Archive for the ‘Psychology & Society’ Category

Grave & Courtyard v2

I went to the DeathCafe by car this time. A musician friend of mine had expressed an interest in attending, so he popped into our place for soup, then we drove together to the Courtyard. He seemed as fascinated by death as I am, a rare meeting of minds.

We dropped the car in a side road to save parking expenses. As we walked back to the venue we spotted another frequenter of the Death Cafe, someone previously connected with mental health as I was. We headed together straight for the bar to get our drinks, and amazingly there was yet another member of the group waiting at the bar for her giant sized mocha. As we chatted I noticed the facilitator from the local hospice passing behind us to check out the room. It was going to be another big meeting again.

The man in the hat turned up next. We exchanged greetings. We left him at the bar once we got our drinks and headed to the ground floor meeting room. It was the one we all liked best. It is easily accessible and you don’t get the full blast of the theatre performances coming through the wall.

As always it’s impossible to summarise all the topics we covered in two hours of energised discussion, spiced with humour and laced with sadness.

What I remember most, perhaps understandably, is that I was not the only one to be coming to terms with a body no longer responding energetically to the demands of the mind. There was at least one other person there with the same issue. We kicked that topic around for a while before the focus moved on to other things.

Inevitably, I suppose, we came back at one point to the big question: what happens when we die? Do we circle back through the loop of reincarnation, do we pass on to a journey through the next world, or do we simply black out.

In Gustave Doré’s illustrations for the fourth circle of Dante’s hell, the weights are huge money bags. (For source of image see link.)

Some weren’t sure but worked on a variation of Pascal’s wager. As Wikipedia explains: ‘Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).’ A strong prompt for a pause of thought, even if with me you don’t share a belief in the medieval concept of hell so grimly portrayed in Dante’s Inferno. Some in the group had decided that it was just a happier place to be, to assume that there was a life beyond death, even though they couldn’t prove it.

Others, including my friend and I, were pretty clear we believed there was something after death, and it was a source of comfort and even joy, one of us quoting the words of Bahá’u’lláh in support of this:

I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?

Yes, we would grieve at the loss of a relative or friend, because they were no longer with us, but this pain would be tempered by the knowledge (yes, we used that word) they were in a better place.

At least one person doubted there was anything beyond death while another, who had a strong sense at times of having been here before, has placed her money on coming back again and again.

I didn’t have the chance to share my own thoughts in detail on that one. Though the Bahá’í Faith teaches that we do not come back, there are examples not easily dismissed of evidence that points in the direction of some kind of knowledge of a previous life. I’ve dealt with most of that in detail in previous posts. One thing I’ve recently read in Fontana’s excellent book on the after life suggests that returning spirits say that some people ask to come back and some are sent back. Given the rigour with which he examines evidence, I feel I need to give this idea due weight. It needs an explanation of some kind. The evidence needs taking seriously: though we may explain it in different ways, it should not be ignored.

As part of that discussion, the problem with how to deal with the pain of grief came up. Many of us had noticed that some seem broken by grief and never really recover, while others pick themselves up and, when the intense pain of the first period of grief is over, begin to engage in activities that lead to a more positive life. The idea put forward by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) was briefly explored: there is pain, which is inescapable, and suffering, which is the avoidable layer that we add to pain by our own take on it.

I couldn’t resist plugging my own panacea for pain and other uncomfortable experiences: reflection. I won’t bang on about it here at any length as I’ve explored it over and over on this blog already, except to say that developing the ability to step back from the contents of our consciousness, whether that be intrusive and negative thoughts or strong feelings of pain, enables us to contain them, rather than repress them or be their victim. Containment allow us to explore them safely and decide how to deal with them constructively.

As we walked back to the car together my friend said, with no prompting from me,’That was great. I really enjoyed it.’

The next meeting of the Hereford Death Cafe is on Wednesday 18th October at 18.00. See you there maybe?

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?


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Hamlet almost kills Claudius Hamlet (2009) Royal Shakespeare Company Directed by Gregory Doran

Hamlet almost kills Claudius (For source of image see link)
Hamlet (2009) Royal Shakespeare Company. Directed by Gregory Doran

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.

(Hamlet, Act III, Scene 3, lines 73-80)

This sequence last seen two years ago seems to follow on naturally from the Understanding Heart sequence I’ve just republished. So here it comes again on three consecutive days this time.

I ended the last post with a question:

Maybe this is partly why I ignored the whispers to hang on in there, shot the albatross in the heat of a conflict situation, and betrayed myself in the process. At least I think it was. Maybe this, rather surprisingly, is the lesson Bahá’u’lláh wants me to learn from all this crackle in my system. Can I, should I make a virtue of uncertainty, at least in some circumstances, and have the courage of my confusion?

This leaves another question still hanging in the air: ‘Maybe there are situations where waiting is clearly a mistake, and then isn’t doing something better than dithering indefinitely?’ And if so, how do I tell the difference? And when I sense a difference, how do I step back from the clamour in my head and stay still with no sense of guilt? We’ll be coming onto that aspect of things soon now.


Given my default position of doubt, it’s no wonder that Hamlet is the Shakespeare play I resonate to most strongly. ‘Now could I do it pat!’ except he can’t. Instinct gives way to the scanning of intellect. He stands ‘mammering,’ as Othello scathingly refers to this kind of hesitation.

Othello & Desdemona

Othello after killing Desdemona (for source of image see link)

It is intriguing to note at this point that if Othello had been in Hamlet’s shoes, Hamlet would have been much shorter and far less interesting, probably ending at Act I, Scene 2, shortly after Othello had left the battlements and cut his uncle’s throat before breakfast, whereas, if Hamlet had starred in Othello, Desdemona would probably still be alive, with Iago on a perilous mission somewhere in Africa, probably never to return. Neither play would have worked as a tragedy, or even as a comedy for that matter, as it would have lacked the necessary mismatch between character and situation.[1]

To return to the main issue, ‘mammering’ has a bad press in our culture. ‘He who hesitates is lost,’ we parrot, ‘Strike while the iron is hot!’ quite forgetting that it might just possibly be better to look before we leap. Such a bad press in fact that it has taken me quite some time to recognise the possibility that there could be times when mammering is the best policy. He who hesitates may well be the wisest of them all.

Indecision is pathologised in our culture, but that should be when it’s a pattern which disables our ability to decide what to eat, where to go for a walk, what book or clothes to buy – none of which is the case with me as far as I can tell. Maybe refusing to decide to act when the stakes are too high, nothing is clear and we don’t really have to, is quite rational and in fact the toughest decision to make, not a sign of weakness at all.

The question though that confronts me every time in every situation is, ‘Is this situation one of those where mammering is best?’

Trying to apply this kind of thinking more closely to the actuality of an experience is also difficult for all of us. What happens when a specific situation presses a button, for example when we are convinced that someone close has lied to us? What do we say or do when a trusted friend has refused to help us? How do we deal with the soreness left after we feel betrayed and an important bond had been badly damaged if not completely broken?

