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Archive for March, 2011

The shortcomings of my memory described in the last post were bad enough, but what is even more disconcerting about it is that, even when I am exerting myself to the utmost, the full truth of my own potentially retrievable past can evade me and remain completely hidden for decades, and in some cases for life.

Recently, I was forcibly reminded of that fact.

Soon after I became a Bahá’í, almost 30 years ago, I wrote a poem fairly obviously ‘after the manner’ of George Herbert with a less obvious reference, in its abstractions, to Andrew Marvell‘s enigmatic minor masterpiece, The Definition of Love. I didn’t consciously presume to do that – it just came out that way. The first draft I have tracked back to January 1983 – so that’s a fact at least, which is a relief after the will-o’-the-wisp realities of the previous post.

Thief in the Night

Down the dark spinning stairway of my years
Under exalted space,
Abandoned, yet galled by compassion’s spears,
I walked with a blank face
Beneath my searching soul’s long scrutiny,
Wild in despair and helpless mutiny.

At last, locked in denial’s icy vault,
Belying the Sun’s power,
I outfroze each noon – congealed in my fault,
Blinded deafened by dour
Distrust, unmoving – proud perversity
Defrauding me of all tranquillity.

You, with a robber’s skill, intruded there,
Behind my barricades,
Contemptuous of lock and heavy bar.
God speed the Thief who raids
From Magnanimity!  Dear Lord, You left
Me rich in peace, only of pain bereft.

At the time of writing I was a bit uncomfortable about the poem. I was pleased it had come out onto the page needing relatively little editing. I was embarrassed about how overblown the language seemed to be as a description of a shift from atheism to faith: ‘I’ve only moved house from my old mild atheism to this tolerant faith,’ I said to myself, ‘Though the foundations are different, much of the furniture looks the same. It’s true that I’m much happier, but it’s not as though I’ve escaped from Topcliffe‘s dungeon.’

The truth was I did not understand my own poem fully. I only came to a true understanding much later – about three weeks ago in fact. The seed of that insight was in my last experience of therapy as a client about twenty six years ago.

Why did I go back there now? Well, a close friend asked me recently what my experience of Rebirthing had been like. In telling her I came to see a link that I had been blind to before, because I had never previously put the poem and the experience I am about to describe in the same frame of reference. This is true but barely credible given that the therapy took place less than three years after I wrote the poem. What stunned me most however is conveyed by that simple word – ‘after.’ I had written the poem before I knew what it meant.

Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition.  These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning.  Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

I found a therapist in Much Wenlock near where Housman had found the woods in trouble. I didn’t know how much trouble of a different kind I was going find. I went for eight sessions and it was the last one that brought about the dramatic shift in consciousness. It was on 11 July 1985, two and a half years after the poem was written: I have a journal entry to prove it. Another fact, thank goodness. The session lasted over three hours, and three hours was meant to be the maximum time I was paying for. I think the experience accounts for the brinkmanship.

So, there I was in the back room of a small cottage, lying on a mattress along the wall, a stone fireplace nearby, with the therapist on a cushion by my side. I can’t remember her name, which is rather sad. It’s fortunate that she ignored the clock for this session – a generous piece of good judgement for which I am extremely grateful.

The breathing had gone well as usual but this time, after less than half and hour, I began to tremble, then shiver, then shake uncontrollably. This was not a result of hyperventilation: I’d got past that trap long ago. She quietly reminded me that I simply needed to watch the experience and let go. Watching was no problem. Letting go was quite another matter. I couldn’t do it. I knew that it must be fear by now, but the fear remained nameless, purely physical. And this was the case for more than two hours of breathing. Eventually, we agreed that, in terms that made sense for me, Bahá’u’lláh was with me at this moment and no harm could befall me. There could be no damage to my soul and almost certainly no damage to my body.

And at that moment I let go.

Several things happened then that would be barely credible if I had not experienced it myself.

First, the quaking literally dissolved in an instant – the instant I let go – into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. My experience of the energy had been completely transformed.

Secondly, I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time.

This was not new material. I had always known that something like it happened. I had vague memories of the ward I was on and the gurney that took me to the operating theatre.  What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts. And yet I had no difficulty retaining it and explaining it to the therapist. And I remember it still without having taken any notes at all at the time that I can now find. The journal entry recording the event is a single line – no more.

And what were the thoughts?

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

This was more like a preverbal injunction to myself for which my adult mind found words instantly. For the child I was at the time, it had been a white-hot blend of intolerable pain and unshakable determination. It shaped a creed that had been branded on my heart at that traumatic moment, and its continuing but invisible hold on me till the explosion of insight was why it had taken me so long to let go.

