In the wake of the post on Thursday on David Jones, I thought it appropriate to republish this poem. Because my father fought in the first world war, even though he never spoke of his experience its shadow hung over my childhood, mostly through my mother’s anxious ruminations about its impact on her life.
Archive for the ‘Autobiographical’ Category
In the wake of the post yesterday on David Jones, I thought it appropriate to republish this poem. Because my father fought in the first world war, even though he never spoke of his experience its shadow hung over my childhood, mostly through my mother’s anxious ruminations about its impact on her life. The book I remember discovering as a child was a collection of black and white photographs of the ‘Great War.’
As I am dealing at the moment with my attitude to psychiatry it seemed worth re-publishing this from 2013, whose section on Journals Revisited describes the kind of disillusioning encounter that reinforced my scepticism about psychiatry as a complete and satisfying explanation of mental health problems. I had always felt the context of such problems was always more complex than unsupported speculations about brains and genes.
I was recently at a national Bahá’í meeting. Within two hours of getting there, three people at least had asked me had I done my story for the Histories Project website yet. My first response was that the story of my becoming a Bahá’í – well, it was more of a declaration of intent, meaning that I intended to work at treading the Bahá’í path as effectively as I could – was basically fairly boring.
That didn’t seem to convince anyone so I stopped trying to explain that as a bookworm I didn’t have a dramatic encounter with a charismatic speaker, a life-changing mystical experience or participate in a totally mind-blowing meeting. I just read a book, then bought some more books and read them double quick, met a few warm and accepting people to ask questions of, then decided it made sense and joined the Bahá’í community. Something like that. It’s why I’ve never blogged about it in detail really. Anyway when I got back from the meeting I set about writing my story (eventually, if I pass it on, you’ll find it on the UK Baha’i histories site).
In doing so, I had to go back through my journals of that time and check out some dates. Shades of Becket’s Krapp’s Last Tape again (see earlier post). Becket’s monologue situation is that ‘It is Krapp’s 69th birthday and he hauls out his old tape recorder, reviews one of the earlier years – the recording he made when he was 39 – and makes a new recording commenting on the last 12 months.’ I’m just a year late this time.
As I read, I was amazed that I had got one key date wrong – I was still doing clinical placements until the end of September 1982 – I thought the course was all over by July, but that was only the academic bit.
The journal is full to the brim of desultory ruminations on the work I was doing on placement:
“2nd September 1982: It has been a wonderful day – ploughed brown earth under the warmth of a mellow sun against a background of subdued green. However, not even such a day can remove the oppressive feel of the mental hospital to me. It is not an oppression that resides in any obvious way in the buildings or the layout even, unprepossessing as those are. Ugliness is not necessarily oppressive. Somehow the spirit exuded by the place as a whole is one of immutable and dehumanising tradition.
Today’s ward round, which I attended as a guest, was an emblem of that. Dr X., who is lugubrious and yet admirably meticulous, was on leave. In his stead was Dr Y, short, greying, shrewd and abrupt, with a slightly disarming affectation of bumbledom to mask the steel of his prompt authority. With him in the driving seat, and Dr W., the Registrar, and Mr Z., a nurse, in attendance, the ward round was steered into oppressive backwaters of psychiatric practice.
Dr W: We can’t give her medication on a 25. It’s illegal.
Mr Z: Since when is it illegal, doctor, to give a patient medication?
Dr W: We can’t on a 25.
Mr Z: If we did only what ’twas legal there’d be few people helped, to my way of thinking.
Dr Y: Should it be a 26 she’s on, d’you think doctor?
Dr W: Yes, I do. She needs medication.
25 and 26 refer to parts of the Mental Health Act at the time. Section 26 allowed you to force someone to take medication, but only if a certain level of risk was reached: Section 25 did not. The patient in question had just been ushered out of conference after delivering a loud long uninterruptible and paranoid harangue. She was clearly not going to agree to take medication voluntarily. What was disturbing was that there was no evidence to indicate that she was a danger to herself and/or others.
I think my somewhat self-righteous anti-psychiatry stance at the time, which had been rooted in my former socialist perspective and shaped by my experience of People Not Psychiatry, may have blinded me to the possible teasing irony of the nurse’s comments in the face of a doctor’s somewhat abrupt and prissy manner. The final point probably still stands though and raises the question of whether I should have brought it up myself at the time – the pros and cons of which it doesn’t appeared to have occurred to me to mention in my account.
This slight distortion of dates was bad enough, but even more surprising was the fact that the journal contained no mention whatsoever of the earlier moment I remember so well.
The Winter of my Discontent
Much of the second year of my Clinical MSc, from late 1981 onwards, was a very testing time. I was undergoing significant upheavals in my personal life and, perhaps as a result of the distress I was feeling, had also made at least one very poor decision, which impacted adversely on others as well as on myself. I was extremely distressed by all this, particularly because I had brought most of this on myself and could also see how others were suffering too. By Christmas, I knew I needed help to sort the situation out and rectify what I could in terms of damage done, but I couldn’t see where to turn.
To my astonishment, in early January 1982, I found myself alone in a snow-bound cottage in the middle of Sussex, a complete unbeliever as I thought, on my knees in tears saying, ‘God, if you exist, please help me now.’ It was a short prayer, if prayer it really was, but it was undoubtedly intensely felt. I was on my knees a lot longer than it took to say those improbable words. Interestingly, I was writing lots and lots of poems at the same time – some of them the best I’ve ever written. The poems don’t mention the prayer either but they were undoubtedly influenced by the weather.
My poetry lacks bravery.
