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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.’

Coda

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.

Footnote:

[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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In the last post I ended up exploring James Davies’ perspective in his recent book Cracked. I was focusing upon his emphasis on relationships rather then medication as the more effective way to help those with psychotic experiences.

Pseudo-Science

It’s where he goes next that I found most unexpected but most welcome to my heart. He leads into it with an interview with Thomas Sasz just before his death at the age of 92 (page 276). He asks Szasz, ‘why do we believe as a culture that suffering must be removed chemically rather than understood in many cases as a natural human phenomenon, and possibly something from which we can learn and grow if worked through productively?’

Szasz’s response is fascinating:

Our age has replaced a religious point of view with a pseudo-scientific point of view. . .   Now everything is explained in terms of molecules and atoms and brain scans. It is a reduction of the human being to a biological machine. We don’t have existential or religious or mental suffering any more. Instead we have brain disorders.

This resonates strongly with the Bahá’í position as expressed, for instance, in Century of Light (page 136):

What [Bahá’ís]  find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science“, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

Davies summarises Szasz’s position on psychiatry (page 277): ‘It had become deluded in its belief that its physical technologies, its ECT machines and laboratory-manufactured molecules, could solve the deeper dilemmas of the soul, society and self.’

He quotes Bracken’s view on how this brings in capitalism (page 278):

What complicates things more is that we also live in a capitalist society, where there is always going to be someone trying to sell you something… In fact, some people would argue that capitalism can only continue by constantly making us dissatisfied with our lives.… You know, if everybody said I am very happy with my television, my car and everything else I’ve got, and I’m perfectly content with my lifestyle, the whole economy would come shattering down around our ears.

He continues (page 279):

What we customarily call mental illness is not always illness in the medical sense. It’s often a natural outcome of struggling to make our way in a world where the traditional guides, props and understandings are rapidly disappearing… Not all mental strife is therefore due to an internal malfunction but often to the outcome of living in a malfunctioning world. The solution is not yet more medicalisation, but an overhaul of our cultural beliefs, a reinfusing of life with spiritual, religious or humanistic meaning with emphasis on the essential involvement of community, and with whatever helps bring us greater direction, understanding, courage and purpose.

Instinctive Incredulity

However, we are even further away from generally accepting that some experiences labelled psychotic may have spiritual dimensions.

Christina and Stefan Grof’s indictment of our civilisation in their book The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency sings from essentially the same hymn sheet as Davies (page 235):

Though the problems in the world have many different forms, they are nothing but symptoms of one underlying condition: the emotional, moral, and spiritual state of modern humanity. In the last analysis, they are the collective result of the present level of consciousness of individual human beings. The only effective and lasting solution to these problems would, therefore, be a radical inner transformation of humanity on a large scale and its consequent rise to a higher level of awareness and maturity.

David Fontana also writes from direct experience of this painful level of materialism and its default stance of resolute incredulity when faced with any evidence, no matter how compelling, in favour of a spiritual dimension to reality. He had to combat it at almost every turn of his investigations. He even bravely admits to being contaminated by it himself. In the in-depth survey of his book Is there an afterlife? he writes (page 335):

My difficulty in writing about Scole [a long and detailed exploration of psychic phenomena including material effects] is not because the experiences we had with a group have faded. They are as clear as if they happened only weeks ago. The difficulty is to make them sound believable. It is a strange fact of life that whereas most psychical researchers interested in fieldwork are able to accept – or at least greet with open minds – the events of many years ago connected with the mediumship of physical mediums such as Home, Palladino, and Florence Cook, a strain of scepticism fostered by scientific training makes it much harder for them to accept that similar events may happen today, and may even be witnessed by those of us fortunate enough to be there when they occur. I mentioned in my discussion of the Cardiff poltergeist case… the struggle I had with my own belief system after seeing the phenomena concerned. When in the room while they were taking place I had no doubt they were genuine, but as soon as I began to drive home I started to doubt. . . . . The whole thing seemed simply unbelievable.