At that young age I began to grow the carapace that would lead me eventually to feel safe only in trusting no one but myself. The shell continued to hide its origins even from me as its creator until that moment. It was the root of my atheism, the root that I had concealed from myself and everyone else for so many years. That was the true source of the poem, which I had completely failed to recognise even though I wrote it.

Sorry to bang on so emphatically about the degree of concealment, but I was, and perhaps still am, reeling from the shock of discovering something that, once discovered, looked as though it should have been obvious – what the poem really meant.

I had to revisit my faith in Bahá’u’lláh, before I could rediscover the root, and it was only that faith which enabled me to trust the therapist, to trust the therapy, and to let go. Otherwise I’d have been frozen in my fault forever. And when I used that phrase to describe the situation to my friend was when I remembered the poem again. So, it was not until three decades later, when I described that self-work to my friend about three weeks ago, that I fully understood the poem I had written so soon after becoming a Bahá’í. This probably makes the poem a failure for anyone who doesn’t know the background (perhaps even if they do). It seems, maybe, to be straining for an effect beyond the reach of its apparent subject.

(I am aware that this account so far begs a rather important question: how could I have embraced the Bahá’í Faith, or any form of religion, in the first place when, at the core of my being, I harboured such a distrustful script? There is a post that goes some way towards answering that, but the issue needs to be addressed more fully at another time, I think.)

I had cloaked myself from a conscious realisation of what I really meant in the poem, presumably to protect myself from the pain of it. Blind as I was to its true meaning, the imagery of cold for instance seemed over the top to me, until I understood the chloroform connection.  When you breath in chloroform it feels as though your lungs are filling with ice and unconsciousness invades your mind like a freezing gale blowing upwards from your chest. Then there is a dizzy plunge into oblivion – which makes more sense of the ‘dark spinning stairway of my years.’ The chloroform makes sense also of why a breathing therapy should be the one to help me re-integrate this trauma into consciousness.

I think it’s best to leave those who are curious, to pick up on any other parallels for themselves, if anyone has an appetite for the task. If it wasn’t my trauma, or someone’s I cared about, I’m not sure I would want to do that kind of work on it.

There is another question that I can’t ignore, much as I wish I could. Why should I trust this memory anymore than the one I deconstructed to such deflating effect in the previous post?

There is, of course, no completely convincing answer to that.

All I can say is that I do trust the amber of the core experience, not least because it is qualitatively different from the episodic memories that provide its setting and which are so susceptible to confabulation. My recollection of the details that surround the crucial moment are extremely vague. I can’t even be sure at this distance in time what the therapist looked like. The core memory has little or no such potentially counterfeit detail to undermine its credibility. Its glowing resin, of pure thought and emotion fused together, held such immediacy and power it was completely compelling. That’s why I believe I can trust it and I do.

I expect you’re hoping that I won’t be going back to memory lane any time soon. I’m glad I returned there this time though.  I’m not planning a third part called Memory (3/3): the perfect reproduction of events. I’m not going to write about elves either.

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. . . the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf. . . . .
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?

(John Keats: Ode to a Nightingale)

What seems like years ago I promised my wife I’d work on all those VHS camcorder cassettes we had buried in shoe boxes and make them digital. This Christmas I finally got round to starting on the task. Little did I think I’d end up playing the ghost of Christmas past to my own Scrooge. I sat and watched these images of people who had died and images of selves that had passed away with such a strange mixture of emotions.

It’s not everyday you have to encounter yourself as though you were somebody else, but I’ve been doing rather a lot of that recently, forced by circumstance to meet my old selves in video or scribble form. This post is going to have faint echoes of Krapp’s Last Tape, but without the existential dread you’ll be relieved to know.

I have subjected the readers of this blog to several depressing posts about memory lane. For those who know the kind of thing that’s coming, this may be the moment to move on to something else. I’m afraid I’ve been ambling down the pathways of the past again, but from a different angle this time and over somewhat different terrain.

What made it spookier was that some of the memories, which had already been transferred from their camera cassettes by some ham-fisted professional, were held on an ordinary VHS cassette with some of the images so blurred and distorted they looked like hybrids of impressionist paintings and bizarre moments from a fading dream. I have included one of those images at the top of this post.

Other aspects of memory, in terms of what goes on in my head compared with what ends up on paper that I forget, have proved equally spooky though in a different way. The first situation I describe was just a bit weird: the second was something I’d rather ignore, but I can’t.