Sunlight on snow
Says everything I need,
But when I go
None will know how,
Under my frost,
Songs were silenced.
Not a word about the prayer anywhere at all! Very strange! I don’t doubt that it happened but it seemed as though I had devoted acres of paper to recording far less important facts about my life and neglected some really critical moments.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, though I have a huge number of memories about the period of this life-changing decision, most of which I have included in my draft of my story, none of them are in my journal. There is a short two paragraph entry there on 20 December 1982. It reads:
On 25 November 1982 I borrowed Scrutton’s book on the Bahá’í Faith from the library. On Friday 26 November I went down to the Bahá’í centre because, so closely did what was described correspond to my ideal, that I could not believe it. I bought half a dozen books, talked to several people, and soaked up an atmosphere of love more intoxicating than any wine I have ever tasted before.
On 2 December, I declared as a Bahá’í and I’m still utterly convinced I did the right thing. . . . . . [People] feel it could be another one of my transient and embarrassing enthusiasms and can’t understand my need for a religion in the first place. I feel that I will still be a Baha’i in 20 years time. Time will tell.
And, it seems, I am still working at it – after more than 30 years.
Summoning up Remembrance
The absence of evidence in the journal, when considered in the light of how treacherous I have found my memory to be, may indicate that the whole process has been heavily embroidered in my mind. Its treachery came home to me as a result of a conflict between my journal and my memory which I have blogged about before and which I will be republishing shortly.
When anyone has asked me 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 prone to boasting of the time I went for an informal interview for a clinical post soon after I qualified. I was walking with the neuropsychologist, I said, 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 remember saying,’I have an idea about God that I believe in.’
She glared at me 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. 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 Baha’i 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 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.
The accounts, though they have a kernel of common truth, couldn’t be more different. When I had become a Baha’i 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.
This might have been another reason why I have been so reluctant to go public with the story of my joining the Bahá’í community. How much of what I thought I remembered was, in fact, accurate?
To my relief, my memory of the basic details I quoted above was correct, which is encouraging.
Less Surprising than I thought?
What was still surprising, and which I had also forgotten, was how preoccupied with spiritual issues I had been in the months between my conditional prayer and my decision to join the Bahá’í community. I wrote copiously on the topic and it would be tedious in the extreme to quote everything but it’s worth sharing a taster, I think. At the end of August that year I wrote (emphasis in the original):
I have a burning desire to wipe the slate of my life and mind completely clean – and begin again differently – to polish my mind until it shines smooth and clear, revealing the true grain of its essential nature to the world and reflecting the world in the clarity of its shine.
The closeness which which this resembles quotations from Bahá’í Scripture feels slightly uncanny:
O My Brother! A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.
(The Seven Valleys: page 21)
Not exactly the same, obviously, but strangely parallel. Revisiting journals is an oddly unsettling but also somewhat reassuring experience. I think on the whole the surprises it triggers make it worthwhile – at least now and again. I’m not sure I would want to do it too often!
Posted in Autobiographical, Civilisation Building, Compassion & Empathy, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, detachment, experience, Meditation, Mount Carmel, reflection, Robert Wright, Universal House of Justice on 30/03/2017| 1 Comment »
A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It leadeth the way and guideth.
(Bahá’u’lláh: Gleanings: CXXXII)
Picking up from where the last post left off, I need to explain how I am learning to balance the competing priorities of my life.
As I explained earlier, not only is there sometimes a conflict between my introverted preferences, such as for reading and writing, and my need to operate in the world outside my head, but there can also be a clash between my desire to read and my desire to write. The symbol I’m developing to express a way of balancing these needs is of the wheel I want my life to run on.
There is no way I can avoid an action of some kind. Even doing nothing is a form of action. So, action has to be the rim of the wheel, the surface in constant contact with the road my life is taking.
However, I have to recognise that constantly, unremittingly, huge swathes of time are being taken up with experiences of various kinds, whether internally generated or externally triggered. The bulk of them are processed unconsciously, and in addition most of what is conscious will be rapidly forgotten, possibly almost undigested.
However, as I see it, if I do not ruminate on the most precious parts of it I will fail to learn the crucially important lessons they can teach me. So, I must build firmly into the structure of my life’s wheel the reinforcing elements of reading, writing, meditation and consultation (I have dealt elsewhere with the mutually reinforcing power of consultation and meditation, so I won’t repeat it all here). The conclusion I arrived it was this:
It seems possible, at least in principle, to use meditation to improve our consultation skills and consultation perhaps to practise and refine our meditation. It also raises the question whether consultation, at least in the West, would benefit from more silence.
We know it requires detachment. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Paris Talks (page 174):
This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.
One possible way of conceptualising detachment, or at least a result of it, is freedom from our animal nature as described here. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote (Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 207):
Regarding the statement in ‘The Hidden Words’, that man must renounce his own self, the meaning, is that he must renounce his inordinate desires, his selfish purposes and the promptings of his human self, and seek out the holy breathings of the spirit . . . . ..
Meditation, then, might help us achieve the detachment necessary for consultation. Consultation will almost certainly strengthen our ability to be detached and thereby facilitate our meditation. They are clearly not unrelated disciplines sharing as they do this same outcome.
We also have to be open to the views of other people when we consult and, in my case, to the Bahá’í Scriptures when I meditate upon them or to the promptings of our higher self when we commune with it in meditation. So these two skills are not all that different either: they both enhance our understanding of reality.
In the end, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that meditation will help us consult and consulting will help us meditate.
