Archive for November, 2020

“I’ll bet,” she mused, ‘that if the shaking that often occurs after surgery were allowed rather than suppressed, recovery would be quicker and maybe even postoperative pain would be reduced.”

“That’s right,” I say, smiling in agreement.

Peter Levine – In an Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness (page 8)

Is it possible that I have at last solved a mystery that has been haunting me for 46 years?

It is extremely tempting to believe I have, but my inner sceptic is urging caution.

So, what on earth am I talking about?

Drowning in Pain

The basic problem dates from 1974. I’ve blogged at length about this already so I’ll deal with it briefly here.

I attended an Encounter Group weekend in the summer of that year. It was a fusion of Reichian Breathwork and Janov’s Primal Therapy. Both of them use controlled breathing to gain access, in their different ways, to deeper levels of what I will call here somatic memory. The encounter weekend’s aim was to reconnect attenders with ‘primal’ pain by focused breathing. My earlier account reads like this:

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

This process went on for what seemed hours. The theory was that the more deeply you went into the experience, the more likely your were to connect with its cause. Many years later I did have a successful integration of this kind with a different set of feelings (see link). That didn’t happen this first time, nor was I ever able to connect this pool of tears with any specific event or determine its meaning. When I discovered it, I realised it had always been there. Decades later it seems that it always will be, as long as I live in this body at least.

I puzzled over where this sense of loss and pain stemmed from. Was it from my being carried in the womb of a woman grieving for her dead daughter, from my being born into a house steeped in an atmosphere of grief from which my arrival did nothing to rescue it, from my being born at a time of war and experiencing trauma I couldn’t even remember, and/or from having a father re-experiencing war for the second time in civil defence after serving for the first time at the front line?


A key sentence for present purposes from the account of my 1974 encounter experience is this one: ‘Many years later I did have a successful integration of this kind with a different set of feelings.’

This was when, on 11 July 1985, I went to see a therapist in Shropshire who used a similar breathing model to the previous one called Rebirthing. It was my last session with her.

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.

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 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.

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 seemed to find 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.

Two such different experiences, eleven years apart, using the same technique, the first I had no explanation for and the meaning of the second was all to plain to see.

Only now, 35 years later, have I come to see a possible explanation for the first inexplicable encounter with my well of pain. And that is thanks to a completely unpredictable piece of synchronicity.

A close friend in Australia had stumbled across a book in her local library and, knowing my interest in trauma, thought it worth bringing it to my attention. I read a positive review on The Psychologist website (you’ll need to scan down to find it), and decided it was worth a look. It’s synchronicity, not because of the close correspondence of the patterns I’m about to describe, which would apply regardless of the time at which I encountered the book, but because I came across it just after I finished revisiting Donaldson and particularly Covey, something which had prepared my mind to be especially receptive to absorbing its significance.

And that’s what brings us to In an Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness.


The case example of Nancy, which Levine uses in this book,[1] rang so many powerful bells for me. During his session with her she had reported seeing ‘nightmarish images of herself as a four-year-old child struggling, to escape the grasp of the doctors who held her down in order to administer ether anaesthesia for a ‘routine’ tonsillectomy.’ He goes onto to explain that ‘[t]he shaking and trembling, occurring in the warm and reassuring presence of a reliable other person, and allowed to continue to completion, helped [her] to restore equilibrium and wholeness, and to be freed from trauma’s grip.’

A key sentence that seems to me to mirror my own transition from terror to warmth comes on page 23: ‘She was overpowered and held down against her will by all-powerful masked and gowned giants. In our hour together Nancy’s body contradicted her panicky feelings of being overwhelmed and trapped.’

More of this next time, to unpack how this helped solve the mystery of my pool of pain.


[1]. Pages 20-25.

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Given the sequence coming up which focuses in part on my being anaesthetised in childhood, this seems a good poem to resurrect at this point.

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So, in terms of what I had learned from Covey’s book, what did I continue to make of all this as the months and years rolled by?

Mission Statements

After a couple of years my Mission Statement morphed, in the early summer of 1994, from its original simplistic idea of seeking to live more closely in tune with the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, to something more specific and perhaps a touch less ambitious. I wrote, ‘my mission becomes to understand reality more deeply and by promoting that understanding to reduce suffering and promote growth.’ This was in the light of my realising that a key point about the Faith for me was that it offered a possibility of greater understanding across different perspectives and thereby greater leverage to alleviate suffering on a wider scale. What Covey was helping me do was get closer to the core of what the Faith meant to me in this important respect than I could ever have done otherwise. Re-reading him has reminded me of just how close some of his key insights are to central ideas in the Bahá’í Faith. This is perhaps not so surprising in the light of his Appendix[1]where he explains his belief that ‘correct principles are natural laws, and that God, the Creator and Father of us all, is the source of them.’ He also quotes Teilhard de Chardin: ‘We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.’ That he was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), whose doctrines differ from the ones I subscribe to, was no impediment to my responding positively to the spirituality in this book as it is more generic.

I am however not claiming that, even with Covey’s help, creating a specific and constructive plan as a path to positive change was a walk in the park.

