between the phenomena which our senses or instruments can detect or register and the phenomena which they can not.”

There are such models though:[7]

A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness.

This takes us very easily to the experience of reflection. Emily Kelly quotes Myers this time quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher:[8]

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…

Myers felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness:[9]

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.

What kind of methods might be applied to this task?

Perhaps it should not have been as surprising as it was to read just four pages on from my last quote for Lessons from the Light:[10]

Imagine a therapeutic technique that was itself based on an attempt to induce a life review type of experience. Indeed, we do not have simply to imagine such possibilities–they already exist in such approaches as psychosynthesis and holotropic breathwork…

My previous sequence of two posts about my breathwork and my references on this blog to Psychosynthesis and my application of the practice of disidentification indicate how closely my life experiences have been connected with these two threads.

As my earlier exploration of breathwork suggests, I am inclined to believe that this approach, connecting us as it does with our bodies, also helps us connect with nature and the earth.

This is not my current focus, valuable though that is. I am therefore now going to consider briefly Assagioli’s model as encapsulated in Psychosynthesis.

Assagioli goes into considerable detail concerning the methods we can use to mobilise ourselves to attain higher levels of consciousness, by organising our efforts around an ideal destination, by creatively following our intuitions, or best of all by blending the two approaches. I have definitely used both approaches at different times and under different circumstances.

However, as readers of this blog will be well aware, the most powerful tool I have ever found in his approach is disidentification, which maps to closely onto the practice of reflection, which I discovered first in Koestenbaum and later more profoundly explored in the Bahá’í Writings.

This exercise was an important step forward for me in the process of getting closer to the core of my being. The concept of reflection that Koestenbaum conveys moved me even further forward.

What did I take away from his definition that was so important?

Once I attempted to give advice to someone in a difficult situation. What I wrote was probably one of my best attempts to convey to someone else unfamiliar with the concept why reflection in Koestenbaum’s sense is so important.

This is the gist of it.

Reflection is not just thinking. We all think all the time. The trouble is we are stuck so close to the content of our thoughts that most of the time we never think about them. Stepping back from what we think, and thinking about it, is only the first step though.

We also stick too close to our beliefs, feelings and action patterns to see them for what they really are. We experience them as the world rather than as our simulation of the world. We just act them out a lot of the time as though that was the most natural and right thing in the world to do. Much of the time it may well be OK when these thoughts, beliefs, feelings and action patterns are benign, reasonably accurate or at least harmless. It’s not at all a good thing when they distort reality in ways that wreak havoc.

Koestenbaum contends that all reflection is painful. It requires stepping back from our most cherished assumptions and the wrench as we tear ourselves away can hurt like hell. Unless we sincerely strive to do that we will have no compassion for the other person who feels significantly differently, and we will have no ability to understand their point of view or modify our own.

The deepest trap in the failure to reflect is that we can mistake who we really are for something else. Ultimately reflection must involve stepping back even from our idea of ourselves if it is deeply mistaken.

This obviously enhances our capacity to connect with other people as well as with the earth we tread upon and the other forms of life that share the planet with us.

But there is more. This is where Koestenbaum and Assagioli overlap in what they are saying about how high we must take this skill.

While Koestenbaum’s pointer that the ‘extreme inward region of consciousness’ to which reflection enables us to get closer is what we in the West call God was extremely valuable, it was not until I found the Bahá’í Faith that I realised just how important two other factors in our behaviour were to this process of self-enhancement: consultation and service.

More of this next time along with an explanation of Tom Oliver’s quotes in the diagram.

References:

[1]. Lessons from the Light – page 177.
[2]. Psychosynthesis – page 18.
[3]. Op. cit.: page 19.
[4]. Op. cit.: page 20.
[5]. Op. cit.: page 19.
[6]. Irreducible Mind  – page 70.
[7]. Op. cit.: page 73.
[8]. Op. cit.: page 74.
[9]. Op. cit.: page 91.
[10]. Lessons from the Light – page 181.

Rita and Hubert 1954 by Alice Neel (scanned from Alice Neel: painter of modern life edited by Jeremy Lewison)

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly – . . . . I see something . . . . quite different from the masterly reproduction of the materials, something quite different from light and brown, something quite different from the colour – yet that something quite different is achieved by the precise rendering of the light effect, the material, the colour.

(Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 272)

Before Christmas I republished my sequence on Reality, Art and the Artist. This sequence is my somewhat unexpected attempt to dig deeply into this topic from a different angle.  It seemed useful to post this again in the New Year.