Last but by no means least, the strong axle to which the spokes of this wheel are attached, and around which it revolves, is reflection, in all the various senses I have explored in detail on this blog, including its meditative aspect and its way of enhancing our detachment. With this in its proper place not only will I be able to balance my various priorities better, but I will also be able to deal more wisely with what happens when my scripts are triggered.
The forces that impelled me to formulate this particular recipe were: first of all in the present the need to escape from the still active counterproductive patterns I’ve described in the first post of this sequence; next, came what I have learned from the various approaches that helped me step back enough from them to think hard about them in the past, including the years of therapy and Buddhist meditation; and last of all, what still sets the seal on my current perspective is the combination of insights from existentialism and my life-changing encounter with the Bahá’í Faith, which has set my overall direction in life every since.
I have described my reasons for making this leap of faith in a sequence of posts. The short answer to the question, ‘Why did I make that choice?’ is this. I was bowled over by how closely everything I had understood in my exploration of the Bahá’í Faith mapped onto what I already believed. It was what I felt I had been searching for almost all my adult life: an egalitarian meaning system that combined activism with spirituality in a way that absolutely prohibited the use of force, or any other dubious means, to persuade others of its truth. When I was asked if I wanted to join the Bahá’í community, unless all I had protested that I believed was pure hypocrisy, I surely had to put my money where my mouth had been all those years. So I did. My closest friends predicted I’d be out again in six months. It was just another of my fads. Yet here I still am 35 years later.
So, I am aware that to complete the context in which the wheel operates, I need a compass and a map. In a previous post I explained my model of the compass of compassion. This was my conclusion:
Because the earth has a magnetic field that helps us find our right direction it wasn’t hard to see that a compass, already more than half-way to compassion in its spelling, was a good way of remembering the key value that underpins every other spiritual value in all faiths, and which in Bahá’í terms emanates from the three unities of the essential oneness of God, religion and humanity, blurred as our perception of those may sometimes be. The other meaning of the word ‘compass’ is also a reminder, as is the image of our world from space, to widen the embrace of my compassion to include all life and perhaps even the earth itself, an imperative need as Robert Wright describes it.
Bahá’u’lláh also has a most interesting way of linking a compass with kindness that suggests I might be on the right lines here (Gleanings: CXXXII):
A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It leadeth the way and guideth.
I am not going to pretend that the compass we have chosen will always make it easy to decide what is the right thing to do and provide us with a strong enough motivation to do it. We are human and sometimes our moral energy flags. Also a moral compass built on a system of values is more complex than a material compass. Values are arranged in a hierarchy. On occasions we need to decide that a higher value trumps a lower one. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gives a simple example of this (Bahá’í World Faith, page 320):
If a doctor consoles a sick man by saying: “Thank God you are better, and there is hope of your recovery,” though these words are contrary to the truth, yet they may become the consolation of the patient and the turning-point of the illness. This is not blameworthy.
He says this even though lying is condemned outright by Him in other quotes to be found at the same link.
Now for the map.
It should also be obvious that the map I have chosen is that drawn up by the Divine Cartographer, Bahá’u’lláh, whose organising principle is unity. One of the most challenging statements relating to the need to live the principle of oneness comes in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the Arc project there on 24th May 2001:
Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.
I have faith that this compass and that map will lead me to generate enough wisdom by the processes I describe to help me climb as high as I am able up the mountain of truth so that, God willing, I can more fully recognise our interconnectedness and act accordingly, helping to build a better world in the process, I trust.
Good luck to you all in your search for your compass and your map. Don’t forget to use a trustworthy wheel for the wagon of your life as you journey on.
Posted in Autobiographical, Civilisation Building, Compassion & Empathy, tagged Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Alain Locke, Christopher Buck, feelings, goals, Kelly G. Wilson, Kirk D. Strosahl, plans, reflection, selves, Stephen C Hayes, Terry Eagleton, values on 27/03/2017| Leave a Comment »
In the area of values, this means that we must learn to value even when we don’t feel like it. We must learn to love even when we are angry, to care even when we are exasperated.
(Steven Hayes et al in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: an experiential approach to behaviour change — page 210)
Picking up on a closing point from the last post, as time went on I came to realise that the bookworm in me had value as part of my 3Rs – reading, writing and reflection. Again this has been explained before, for example in Rings of Self:
For my own purposes I have developed a mock equation as a mnemonic for my preferred approach to deepening my understanding of an issue. This approach, in interaction with experience, involves using meditation as a means of accessing the products of my subliminal thought processes in combination with reading and writing. So, I move in and out of active/passive engagement with experience through reading, writing and reflection, my three Rs.
Reflection is a term that cuts both ways: it can be used to describe the workings of the intellect – labeled deliberation, in the previous post, to avoid confusion – or the process of meditation, in which we pull back from identifying with the usual contents of our consciousness. Both processes of reflection and their product are very different from the knee-jerk reactions of instinct described in the first post of this sequence.
So, E + 3R = I, where I = Insight and E stands for Experience. This is one of the roles the writing of this blog is meant to execute.
This led onto the idea, which I’m about to explore, of reflection as a filter and as the core of my process.
Recent developments in my thinking have produced the simple diagram at the head of this post as the most straightforward way of capturing the main issue as I see it when it comes to using reflection as a guide to wise and compassionate action. This acknowledges implicitly that feelings can have complex origins, as explained last time, but it would complicate the diagram too much for present purposes to bring those into the mix now.