In the previous sequence of posts I talked of the way I used to interweave notes from my reading with scraps of information about my day.  When I wrote those posts I was trying to track down a page reference for the Koestenbaum quote (I still haven’t found it – there are pages and pages of notes from his book and I haven’t had the time to read through them all). On a scrap of paper at the very point where I began my search are the notes I made after throwing coins for a reading of the I-Ching on 30 August 1982. I wrote, as a gloss on Hexagram 45 Gathering Together, ‘religion as the basis of gathering together’ and ‘only collective moral force can unite the world’ (Richard Wilhelm: pages 616 and 175), alongside a quote from Sam Reifler, who calls the Hexagram Accord:

The path that is right for you has as its basis community devotion and a communal spiritual sympathy.

As an introverted atheist at the time I presumably felt all this was very wide of the mark, but wrote it down, as I was in the habit of doing, as a way of tracking the bibliomancy systematically in case it ever amounted to anything. Interestingly, as far as I can remember, I’ve never read those words again since I noted them down at the time. I never remembered writing them down until now. So much for the tracking theory of my motivation.

I also failed until now to register their uncanny prescience. I accept that it might have been the power of suggestion rather than of prophecy. Or it could be that the process of using the I-Ching did what it says on the tin – it resonates with and gives you information about the deeper levels of your being. Maybe it was just a coincidence: these ideas are central to the philosophy of the I-Ching and come up often. I used to throw the I-Ching a lot so some hits of this kind were bound to happen sooner or later. Anyway, it made for weird reading at this remove of time given that in December that same year I committed myself to exactly that kind of path with no clue in August that this was where I was heading, and I never threw the I-Ching again.

This rather added to the force of the surprise of discovering that I had read the Koestenbaum book in the month immediately before I realised I was a Bahá’í, rather than some years before, as I had always thought. Given that both the reading of his book and my committing to the Bahá’í path were events of great significance to me, it’s a bit deflating to realise that I had failed to retain how closely connected they were in time, and perhaps also in how the one paved the way for the other. That I transferred a lot of the Koestenbaum notes onto sheets of paper for some talks I was giving about a year or so later, didn’t seem to help me make the link, I’m afraid. It seems that my mind  sometimes, perhaps often, continues to believe what it wants to believe, until forced to do otherwise.

Which brings me onto the next example of how memory works. It involves a complete distortion and will pave the way for an even more disconcerting example in the next post. When anyone used to ask me to tell them about situations where my declaration as a Bahá’í brought me into conflict with the assumptions of my profession as a psychologist, I was a touch too happy to share the story of the time I went for an informal interview for a clinical post soon after I qualified. I was walking with the neuropsychologist, I would say, down towards her office. She was dressed in a white coat so she looked like a doctor from the back. The only thing missing was a stethoscope.

As we walked she cast a sideways glance at me and said: ‘Thank goodness Blackmore has finally put paid to the idea of God, don’t you agree?’

‘Not really,’ I distinctly remembered saying,’I have an idea about God that I believe in.’

She glared at me, as I vividly recalled it, and we walked the rest of the short way to her office in silence.

I come out of that version of events reasonably well and believed, until late last month, that this was exactly what happened, not that I’ve had cause to tell that story in recent years. I believed it until, that is, I read my journal of that period looking for the page reference. Imagine my feelings when I discovered, in my own hand-writing, an almost completely different version of events. First of all it happened in September. I didn’t hear about the Bahá’í Faith until November. First hole below the waterline. I wrote:

She wore a white coat [at least I got that right] with her name written on a badge. My revulsion against psychologists who wish to masquerade as doctors was barely containable. And when I heard her mouthing with obvious contempt such things as ‘. . . .people who don’t realise that the mind is not separate from the brain’ I did not know what to say. . . . .

All I could say was ‘I haven’t thought about it a lot.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that . . . very sorry . . . I’m very sorry to hear that indeed.’

Quite why I couldn’t fight back I don’t know. Perhaps my feelings were running too high – they were certainly strong by this time. I just wanted to get out, I think.

According to my journal I mumbled some jargon strewn with impressive names but basically ducked the point. I believed the mind was not reducible to the brain but couldn’t say so. So, it was nothing to do with God and I copped out anyway. Memory’s junk sunk.

These two accounts, though they have a kernel of common truth, couldn’t be more different. When I had become a Bahá’í I did speak out but definitely not then and not in the way I convinced myself it had happened. I clearly didn’t want to remember my craven evasion so I backdated my eventual moral courage and believed my own propaganda.