Just to set the record straight, in the last post I may have left readers with the impression that Neel just dealt in sour portraits of people she was miffed with. That is very far from the truth. I thought I’d include here one of her portraits of the disadvantaged people who do not normally find likenesses of their face hanging in galleries or selling for huge sums. Her dedication to portraying the oppressed delayed her due recognition till very late in life. Her motive was not gain but compassion. The portraits are still in part maps of her awareness of and responses to the subject as a person, a fellow human being, not just plain reproductions of their outer appearance. The courageous portrait above, at a time when the current of racism ran stronger than now in American society, testifies to that, I think.

Virginia Woolf at last!

Virginia Woolf takes her art as an exploration of her mind to another level.

When I read of how much ground she covered while at the same time reflecting really deeply on so much of her experience, I am lost in admiration, I’m green with envy.

I struggle to resolve the conflict between roaming widely and digging deeply. All too often I get the balance wrong. When I roam I become shallow, and am all too often haunted by FOMO (the fear of missing out, for the uninitiated). When I dig deep it feels too narrow. Somehow Woolf seems to have a breadth of understanding not compromised by shallowness. Few people manage to go deeper or wider at the same time.

However, I need to remind myself that this is not going to be my main focus right now before I get completely derailed again. I want to look at her ability to capture consciousness in words.

Before we look in detail at the core issue I need to deal briefly with the problem of Woolf’s mental state and the impact of that on her creativity, both detrimental in terms of undermining her capacity to write, or even to continue living normally, at times of acute distress, and potentially positive in terms of her openness to inner experience because of a more permeable filter between her conscious and her unconscious mental process.

Woolf’s mental state – psychosis, transliminality or mysticism?

My first port of call in seeking to understand Woolf’s state of mind is Julia Briggs. She flags up what typically happened when a novel was finished (page 41):

Virginia frequently experienced depression and sometimes despair on completing a major novel, whether because she feared hostile criticism, or because she couldn’t bear to let it go, or because the sheer effort of finishing it to her satisfaction had exhausted her – or perhaps a combination of all three.

To my relief, Briggs does not descend into simplistic diagnostics, but looks at Woolf as a person first and foremost. She comments that a diagnosis like that of neurasthenia (page 46):

implies an innate disorder, rather than explaining her attacks in terms of the shocks she had undergone, although the series of sudden deaths in her family, sexual abuse and, later, her difficulties within their marriage and the seven-year task of completing The Voyage Out might be considered sufficiently traumatic in themselves to account for her suicide attempt and the long collapse that followed.

It was a major and serious breakdown in March 1915.

Later in her book Briggs explains an aspect of the sexual abuse she refers to. The person involved was her half-brother (page 352):

A darker aspect of sexuality threatened when Gerald Duckworth lifted the small Virginia onto a marble slab in the hall and ‘began to explore my body. I can remember the feeling of his hand going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower… His hands explored my private parts.’

Hermione Lee devotes a whole chapter of her biography to ‘Abuses.’ Partly these related to Virginia’s father’s domineering and attention-seeking patterns after the death of his wife, but even more importantly to the sexually abusive and bullying behavior of Duckworth. Her conclusion was (pages 158-59):

Virginia Woolf thought that what had been done to her was very damaging. . . . She used George as an explanation for her terrifyingly volatile and vulnerable mental state, for her inability to feel properly, for her sexual inhibition. And yet she also violently resisted simplistic Freudian explanations of a life through childhood traumas, and would have been horrified by interpretations of her work which reduced it to a coded expression of neurotic symptoms.

Briggs is certainly not tempted to explain her work in terms of the trauma she experienced (page 47):

. . . in exploring “all the horrors of the dark cupboard of illness”, in dismantling the tidy filing cabinets of the comfortable and familiar to confront chaos, Woolf suffered from madness, as conventionally defined, yet there was also something of poetic frenzy in it, and her art drew on what she found there.

Her episodes of physical illness also had a positive side (page 220): ‘illness, she recognised, could function as a form of “lying in”, a process that brought the work to birth…’

What else can we glean of Woolf’s own angle on this from her diaries?

Her never having had children seems in the end to be at least as much a product of her own desires as it is a result of her husband Leonard’s possibly protective preferences (page 119):

… oddly enough I scarcely want children of my own now. This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of the shortness and feverishness of life, make me cling, like a man in a rock, to my one anchor. I don’t like the physicalness of having children of one’s own.

All of which makes her metaphor of ‘lying in’ during illness doubly intriguing.

She clearly explains To the Lighthouse as at least in part a way of exorcising the ghosts of her parents (page 138):

I used to think of him and mother daily; writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back sometimes, but differently. (I believe this to be true – but I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.)