This is a different process than the gathering of pollen and nectar from the flowers of experience. What we preserve in terms of our learning about love and wisdom is stored in our hearts and therefore not always explicitly accessible to our heads unless we press the pause button for long enough to quieten our passions down. This is why it is not usually appropriate to act when in the grip of negative or scripted feelings. Negative feelings are more easily identified: rage, pain, fear can be identified as dark and potentially destructive without too much trouble. Apparently positive ones, which can also be scripted, such as the warmth of our attraction to a dangerous person or life path, are harder to detect.
That’s why we need to press the pause button, step back and give ourselves time to reflect.
But how are we to use that reflection time? Part of that is obvious enough. When we have stepped back from scripted feelings we can think about them, almost interrogate them. Where do they come from? When have we felt like this before? What happened next? What do they remind us of? And so on. These can lead us to the kind of understanding of deep-rooted causes we discussed last time.
The answers may help us judge more clearly whether we can trust these reactions in the current situation. The answer is probably that we shouldn’t – or at least not blindly or completely. We need a better compass.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) places great emphasis on the importance of our values as a guide to action. In their book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Hayes et al describe an important distinction between two kinds of valuing (page 208-09):
Among the most important [distinctions] is distinguishing valuing as feeling versus valuing as an action. These two aspects are often thoroughly confused for the client. The example of valuing a loving relationship with one spouse is instructive. One’s feelings of love may wax and wane across time and situations. To behave lovingly (e.g., respectfully, thoughtfully, etc.) only when one has feelings of love, and to behave in opposite ways when the opposite feelings emerge, would be very likely to have problematic effects on a marriage. Yet this is precisely the pickle we are in when values are confused with feelings, because feelings are not fully under voluntary control and tend to come and go. . . . .
In the area of values, this means that we must learn to value even when we don’t feel like it. We must learn to love even when we are angry, to care even when we are exasperated.
There are other aspects of this which are less directly relevant to my current purpose but none the less important. For example, one of the most useful insights I gleaned from Hayes et al’s book concerned their clear definition of a trap you can fall into when you firmly believe you are enacting your values. It’s when you confuse values with goals (page 231).
A value is a direction, a quality of action. By definition, values cannot be achieved and maintained in a static state, they must be lived out.
It is important therefore not to confuse values (why we do things) with the steps we have decided to take to enact them (the what) or even the outcomes that we hope to achieve as a result of those steps. We have to be open to the possibility that this step or that outcome, as we experience working in that way, comes to seem at odds with the value we are seeking to give expression to or with a value we come to realise is more fundamentally important to us than the one we thought we wanted to express.
Also, we cannot always trust the words we think in let alone the feelings we are attempting to describe. This sceptical attitude towards descriptions has to be maintained equally if not more strongly in relation to descriptions of the self (page 182):
. . . when a person identifies with a particular conceptualisation, alternatives to that conceptualisation can seem almost life-threatening. The . . . frame here seems to be “Me = conceptualisation” [i.e. I am exactly what I think I am] and its entailed derivative “Eliminate conceptualisation = eliminate me” [i.e. If you destroy my idea of myself you destroy me]. [Thus], we are drawn into protecting our conceptualized self as if it were our physical 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.
This relates to the point I made towards the end of the previous post, that sometimes we have to learn to step back from who we think we are to find our True Self. Personally, while I find their analogy helpful, I prefer the idea of a mirror and its reflections. 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.
In terms of the issue of enacting our values rather than our feelings, the mind has many tricks it can play to undermine our intentions in this respect. For instance, there is the hypocrisy argument that keeps cropping up. ‘If I’m furious with somebody, it’s just not honest to be nice. I’m just being a hypocrite.’ This neatly lines up fury with principle, and can justify the idea that Oscar Wilde deflates with a skilful pinprick, that there are times when speaking one’s mind is not only a pleasure but a duty.
My strongest response to this mistaken line of reasoning is that it is based on a false identification with the lower self. If all I am convinced I am is my cluster of reptilian emotional residues, then the logic is irrefutable. I must attack viciously or else betray who I really am. But we are not only, or even mainly or most deeply, our reptilian selves.
Even if we only look at this in terms of the material brain, we have higher centres that conform to higher norms. The frontal lobes aren’t there in our heads simply to rubber stamp our animal side: they don’t just stand back and say, ‘You’re right! He insulted you. You’re angry enough. Kill him!’ Well, not unless you are one of those narcissistic sociopaths in prison for murdering the man who drank their Coke without their permission.
There are centres of consciousness in almost all of us that identify with principles of self-control and consideration, and these centres are as much who we are as the animal impulses, if not more so. It takes more effort to enact them, but that doesn’t make them lies. When we behave well no matter how we feel, we are being true to them and they are truly who we are. That is not hypocrisy.
This is where investing our energy into mastering the art of reflection is so important. Without that filter through which to purify our thinking, ridding it of the distracting debris of our conditioning, we will continue to betray our higher self and its transcendent ideals for a downward but easier and enticing path into deeper and more destructive delusions.
It is also probably the key to the skill that I read about many years ago in a book by a Jungian therapist, but can no longer track down. He argued that our society, and perhaps many others as well, offer only two main alternatives when we experience strong feelings: we can either act them out or we can repress them. Neither of these courses of action is usually advisable. Most of us most of the time are not aware that there is a third possibility: to contain the feelings in consciousness. This allows us to use the feelings as information about the situation in which we find ourselves, and also to consider whether we can use them to motivate us to more constructive action than simply venting them would allow for. Containment of this kind, it seems to me, depends upon our capacity to reflect. It may even be an aspect of reflection.
This all leads me onto the next major issue: how do we best define our values?