Well, I think I might have a glimpse of the answer to those kinds of questions.

I think I now realise, and not just intellectually, that there is a huge difference between the reality we see when we stand back and the reality we experience when we allow the hurt to distort our perceptions, and the crucial Trafalgar we fight is when we battle not to board the ship whose sails are perceptions with the wind of hurt behind them.

When the pain and the reality collide and pressurise me to warp my perception and experience and decide something destructive, I need to learn to stand back and, first, tell myself that storm water on the mind’s window doesn’t alter what’s outside, and, second, that, with friends and family especially but perhaps with human kind as a whole, the basic relationship can only be blurred by pain but need not be destroyed by it – not even if we plan never to speak to or spend time with them again.

We are all inextricably linked, as Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner implies, so to use emotional pain on the spur of the moment as an excuse, for example, for not speaking again ever, while human and understandable, is not a viable way forward. (Physical harm is a different matter of course and requires that measures be taken as soon as possible to secure our safety.) I also agree that there are a very few people we might know whose speech comes to be too dangerous to listen to ever again: verbal abuse and systematic denigration, for example, should not be endured. I’d have to be sure you’re such a person before I cut you off completely.

But I am dealing now with what I would call the routine mainstream of human relationships, where there are serious mistakes but no calculated malice. In such circumstances, ‘I’m not taking this crap any more!’ and walking out might sound like strong minded forthrightness, but all too often it’s only camouflaged cowardice.

So, what has all this got to do with the Three-Brain model? How could that possible help?

The Three Brain Model Revisited

Well, a key issue is to learn how to step back from all the usual programming that tempts us to press the button marked ‘Fire’ too early, in case we kill an albatross. As we discussed earlier, different parts of our brain system are triggered in different ways along different time-scales.

When we lived in caves and usually had only one chance to learn how to recognise and escape from a tiger, instinct was really handy. It still is. It helps us get out of the way of an oncoming train and sense if an attack in a dark alley is likely to happen. It also tends to mistake a black plastic bag for a mugger.

So, basically, it’s a good idea to put our instincts on a leash when we’re not in clear physical danger. We can allow the warning light to keep flashing, but we don’t have to attack or escape until we’ve made sure that the threat is real. Sometimes, even when the threat is real, we can keep the leash tight in order, for example, to help others out of danger before we escape ourselves. We can even save an albatross before we save ourselves. This over-ride is one of the things that makes us human rather than simply animal, though I accept that some animals can demonstrate something remarkably like altruism.

The ability to pull on the leash before the leopard leaps needs constant practice. Mindfulness helps. The earlier we can learn to spot the reaction the better the chance we have of stopping it and swapping it for a more considered response.

If we can keep the leash tight and keep calm as well, something that also comes with practice as we learn how to step mindfully back from our reactions, thinking remains possible.

In our culture, thinking tends to have pride of place. Science and logic are highly valued. We love the way we can analyse experience. There are huge advantages to this way of working. We go way beyond gut reactions, which can only really be trusted when situations are crisp, clear and self-evident or else, if complex, are predictably patterned and deeply familiar.

Such situations are most certainly not the only ones we meet in our complex and global society, far different from the forests of our distant origins. Snap judgements can now be seriously flawed, and the flaws grow in size as situations become more complex and chaotic. So, taking the time and making the effort to work things out carefully pays off in all complex situations where the consequences, though not necessarily life-threatening, could be scarily high. My home, my health or my wealth could be at stake. In addition to Kahneman’s work already referred to, Daniel Levitin, in his book The Organised Mind, has much to say about how, for example, we can become better at making difficult decisions about what steps to take to mend our health (page 219-267).


3 brain awareness v4

We need to dig a bit deeper still.

I have produced a very left-brain diagram to roughly illustrate a right-brain model. Hopefully, if my left-brain buys it, there might be some chance it will give my right-brain enough space and time to function! The ellipse labelled Conscious Awareness represents a process and is not meant to be reified (or deified for that matter). In terms of the discussion below it is primarily to be seen as ‘consciousness influenced by brain systems/processes’ and restricted by the brain’s limited but nonetheless impressive capacity to act as a receiver of signals.

To place this in a context, which I won’t be exploring in this post, conscious awareness (CA) is underpinned by preconscious processes and rests on a brain foundation of unconscious responses, usually termed ‘subliminal’ in the psychology literature. Also, for a Bahá’í and an Irreducible Mind enthusiast such as me, Mind in its totality is a sphere of potential consciousness, within which the ellipse of CA resides, and which emanates from a spiritual dimension to which our brains can only achieve an intermittent connection at best for most of us.

Signal RedAs the diagram attempts to show, if we think of the input from each of these brain systems as radio, television or satellite signals, then the instinctual signal is strongest. In the brain as it is wired, it also has a fast track and begins to trigger a reaction before the higher centres know what’s going on, hence the long thin wiring to the intellect and intuition. Also the descending neural pathways used to help the higher centres of the brain keep calm are fewer in number than the ascending ones raising the alarm. They do win in the end though if we use them enough and wisely.

So, putting instinct on hold can be very difficult in situations where our feelings are running high. Also, as Baumeister and Tierney have analysed in detail, our ability to restrain ourselves can tire just like a muscle, and our grip on our instincts is loosened. They wrote in February 2012’s edition of The Psychologist:

. . . . self-control is like a muscle that gets tired. People may start the day fresh and rested, but as they exert self-control over the course of the day, their powers may diminish. Many researchers have observed that self-control tends to break down late in the day, especially if it has been a demanding or stressful day. . . .

A series of experiments confirmed that willpower is tied to glucose (Gailliot et al., 2007). After people exert self-control, even on artificial lab tasks, their blood glucose levels drop. Low levels of blood glucose predict poor performance on tests of self- control.

Signal OrangeHowever, as the brain learns with practice to use the higher centres to hold back the tiger on each particular issue, we can get better at it, self-restraint develops more stamina, can hold on longer, and our fangs and claws may therefore more rarely rip into impetuous action.

The signal from the intellect is weaker than instinct’s and, although the diagram can’t show it clearly without muddling the main issue, the emotional centre of the archaic brain can keep interfering with the thinking process and colouring its deliberations. We can be infected by irrational fear, anger, impatience and so on, and, to make matters worse, because of our confirmation bias we will be very tempted to look only at the evidence that feeds our prejudices. We have to work very hard to keep the tiger in check, and to make ourselves look at evidence that contradicts our instinctive assumptions. That’s why paradigm shifts are so difficult to make in science as well as everywhere else: scientists are not immune to the impact of the primitive emotional investments they’ve made in what they have come to believe. Anyone interested in that area of exasperation need only read Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain, the Kellys’ Irreducible Mindor Malcolm Kendrick’s Doctoring Data.