She also acknowledges the slump into depression when a piece of work is finished (page 144):

Directly I stopped working I feel that I am sinking down, down. And as usual I feel that if I sink further I shall reach the truth.

Its consequences could have been potentially serious (page 229):

That’s the end of the book. I looked up past diaries – a reason for keeping them, and found the same misery after Waves – after Lighthouse I was, I remember, nearer suicide, seriously, than since 1913.

If ending a piece of work plunged her into the depths, working on one could lift her (page 143):

I pitched into my great lake of melancholy. Lord how deep it is! What a born melancholic I am! The only way I keep afloat is by working.

She even makes links between the creative act and her experiences of ‘madness’ such as after the completion of The Waves (page 169):

I wrote the words O death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad) I was almost afraid, remembering the voices that used to fly ahead.

And the creative experience was not without its tensions (page 209): ‘I think the effort to live in two spheres: the novel; and life; is a strain.’

There is the irritating tendency for the distraction of company to cause her to let slip valuable insights and inspirations (page 212):

I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it all slip – why? Because of feeding the goldfish, of looking at the new pond, of playing bowls. Nothing remains now. I forget what it was about.

Or to simply gobble up time and energy she could have used for writing (page 258):

I am again held up in the years by my accursed love of talk. That is to say, if I talk to Rose Macaulay from 4–6.30: to Elizabeth Bowen from 8–12 I have a dull heavy hot mop inside my brain next day and an prey to every flea, ant, gnat. So I have shut the book…

She was neither a recluse nor a socialite but found the balance between them hard to strike while being fully aware of the evils at either extreme (page 342): ‘Incessant company is as bad as solitary confinement.’

Her diaries confirm what at least two of her novels suggest: that there was a degree of transliminality about her consciousness. Things kept bubbling up from below its threshold. These could occur at any time (page 67):

But how entirely I live in my imagination; how completely depend upon spurts of thought, coming as I walk, as I sit; things shining up in my mind and so making a perpetual pageant, which is to be my happiness.

The work itself drew her ever deeper. Concerning the writing of Mrs Dalloway she wrote (page 69-74):

. . . it seems to leave me plunged deep in the richest strata of my mind. I can write and write and write now: the happiest feeling in the world. . . .

One thing, in considering my state of mind now, seems to be beyond dispute; that I have, at last, bored down into my oil well, and can’t scribble fast enough to bring it all to the surface.

Fishing is the metaphor she settled on at one point to describe it (page 271):

She talked about the creative process, describing it as one of apparent inertia, of “mooning”, in which the artist as fisherwoman lets herself “down into the depths of her consciousness”, surrendering herself to “the mysterious nosing about, feelings around, darts and dashes and sudden discoveries of that very shy and elusive fish the imagination.’

The Waves raises another possibility (page 247):

The originating experience had been one of ‘the mystical side of this solitude.’ Writing it out required her to ‘come to terms with mystical feelings’, to acknowledge, if not a universal consciousness, then at least a wider design and meaning to which art aspired. Though Woolf shared her father’s impatience with conventional religion, her novel (The Waves) took up the challenge thrown down in the concluding sentences of Fry’s Vision and Design, where the attempt to explain aesthetic emotion threatened to land its author ‘in the depths of mysticism.’

When I came to look closely at The Waves the issue of interconnectedness kept rearing its head. More of that later, I hope.

Her take on religion is intriguing, and maps onto that of other writers such as Yeats (page 398):

Though Woolf did not believe in a personal God, “A Sketch of the Past” shows that she did believe in some kind of “world soul” embodied in beauty, form and meaning, and transmitted by great artists: ‘all human beings – are connected with this;… the whole world is a work of art;… we are parts of the work of art…

All in all it would be unwise to explain her creativity simply in terms of her vulnerable state of mind and her traumatic early experiences. However, it is possible that her intensity, her access to aspects of consciousness that elude most of us, and her moments of almost mystical experience helped shape the unprecedented focus of some of her later work, work that has drawn me in because of its almost unique ability to convey the experience of consciousness in words.

With luck, I should begin to address that more directly next time!

Van Gogh decided to concentrate on portraits . . . . In this field, he resolved to surpass photography, which, he felt, remained lifeless at all times, while ‘painted portraits have a life of their own, which springs straight from the painter’s soul and which no machine can approach.’

(Letters of Vincent van Gogh pages 311-12)

Before Christmas I republished my sequence on Reality, Art and the Artist. This sequence is my somewhat unexpected attempt to dig deeply into this topic from a different angle.  It seemed useful to post this again in the New Year.