He adds:

It took a lengthy investigation, including one occasion when I witnessed phenomena while I was on my own in one of the rooms where the disturbances took place and the owners were two hundred miles away on holiday, before I could fully accept that poltergeist phenomena can indeed be genuine, and provide evidence not only of paranormality but, at least in some cases, of survival.

The Grofs articulate the challenge exactly (page 236)

The task of creating an entirely different set of values and tendencies for humanity might appear to be too unrealistic and utopian to offer any hope. What would it take to transform contemporary mankind into a species of individuals capable of peaceful coexistence with their fellow men and women regardless of colour, language, or political conviction – much less with other species?

They list our current characteristics in detail including violence, greed, habitual dissatisfaction and a severe lack of awareness that we are connected with nature. They conclude, ‘In the last analysis, all these characteristics seem to be symptomatic of severe alienation from inner life and loss of spiritual values.’

To describe it as an uphill struggle would be an understatement. Climbing Everest alone and unequipped seems closer to the mark.

They see at least one window through which the light of hope shines (page 237)

[M]any researchers in the field of transpersonal psychology believe that the growing interest in spirituality and the increasing incidence of spontaneous mystical experiences represent an evolutionary trend toward an entirely new level of human consciousness.

As we will see in the final two posts, our medicalisation of schizophrenia and psychosis might well be slowing this process down. If so there is all the more reason to give the Grofs’ case a fair and careful hearing. This will not be easy for the reasons that Fontana has explained.

Incidentally, after acknowledging that absolutely convincing proof of the paranormal seems permanently elusive, after all his years of meticulous investigation Fontana reaches a conclusion very close to that put forward by John Hick (op. cit.: page 327):

Professor William James may have been right when he lamented that it rather looks as if the Almighty has decreed that this area should forever retain its mystery. If this is indeed the case, then I assume it is because the Almighty has decreed that the personal search for meaning and purpose in life and in death are of more value than having meaning and purpose handed down as certainties from others.

In his book The Fifth Dimension, John Hick contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

More of that next time.

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I am repeating my preamble to the first post to clarify the eventual focus of this sequence.

Readers of this blog will remember that I was struggling recently to find more detailed discussion of the possibility that some severe mental disturbances have spiritual aspects. Isabel Clarke’s Spirituality & Psychosis left me frustrated by its lack of such detail.

Recently I came across a second hand copy of Christina and Stanislav Grof’s The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency. It was published in 1991 at a less than universally receptive time so it is hard to determine from the book itself how far things might have moved on since. This is something I will have to investigate further.

It 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, 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 within mental disturbances which are currently dismissed as mere madness. So, it seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

Before I go into more detail I need to place its thesis in perspective. We need to understand how much of an uphill battle it is going to be to get the spiritual dimensions of the experiences currently labelled psychosis accepted in mainstream psychiatry and psychology. I began by looking back at the history of the way the effects of trauma have been treated. I pick up the thread from there.

Meaning in Madness

Trauma and its effects took a long time to gain acceptance, as the last post explored.

It is taking much longer to acknowledge that extremes of mental disturbance may not be madness at all in many if not most cases.

It is thankfully being increasingly accepted that trauma leads to experiences that are then labelled psychotic which need to be managed and integrated not simply by drugs, which may sometimes be a temporary fix at best, but by therapeutic relationships within an accepting social context, something I have already explored at some length on this blog. I will briefly revisit the picture briefly here.

Richard Bentall’s examination of the issue in his 2003 edition of Madness Explained makes the problem clear. He writes (page 277):

In this discussion of environmental influences on psychosis, I have left the contribution of trauma until last because, for many psychologists and psychiatrists at least, even to raise this issue is to court to controversy.

Even so his conclusions on the basis of the best evidence at the time is (pages 478-79):

Despite difficulties, there is consistent evidence that a history of physical or sexual abuse is unusually common in psychotic women.

Comparable evidence of an association between trauma and psychosis has emerged from studies of men.