We can choose to draw our values from various sources. Alain Locke’s perspective on values theory is as good a way as any to illustrate this. For him, the first African American Rhodes scholar, ‘human values are central in determining the course of social life’ and the table above illustrates their various possible types or points of origin.
Not only that, but it also may not be as easy as we think to distinguish our feelings from our values. Terry Eagleton touches on some reasons for this in his book Culture and the Death of God (page 41):
The kind of morality [Richard] Price has in his sights can stir men and women to action, but is perilously reliant on sentiment, intuition or moral sense. By contrast, a morality based on Reason is solidly founded, but lacks the power to motivate.
I don’t share his suspicion of intuition, as many previous posts of mine testify, because I don’t equate it with instinct, but I do agree that values are almost always going to have an emotional dimension, or else we would not wish to keep enacting them. Reflection is what helps us check whether we can trust the emotion that is making the value attractive.
Obviously, this act of choosing our values is something we can only do each for ourselves, albeit drawing on ideas from elsewhere possibly in consultation with others. An inescapable criterion which must apply to us all though, it seems to me, is that what we value must not harm others and in fact it should promote the well-being of all life forms.
Apart from that it’s up to us.
What I will describe in the next post briefly is simply what determined my own choices, but along the way I need to explain how I am learning to balance the competing priorities of my life. And this is what brings me to the wheel of life – well, of mine at least: my latest way of holding onto the insights I need to draw on when I’m being triggered, and at other times as well.
Hopefully it will help others devise their own method of doing the same.
A script is a personal life plan which each individual forms by a series of decisions early in her life in reaction to her interpretation of the important things happening in her world.
(Woollams and Brown: TA: the total handbook of Transactional Analysis – page 139)
Some six years ago I was struggling to come to terms with a very testing situation. I don’t want to go into detail. Things have moved on now and, in any case, I never wanted to reveal the details on this blog. The nearest I came was to translate them into a piece of fiction by way of illustration. Hence the cafe dilemma I described in 2013, after a couple of years of intense reflection and self-work.
Life has caused me to take yet another look at the powerful tool/process of reflection, partly in the light of my sequence ending on the idea of the mind’s hive and reflection as collecting the nectar of love and the pollen of wisdom from experience as it flowers, but from a slightly different angle and digging somewhat deeper into the sources of the dark emotions we need to step back from. I am sharing this in the hope that my experiences will be of use to others.
To explain what I’m getting at I need to recapitulate briefly some points made in earlier blogs.
From the mid-70s to the mid-80s, my life morphed at least three times into very different shapes, the gems of transformation being held together by the threads of self-work and meditation. I went from teacher to psychologist, atheist to believer, and single to married. It was a bumpy road at times especially in the 12 months from December 1981 to November 1982.
My diary shows how I was struggling with my personal priorities. Just before Christmas 1981 I’m writing:
People whose lifestyle I wish to copy are Jung, Henry Moore and others who seemed to have vast tracts of time at their disposal to read, discuss, think, and explore their own and others’ minds and feelings. . . . . My lifestyle may be incompatible with any partner’s happiness. I am not prepared to give it up so I must either find a partner with the same priorities or live alone. I do not want to see my preferred way of living bring misery to people that I care for.
Behind these insights was a history of two broken relationships which I refer to later in slightly more detail.
What’s more, even within the context of my priorities, I am clearly at war with myself, as I state on Christmas Day:
I find myself again at Christmas having resolved again upon a new way of living, but my resolve dissolves into confusion. My urge to meditate, my urge to read and my urge to write, all compete. And I am eventually immobilised between these equal and contradictory forces. . . . When I read I hanker to be writing or reflecting and so on. If I slump in front of the television to escape the tension I become tenser than ever.
Some things don’t change – well, not that easily at least. My blog posts testify to how my core interests still conflict. I have not written as much about how the demands of a practical, religious, social and family life also pull me in opposite directions. It’s the same for many of us, I know. Finding the right balance is difficult. What I perhaps had failed to give sufficient weight to, at the beginning of this six year period, was that patterns of feeling, thought and behaviour that I had worked on many times, both before and after the stresses of 1982, had not lost all their power to disrupt my life and my relationships.
What follows in this first post is a description of my later steps along this same journey before looking back again at aspects of 1982.
Previously on this blog I have not gone too deeply into the personal specifics at the root of my gut reactions. Partly I did not want to be boringly narcissistic: partly I was just plain chicken. However, it is not possible to unpack exactly how the present triggers patterns of destructive feeling, thought and action without looking at one’s own past in some detail.
One of the clearest explanations of how our past shapes our present in this way comes in a book on Transactional Analysis, a form of therapy that was of enormous benefit to me in my early days of working in mental health. Woollams and Brown write in their book – TA: the total handbook of Transactional Analysis (page 139):
A script is a personal life plan which each individual forms by a series of decisions early in her life in reaction to her interpretation of the important things happening in her world. The most important decisions determine a person’s character structure and are usually decided upon by age two or three. Most of the rest occur by about age six, while others may be made through adolescence and some even later.
I’ll use the simplified diagram above to illustrate one of my scripts. I am aware that this does not include a whole host of things that also helped shape my character, such as my sister’s death before I was born, my parents’ grief, and their very different ways of impacting upon me as a child – my father modelling the stiff upper lip approach to the point of rigidity until his last moments, as the poem at the top of this post attempts to capture, and my mother racked with anxiety and unremitting grief. No surprise really then that I chose to copy dad’s frozen stoicism, something it took nearly three decades to melt down.