At the end of the previous post, I flagged up Julia Brigg’s book on Virginia Woolf, a brilliant tour of the writer’s mind. Within it there are a host of insights into aspects of the creative process related to mental health and reflection, or perhaps more accurately in Woolf’s case, creative introspection. Whatever the right term is, part of her genius lies in her capacity to capture in words the subtleties and complexity of consciousness, including the rambling associative networks that can hijack attention at any moment.

I indicated that before plunging deep into Woolf’s approach to consciousness I was going to take a look at some paintings. They’re easier to use as an initial illustration of what I will be exploring.

Capturing Consciousness in Paint

I’ve blogged already about how the portraits painted by Alice Neel captivated me some time back, and how at roughly the same time I was reacquainting myself with David Jones, the poet, and discovering that he was also a painter.

Between them they illustrate clearly what I want to explore in more detail in a moment, mainly in terms of Virginia Woolf as novelist.

When we look at one of Alice Neel’s collection of souls (she termed herself a ‘collector of souls’) what am I seeing? Does she paint the appearance of the person or is she trying to capture her awareness, her impression of the person? There is a difference. I am aware that no painting could exclude some degree of subjectivity. What I am trying to tease out is whether some artists are more concerned to convey the contents of their consciousness, rather than to simply capture a faithful and exact likeness of the subject, and that this tendency can vary along a spectrum.

Rhoda Myers 1930 by Alice Neel (scanned from Alice Neel: painter of modern life edited by Jeremy Lewison)

Rhoda Myers 1929 (scanned from Belcher and Belcher)

Rhoda Myers

If we look at a portrait she painted of a close friend at the time, alongside a photograph taken of the same friend within twelve months, it might give us some clues. I have cropped the portrait at just below shoulder level, as the almost skeletal body of the figure would load the dice too far when we come to compare a cosy coat in the photograph with the exposed nude in the painting.

Even so the painting is darker. To be honest, if I didn’t know, I wouldn’t realise they are pictures of the same person.The accompanying text in the book of paintings suggests that Rhoda Myers is somehow resisting the painter and this is what is being picked up (Lewison: page 76). My sense is that, because Neel knew that Myers was drifting inexorably towards marriage and hated the idea of someone choosing domesticity over art as well as leaving her coterie in the process, this is what we see projected into the image as well. The question that the Belchers raise in their biographies of Rhoda and Alice seems more to the point (page 128): ‘Did her own turbulent emotions distort Rhoda’s face?’ If so, do we feel that this was to a significant extent, so that what we are doing when we look at the picture is entering Neel’s mind rather than the objective world. I suspect the painting has crossed this line.

I’m not discussing here whether what Neel conveys of her inscape adds to the value of the portrait: I’m simply saying that some mapping of her mind is taking place. The question of quality will come up later.

Lady Prudence Pelham 1930 by David Jones (scanned from The Art of David Jones: vision and memory by Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills)

Prudence Pelham 1935 (scanned from David Jones: engraver, soldier, painter, poet by Thomas Dilworth)

Prudence Pelham

Similarly is David Jones not trying to paint reality but to paint his consciousness of reality which includes pulling items into his picture from his activated associative map?

When, early in his career, his portraits are relatively close in appearance to the subject, this may not be a major issue as we see when we compare his painting of Lady Prudence Pelham above with a reasonably contemporary photograph. Even so, the person in the photo lacks the aura the painting lends her, and not because she’s five years older: the aura is a projection of what is in Jones’ mind. As Bankes and Hills explain (page 86-88), ‘He fell in love with her spirit, wit and originality. . . He was . . . in awe of her courage, for she suffered from incurable and encroaching sclerosis, which gave her constant pain and prevented her sculpting; . . . [her] portrait . . . conveys fragility and radiance in equal measure. . . We are in no doubt about the strength of spirit that underlies Prudence’s frail physical beauty, and which touched Jones so profoundly.’ They point out she dominates her surroundings ‘that are rendered with a sketchiness that make all subservient to her.’

I have to add one more comment of my own into the mix. I do not know if Jones had read Yeats’ A Prayer for my Daughter. I suspect not. Even though Yeats met him on one occasion, Jones did not seem well-disposed to his work. Even so, the presence of a bellows in the bottom right hand corner of the picture rang bells for me.

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

I am assuming that, if he had read the poem, Prudence would be on display as an example of the exact opposite of the type Yeats disdainfully describes in the poem. Either way, my picking up on what might have been an incidental detail and using it to read Jones’ mind is an approach his later pictures require if they are to be properly understood, in my view.