Even as late as 2010 there seemed to be persisting resistance to widespread acceptance of what should have by then have become obvious and widely accepted (The Impact of Early Life Traumapage 9):

Acceptance and acknowledgement of explanations more consistent with empirical findings need to overcome what societal attention to child abuse and neglect has always had to overcome: society’s desire for minimisation and denial. The existence and effect of child maltreatment is perpetually fighting for acceptance against powerful psychological and social processes set to deny, ignore or undermine it.

When we leap almost to the present day there is thankfully far less hesitation in many quarters. I’m not sure though that we have yet come to the end of the need to change the prevailing consensus.

Jamie Murphy, Mark Shevlin, James Edward Houston, and Gary Adamson uncover the true complexity of the problem (Modelling the co-occurrence of psychosis-like experiences and childhood sexual abuse –pages 1037-1043).

Evidence, in their view, has repeatedly shown that Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) is ‘significantly associated with psychosis at both clinical and sub-clinical levels (Psychotic-like Experiences – PLEs): the worse the CSA, the greater the risk, severity and duration of psychosis.’ They argue that the evidence from current psychological conceptualizations confirms that psychotic symptoms are closely related to a person’s psychological functioning and that they are therefore amenable to psychological intervention (quoting Yusupoff et al., 1996).

It is important that we make sure we are not being misled into attributing cause when we have only correlation. By this I mean that just because, when I am holding my key to either open or lock my front door, the light goes on, I should not jump to the conclusion that my door key is switching the light on. I need to understand that my mere presence with no key is enough to trigger the motion sensor. The key is a confounding variable that needs to be eliminated, for example by leaving the house without locking the door one night. I’d be wise not to go further than strictly necessary to prove the point though.

Longden and Read (The Role of Social Adversity in the Etiology of Psychosis – pages 7-8) deal extensively with this problem:

Large-scale population studies have shown that associations between adversity and psychotic experience remain significant when controlling for possible confounders, including: family history of psychosis and other mental health problems (which negates the notion that psychosis only occurs in those genetically predisposed), age, sex, ethnicity, marital status, exposure to discrimination, other psychiatric diagnoses, education level, neuroticism, and substance use. Furthermore, the association has repeatedly demonstrated a dose-response relationship; that is, the likelihood of psychosis increases relative to the extent of adversity exposure.

The full list is in the earlier sequence of posts.

It is some comfort that Bentall’s more recent book Doctoring the Mind brings the more grandiose pretentions of psychiatry back to the earth with a bump. Salley Vickers’ verdict in a review states:

Bentall’s thesis is that, for all the apparent advances in understanding psychiatric disorders, psychiatric treatment has done little to improve human welfare, because the scientific research which has led to the favouring of mind-altering drugs is, as he puts it, “fatally flawed”. He cites some startling evidence from the World Health Organisation that suggests patients suffering psychotic episodes in developing countries recover “better” than those from the industrialised world and the aim of the book is broadly to suggest why this might be so. . . .

My own view endorses Bentall’s rigorous analysis of the misleading inadequacy of psychiatry’s diagnostic system, its powerful and carefully argued exposure of the myths surrounding psychotropic medications and their supposed efficacy, and its moving description of the critical importance of positive relationships to recovery.

The Importance of Context

James Davies’ book Cracked also covers much of this same ground and is equally compelling. Both Bentall and Davies are very clear that there is still some considerable distance to travel.

What also needs to be acknowledged is that Davies also takes the argument to another level towards the end of his book.

Where he takes his case, in Chapter 10, I found both compelling and resonant. He is in tune with Bentall in seeing the importance of supportive relationships but, I think, explores that aspect somewhat more deeply.

He repeats basic points, to begin with (page 266):

What the evidence shows… is that what matters most in mental health care is not diagnosing problems and prescribing medication, but developing meaningful relationships with sufferers with the aim of cultivating insight into their problems, so the right interventions can be individually tailored to their needs. Sometimes this means giving meds, but more often it does not.