Signal GreenHowever, more often than we realise, there are other serious limitations to our logical thinking processes in themselves as well, against which we also have to guard. Iain McGilchrist has explored the ramifications of this in his excellent book The Master & His Emissary, in which he argues that the way we privilege our left-brain logical linguistic mode of processing is fraught with danger: we have to balance it with the right-brain holistic intuitive approach, which is sensitive to our connectedness with others and able to correct distortions in our schematic mapping. The so-called ‘rational’ processes aren’t geared to securing a good grasp of values, human relationships, complex organic interactions, spiritual dimensions, wholes rather than parts and so on. Through right-brain processes we can have access to a mind that is far better at dealing with such things, but we do not often give it the time to operate effectively nor are we good at attending to its findings, which tend to come not in words but in intimations, metaphors, symbols, dreams, and other intuitive shapes. At least this is how it seems to me things usually are in our spiritually illiterate culture.

When any factors such as values are involved we would do well to step back from our thoughts, quieten our minds and wait – and I don’t mean wait for just a few minutes. Sometimes I have waited for days, weeks or in rare cases, with various difficult issues, months before either meditation, dreams or apparently random flashes of insight come bursting in with the answer – or possibly not bursting in but whispering the solution quietly in the background, waving somewhere from a far corner of my mind’s eye. Unfortunately our receiver is not good at tuning into the signal from the wisest part of ourselves that makes the best decisions, and we experience its signal as frustratingly weak, so weak sometimes we convince ourselves it does not exist, and blast on regardless.

So when reason has done all it’s work, it can be best to wait if there is no real urgency, but waiting is very hard to do, especially when we do not believe there will be anything worth waiting for – I’m sure that there will be all sorts of imaginary reasons our mind can manufacture to persuade us that we cannot and need not wait. Under mindful inspection such spurious reasons burst like soap bubbles on a pin. If there is a valid reason why we must act now, then perhaps we should, but not unless. Rushing to react kills albatrosses, something that waiting for the wisdom of intuition will help us avoid.

A Traffic-Light System

What I am suggesting is a simple set of traffic lights.

Sorry they’re up side down in the picture above but I couldn’t reconcile myself to placing instinct on a higher level than intuition and reason, even to create a more familiar symbol. But at least I discussed them in the familiar order. It’s a simple visual reminder, when there is a lot at stake, to stop, put all action on hold, if no danger threatens. Then to think hard for as long as necessary to get a grip on what’s really going on, and even then, only to act if it’s genuinely urgent. If we can do that, marinating our minds in the complexity of the issue, we will inevitably gain access to a rich and subtle vein of creative processing that will enable us to make truly wise as against hastily quick, or apparently clever decisions that might be missing something vital and doing serious harm.

It is my belief also that once we achieve this level of consciousness, can tune into it at will, though not necessarily consistently, and can begin to avoid our usual mistakes, even perhaps beginning to compensate for some past errors as well, the weight of unnecessary guilt, rage, self-blame and angst will fall off our shoulders, we will stand straighter and see much further.

At least that’s where I’ve got up to in my thinking so far! I hope it was worth sharing my mariner experience. If not, writing it down as clearly as I can might help me remember when the next albatross is in danger.


[1] I was shocked to discover (or perhaps to be reminded) that I wasn’t the first person to think of this possibility. In December 2015, six months after posting this, I read, on page 149 of Mark Edmundson’s brilliant Self & Soul, ‘A. C. Bradley has said that if you put Hamlet into Othello’s play, the prince will quickly make Iago [out] for what he is and just laugh him to scorn. In Hamlet’s place, Othello would draw his sword and slice Claudius nave to chops in the first act. In either case: no play.’ I definitely read Bradley 50 years ago. Was this then a case of cryptoamnesia? I think so. What does that suggest about the rest of what I write? I dread to think and feel obliged to apologise to anyone I have inadvertently plagiarised.

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Ship STC

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

Coleridge Rime of the Ancient Mariner (lines 288-291)

This sequence last seen two years ago seems to follow on naturally from the Understanding Heart sequence I’ve just republished. So here it comes again on three consecutive days this time.

At the end of the last post I explained that Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner served as the key to unlocking the puzzle of why I translated a poem of Machado’s in the way I did, especially the line I rendered as ‘The ship of my existence rots becalmed.’

I need to quote some key passages mostly to illustrate where the ‘becalmed ship’ imagery came from, before spelling out more clearly what it has to do with the three brains model. The quotes come from the 1834 revised version, where the English has been made less archaic. I’ve noted one or two places where I think the meaning has been affected by the changes.

A Fatal Mistake

The mariner and his fellow crew-members are halted in an ice-bound wilderness. An albatross appears through the fog. They feed it, the ice splits and they can move forward at last.

The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!

Then comes the fatal mistake, a turn of events that Wordsworth apparently suggested to Coleridge after reading a sea captain’s account of a round-the-world voyage. This does not for me detract from the symbolic power of the act within the poem. It was the perfect suggestion to have made.

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.

‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS. . . . .

The consequences of that violent act are dire.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!

So his fellow sailors hang the albatross around his neck:

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

The crew all die apart from him after a dark ship come alongside with two sinister figures on deck playing dice. When one cries out she’s won, all the 200-member crew, except the mariner, fall dead, leaving only him alive:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on [And Christ would take no pity on]
My soul in agony.

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting [eldritch] deck,
And there the dead men lay.

Things continue in this nightmare fashion. Only when he reconnects lovingly with the alien forms of life swimming near the ship does the curse lift:

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

And he is left driven to tell his story at unpredictable moments:

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.

He explains the meaning of his experience to the reluctant wedding guest:

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

For completeness and to reinforce a key idea in the poem, that the Ancient Mariner has a duty to communicate not just what happened but also what he has learnt, I’ve quoted the ‘moral’ at the end. I feel I may be being a bit of an Ancient Mariner in this sequence of posts, driven to share what I have learnt to every unwilling listener. Coleridge himself didn’t like the moral much: he wrote (1832), ‘the chief fault of the poem was that it had too much moral, and that too openly obtruded on the reader.’

Are We Too Trigger-Happy?

I remembered that some time previously I found myself wondering whether I had shot an albatross when I had reacted too instinctively to an intense emotional experience. I was hurting so much I effectively walked out of a situation I should have stuck with: I had felt unable to follow Arnold Mindell’s advice to ‘sit in the fire.’ The hurt I felt meant I kept my distance for a while: because my reaction had caused hurt in its turn, the dear ones I’d hurt did the same.

I had then almost immediately forgotten the thought about the Mariner, as we do. Now it had come to mind again, a stream of questions came flooding in. Had this left me as disconnected as the mariner was from life, or at least from people? Had the distrust engendered by the hurt I felt contaminated my close connection with people so that I felt that only books, art and nature could be completely trusted, apart from three tried and tested people? Was I now keeping my distance as a result? Was all my blogging about interconnectedness simply an attempt to heal this wound or compensate for the ‘crime’ or both?