Female Warden during the Blitz (scanned from Bankes and Hills again)

Female Warden during the Blitz

To illustrate this possibility I have chosen a fairly straightforward picture of the Female Warden during the Blitz (Bankes and Hills – page 130), straightforward in the sense that it is very obvious where the Warden is standing and that she is in uniform, but there are all sorts of anomalies as well that bring other associations with them. Bankes and Hills link it thematically to a picture too complex to bring in here, Aphrodite in Aulis. They comment (page 130):

Whereas Aphrodite relates Greek myth to the present, the small drawing Female Warden during the Blitz . . . is a more private fantasy triggered by London in wartime. . . . The carpentering of the image is strong: ‘W’ stands out in bold on her helmet; three chevrons on her sleeve and an arrow on the wall behind point downwards to the low doorway to her right. Cigarette and torch in hand, like a sexy usherette she wards the entry both to pleasure and to the underworld.

They equate the cat to the soldiers near to the chained Aphrodite in his other picture.

For me they leave too many important question unanswered.

Why is she falling asleep? Is this simply an accurate depiction of a sleep-deprived warden he saw on the street, or does it have some other connotation meaningful to him, to do perhaps with our sleep-walking into war at the expense of women?

Why is the uniformed leg so grossly enlarged? Does it evoke a sense of male soldiers in uniform with all that this implies about war as being prosecuted mainly by the men it also kills? He was traumatised by his experiences of the First World War and I feel such thoughts could not have been too far from his mind.

Does it go further than that? The ‘W’ could simply stand for ‘Warden,’ but might it not also signify ‘Woman’? The significance of the cat notwithstanding, Bankes and Hills seem to ignore the obvious point that the female air-raid warden embodies both soldier in combat and captured Aphrodite. She therefore, for me, embodies the all-too-frequent grotesque and unequal conflict between feminine sexuality and male aggression, female nurturing and male destruction.

And we are invited to speculate more than they do, I feel, about where the door leads. The underworld, yes. Maybe even hell, in more Christian terms that would make sense to the Catholic in Jones. May be even simply being underground, in the sense of dead and buried, something many must have been uncomfortably aware of as they fled the bombs down tube station steps? Certainly not just some nightclub, as we all seem to agree.

And if Aphrodite is the goddess of love, beauty and procreation, not just of pleasure, are not all these positives scarred and disfigured if not destroyed by war, and might this be in part what the image is representing in terms of what is in Jones’ mind?

It may be worth explicitly acknowledging at this point that, while Jones’ conscious intention may have been the driving force behind the allusive nature of his painting, even he would have agreed that he may have ended up communicating more than he consciously intended. From experience I have learned that my poems are often saying more than I realise at the moment of composition. Unconscious responses leak whatever our avowed intentions. That doesn’t, though, in my view, detract from the main thrust of my argument here: it simply extends it.

Where next?

I needn’t labour it any more, I think. This is a picture of his mind, not of the world outside, and it is impossible to take it as a literal representation of the world out there. His many other more complex paintings for me testify to how his experience as a cartographer in the First World War equipped him in a way to paint maps of his mind, and the associative networks within it, as it reacted to experience, myth and art.

So, are Neel and Jones therefore closer than they seem even though we appear to see a person first and foremost in her paintings and in his we see something more like a map? They may be both trying to do the same thing in different ways, to capture consciousness at the moment it is triggered by the world. They may only be differing in the lengths to which they are prepared to go in pursuit of the elusive goal of rendering consciousness visible in line and colour. Neel was notoriously hostile to abstraction in art: Jones’ position was more nuanced.

Mapping consciousness to this degree is perhaps a logical extension of an aspect of Impressionism in art and free indirect speech in the novel, so therefore not entirely unique to the Twentieth Century, though its manifestations were more extreme in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m not contending that this is the sole criterion for judging a work of art but it is a key one for my purposes as a student of consciousness.

Which brings us to Woolf’s amazing ability to make consciousness accessible in words on a page. More, much more of that next time including some key quotes from her diaries.

Towards the end of the previous post I noted that the Transactional Analysis concept of the Somatic Child[1] whose being is largely confined to ‘bodily functions and reactions’ maps closely onto aspects of Assagioli’s Lower Unconscious[2] with its focus on ‘fundamental drives and primitive urges.’ However, there is far more to say about the way our bodies shape and influence our minds. Peter Levine’s book on trauma, In an Unspoken Voice explores some of the most telling aspects of this relationship, spelling out its important implications. So, let us have a closer look at the implications of a slightly expanded version of the diagram.