He then quotes research done by a psychiatrist he interviewed (page 267). Using two existing MH teams, Dr Sami Timimi set up a study comparing the results from two groups, one diagnostic, the usual approach, and the other non-diagnostic, where medication was given only sparingly, diagnosis was hardly used at all, and individual treatment plans were tailored to the person’s unique needs.’

In the non-diagnostic group the psychiatrist spent far more time exploring with his clients the context of their problems.

The results were clear (page 269):

Only 9 per cent of patients treated by the non-diagnostic approach continued needing treatment after two years, compared with 34 per cent of patients who were being treated via the medical model. Furthermore, only one person from the non-diagnostic group ended up having to be hospitalised, whereas over 15 people in the medical-model team were referred for inpatient hospital treatment. Finally, the non-diagnostic approach led to more people being discharged more quickly, and to the lowest patient ‘no-show’ rate out of all the mental health teams in the county.

This middle is by no means the norm, unfortunately.

Davies also interviewed Dr Peter Breggin, a US psychiatrist who is critical of the medical model. Breggin explained his viewpoint (page 279):

Most problems are created by the contexts in which people live and therefore require contextual not chemical solutions. ‘People who are breaking down are often like canaries in a mineshafts,’ explained Breggin. ‘They are a signal of a severe family issue.’ .  . . . For Breggin, because the medical model fails to take context seriously – whether the family or the wider social context – it overlooks the importance of understanding and managing context to help the person in distress.

Davies quotes Dr Pat Bracken as singing from the same hymn sheet (page 273):

We should start turning the paradigm round, start seeing the non-medical approach as the real work of psychiatry, rather than as incidental to the main thrust of the job, which is about diagnosing people and then getting them on the right drugs.

Davies’s final points I’ll leave till next time as a useful link between this theme and the issue spirituality and its treatment in Christina and Stanislav Grof’s The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency.

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Readers of this blog will remember that I was struggling recently to find more detailed discussion of the possibility that some severe mental disturbances have spiritual aspects. Isabel Clarke’s Spirituality & Psychosis left me frustrated by its lack of such detail.

Recently I came across a second hand copy of Christina and Stanislav Grof’s The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency. It was published in 1991 at a less than universally receptive time so it is hard to determine from the book itself how far things might have moved on since. This is something I will have to investigate further.

It 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, 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 within mental disturbances which are currently dismissed as mere madness. So, it seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

Before I go into more detail I think I need to place its thesis in perspective. We need to understand how much of an uphill battle it is going to be to get the spiritual dimensions of the experiences currently labelled psychosis accepted in mainstream psychiatry and psychology. To do so we need to look back at the history of the way the effects of trauma have been treated.

Attitudes to Trauma in the Past

It has taken a century or more for the work on trauma and its basic consequences to be properly understood.

This struggle involved swimming against the strong tide of dismissive opinion.

There are many places to look for evidence of the slow progress towards an acceptance and understanding of the role of trauma in mental disturbance. There are few better than Judith Herman’s book Trauma & Recovery. I have covered her account in more detail elsewhere on this blog so I’ll just summarise it here.

Herman rightly emphasises that only if the social context facilitates, can trauma and its impacts be studied (page 9):

The study war trauma becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the sacrifice of young men in war. The study of trauma in sexual and domestic life becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the subordination of women and children.

She lists, in her historical review, three forms of trauma (ibid.): hysteria, shell shock/combat neurosis and sexual and domestic violence. She looks at the work of Charcot, Janet, Freud and Breuer. The fruit of their extensive collaborative interactions with female patients was Freud’s The Aetiology of Hysteria, in which he wrote (page 13):

I therefore put forward the thesis that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood, but which can be reproduced through the work of psychoanalysis in spite of the intervening decades.

There was a massive backlash which caused a backtrack. Experiences were dismissed as fantasies or interpreted as subliminally desired. As Herman puts it (page 14): ‘The dominant psychological theory (psychoanalysis) of the next century was founded in the denial of women’s reality.’

Herman recognises how impossible it would have been for Freud to fight successfully to get his authentic theory recognised (page 18):

No matter how cogent his arguments or how valid his observations, Freud’s discovery could not gain acceptance in the absence of a political and social context that would support the investigation of hysteria, wherever it might lead.