While all of that has more than a grain of truth in it of course, and the albatross-exterminating stranded-mariner metaphor helped me to discover it, there is another way of looking at this area, which is complementary not contradictory. This involves switching from the ship metaphor altogether, even at the cost of abandoning the crew idea, though I really like it. This second model focuses more on how to avoid shooting albatrosses in the first place, rather than the feelings of being cut off and stranded afterwards.

In the introduction to Consciousness beyond Life, Pim van Lommel introduces a helpful analogy that is being used quite widely by those who share his point of view:

Our brain may be compared both to a television set, receiving information from electromagnetic fields and decoding this into sound and vision, and to a television camera, converting or encoding sound and vision into electromagnetic waves. . . . . . The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness.

Because I’m very drawn to this metaphor, as well as to the band-with idea that goes right back to FWH Myers in the 19th century, though he was obviously thinking more in terms of a spectrum such as colour rather than the internet, I am tempted to conceptualise my problem another way.

Transceivers can send as well receive data. They are also subject to interference. The interference, to simplify somewhat, is partly a tuning problem but is also related to internal self-generated signals that result either from a meaningless malfunction or a leakage from a coherent but unwanted source. Consciousness in the context of this discussion is the operator, with the power to determine the next move, and hoping to get accurate feedback and proper control so that it can make the best possible decision about what to do right now. It’s strongest card in this respect is its ability to buy time by putting on hold recommendations already made, sometimes powerfully, elsewhere in the brain system.

A Three-Brain Model Traffic lightUnfortunately, the operator finds it very difficult at best, and sometimes impossible, to achieve that ideal state of affairs. Either it finds itself tuned to the wrong but utterly compelling wavelength, the reptilian brain for example screaming blue murder from somewhere below and wanting to shoot albatrosses right left and centre, or possibly a timid advisor, over-socialised and compliant, who just wants a quiet life at any cost and would rather not comment for fear of offending someone. Fiddling with the dials in a search of better input it might stumble across a channel that asserts with almost irresistible parental confidence that it knows exactly what God wants, only to shift a couple of megahertz along to find an equally compelling voice arguing for one’s deepest desires as the best guide.

As long as consciousness can stand back from all of this and recognise it for what it is – neural noise, mostly – it can refrain from acting out any of this advice, including ‘Shoot the albatross!’ Indeed, it has the power, as long as it’s in any doubt as to who to believe, not to act at all but simply stand back – Malcolm Kendrick, in his book Doctoring Data, has a witty reversal of the standard saying that applies here: not, ‘Don’t just stand there, do something,’ but ‘Don’t just do something, stand there!’ And that’s where I feel am right now, rather as the diagram illustrates. So much so that I feel that perhaps the essence of the best of who I am right now, in such testing situations, lies in my capacity to watch and wait.

I find myself wondering whether all this cacophony of confidence which I hear around me about what to do in emotionally loaded and often complex situations is completely misguided, even though it leaves me feeling and seeming so ‘weak’ in my not being able to decide what to do. The pressure to rush to a decision, any decision no matter how little we really understand what’s going on, seems better to almost everyone than not deciding anything at all. It’s so obviously better to kill an albatross than do nothing. The use of pesticides such as DDT, which brought the bald eagle and peregrine falcon to the brink of extinction in the States, or CFCs in fridges, which hacked a great hole in the ozone layer, would be good examples of this tendency when expressed on a global scale.

And yet to me deep down deciding anything so important too fast is a grave mistake. But that feeling is so out of step with convention that I doubt my doubt, and its demand for more time. I often end up convincing myself to do something, to react at any price, because I can’t stand the tension of waiting any longer, nor the degree of displeasure and incomprehension from others – my position, or apparent lack of it, seems so pointless. I can’t see my uncertainty as the rational position it could sometimes be, and well worth defending, in spite of all my desk-bound rationalisations shared, for example, in the Eclipse of Certainty sequence, to be republished later.

Maybe this is partly why I ignored the whispers saying I should hang on in there, shot the albatross in the heat of the conflict situation, and betrayed myself in the process. At least I think it was. Maybe this, rather surprisingly, is the spiritual lesson Bahá’u’lláh wants me to learn from all this crackle in my system. Can I, should I make a virtue of uncertainty, at least in some circumstances, and have the courage of my confusion? This feels closely parallel to the need I met a long time ago to master the art of what I saw referred to as ‘negative self-assertion’ in terms of my introversion in highly extravert settings.[1]

We need to dig more deeply into that next time.


[1] I can’t now trace where I first latched onto this idea. To those who are interested, all I can say is that it means learning, as a person with a soft style, how to assert who you are without betraying it. Women and introverts frequently face this challenge, the former easily falling into the trap of becoming masculine-aggressive and the latter of behaving in a loud over-sociable way. Obviously, finding out how to assert uncertainty is similar challenge.

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Dore STC Holmes p144

Picture scanned from ‘Coleridge: Early Visions’ Richard Holmes (page 144)

The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God. But sincerity, justice, humility, severance, and love for the believers of God will purify the mirror and make it radiant with reflected rays from the Sun of Truth.

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

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Coleridge (1834) Rime of the Ancient Mariner (lines 115-118)

This sequence last seen two years ago seems to follow on naturally from the Understanding Heart sequence I’ve just republished. So here it comes again on three consecutive days this time.

Events over the last four years have taught me a lot. It would be tedious in the extreme to bore you with all the details. The events were of the kind exemplified in the first post of the sequence about the Three ‘I’s.

What I want to talk about just now is the way that a poem, which I had translated and which raised interesting questions for a friend, led to a breakthrough into a different angle of understanding, enriched admittedly both by my recent practice of mindfulness, my intense encounter with van Gogh in Amsterdam, and my long-standing struggle with the processes of reflection and disidentification in general.

Three Brains

To understand fully what I’m going to be saying I need to take a brief detour at this point into the three-brain model, which I’ve already dealt with on this blog. I looked at the work of Charles Tart, especially his book Waking Up. He is influenced heavily in this by Gurdjieff, a charismatic figure whose ideas are as intriguing as his character is difficult to read. Tart summarises what he finds useful (page 150):

Gurdjieff’s concept of man as a three-brained being, then, specifies that there are three major types of evaluation: intellectual, as we ordinarily conceive of it, emotional, and body/instinctive. . . . . [A] lack of balanced development of all three types of evaluation processes is a major cause of human suffering.

I have now tweaked that model somewhat in the light of my own experience, trying to integrate some previously unmentioned aspects and also to make more explicit ways to begin using it in practice while keeping it as simple as possible. I have not repeated some of the detailed suggestions in the Three ‘I’s sequence such as how to work with dreams, as these are accessible still on this blog.