I now believe that my journals will be littered with ego deflating realities I have chosen to remember differently. I’m also pretty convinced that, without the protection of a strong value system to inoculate us, we will all chronically succumb to the virus of self-serving self-deception. I also have to recognise the probability that many other entries in my journal will have gone through a self-serving filter long before the ink hit the page.

Of course, it is also quite possible that none of these versions of reality is to be trusted; maybe all of them are distorted in their various ways and the truth is to be found somewhere completely different.

I think I’ll leave that possibility alone for now. I’m beginning to feel quite dizzy as though my view of the world is swirling and blurred in a heat haze. The last example I want to look at will have to wait till next time. It was for me the most stunning example I have ever experienced of the smoke and mirrors side of memory. In the meantime I’ll sit down and wait for the vertigo to pass.

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This moving news item was posted yesterday on the Bahá’í World News Service website (see link for full story).

GENEVA — The Baha’i International Community has described as “desperately cruel” the fact that one of Iran’s seven Baha’i leaders has been unable to attend the funeral of his own wife.

81 year old Mrs. Ashraf Khanjani – who was married to Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani for more than 50 years – died yesterday morning at the family home in Tehran. She had been unwell for many months.

Mr. Khanjani, 77, is serving a ten-year jail term at Iran’s notorious Gohardasht prison, along with six other Baha’is who were all members of a national-level ad hoc group that attended to the needs of Iran’s Baha’i community.

“This is a desperately cruel turn of events,” said Diane Ala’i, representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva.

“For an innocent man to be denied the opportunity to be with his devoted wife as she passed away, and then to be unable to attend her funeral – this shows the depth of inhumanity to which the Iranian authorities have sunk,” said Ms. Ala’i.

“Islamic compassion and justice are nowhere to be seen,” she said.

It is understood that the funeral of Mrs. Khanjani, held early today in Tehran, attracted between 8,000 and 10,000 mourners from all walks of life. Ministry of Intelligence officers were also reportedly present, filming the proceedings.

Mrs. Khanjani had devoted her life to raising her four children as well as caring for others whose parents were unable to feed and clothe them.

A Few of the 10,000 Mourners who Attended

 

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It has proved impossible in a few short posts to feel I have done justice to all that ACT has to offer. I have barely mentioned mindfulness at all, yet it is a key part of their approach. Perhaps this is not so important given how much literature there is around dealing with that reflective skill.

Less forgivable is the fact that I have only hinted at one of ACT’s most powerful antidotes to stuckness. They are very aware of the ways that language can be a trap (page 71), and very aware that most of us don’t see it like that:

Language is an extremely important element of human existence, but it is not everything. Perhaps more than any other behavioural domain, language products have been cultural sanctified to the point that seeing language itself as a problem is quite unlikely.

Hayes et al feel language deals very well with practical realities, but it has major limitations:

The fact is that language has a very limited capacity to apprehend and decipher personal experience, but we are taught from the moment of first consciousness that language is the tool for developing self-understanding

(Acceptance & Commitment Therapy: page 151):

In discussing their clinical work they write (page 183):

Most clients are initially so thoroughly trapped by this conceptual prison that they do not know and do not believe that they are imprisoned. The conceptual world in which they live is taken to be a given.

This is something very important of their own that they bring to the mix of other ingredients that are not unique to them. The way they have combined what is often found elsewhere is powerful and appealing in its own right: this lifts their recipe for change to another level altogether.

From a Bahá’í perspective this view of language makes a great deal  of sense. Paul Lample, in his excellent overview of the current work of the Faith Revelation & Social Reality, writes (page 18):

It can be argued that social reality emerges through the vehicle of language and, at the same time, language is a component of social reality. In essence, social reality is made up of words and meanings that human beings have agreed upon.

What words do not give is a complete and accurate description of reality (page 173):

. . . .reality does exist, but human beings are limited in their capacity for understanding and, therefore, must struggle over time to derive more useful descriptions and insights about reality that can guide more effective and productive action in the world.

One of the ways that ACT uses to help people free themselves from language traps is the liberating power of metaphor. It is using a richly evocative non-literal form of words to loosen the chains prosaic words have shackled us with. The Man in a Hole is a good example (pages 101-102)

The Man in a Hole Metaphor is a core ACT intervention in the early phase of therapy.