Levine on the Body

I have dealt, albeit briefly, with some aspects of how understanding our bodies better helps us heal our traumatic wounds, so I won’t be dwelling on that here. My focus will be more on giving a sense of Levine’s more general perspective on the body-mind relationship.

He understands and accepts the top-down aspect:[3]

In the final analysis, for better or for worse, we cannot escape the fact that we are constrained by our brain’s influences and operations on our bodies.

However, he is also keen to point out that this is in fact a two-way street:[4]

Less flattering to our egocentrism, [a] (r)evolutionary “bottom-up” perspective focuses on an archaic, homeostatic, survival function as the template of neural organisation and consciousness.

In the same way as McGilchrist’s book The Master & his Emissary argues cogently for a coherent and properly balanced relationship between the two halves of the brain, Levine is arguing, in a degree of detail I am not going to attempt to reproduce here, for a similar constructive balance between three different parts of the brain. He explains, in all the evidence he quotes at this point, (page 206 – my inserts in italics) that when ‘the brain stem’s reptilian and rhythmic needs (brain system 1), the limbic system’s need for emotional connection (brain system 2), and the neocortex’s need to hear consistent calming words converge (brain system 3), [are] all met’ we are in balance.

If there is a significant breakdown in this inter-relationship, massive disruptions to rational behaviour can occur.

He makes an interesting observation that I didn’t see coming:[5]

Our tendency is to identify with our thoughts to such an extent that we confuse them with reality; we believe that we are our thoughts.

This sounds so close to the idea of disidentification, explored in the previous post, that it seems inevitable he would now start talking about separating consciousness from its contents by a process some call reflection. However, he sees the solution instead as lying in developing a greater awareness of our body, and describes an exercise which seeks to do precisely that. It’s a kind of kinaesthetic mindfulness, involving for example[6] ‘[w]hile keeping your eyes closed, slowly contract the hand… into a fist; then once again open it. With the eyes still closed, focus all your attention on this opening and closing as you repeat the movement.’

He feels that[7] ‘rather than automatically reacting to . . . our instincts, we can explore them mindfully, through the vehicle of sensate awareness. To be embodied… means that we are guided by our instincts, while simultaneously having the opportunity to be self-aware of that guidance.’

Without this awareness we will continue to do violence not just to ourselves but to the planet:[8]

Without access to the sentient body nature becomes something out there to be controlled and dominated. Disembodied, we are not a part of nature, graciously finding our humble place within its embrace.

Interestingly, this idea of the need for more humility in our relationship with nature is also forcefully endorsed by Bahá’u’lláh (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Wilmette, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988, page 44):

Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men. There can be no doubt that whoever is cognizant of this truth, is cleansed and sanctified from all pride, arrogance, and vainglory….

In the end, for Levine,[9] ‘[t]he balanced attention to sensation, feeling, cognition and an élan vital (life energy) remains the emergent therapeutic future for transforming the whole person.’

There is much of value in the case he puts for an appropriate and balanced awareness of the body as well as the mind. His arguments enrich our understanding of experience. However, for me he takes a step in the wrong direction by discounting the spiritual as a transcendent force to be reckoned with at the other end of our mind’s spectrum. While he accepts that people have spiritual experiences, he sees them as essentially bi-products of our embodiment: as one of his chapters puts it ‘we’re just a bunch of animals.’

A Spiritual Dimension

There are many posts on his blog that point towards the evidence for a spiritual dimension to reality. I won’t be rehearsing all of that just now. Here I’m going to remain focused on the life enhancing value of a strong transcendent spiritual perspective. Before I look in more detail at Assagioli’s take on this, it’s perhaps worth quoting a different source from the literature on Near Death Experiences (NDEs).

Kenneth Ring and Evelyn Valarino, in their book, Lessons from the Light[10] describe the impact of an NDE as leading to ‘an increased sense of self worth, the loss of the fear of death, an unshakable awareness of the unity of all life, a commitment to environmental activism on behalf of the earth, a thirst for knowledge, and… the importance of helping others.’

Of equal interest is their analysis of what they consider to be the three categories into which an NDE’s impacts on a person’s life divide.[11] The first category is what they term ‘the beatific vision.’ It is through this that the person ‘realises the perfection of the universe and, because one is not separate from the universe but an indispensable and integral part of it, one’s own perfection as well.’ What struck me immediately upon re-reading this was how it mirrored our deep connection with the earth at the lower physical level, as described by Levine.

Their second category is comprised of ‘earthly realisations.’ Most of this list was mentioned in my quotation from page 9, but also now includes, on the basis of a consideration of all the NDE’s on file, ‘expressing empathic love and concern for others,’ and ‘the need to turn away from a competitive lifestyle or one based on material acquisition.’