Emotions and feelings of various kinds are triggered by the content of experience at every level.

A Three-Brain Model BasicThose at the instinctual, limbic system or ‘gut’ level tend to be linked to survival and are frequently negative involving fear (flight) and anger (fight). The other ‘f’ words, such as ‘food,’ usually trigger pleasure and other more positive responses. We tend to react strongly and quickly to all such triggers: there isn’t much thought, if any at all involved. It’s very much a flash point situation which can make catching ourselves in time before we react a bit of a problem. It takes practice.

At the intellectual, left-brain or ‘head’ level, the nature of feelings will depend upon the content and difficulty of whatever preoccupies our thinking processes. When we have a complex problem we end up having to work things out more slowly and what comes out after a longer period is a calculated decision rather than a gut reaction. I’ve been over much of this ground in recording my responses to Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow so I won’t rehash it all in detail here.

At the right-brain level of intuition, which can be termed the ‘heart,’ where holistic and creative processes tend to take place, emotions are overall usually more positive. Love and compassion are more frequently experienced at this level. It takes time for these processes to produce a sense of what to do next and more time still for us to explain what that is to our thinking mind. I have called the outcome here a ‘resolution’ because that word contains both the idea of resolving a problem and achieving a firm resolve about tackling it.

I will come back in the last post of this sequence to an examination of how to apply this model to any given situation.

Stranded Mariners

The poem in question was my rendering in English of Machado’s A Crazy Song, in particular the line I chose to render as ‘The ship of my existence rots becalmed.’

A Crazy Song

My friend’s comment was unexpected:

. . . I was struck by your line ‘The ship of my existence rots becalmed’.  Several images and connections arise:  The ship is like our conscious or personal self, . . . . If the ship is becalmed there is no wind in its sails, and the sea itself is barely moving.  So the reason for the ship’s lack of movement has its origin outside the conscious self, . . . . .  The ship is a symbol for the personal Will (in psychosynthesis) and its crew is the multiplicity of our subpersonalities, hundreds of different selves which work in unison to make sail across the ocean. But in the becalmed ship the crew are all waiting, they can do nothing. . . . . . Perhaps [there are issues] need[ing] resolution in order to find some wind for your sails?

My immediate reaction was to dismiss the idea of present relevance. I had seen the translation I made as drawing on past experiences to mediate the transference of the emotional meaning of the poem for me from Spanish into English. I resonated so strongly to the original poem, I felt, because I’d been there, done that and got the t-shirt.

However, because I have learned that when this friend asks a question or raises an issue there is usually something substantial behind it, I went back to the original text. In doing so I came realise that ‘transference’ is an interesting word to have used in this context.

I went back to check out what I’d added to or subtracted from the original, which reads at that point:

Y no es verdad, dolor, yo te conozco,
tú eres nostalgia de la vida buena
y soledad de corazón sombrío,
de barco sin naufragio y sin estrella.

[Literal Translation: ‘But that’s not it – pain, I know you better: you are the longing for the happy days, the loneliness that fills the sombre heart, that haunts the ship unfoundering (ie ‘unwrecked’) and unstarred.’]

Clearly rotting and becalmed are my associations to what Machado wrote.

Whereas at first I had thought that I was simply rendering the spirit of the Spanish into an English equivalent, I’d clearly gone beyond it. So, in support of the ‘been there, done that’ theory, I argued to myself that perhaps I was referring back to some earlier state of mind and using the Spanish as a bridge to help me recreate it.

For example, at the time I was learning Spanish both at school, and later when a Spanish Assistante came to work at the college I was teaching at, I was still locked in my dissociation from or denial of the emotional turmoil of my childhood, up to and including my father’s death when I was 24. Not until my rather risky experiences with Reichian and Janovian breathing therapies (see link) at the hands of amateurs did I open Pandora’s box and discover what I really felt and really wanted to do – till then it had all been about addictive pastimes to help me keep shut down.

In one blog post I described it as follows:

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.

I’m not sure why so many of my important experiences have such an aquatic flavour. Actually, I think I know why: anyone interested could check out an earlier post, which hints at the connection.

Anyway, after those moments, psychology/psychotherapy became the wind in my sails. I had reasons for wishing to become properly qualified in this area, having witnessed, as I saw it, the potential damage amateurs could do to the vulnerable (but that’s another story). I wanted to make a positive difference, something I couldn’t do outside the system against which I had rebelled. So I came back in, got a job, worked in mental health and found my vocation.

Finding the Bahá’í Faith put more wind in my sails. I thought the ‘painted ship upon a painted ocean’ experience that the Ancient Mariner describes was behind me. The imagery didn’t apply anymore to the present, did it?

Then, I began to wonder whether such a state might still be active somewhere underneath consciousness. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time I had failed fully to understand my own poem, let alone my translation of someone else’s. It’s some consolation to think that if you can completely understand a poem you’ve written, it probably isn’t much good.

Anyway, because she questioned what I might have meant and whether it applied to me and to what extent, a key association came to mind, the probable original source of those kinds of images for this kind of purpose. Surprise, surprise, it was Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Coleridge’s life has always fascinated me. He was 26 when he published this, younger than Keats when he died at 28 and younger than van Gogh when he started painting at 27 – extremely young to have composed, over what seems to have been a brief period of five months before first publication, such a powerful and dark poem. At least one biographer regards it as uncannily prophetic of his later life and all its suffering. He kept tinkering with the poem over a period of many years. It clearly was of profound significance to him.

In the next post I’ll be looking closely at the implication of this association for governing our reactions to experience. The poem would seem to have left a deeper mark on me than I had ever realised.

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Justin Renteria

A Facebook friend flagged up this fascinating piece on the Atlantic Website. It looks as though rising too high up the ladder can result in a kind of acquired psychopathy, although I suppose it might still leave the question open of whether it was there to some degree in the first place. My sense though is that a significant lack of cognitive empathy, large enough to lead to the fall of pride, becomes evident, and the most successful psychopaths usually have no lack of that kind at all. Also there is a sense that aspects of the studies had a longitudinal component that would have been able to rule this possibility out. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

How leaders lose mental capacities—most notably for reading other people—that were essential to their rise.

If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can even make Henry Kissinger believe that he’s sexually magnetic. But can it cause brain damage?

When various lawmakers lit into John Stumpf at a congressional hearing last fall, each seemed to find a fresh way to flay the now-former CEO of Wells Fargo for failing to stop some 5,000 employees from setting up phony accounts for customers. But it was Stumpf’s performance that stood out. Here was a man who had risen to the top of the world’s most valuable bank, yet he seemed utterly unable to read a room. Although he apologized, he didn’t appear chastened or remorseful. Nor did he seem defiant or smug or even insincere. He looked disoriented, like a jet-lagged space traveler just arrived from Planet Stumpf, where deference to him is a natural law and 5,000 a commendably small number. Even the most direct barbs—“You have got to be kidding me” (Sean Duffy of Wisconsin); “I can’t believe some of what I’m hearing here” (Gregory Meeks of New York)—failed to shake him awake.