By late summer I was still tweaking the Mission Statement. Though I agreed that it had got some things right, I felt ‘it missed the need to write and did not catch the core issue: understanding human nature, human experience and the human predicament.’ 

By April 2003 I was journaling this:

. . . . I have always had a strong feeling for earthenware. It’s partly the colour and partly the feel of it. Also now I wonder whether a crucial aspect of its appeal doesn’t also lie in the way that it exemplifies earth turning to a kind of stone by means of fire. I respond to earthenware with an intensity quite out of proportion to its aesthetic merits. Earthenware artefacts predate history, define cultures and yet are in many ways at the same time very ordinary. They evoke the rhythms of domestic routine. It would not be too strong a statement to say that I love them. I would love an earthenware life.

I have no over-arching purpose anymore. I have a set of competing purposes. . . . Three things pull me in different ways and my energies are dissipated. As Covey rightly points out I need to find my basic most deeply felt principle(s) again. I need to be principle-centred and the principle around which my life then revolves has to be connected to my heart as well as my head and my hands.  

. . . There is something about a carefully crafted object that means something special to me. Bahá’u’lláh says He has moulded us out of the “clay of love.” He has placed within us the “essence of His light.” We are enjoined to ignite a fire within us. Does my clay recognise its brother in the earthenware jar? Does it respond to the painful process of transformation by fire that it has undergone?

. . . Earth is grounded, basic, slow, unpretentious, unsophistical. I need less head more heart, less hot air more earth. Also tuning in to my heart means less getting lost in externals.

. . . The earth symbol is also useful in that it indicates my basic nature which I need to honour, but also allows for the use of other modes of being when appropriate but not as my basic way of being – i.e. peat can burn for fire and release gases (a constituent of air) and create water vapour, clay can turn to stone. I am adaptable but not infinitely malleable. Tune in to my heart, be down to earth, remain rooted in the deepest possible levels of experience, use art/consultation/reflection to assist in this process. This is the hearth that will warm my whole being and bring more warmth to others. Action needs to spring from this nexus not from reactions to superficial and synthetic stimuli. Technology, plans, targets, documents, agendas, administration, and all the paraphernalia of bureaucracy are tools not masters. Remaining constantly in touch with the earth in my heart will keep me grounded, in tune with God, unbamboozled by the blandishments of power and pretension. All the cold, frenzied and unfriendly haste will thaw into a more measured humane and complete response to people and to nature. 

So, obviously influenced in these reflections by my Hearth dream, which features elsewhere on this blog, I formulated a sense of mission from the connection between heart and earth.

There are further examples on this blog of various attempts to refine and modify this further. One example is the post in the sequence entitled The Wheel of Life. Basically they show how my restless dissatisfaction with each mission statement triggers further changes.

This is already probably enough to illustrate the torturous process by which, after countless such attempts over the years, including since 2009 when I began this blog, I have finally arrived at another formulation, drawn up recently before I went back over my diaries of the Covey period: 

My overarching goals are:

  1. To enhance understanding and lift consciousness to ever higher levels, using the 4Rs; and
  2. To foster growth and healing in a spirit of interdependence and constant awareness of our interconnectedness.

(The 4Rs are reading, writing, reflection and relating.) 

Re-reading Covey has triggered me to tighten up the pragmatics of this above and beyond, but including the 4Rs. My mnemonic is Carers prep: views concur. Carers, in this context about consciousness, is an acronym to remind me about the importance of Consultation, Action, Reflection, Experience, Reading and Scribbling. Most of that has been familiar fodder for my blog over the years. Proactive End-Based Priorities (PREP), Values, Interdependence, Empathy, Win-Win and Synergy (VIEWS) and Consideration and Courage (ConCur) are there courtesy of Covey revisited.

Any reader who seriously expects that this formulation will not be radically revised before I die, unless I die tomorrow, is grievously mistaken. I think I’d better leave it there for now. I’ve honoured my debt to Covey. Time to stop.

[1]. Covey – page 319.

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Learning to Fly v3

For source of image see link

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Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

(Michael Karlberg Beyond a Culture of Contest – page 131)

At the end of the previous post I rashly promised that this one would seek to capture, amongst other things, how the close match between parts of Covey’s message and some aspects of the Bahá’í Faith combined to potentiate the transformative influence I have been attempting to describe so far.

A brief digression first.

Empathy & Compassion

What I think I have so far failed to fully appreciate is the extent to which my reading of Covey’s book at that period may have given me the capacity to realise, as touched on in the previous post, that my simply sitting there close to the pain of Laura’s traumatic insight, intensely, almost desperately seeking to understand was all that was required of me, was what she needed more than anything else at that precise moment. Rather melodramatically I expressed this, after another difficult session with another client in deep distress, as ‘bleeding with them in the hope that they would grow.’ I need to add that care needed to be taken not to join them completely in their immersion in pain and distress. That would entail a damaging loss of perspective as well as risking burnout. Rather it was developing an ability at second hand to experience and contain, rather than drown in their angst, so that constructive solutions could gradually be generated.