So we are shaped by a multitude of factors and devise several interacting scripts in response. For clarity’s sake I’ve stuck to only one script in its simplest form.
This schema attempts to incorporate the roots of some of the insights that were facilitated by breakthroughs via rebirthing, Gestalt and TA in an evolving process. Recent experiences definitely confirmed that scripts travel with us to the grave. We can resolve them each time they are triggered, and they may never be triggered in exactly that way again. But that does not mean that a different event later cannot trigger them in a different way. Previous work can help weaken them somewhat, but they can still slide under our guard.
So, I had to dig this one out again for another look.
I have always known that I had had two difficult experiences in hospital sometime between the ages of four and seven. I knew I needed to work out what that had meant to me. The Primal Scream approach to therapy broke me through to an inexplicable pain but shed no more light on the content of any connected experience. Rebirthing, another breathing therapy, which came much later finally pulled the connections together in a way that TA and Gestalt hadn’t quite managed to do. As I was reconnected with the moments before being anaesthetised a second time, what was new was that I 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.’
Once I could build this insight firmly into the picture of my script I could more fully understand how it made sense of other aspects of my behaviour. My reading wasn’t only to do with my childhood illnesses, my need to do something with the time I spent in bed, and my desire to escape from my mother’s fear that I would die young as her daughter had.
The diagram attempts to map how that scripted decision shaped my reactions to events within relationships with people later in life. It’s simply here to illustrate what kinds of patterns are buried in all of us, triggering feelings that we must filter through reflection, as I will be explaining in a later post, before we act. As we will see, this is why acting on deeply held, tried and tested values rather than feelings is so important.
The stressors I referred to at the start of this post, and which I illustrated with the cafe story I linked to, reactivated aspects of the script particularly relating to trust and keeping my distance which in turn began to trigger action patterns that would break a relationship or at least test it to breaking point.
I had not noticed this link at first because I was assuming my reactions were all perfectly natural under the circumstances, or else explicable in terms of other less sensitive areas of my scripts. In the end the penny dropped. Here I go again. Only later still did I realise this reactivation did not, as in the past, apply simply to the person who had pressed the button: it also affected my feelings about other people as well. This was an important realisation to keep hold of and reflect upon.
A simple imaginary example will illustrate how this might work. There are three brothers. They’re close but one of them, Jim, has a similar script to mine. Chris, his younger brother, betrays his trust by stealing money from his desk. Not only does this cause Jim to cut all contact with Chris, but he starts to wonder whether he can trust his older brother, John. He begins to pull back somewhat from their original closeness just in case. John notices and gets a bit upset. Jim picks up on this and sees it as confirming what he thought and pulls back even more.
Once I cottoned on to this tendency for the trigger’s impact to generalise in this way, it helped me put potentially damaging reactions on hold so I did no further harm to other relationships in addition to the triggering one.
Putting these ideas outside me in this way eventually began to enable me to escape even further than I already had from the clutches of my scripts and drivers, but was not enough to release me more completely to reconnect more consistently with my deepest self.
Even so, this whole experience taught me that life is not a smooth ascent but a series of climbs and falls as tests come in different shapes and sizes.
The ideas also helped explain with hindsight why an early close relationship in my life splintered completely once trust was broken, and goes some way to explain why I retreated from a second when I feared it might go the same way because of our incompatibility. Books and meditation helped sustain me through the next difficult year of 1982 in the aftermath, even though I felt my fixation on books was not entirely healthy, as a poem I completed a few years later tried to express in a tongue-in-cheek take on the matter via a persona created for the purpose.
In the next post I’ll go on to describe how I developed a more positive take on my bookworm tendencies.
After that, even more reflection about reflection was required before I could disentangle myself more satisfactorily from the still smouldering scripts that I thought I had left behind. A critical skill that I have struggled to master for many years now is to recognise, right at the time it is triggered, that this pattern of reactions that I am calling a script is not who I am: it is simply a pattern of behaviour I have learned and can unlearn. I can spot it, step back and stop it, before deciding to put something more constructive in its place.
This goes somewhat beyond the simple traffic light system I discussed in the Three-Brains Revisited sequence. I’m not just disidentifying from a simple feeling but rather from a complex constellation of characteristics that I had previously mistaken for a self. This is how reflection can take us to increasingly higher levels of understanding and transformation. I needed to find a way of consolidating even more firmly my hold upon this truth.
More on that later.
Posted in Autobiographical, Spirituality, tagged ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í Faith, brain, consciousness, Iain McGilchrist, j, John Donne, John Fitzgerald Medina, John Hick, Ken Wilber, Margaret Donaldson, Mind on 13/03/2017| 1 Comment »
As I walk onto the platform a garbled announcement on the PA system informs me that the crackle for Birmingham will hiss from crackle 4.
I stroll in plenty of time to the appropriate end of platform 3. I’m glad of the bench on which to park my faded brown backpack loaded with food, coffee and a laptop. Just as I’m putting it down I hear a voice in my ear.
‘This train doesn’t usually go from 4, does it?’ The tone is full of a positive energy that sounds quite infectious.
I look up. A lady, slightly younger than me, is placing a brightly coloured shopping bag on the bench.
‘It used to but it hasn’t happened for ages. Not sure why now,’ I answer.
As we speak our train goes past the platform causing a moment of confusion before we realise it will have to reverse back onto the cul-de-sac of platform 4.
‘Where are you heading?’ she asks.
‘To the University.’
‘Oh! Why there?’
‘To run a seminar on consciousness.’
‘Oh wow!’ She almost leaps out of her skin. ‘That’s my life’s work. I’ve spent years working on that.’