What was going through Stumpf’s head? New research suggests that the better question may be: What wasn’t going through it?

The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.

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The previous post looked at the Grof’s account of Karen’s experience of a spiritual emergency and how it was dealt with. Now we need to look at some of the implications as well as other aspects of their approach.

The Context

I want to open this section with that part of Bahá’u’lláh’s Seven Valleys that has formed the focus of my morning meditations for the last few weeks. I have persisted so long in the hope that I will eventually understand it more fully. I believe that Shoghi Effendi, the great-grandson of Bahá’u’lláh and the one whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá appointed as His successor, was of the opinion that one needed to read at least ten books by writers who were not Bahá’ís in order to have any hope of understanding a Bahá’í text fully. I may have conveniently chosen to believe that factoid in order to justify my own bookaholic tendencies.

Setting that aside for now, what matters at the moment are the resonances between the words of Bahá’u’lláh and the topic I am exploring more deeply here.

I have touched on how materialistic assumptions about reality will dismiss as rubbish or even pathologise phenomena their paradigm excludes from possibility.

Bahá’u’lláh directly addresses this point (page 33):

God, the Exalted, hath placed these signs in men, to the end that philosophers may not deny the mysteries of the life beyond nor belittle that which hath been promised them. For some hold to reason and deny whatever the reason comprehendeth not, and yet weak minds can never grasp the matters which we have related, but only the Supreme, Divine Intelligence can comprehend them:

How can feeble reason encompass the Qur’án,
Or the spider snare a phoenix in his web?

Our deification of reason has stripped the world we believe in of God and made it difficult, even impossible, in some cases for some people, to entertain the possibility that God in some form does exist, though that would not be as some white-bearded chariot-riding figure in the sky.

This is the Grofs take on this issue (page 247):

A system of thinking that deliberately discards everything that cannot be weighed and measured does not leave any opening for the recognition of creative cosmic intelligence, spiritual realities, or such entities as transpersonal experiences or the collective unconscious. . . . . . While they are clearly incompatible with traditional Newtonian-Cartesian thinking, they are actually in basic resonance with the revolutionary developments in various disciplines of modern science that are often referred to as the new paradigm.

This world-view seriously demeans us (page 248):

Human beings are described as material objects with Newtonian properties, more specifically as highly developed animals and thinking biological machines. . .

We have taken this model or simulation as the truth (ibid.):

In addition, the above description of the nature of reality and of human beings has in the past been generally seen not for what it is – a useful model organising the observations and knowledge available at a certain time in the history of science – but as a definitive and accurate description of reality itself. From a logical point of view, this would be considered a serious confusion of the ‘map’ with the ‘territory.’

This reductionist dogmatism has serious implications for psychosis (page 249):

Since the concept of objective reality and accurate reality testing are the key factors in determining whether the individual is mentally healthy, the scientific understanding of the nature of reality is absolutely critical in this regard. Therefore, any fundamental change in the scientific world-view has to have far-reaching consequences for the definition of psychosis.

A Holographic Approach

They contend that the paradigm is shifting (ibid.:)

. . . The physical universe has come to be viewed as a unified web of paradoxical, statistically determined events in which consciousness and creative intelligence play a critical role. . . This approach has become known as holographic because some of its remarkable features can be demonstrated with use of optical holograms as conceptual tools.

Their explanation of the holographic model is clear and straightforward (page 250):

The information in holographic systems is distributed in such a way that all of it is contained and available in each of its parts. . . .

It’s implications are profound:

If the individual and the brain are not isolated entities but integral parts of a universe with holographic properties – if they are in some way microcosms of a much larger system – then it is conceivable that they can have direct and immediate access to information outside themselves.

This resonates with what Bahá’u’lláh writes in the same section of the Seven Valleys:

Likewise, reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?

Then we must labor to destroy the animal condition, till the meaning of humanity shall come to light.

It is crucial for us all as well as for those labelled psychotic that we cease to reduce the mind to a machine. The Grofs spell out the implications for psychosis when we refuse to take the more transcendent perspective (page 252):

The discoveries of the last few decades strongly suggest that the psyche is not limited to postnatal biography and to the Freudian individual unconscious and confirm the perennial truth, found in many mystical traditions, that human beings might be commensurate with all there is. Transpersonal experiences and their extraordinary potential certainly attest to this fact.

. . . In traditional psychiatry, all holotropic experiences have been interpreted as pathological phenomena, in spite of the fact that the alleged disease process has never been identified; this reflects the fact that the old paradigm did not have an adequate explanation for these experiences and was not able to account for them in any other way.

Assuming that we do accept that possibility of a spiritual reality, what follows? They spell it out:

. . . . two important and frequently asked questions are how one can diagnose spiritual emergency and how it is possible to differentiate transformational crises from spiritual emergence and from mental illness.

This is only possible up to a point (page 253):

The psychological symptoms of… organic psychoses are clearly distinguishable from functional psychoses by means of psychiatric examination and psychological tests.

. . . . When the appropriate examinations and tests have excluded the possibility that the problem we are dealing with is organic in nature, the next task is to find out whether the client fits into the category of spiritual emergency – in other words, differentiate this state from functional psychoses. There is no way of establishing absolutely clear criteria for differentiation between spiritual emergency and psychosis or mental disease, since such terms themselves lack objective scientific validity. One should not confuse categories of this kind with such precisely defined disease entities as diabetes mellitus or pernicious anaemia. Functional psychoses are not diseases in a strictly medical sense and cannot be identified with the degree of accuracy that is required in medicine when establishing a differential diagnosis.

What they say next blends nicely with the points made in my recent posts about where the dubious basis of diagnosis takes us (page 256):

Since traditional psychiatry makes no distinction between psychotic reactions and mystical states, not the only crises of spiritual opening but also uncomplicated transpersonal experiences often receive a pathological label.

This has paved the way to dealing with their approach to intervention and their criteria for distinguishing spiritual emergencies that can be helped from other states.

Holotropic Breathwork

Before we look briefly at their attempt to create criteria by which we might distinguish spiritual from purely functional phenomena I want to look at their recommended method for helping people work through inner crises. This method applies what the non-organic origin. This technique they call Holotropic Breathwork.

First they define what they mean by holotropic (page 258):

We use the term holotropic in two different ways – the therapeutic technique we have developed and for the mode of consciousness it induces. The use of the word holotropic in relation to therapy suggests that the goal is to overcome inner fragmentation as well as the sense of separation between the individual and the environment. The relationship between wholeness and healing is reflected in the English language, since both words have the same root.

They then look at its components and their effects (page 259):

The reaction to [a] combination of accelerated reading, music, and introspective focus of attention varies from person to person. After a period of about fifteen minutes to half an hour, most of the participants show strong active response. Some experience a buildup of intense emotions, such as sadness, joy, anger, fear, or sexual arousal.