Soldiers in the First World War triggered a similarly divisive debate. Lewis Yelland used shaming, threat and punishment as a ‘remedy’, for example treating the mutism that sometimes resulted from combat neurosis with electric shocks, in one case to the throat – it seemed the best was to get a traumatised soul quickly back to the trenches that had traumatised him in the first place.

The Second World War resurrected the issue with some progress. Even so (page 26), ‘systematic, large-scale investigation of the long-term psychological effects of combat was not undertaken until after the Vietnam War.’

This took an altogether different form from the expert-dominated approaches of the past (ibid.):

The antiwar veterans organised what they called “rap groups.” In these intimate meetings of their peers, Vietnam veterans retold and relived the traumatic experiences of war. They invited sympathetic psychiatrists to offer them professional assistance.

Their activism ultimately led to (op.cit. page 27):

. . . comprehensive studies tracing the impact of wartime experiences on the lives of returning veterans. A five-volume study on the legacies of Vietnam delineated the syndrome of post-traumatic stress disorder and demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt its direct relationship to combat exposure.

Activism remained a vital element in the further development of a proper understanding of trauma and its true prevalence (page 28):

For most of the twentieth century it was the study of combat veterans that led to the development of a body of knowledge about traumatic disorder. Not until the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s was it recognised that the most common post traumatic disorders are not those of men in war but of women into civilian life.

The incidence figures were as staggering then as they had been when Freud decided they could not be credible and backed off. A rigorous study of 900 randomly selected women in the 1980s revealed that one in four women had been raped, and one in three had been sexually abused in childhood.

Herman describes the way that research into rape led investigators from the street more deeply into the family (page 31):

The initial focus on street rape, committed by strangers, led step by step to the exploration of acquaintance rape, date rape, and rape in marriage. The initial focus on rape as a form of violence against women lead to the exploration of domestic battery and other forms of private coercion. And the initial focus on the rape of adults led inevitably to a rediscovery of the sexual abuse of children.

Later in the book they explore in detail how accepting relationships are usually critical to the fully effective treatment of trauma. I may come back to that in more detail in later posts but for now it is important to signpost that point for future reference when we come to look at trauma and psychosis in the next post. Herman writes:

. . . . group treatment complements the intensive, individual exploration of the trauma story, but does not necessarily replace it. The social, relational dimensions of the traumatic syndrome are more fully addressed in a group than in an individual setting, while the physioneurosis of the former requires a highly specific, individualised focus on desensitising the traumatic memory.

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Grave & Courtyard v2

Last week, I walked through soft rain at a brisk pace to get to the venue on time. I was sweating slightly as I walked to the counter to get my coffee. That’s the trouble with waterproof coats. They trap the heat as well as keeping out the rain.

As I ordered my coffee the Death Cafe facilitator indicated we’d switched rooms, but at least we had a room this week. We went upstairs together to a room tucked away in the far back corner. Apparently we’d been asked to keep our voices down a bit so the audience in the next door studio cinema weren’t disturbed in their enjoyment by any thoughts of death.

She went downstairs to direct people to the room. I stayed and sipped my coffee enjoying the silence and the opportunity to cool off a bit.

By five-past-six the room was still empty. Then, to my relief the Buddhist lady came in. By ten past no one else had arrived except the facilitator. In fact, it wasn’t until 6.30 that the fourth person arrived fresh from her yoga class.

Even so, what we lacked in numbers was made up for in intensity, depth and excitement. It was another great two hours of exploration of death-related issues from almost every possible angle. We had a Buddhist, a Bahá’í, a humanist (well, at least, that’s my label for her) and someone still searching, someone ‘on a quest’ as we put it later.

We roamed across such themes as our interconnectedness, the Buddhist and Bahá’í seeing this as something spiritual. The humanist agreed with the basic idea but not its spiritual dimension while the searcher was not completely sure.