Personal revelation’ is their third category, where the lessons learned are ‘particularised to the needs and circumstances of the NDEr.’

This last is interesting for a group of reasons. People are inspired ‘to live more authentic lives, more in keeping with their previously dormant gifts and propensities.’ Each individual is able to ‘glimpse something of his or her true self and its vocation in the world.’ Ring and Valarino believe ‘that this authentic or true self’ is ‘something that is the Light’s function to disclose to the individual.’ They also speak of a ‘false self.’ These two selves may correspond at least in part to the Higher Self and the Conscious Self of Psychosynthesis.

When I read this I was reminded of the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when he explained how dark the consequences can be if we fail to follow the promptings of our soul:[12]

. . . if the spiritual qualities of the soul, open to the breath of the Divine Spirit, are never used, they become atrophied, enfeebled, and at last incapable; whilst the soul’s material qualities alone being exercised, they become terribly powerful.

Ring and Valarino describe the false self as ‘socially constructed.’ Again the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá were ringing in my ears at this point. In Some Answered Questions (Chapter 57) He describes us as possessing three kinds of character: ‘ the innate character, the inherited character, and the acquired character.’ The inherited character is morally neutral and has its main impact upon our health. Not so the other two. He said our ‘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.’

Time to pause for a moment. Next time I will be exploring Assagioli’s perspective in more detail, as well as looking at the three levels of body, mind and spirit along with Jenny Wade’s levels of consciousness in the context of interconnectedness. I’ll need also to explain why the heart symbol is labelled ‘understanding heart,’ the meaning of which I struggled to decode in my first months as a Bahá’í.

Complicated enough for you?

References

[1]. TA: the Total Handbook of Transactional Analysis by Woollams and Brown – page 11.
[2]. Psychosynthesis – page 17.
[3]. In an Unspoken Voice – page 249.
[4]. Op cit: page 254.
[5]. Op. cit.: page 274.
[6]. Op. cit.: page 273.
[7]. Op. cit.: page 278.
[8]. Op. cit.: page 286.
[9]. Op. cit.: page 309.
[10] Lessons from the Light – page 9.
[11] Op. cit.: pages 49-52.
[12] Paris Talks, p. 97.

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

Vincent to Theo – March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh page 272)

Before Christmas I republished my sequence on Reality, Art and the Artist. This sequence is my somewhat unexpected attempt to dig deeply into this topic from a different angle.  It seemed useful to post this again in the New Year.

Distraction

Last Monday was not my best meditation day.

I was doing quite well till my mind got hooked by my shirt. I found myself suddenly remembering how I thought twice before letting its red corduroy comfort go to the charity shop as part of our current declutter. Red shirt led to blue shirt, which led to blue jacket, blue trousers and Crewe Station. I was there again. Just as I was boarding the train, one foot on the platform and one foot in the air above the step, carrying luggage that should have made it clear I was a passenger, someone tapped me on the shoulder thinking I was a guard and asked me what platform the Liverpool train was leaving from. I turned to look at them and put my foot down between the platform and the train, scraping the skin neatly off my shin as I did so. Fortunately I dropped my bags on the platform and not on the line. I used a tissue to staunch the blood between Crewe and Hereford. Rather than go straight home, I called in on a friend who got out the TCP and Elastoplast. I still remember the sting to this day. I remembered that this was the friend I’d called on once before 20 years earlier, when – and this came vividly back to me despite the span of time – driving home tired down the Callow at the end of a long week, I was overtaking (legally at the time) in the middle lane (they’ve blocked that option since for downhill traffic), when I saw a car coming up the hill doing the same thing. The long lorry I was halfway past was picking up speed. All I could do was brake. As I tried to pull in slightly too soon, I caught the Lada on the back end of the truck. Fortunately the Lada was made of sterner stuff than most cars at the time and didn’t completely cave in or get derailed, but it was pulled out of shape and the near side front tyre was blown. I pulled into the side of the road and, with the help of the lorry driver who had stopped to check I was OK, changed the tyre. The car was slightly wobbly as I drove off and I knew it was not a good idea to drive it all the way home. I was amazed to pass a parked police car on the way with no interest shown on their part. So, I drove to my friend’s and parked the car on his front lawn, the only safe space off the road. He had a bit of a shock when he got home from work. At this point I snapped out of my trance of associations and brought my mind back to the focus of my meditations, shaking of my irritation with myself and my slight reactivation of the Lada-on-the-lawn stress as best I could.

Incidentally, I don’t wear blue anymore when I’m travelling.