They feel that this approach unlocks blocks between our awareness and the contents of the unconscious:

. . . .  It seems that the nonordinary state of consciousness induced by holotropic breathing is associated with biochemical changes in the brain that make it possible for the contents of the unconscious to surface, to be consciously experienced, and – if necessary – to be physically expressed. In our bodies and in our psyches we carry imprints of various traumatic events that we have not fully digested and assimilated psychologically. Holographic breathing makes them available, so that we can fully experience them and release the emotions that are associated with them.

As Fontana makes clear in his book Is there an Afterlife?, experience is the most compelling way to confirm the validity of a paradigm of reality, so my experience of continuous conscious breathing in the 70s and 80s gives me a strong sense that what the Grofs are saying about Holotropic Breathwork had validity. My experience in the mid-70s confirms the dramatic power of some of the possible effects: my experience in the mid-80s confirms their sense that the body stores memories to which breathwork can give access. I will not repeat these accounts in full as I have explored them elsewhere. I’ve consigned brief accounts to the footnotes.[1]

They go on to explain the possible advantages of Holotropic Breathwork over alternative therapies (pages 261-263):

The technique of Holotropic Breathwork is extremely simple in comparison with traditional forms of verbal psychotherapy, which emphasise the therapist’s understanding of the process, correct and properly timed interpretations, and work with transference . . . . It has a much less technical emphasis than many of the new experiential methods, such as Gestalt therapy, Rolfing, and bioenergetics. . . . . .

In the holotropic model, the client is seen as the real source of healing and is encouraged to realise that and to develop a sense of mastery and independence.

. . . . . In a certain sense, he or she is ultimately the only real expert because of his or her immediate access to the experiential process that provides all the clues.

Distinguishing Criteria

Below is the table they devised to differentiate between the two categories of spiritual emergence and what they term psychiatric disorder. They explain the purpose of the criteria (page 253):

The task of deciding whether we are dealing with a spiritual emergency in a particular case means in practical terms that we must assess whether the client could benefit from the strategies described in this book or should be treated in traditional ways. This is their table of criteria.

They are certainly not claiming that they have an unerring way of distinguishing between these states, nor that some of those who are placed in the ‘psychiatric’ have no aspects of spiritual emergency in the phenomena they are experiencing. Readers will also know by now that I am a strong advocate of more enlightened ways of managing any such problems than those which are implied in the term ‘traditional.’


This last post turned out to  be much longer than I planned. I hope it conveys my sense of the value of their approach and of the validity of their concept of a spiritual emergency.

My feeling that their approach is a good one derives largely from my own dramatic experience of what was an almost identical method involving breathwork. In a previous sequence I have dealt with the way the breakthrough I experienced in the 70s had lasting beneficial effects on my my life, first of all in terms of opening my mind so I was able to take advantage of other therapeutic interventions. Perhaps most importantly though in the first instance was the way that the first breakthrough loosened the grip of my previous pattern of anaesthetising myself against earlier grief and pain mostly by cigarettes, gambling and heavy social drinking, so that I could realise that I needed to undertake more mindwork.

I also find it reinforcing of my trust in the basic validity of their perspective that it has led them to draw much the same conclusions as I have about the dangers of materialism and its negative impact upon the way we deal with mental health problems

It doesn’t end my quest though for more evidence to support my sense that psychosis can and often does have a spiritual dimension. Hopefully you will be hearing more on this.


[1] 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.

After three hours I was trembling all over. I was resisting letting go and ‘embracing’ the experience. When I eventually did the quaking literally dissolved in an instant into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. 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. I had always known that something like it happened. 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.

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.’

The earlier experience had been more confusing, with no specific experience to explain it by.

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.

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So, as I asked at the end of the previous post, what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

I need to repeat the caveats I voiced at the start of this sequence about their book, The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency, so that I do not come across as easily taken in. It is not easy to tread the razor’s edge between the default positions of intransigent incredulity and irremediable gullibility, but here goes.

Their book has echoes for me of Hillman’s The Soul’s Code in that it combines deep insights with what read like wild flights of fancy and carefully substantiated accounts of concrete experience with vague waves at unspecified bodies of invisible evidence. Even so, so much of it is clearly derived from careful observation and direct experience, and goes a long way towards defining what look convincingly like spiritual manifestations which are currently dismissed as mere madness. It seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

I am going to focus on what I feel are their strongest points: concrete experiences that illustrate their perspective and their brave and, in my opinion, largely successful attempts to make a clear distinction between mystic and merely disturbed experiences, not that the latter are to be dismissed as meaningless. It’s just that their meaning is to be found in life events not in the transcendent.

First I’ll deal with their account of one person’s spiritual crisis. In the last post I’ll be looking at their scheme of diagnostic distinction.

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘Glory Be to God’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

A Concrete Example

What follows is a highly condensed summary of one person’s story. A key point to hold in mind is one the Grofs made earlier in the book (page 71):

Often, individuals benefit from their encounter with the divine but have problems with the environment. In some instances, people talk to those close to them about a powerful mystical state. If their family, friends, or therapists do not understand the healing potential of these dimensions, they may not treat them as valid or may automatically become concerned about the sanity of the loved one or client. If the person who has had the experience is at all hesitant about its validity or concerned about his or her state of mind, the concern of others may exaggerate these doubts, compromising, clouding, or obscuring the richness of the original feelings and sensations.

Karen’s Story

They begin by providing some background (pages 191-92):

[S]he had a difficult childhood; her mother committed suicide when she was three, and she grew up with an alcoholic father and his second wife. Leaving home in her late teens, she lived through periods of depression and struggled periodically with compulsive eating.

Assuming that her subsequent experiences were what they seem to be, and I do, then it is clear that just because there is trauma in someone’s background does mean that the unusual experiences they report are entirely reducible to some form of post-traumatic stress response any more than they can be explained satisfactorily simply in terms of brain malfunction. Whatever is going on in the brain is just a correlate but not a cause, and previous trauma may have rendered any filter susceptible to leaks from a transcendent reality. I am restraining myself from leaping too soon to that last and much desired conclusion.

Interestingly, it’s possible that there was an organic trigger to her spiritual crisis (page 192):

. . . [F]ive days before her episode, Karen had begun taking medication for an intestinal parasite, stopping as the daily experience started. . . . . It is difficult to accurately assess its role in the onset of this event. . . . Whatever the source, her crisis contained all the elements of a true spiritual emergency. It lasted three-and-a-half weeks and completely interrupted her ordinary functioning, necessitating twenty-four-hour attention.

Her friends asked the Grofs to become involved in her care so they were able to observe the whole situation as it unfolded.