The thorny issue of science and religion came up, and science’s dismissal of any idea of an afterlife. We pulled in references to Ken Wilber and his book  The Marriage of Sense & Soul. I’ve dealt with his powerful arguments elsewhere so I won’t dwell on him too long. For example he forcefully argues, science has invaded spirituality and the arts (page 56):

. . .[T]he I and the WE were colonised by the IT. ..  . . . Full and flush with stunning victories, empirical science became scientism,  the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers. . . . Consciousness itself, and the mind and heart and soul of humankind, could not be seen with a microscope, a telescope, a cloud chamber, a photographic plate, and so all were pronounced epiphenomenal at best, illusory at worst. . . . . Art and morals and contemplation and spirit were all demolished by the scientific bull in the china shop of consciousness. And that was the disaster of modernity. . . . it was a thoroughly flatland holism. It was not a holism that actually included all the interior realms of the I and the WE (including the eye of contemplation). . . . [I] as the reduction of all of the value spheres to monological Its perceived by the eye of the flesh that, more than anything else, constituted the disaster of modernity.

Margaret Donaldson also came into the mix with her brilliant book, Human Minds: an exploration, which addresses a closely related question (page 264 – my emphasis):

The very possibility of emotional development that is genuinely on a par with – as high as, level with – the development of reason is only seldom entertained. So long as this possibility is neglected, then if reason by itself is sensed as inadequate where else can one go but back? Thus there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous; but it has the advantage that it is altogether easier than trying to move forward into something genuinely new.

Now we have clearly seen that the cultivation of the advanced value-sensing mode [e.g. in meditation] is not of itself new. It has ancient roots. What would be new would be a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together. Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?

And that’s just a small sample of the invigorating ground we covered.

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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William James. (For source of Image see link.)

William James (for source of image see link)

We may think of science as one wing and religion as the other; a bird needs two wings for flight, one alone would be useless. Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it, is only ignorance—for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge. Religion which consists only of rites and ceremonies of prejudice is not the truth. Let us earnestly endeavour to be the means of uniting religion and science.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks – pages 130-131)

“Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has become associated with irreligion,” James writes, “and I believe a new era of religion as well as philosophy will be ready to begin.”

(William James quoted in Lamberth – page 152)

Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us. In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.

(Paul LampleRevelation and Social Reality – page 6)

. . . . and this is the last post republished on the back of my most recent visit to Hay-on-Wye. What would I do without second-hand books? not much, I suspect!

My battle to finish reading Irreducible Mind, the Kellys’ monumental and significant collection of chapters on how psychology lost the plot at the beginning of the last century and where it should think about going from here, alerted me, when I visited Hay-on-Wye and Cardiff, to look out for anything about William James or Frederick Myers.

I found zilch on Myers in either place, sadly, as I wanted some real books of his instead of the soft copies I’ve downloaded. It feels distinctly incongruous reading massive 19th Century masterpieces on an iPad.

I was much luckier with the better known, but not necessarily more significant James. I decided to start by reading the thinnest of the three books I now have, one I’d acquired in a bookshop hidden away down Morgan’s Arcade in Cardiff near the Plan café.

This may not have been as smart a move as I thought as thin does not mean easy to read, as I discovered. None the less David Lamberth’s book, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience, has turned out to be an excellent starting point, even though I probably understood less than half of the first half of the book.

The last part, though, from my point of view, was crammed with valuable insights into where James took us to and where we might now profit by following the path he was pointing towards.

The key to what Lamberth feels James is saying is summarised in the title to this piece. Not surprisingly grasping this idea, for me, Lamberthdepends upon a rigorous way of analysing what religious revelation might mean operationally for those of us who are striving to understand where humanity is spiritually at this point in its history. By that I mean ‘What does it imply both for how we enhance our understanding further and how do we turn that understanding into effective action, socially, scientifically and morally? Lamberth helps towards the clearer definition of those implications.

Acknowledging that Lamberth may not be able to recognise his own ideas in the use I am going to make of them, I will quote him whenever possible, though obviously outside of the full context of his thinking which I don’t completely understand. I doubt I’ll ever make it now as a philosopher.