Hopefully I got close enough to at least one of the criteria for a successful connection with a traumatised person described by Peter Levin in his book In an Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness. He writes:[1]

Therapists must learn, from their own successful encounters with their own traumas, to stay present with their clients.

There will be more about this book in a later sequence, I suspect.

I was reminded, as I recently read Rutger Bregman’s book, of the distinction Matthieu Ricard makes between empathy and compassion:[2]

If someone who is in the presence of a suffering person feels an overwhelming distress, that can only aggravate the mental discomfort of a person suffering. On the other hand, if the person who comes to help is radiating kindness and gives off a peaceful calm, and can be attentive to the other, there is no doubt that the patient will be comforted by this attitude. Finally, the person who feels compassion and kindness can develop the strength of mind and desire to come to the aid of the other. Compassion and altruistic love have a warm, loving, and positive aspect that standalone empathy for the suffering of the other does not have.

Bregman explains Ricard’s other main point in simple terms:[3] empathy is feeling ‘with’ someone, whereas compassion is feeling ‘for’ them.

It’s probably useful to add that a diary entry from the following week indicates that the next session was far more positive.

Synergy and Interdependence

I’ve referred several times to Covey’s emphasis on synergy. We have now come to Habit 6, which unpacks exactly what he is getting and why it is so important.

Its main benefit is its creativity:[4]

In interdependent situations compromise is the position usually taken. Compromise means that 1+1 = 1 ½. Both give and take. The communication isn’t defensive or protective or angry or manipulative; it’s honest and genuine and respectful. But it isn’t creative or synergistic. It produces a low form of win/win.

Synergy means that 1+1 may equal 8, 16, or even 1,600. The synergistic position of high trust produces solutions better than any originally proposed and all parties know it.

He discusses the implications of this at some length, but I propose to focus on the section that most impressed me and which I have found most useful in practice: it’s titled Valuing the Differences. Given the emphasis Bahá’ís place on unity in diversity this may not be entirely surprising. Covey sees it as the core of synergy,[5] ‘Valuing the differences is the essence of synergy.’ What’s more his expansion of this point resonates with my own felt sense that all we each have is a simulation of reality: ‘the key to valuing those differences is to realise that all people see the world, not as it is, but as they are.’

Holding this truth in our hearts, in his view, makes us far more effective: ‘The person who is truly effective has the humility and reverence to recognise his own perceptual limitations and to appreciate the rich resources available through interaction with the hearts and minds of other human beings.’ As a description of one of the key reasons why the Bahá’í skill of consultation is so valuable, this could hardly be bettered.

What this amounts to is an indispensable precondition for progress in any field of human conflict:

. . . unless we value the differences in our perceptions, unless we value each other and give credence to the possibility that we’re both right, that life is not always a dichotomous either/or, that there are almost always third alternatives, we will never be able to transcend limits of that conditioning.

His diagram in this chapter[6] (see above) captures the importance of trust and cooperation in achieving synergy. Trustworthiness, in Bahá’í terms, is an essential characteristic that we should all be seeking to develop if we are to enhance our communities and create a better society.

In a previous post I had already vaguely grasped the link between synergy and interdependence. I was dealing with the Bahá’í process called consultation and referring first of all to Michael Karlberg’s Beyond a Culture of Contest, which argues that for the most part our culture’s processes are adversarial: our economic system is based on competition, our political system is split by contesting parties and our court rooms decide who has won in the battle between defence and prosecution.  The more valuable emphasis on a careful and dispassionate exploration of the truth is generally  conspicuous by its absence. The French courtroom is, apparently, one of the few exceptions.

The Bahá’í International Community explain how consultation helps us transcend our ‘respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals.’ They speak of ‘an atmosphere, characterized by both candour and courtesy’ where ‘ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur during the discussion but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued.’ At worst you get what Covey call ‘compromise’ solutions, and at best a synergy ‘win/win’ that transcends that.

What is intriguing, when I read this hindsight, is that Karlberg brings in  another key word here (my emphasis):[7]

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

This strongly suggests that a sense of interdependence and the synergy it creates extends well beyond a family, a circle of friends or even a business venture, of the kind Covey often uses as an illustration of the power of his approach.

I’ve attempted to summarise all of what are for me Covey’s most important insights in this diagram:

Habit 7, Sharpening the Saw, I’ll ignore for present purposes. And I’ve recently discovered from a soon to be published book, The Secrets of True Happiness, by Farnaz, Bijan & Adib Masumian, that there is a Habit 8, explained in a book published in 2004 — The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. I can see another volume approaching to squeeze onto my creaking shelves.

In the final post I’ll take a helicopter look at what I continued to make of all this as the months and years rolled by.


[1] In an Unspoken Voice – page 42.
[2]. From Altruism: the Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World – pages 58-63.
[3]. Humankind: a hopeful history – page 387.
[4]. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – Page 271. Unless otherwise specified all the following quotations are from this book.
[5]. Page 277.
[6]. Page 270.
[7] Beyond a Culture of Contest – page 131.

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