‘You’re kidding,’ I say, almost equally astonished.
‘No. Honestly. It really is.’
Our train pulls to a stop behind us. We pick up our bags and wait by a door for the light to come on.
‘Do you mind if we sit together? I’d love to talk,’ she asks.
‘I’d be happy to. I will just need 15 minutes before we get to University station to go over my notes.’ (There’s copy of them for anyone interested in the footnotes.)
‘No problem. I’ll be getting off at Worcester.’
The light comes on. I press to open the door and we settle at a table close by in the warm sunlight streaming through the glass.
The talking begins between us even before I take my coat off. It continues in a constant flow thereafter. Two girls who initially chose to sit at the table opposite to us decide to move to the next carriage. The idea of an hour’s exposure to the excited exchanges of two old fogeys discussing mind, spirit, higher energy, God, the universe and an afterlife is clearly too much for them.
Later, as the train pulls out of Great Malvern I take a card out of my wallet to write down the name of the book we were just discussing: Faith, Physics & Psychology by John Fitzgerald Medina.
‘Are your details on the back?’ she asks.
‘For sure. Is it OK if I have yours,’ I ask getting out my notebook.
‘No problem. I don’t have a television, email address or computer anymore, but this is my mobile.’
I scribble it down.
‘I wasn’t planning to take this train,’ she explains. ‘But my sister wasn’t feeling well and wanted to rest so I said I’d go back early.’
‘That’s weird,’ I reply. ‘I was going to take the later train but the organiser of the seminar wanted me there earlier to set up, so I decided to travel on this one.’
We definitely conclude that our meeting is synchronicity not coincidence. Chance doesn’t seem the likeliest explanation.
She gets off at Foregate Street. I get out my notes to check, for the last time, that they will work for an interactive session with about 15 people. Well before my destination I am happy with my notes. I just watch for the tall clock tower that will signal I am nearly there.
There it is on schedule. I pack up my stuff. As I walk along the platform towards the exit stairs I ring the organiser.
‘I’m going to need my car,’ she tells me, ‘so give me time to drive around the one-way system to pick you up. It’ll take me longer than it would to walk.’
I wait in watery sunlight for the lift, with my destination in eyeshot. I am totally unprepared for what is about to happen.
In about five minutes her car pulls up. Within less than a minute we are squeezing into the cramped car park in front of the looming facade of the Medical Centre. We talk our way through the elaborate security system and I’m in the shining glass and gleaming metal entrance hall again. Memories of the last time four years ago flood back. I’ve described them before so won’t dwell on them now.
We climb the stairs to the first floor labyrinth. We fruitlessly loop round the circle of one set of seminar rooms and set off from the stairwell round the next. We are in luck. The last room we come to is the one for us.
Thirty chairs. Rather more than I was expecting but still not too many for a seminar-style approach even if the room is full.
As the system there won’t talk to my Mac, I save my Keynote slides onto a memory stick in PowerPoint format. The university computer obligingly accepts them. The first slide appears on the screen.
We’re good to go.
Fifteen minutes before we start. The room is filling up. We need more chairs. Five minutes to go and a student asks me if she can sit down in front of the first row. Before I can even answer, another student kneels down to my left.
‘That’s not necessary,’ I joke, implying I’m not a guru. She seems to get the joke but I’m not quite sure.
The professor I’ve been talking to in-between all the toing and froing, stands up at this point, looks around and says, ‘I’m going to find a bigger room.’ Our organiser goes with him. I look up towards the door and see the queue of people three-wide snaking out into the corridor.
I decide to start packing up all my stuff to set up again somewhere else. I sense this could take some time.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
After what seems an eternity of fidgeting restlessly in our places, whether sitting, kneeling, pacing or standing, we’re told to follow the professor to a lecture theatre up stairs. We trail behind him chatting desultorily. When we get to the stairs there’s a traffic jam.
Stalled half-way up the stairwell on a step less wide than my foot is long I’m left with an insecure sense I might topple backwards at any moment onto the tail of the queue below .
‘We need to go downstairs to the ground floor. There’s a room there,’ someone shouts from on high.
We dutifully turn round and slowly descend. We wait in the shining entrance hall. I begin to see how many of us there are. This is definitely going to be no seminar. It really will have to be a lecture. Lectures aren’t my thing. I love bouncing ideas around in small groups, learning from others in an intense exchange of perspectives.
Still, I’m going to have to make the best of a bad job.
At last! The porter (not sure that’s the right word) comes back and leads us along a different labyrinthine corridor, from which we step into a massive hall with the lectern stuck in the far left corner away from the door.
This could be tricky, I think.
As people take their seats I set up again.
The microphone doesn’t work and it’s fixed to the desktop so I can’t carry it anyway.
I stare incredulously into the vast space around me. The front row is several feet away and the back row seems in a different dimension altogether. I’m going to have to shout. I get my flask of coffee out. I’m going to need it if I don’t want to be croaking by the end. At a conservative estimate there are about 100 people here. I’m glad I didn’t know this in advance. I’d be jelly by now if I had.
I set the slide to show the word ‘Consciousness’ again. I prepare my reluctant mind for lecture mode.
They introduce me. I start by explaining that I want to leave space for questions and feedback as we go, even though we are so many. I want to learn from their perspectives as well as sharing mine.
I try to click onto the next text with my right hand on the mouse. The right button does nothing. I need a track pad!
‘This isn’t working,’ I share. ‘I’m used to a real computer.’ They laugh. That helps.
‘Press the left button,’ a supportive voice from the front row advises.