The situation you are in seems a bit like this. Imagine you’re placed in a field, wearing a blindfold , and you’re given a little tool bag to carry. You’re told that your job is to run around this field, blindfolded.  . . . . Now, unbeknownst to you, in this field there are a number of widely spaced, fairly deep holes. You don’t know that at first – you’re naive. So you start running around and sooner or later you fall into a large hole. You feel around, and sure enough, you can’t climb out and there are no escape routes you can find. Probably what you would do in such a predicament is to take the tool bag you were given and see what is in there . . . . Now suppose that the only tool in the bag is a shovel. . . . [Y]ou try digging faster and faster. . . . Oddly enough the hole [just gets] bigger and bigger. . . .  [D]igging is not a way out of the hole . . .

This metaphor is extremely flexible. It can be used to deal with many beginning issues.

And they go on to discuss how the need to understand the past can be a form of digging. They imagine an exchange with a client (pages 103-103):

“I’m not saying your past is unimportant, and I’m not saying we won’t work on issues that have to do with the past. . . . . [but] it is only the past as it shows up here and now that we need to work on – not the dead past. . . . [D]ealing with the past isn’t a way out of the hole.”

They also explain that the scariest step is stopping what doesn’t work before you know what might (page 103):

“Suppose someone put a metal ladder in there. If you don’t first let go of digging as the agenda, you’ll just try to dig with it. And ladders are lousy shovels – if you want a shovel you’ve got a perfectly good one already.”

What’s needed here, they say, is a leap of faith (pages 103-104):

‘[Because you are blindfolded] notice you can’t know whether you have any options until you let go of the shovel, so this is a leap of faith. It is letting go of something, not knowing whether there is anything else. . . .  [Y]our biggest ally here is your own pain. . . because it is only because this isn’t working that you’d ever even think of doing something as wacky as letting go of the only tool you have.”

This, as they put it, is the ‘opportunity presented by suffering.’ It needs to be added here that ACT distinguishes between pain and suffering. The latter is what we add to the pain life inevitably brings, and in general in their view (page 79) ‘suffering is the intrusion of language into areas where it is not functional:’ in other words we add to our pain with the suffering thinking, usually in words, can bring in its train.

So, where does all this leave us?

In previous posts on this issue we have seen how powerful a force for change acting courageously on our values can be. We have seen how important it can be to persist in the face of discouraging and uncomfortable experiences. We learnt the importance of distinguishing between the values we hold and the steps we take towards goals we believe express them: these may or may not be the same thing. Only a dispassionate look at the results will tell us whether we are moving in the direction the compass of what we truly value points us towards. All of this, I feel, is useful in deepening our understanding of the implications of what the Universal House of Justice is seeking to communicate to us.

In this post we have looked at how language can betray us into traps from which metaphor can release us and we have touched on the importance of being mindfully aware of what we are experiencing. We have already seen, in many other posts, how mindfulness of that kind can allow us to step back from inhibiting ideas of who we think we are and release energy to go in new directions.

This too is helpful. It seems to me that the Universal House of Justice, in its latest message, is re-emphasising once more how important reflection/mindfulness is (paragraph 10) when they describe how those working towards a vision of community building should operate:

. . . it is only through continued action, reflection and consultation on their part that they will learn to read their own reality, see their own possibilities, make use of their own resources, and respond to the exigencies of large-scale expansion and consolidation to come.

Consultation, as we have seen in a much earlier post, is a group process of reflection complementary to our work of reflection as individuals. Mindful awareness and detachment is at the heart of both ways of experiencing our inner, outer and social worlds.

In its exhortation to us to grasp the total vision, not just fragments of it, the House is also pointing up the traps of language we could fall into by turning guidance which is rich in implications into one-dimensional slogans. They are, in a sense, reminding us that we could end up in a hole as bad as that from which we wish to climb and as a result fall far short of the whole to which they are urging us to aspire (paragraph 37, already quoted in full in an earlier post):

. . . . achievements tend to be more enduring in those regions where the friends strive to understand the totality of the vision conveyed in the messages, while difficulties often arise when phrases and sentences are taken out of context and viewed as isolated fragments.

Seeing things as a whole is a right-brain gift that our left-brain culture in the West has taught us not to value. It seems to me that a book like the one about ACT can help us redress that imbalance if we are prepared to make the effort, and enable us to reach behind the wall of words and touch something closer to reality. If we do not make such an effort the complex coherence of texts such as those the Universal House of Justice creates will forever be beyond our understanding in practice, and, if so, we will be handicapped in our most important work and this will seriously delay us in helping to heal a broken world.

This is work that will not wait. I am hoping that writing my way towards understanding, on top of trying to put it into practice, will speed up my learning process. I also hope that by sharing it in this way I am at the very least not slowing you down in this work as you read.

A Wall of Words?

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