That Karen was able to avoid being admitted to psychiatric hospital was down to the support of a wide circle of friends. That this meant that she did not have to take any medication is important, according to the Grofs and other sources. Anti-pychotic medication has the effect of blocking the very processes that a successful integration of the challenging experiences requires. They describe the lay nature of her support (pages 192-93):

[B]ecause of Karen’s obvious need and the reluctance of those around her to involve her in traditional psychiatric approaches, her care was largely improvised. Most of the people who became involved were not primarily dedicated to working with spiritual emergencies.

What were her experiences like during this period of what they call ‘spiritual emergency’?

Their description covers several pages (page 194-196). This is a very brief selection of some of the main aspects. To Karen her vision seemed clearer. She also ‘heard women’s voices telling her that she was entering a benign and important experience. . . .’ Observers noted that ‘heat radiated throughout Karen’s body and it was noted that ‘she saw visions of fire and fields of red, at times feeling herself consumed by flames. . . .’

What is also particularly interesting is her re-experience of previous life crises: ‘[S]he struggled through the physical and emotional pain of her own biological birth and repeatedly relived the delivery of her daughter,’ as well as confronting ‘death many times and in many forms, and her preoccupation with dying caused her sitters to become concerned about the possibility of a suicide attempt.’ She was too well protected for that to be a serious risk.

In the last post I will be linking a therapeutic technique the Grofs advocate, Holotropic Breathwork, with some of my own experiences. This makes their description of how this technique can uncover repressed memories of traumatic experiences all the more credible to me. More of that later. That Karen should have been triggered into such regressions is not therefore surprising to me.

By way of supporting her through this, ‘telling her that it was possible to experience death symbolically without actually dying physically, her sitters asked her to keep her eyes closed and encouraged her to fully experience the sequences of dying inwardly and to express the difficult emotions involved.’ It is significant for their model that encouragement and support in facing what we might otherwise be tempted to flee from helps. ‘She complied, and in a short time she moved past the intense confrontation with death to other experiences. . . .’

Given my interest in the relationship between apparently disturbed mental states and creativity, it was noteworthy that ‘[f]or several days, Karen tapped directly into a powerful stream of creativity, expressing many of her experiences in the form of songs. It was amazing to witness: after an inner theme would surface into awareness, she would either make up a song about it or recall one from memory, lustily singing herself through that phase of her process.’

They describe her during this period as ‘extremely psychic, highly sensitive, and acutely attuned to the world around her.’ For example she was ‘able to “see through” everyone around her, often anticipating their comments and actions.’

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘The Glory of the Lord’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)


Things began to take a more positive turn (page 196):

After about two weeks, some of the difficult, painful states started to subside and Karen receive increasingly benevolent, light-filled experiences and felt more and more connected with a divine source.

Perhaps I need to clarify that I am not attempting to adduce this as evidence of the reality of the spiritual world. People like David Fontana and Leslie Kean have collated such evidence far better than I ever could, and sorted out the wheat from the chaff with honesty and discernment.

What I am hoping to do is use this as a demonstration that sometimes at least what could be written off as meaningless and irrational brain noise might not only be significantly related to early experiences in life, as the trauma work suggests, but also to a spiritual dimension whose reality our culture usually denies with the result that the experiences are pathologised. The outcome in this case strongly suggests that pathologising them needlessly prolongs them and blocks life-enhancing changes that would otherwise have resulted.

They go onto describe the end of the episode and its aftermath (ibid.):

. . . . As Karen began to come through her experience, she became less and less absorbed by her in the world and more interested in her daughter and the other people around her. She began to eat and sleep more regularly and was increasingly able to care for some of her daily needs. . . .

Rather as was the case with Fontana and his poltergeist investigation, as the vividness of the experiences receded, doubts beganset in (ibid.:)

As she became increasingly in touch with ordinary reality, Karen’s mind started to analyse her experiences, and she began to feel for the first time that she had been involved in a negative process. The only logical way of explaining these events to herself was that something had gone wrong, that perhaps she had truly lost her mind. Self-doubt is a common stage in spiritual emergencies, appearing when people begin to surface from the dramatic manifestations . . .

She was not blind to the positives in the end (page 197):

Two years later, when we discussed her experience with her, Karen said that she has mixed feelings about the episode. She is able to appreciate many aspects of what happened to her. She says that she has learnt a great deal of value about herself and her capacities, feeling that through her crisis she gained wisdom that she can tap any time. Karen has visited realms within herself that she previously had no idea were there, has felt enormous creativity flow through her, and has survived the previously frightening experiences of birth, death, and madness. Her depressions have disappeared, as well as her tendency toward compulsive overeating.

But her doubts persisted, and may have been to some extent fuelled by her family and friends’ reactions and the lack of informed support (page 198):

On the other hand, Karen also has some criticisms. Even though she could not have resisted the powerful states during her episode, she feels that she was unprepared for the hard, painful work involved. In spite of the fact that she received a great deal of assistance during the three weeks, she feels that she was not yet ready to venture forth into the daily world when she was required to do so by the exhaustion of the resources of those around her. Since that time, she has lacked contact with people with whom to further process her experiences. She considers herself somewhat “different” for having had the episode (an opinion also indirectly expressed by her family and some of her friends) and has tended to downgrade it by concentrating on its negative effects.

The support had to be reduced after the three-week peak period because the support network was burning out. The Grofs felt (ibid.:)

Many of these problems could have been avoided if Karen had had consistent and knowledgeable support immediately following her crisis, perhaps in a halfway house, and follow-up help – in the form of ongoing therapy, support groups, and spiritual practice – for a more extended period of time.

It is dangerous to extrapolate too wildly but I feel that in Karen’s story there are real grounds for hope. She recovered from an apparently devastating episode of mental disturbance without drugs. She demonstrated modest but lasting mental health gains in terms of no subsequent depression or compulsive eating. There is every reason to suppose given this experience and the evidence of Dr Sami Timimi’s study, adduced by James Davies in Cracked and described in the previous post, that an outcome like this could apply far more widely across the so-called psychotic spectrum. Yes, the intervention was time intensive, but it was brief and successful. This compares with long-term interventions involving medication resulting in symptoms that continue to simmer for years or even decades, blighting the whole life of the sufferer and the lives of close family.

The Grofs then explore models of help and aftercare, which I won’t go into now as the main focus I want to take is on their ideas of how to distinguish a spiritual emergency such as Karen’s from other forms of disturbance. This is clearly an important distinction to be able to make as the approaches taken when dealing with trauma-related disturbances and spiritual crises will be somewhat different, though Karen’s case implies there might well be an overlap.

However, all the evidence that has accumulated since they wrote suggests that all such so-called psychotic episodes are better dealt with in a non-diagnostic way, which is an issue that the Grofs do not fully address, probably because at the time of their writing placing spiritual emergency on the agenda seemed a more urgent issue, given that it was and still is doubly disparaged.

Now for the difficult distinction in the next post, along with a brief description of their recommended intervention.

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