That works. ‘Spirit, Mind or Brain,’ appears.
I ask my three questions. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is simply a product of the brain?’ Maybe forty hands or so shoot up. There are too many to count properly. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is independent of the brain?’ Almost the same number. That’s encouraging. ‘How many have no real idea which way to go on this?’ Probably about twenty.
Things begin to settle down. The details of the kind of explanation I intended to give I will share in the next short sequence of posts. It’s close to what happens on the day but not exactly the same. I’ll keep the story very brief for now. I’ve gone on long enough.
Episodes of explanation interspersed with a few questions flow on from here for over an hour.
. . . . . before moving on to the improbability of life: how much more so of consciousness.
“Why bother investigating at all if we can’t prove anything for certain?’ someone asks later. I think after the event I should have said, ‘If science had only ever investigated what looked like a cast-iron certainty, where would quantum physics be now? By the end of the 19th Century eminent scientists thought there was hardly anything left to find out!’
As it is I offer, ‘We need to balance science and spirituality, as the Bahá’í Faith argues, if our civilisation is going to fly rather than crash even though the best we will ever get with human minds is an enhanced but still incomplete understanding which we can’t be completely sure is true.’
The muddle of models about the mind brain relationship. Isn’t monism the better idea? Is it all a solipsism?
‘Filter or spectrum?’ is the question I put. The brain as transceiver maybe.
The effects of skunk. Do psychedelics break down the filter both ways – the infrared of stuff from below and the ultraviolet of input from above?
Psi, though a small effect, is too rigorously explored and too improbable to dismiss – the issue is the explanation not the effect itself. Science has to take this seriously.
‘Isn’t all this a waste of time when we know consciousness is just the beautiful product of evolution and the massive complexity of our neuronal connections?’ asks a student in the second row. I pause to stop myself responding too sharply. I feel at least half the material so far was supposed to have dealt with that. I answer quietly, ‘Such a discount in advance of investigation dismisses countless experiences and phenomena as pure fantasy even though so many people are convinced they are real.’ I should have added, ‘Open-minded agnosticism is the only objective stance for science to take without betraying itself.’
Just before stopping I ask how many people present would be prepared to risk their reputation to investigate the spiritual aspects of consciousness. About ten people put up their hands. That is more than I would have expected. Encouraging again.
At the end there is a queue of students asking more questions and to share contact details. By the time I leave at 19.20 to catch my train I am in a daze of disbelief. I just hope I didn’t sell the topic short as I believe a more open-minded approach to the issue of consciousness is vital if we are to move towards the collaboration between science and religion that is required if we are to create a healthier society.
As I remember stating before, on my previous talk in this same building, if we place any credibility at all in the eloquently expressed arguments of scholars such as Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds, Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and Soul, John Hick in The Fifth Dimension or Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary, we have to accept the likelihood that, until our society finds a better balance between spirituality and science as pathways to what is fundamentally the same truth, we are in danger of joining previous civilisations in a crash landing.
The Plan for the Seminar that Never Happened!
If there are fewer than 20 people I might ask them their names and one relevant fact.
How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is entirely a product of the brain?
How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is in some way independent of the brain?
How many of you are not at all sure which way to go on this?
- ‘Doubt Wisely’
Explore the agnosticism case:
Dennet & Churchland
John Hick & Eric Reitan
- Prevalent Theories
- Eliminative Materialism
- Emergent Property
- Seen by most as unscientific
Given the improbability of life unless there really are infinite universes (the multiverse theory) the improbability of consciousness is even greater, so perhaps we need to approach the problems it poses with as open a mind as possible (cf Paul Davies The Goldilocks Enigma – God or infinite universes – both unacceptable to him.)
- Mind as completely independent of the brain.
This need not imply survival after bodily death but does entail the idea that the mind is not entirely reducible to the brain and that, though probably immaterial, it can control/influence the material brain (cf Schwartz).
- Mind as a spiritual entity.
This brings with it baggage our mainstream empirical materialistic culture does not welcome.
- There is a spiritual dimension including perhaps a collective unconscious and a potential capacity in all humans to access experiences without any obvious material mechanism (cf work on psi);
- There is survival after death (cf reincarnation, mediumship – inconclusive given fraud and super-psi);
- What survives is our sense of perceptive individuality in relation to others who have died, to the material world and to a transcendent power often referred to as God in Western culture (NDE evidence cf especially Sartori).
The issue should be not to say that the evidence must be seriously flawed because I know the direction it points is not possible. Rather to admit that the evidence raises serious questions that need to be investigated. Otherwise we have scientism not science. The issue is the validity of the interpretation not the validity of the evidence.
How to explore it further?
Well, experimenter expectation effects have to be taken into account. These cut both ways. The convinced will tend to elicit positive results: sceptics the opposite.
Also putting people with suspected psi through thousands of repetitions of the same task will inevitably lead to increasingly random performance. Imagine going to the optician as I did recently and have them run the dot spotting peripheral vision acuity task 1000 times. I’d probably be rated spot-blinded tunnel vision by the end as boredom and fatigue increasingly eroded my attention.
Also the threat to your career as a credible scientist needs to be addressed. Not many people are prepared to commit career suicide by investigating what has been written off a priori as delusional. Often also neither unbelievers nor believers are keen to spend years investigating what they already know to be a fact.
What we need in any case are detached and genuinely agnostic scientists to come forward (because they are most likely to obtain objectively credible results), jeopardise their careers, struggle for funding and devote decades to the exploration of an aspect of this issue.
How many of you are up for that right now?