Reflection

For this and other reasons I am revisiting an all-too familiar theme: reflection. To bring on board those who might not have read all my earlier posts on this issue I’ll pull in now a brief quotation from some time ago. It comes from a book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Hayes et al. It is attempting to explain that transient states of mind and mere self-descriptions are all too often mistaken for our true self. To help people step back from such identifications the authors liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board (page 192):

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.

Peter Koestenbaum makes essentially the same point more abstractly in his excellent book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

Personally, while I find the ACT analogy helpful, I prefer the idea of a mirror and its reflections, partly I suppose because it uses the same word in a different but helpful sense. Our mind or consciousness is the mirror and all our experiences, inside and out, are simply reflections in that mirror: they are not who we are, not even the most intense feelings, our most important plans, or the strongest sense of self. We have to learn to see them as simply the contents of consciousness. Only that way can we tune into deeper and wiser levels of our being. Mindfulness at its best can enable us to identify with pure awareness rather than with whatever transient trigger has grabbed our attention.

I have been working fairly hard (not hard enough probably, as the derailed meditation at the start of this post suggests) to put the insights explored in that sequence of posts into action.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 (for source of image see link)

Capturing Consciousness

It has led into me into some interesting territory.

While I was exploring the concept of transliminality even further back in time I came across A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf edited by her husband Leonard after her death by suicide. I was drawn to examine what she wrote in case it shed light on my attempt to link creativity, thresholds of consciousness and so-called psychotic experiences together.

Long before I could integrate what I found there into my model, my focus of interest had typically moved on: my mind is still more of a butterfly than a bee, despite my best efforts so far.

However, the Woolf issue was still stalking the door of my consciousness, whether I was aware of it or not.

As part of my decluttering, I am in the process, as I have mentioned elsewhere, of checking whether I still need all the books I have bought over the years. I take a book off its shelf at random from time to time, open it and see if I have read it or not. Sometimes there are highlighter pen marks within and I put it back, at least for the time being. Sometimes there aren’t and occasionally it’s not even got my name signed on the flyleaf. In which case I dip into it and read a few random pages. I reported on having done that recently with a biography of Hardy. I repeated the same process with Julia Briggs’ account of the creative life of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf: an inner life.

Same outcome: no way that was going to the Oxfam bookshop.

Why not?

Basically her book was a brilliant tour of the writer’s mind. Within that there were a host of insights into aspects of the creative process related to mental health and reflection, or perhaps more accurately in Woolf’s case, creative introspection. Whatever the right term is, part of her genius lies in her capacity to capture in words the subtleties and complexity of consciousness, including the rambling associative networks that can hijack attention at any moment.

Before we tackle that head on, in the next post I’m going to make a detour via some paintings.

Given the theme of my next post, this seemed a good poem to republish. 

(freely adapted from Ken Ring: Lessons from the Light pages 286-91)

. . . . . the next thing – I’m standing in this dark room
there’s my body on the bed and a deep darkness
I’m here and I’m also over there
one whole wall in the room a dark forest
the sun rising behind it and a path out through the woods.

Ah!
I realise what’s happening.
If I go up that path to the edge of the woods into that light
I’ll be dead.
Yet it’s so peaceful.

I move up the path. The light grows massive. I see memories
of all my sadness. I urge, “Stop!”
Everything stops! I’m shocked. I realize
I can talk to the light and it responds!

I am rising into this tunnel of light.
I ask, “What is this light? What are you really?”
The light reveals itself directly, vividly, to my mind.
I can feel it, I can feel this light in me.
And the light unfolds its message in my mind:
“I could be Jesus, I could be Buddha,
I could be Krishna. It’s how you see me.”

But desperate for understanding
I insist, “But what are you really?”
The light changes into a mandala of souls
all our souls, our true selves, are fused,
we are one being,
we are the same being,
distinct aspects of the same Being.
I enter this mandala of human souls
white hot with all the love we’ve ever wanted,
a love that can heal everything, everyone

I’m desperate to know, really know

I am taken into the light and
instantly the world shrinks with distance
the solar system’s pinpricks
without moving I see galaxies upon galaxies
dancing across cold empty blackness
my consciousness is expanding so fast

here comes another light right at me
I hit this light
I dissolve
I disappear
I understand

I have passed the singularity
I have traversed the big bang
I went through that membrane into this –
the Void
I am aware of everything
that has ever been created
I’m looking out of God’s eyes
I know why every atom is

then everything reverses
I return through the singularity
I understand that everything since that first word
is actually the first vibration
there is a place before any vibration was

after the Void, I returned knowing
that God is not only there
God is here
everything is here – no need to search
while we are now God’s always