James’s Dissatisfaction with Materialism

It would seem that, while James was a resolute empiricist, he was deeply frustrated by materialism (page 155):

[James] generally sides with empiricism on methodological grounds, even though he was consistently dissatisfied with the world-view of its premiere representative, materialism.

This seems partly to relate to the distinction, in James’s own words (page 182), between ‘theoretic . . knowledge about things’ as against ‘living contemplation or sympathetic acquaintance with them.’ The former ‘touches only on the outer surface of reality.’

Lamberth explains (page 184):

. . . [c]uts that are made in the fabric [of experience] conceptually must be seen to be arbitrary to a degree, in that they are not necessarily “natural” to the pure experience itself . . .

James expresses the problem vividly (page 186):

Philosophy should seek this kind of living understanding of the movement of reality, not follow science in vainly patching together fragments of its dead results.

Lamberth goes on (ibid.):

(James) seeks a philosophy that both can account for the practical successes of the sciences and can value and provide insight into our moral and religious sentiments and experiences . . . .

The Nature of the Transcendent

This leads on to the consideration of exactly what is truth and its possible relationship with our concept of the absolute. Lamberth quotes James’s own statement of part of this problem (page 192):

. . . .[I]s one all inclusive purpose harboured by a general world-soul, embracing all sub-purposes in its system? Or are there many various purposes, keeping house together as they can, with no overarching purpose to include them?

James clearly struggles with this, remarking on the next page of A Pluralistic Universe, from which this quote was taken, that ‘We are indeed internal parts of God and not external creations.’

Lamberth takes the view that, in the end, James does not feel able to conclude with certainty that there is an Absolute. His ‘pluralism’ (I will return to what that might mean for James) assumes (page 197) ‘that the superhuman consciousness, however vast it may be, has itself an external environment, and consequently is finite.’ As we will see as this argument unfolds, this is a much subtler and far less reductionist position than might at first seem the case.

It will help to start from James’s own words (page 198):

Our “normal” consciousness is circumscribed for adaptation to an external environment, but the fence is weak in spots, and fitful influences from beyond leak in, showing the otherwise unverifiable common connection [between all]. Not only psychical research, but metaphysical philosophy and speculative biology are led in their own way to look with favour on some such “panpsychic” view of the universe as this.

The modern mind, saturated as it is in materialist mantras, could find this naïve. Lamberth is keen to dispel this preconception (ibid):

Contrary to what his final conclusions suggest, James was actually quite sceptical of jumping to conclusions about the veracity of purported psychical events. He did, however, find himself forced to resolve that the most reasonable explanation for certain psychical phenomena was to postulate some sort of “leakage” between a wider, interpersonal area of consciousness (or experience) and the otherwise “fenced” individual field or sphere of experience.

Windrose

Wind-rose (for source of image see link)

From this we move, in my view, to a strong sense of the transcendent (page 199):

Every bit of us at every moment is part and parcel of a wider self, it quivers along various radii like the wind-rose[1] on a compass, and the actual in it is continuously one with possibles not yet in our present sight. And just as we are co-conscious with our own momentary margin, may we not ourselves form the margin of some more really central self in things which is co-conscious with the whole of us? May not you and I be confluent in a higher consciousness, and confluently active there, tho [sic] we now know it not?

The pluralism mentioned earlier therefore stems from our multitude of different perspectives as unique individuals who are subliminally interconnected and potentially subsumed into a greater consciousness.

James’s use of the word ‘pragmatism’ has been part of the source of confusion as to exactly what he means and what the implications are for any sense whatsoever of the ‘Absolute.’ Lamberth is clear that pragmatism, for James, was not limited to the material realm (page 212).

This allows for the possibility of the transcendent, the absolute even, and therefore absolute truth, in some sense, but in what sense exactly has been a vexed question apparently (page 216):

. . . the question of “Truth” has continued to vex interpreters of James to the present.

Lamberth finds Hilary Putnam’s work helpful here. Putnam sees James as distinguishing between ‘absolutely true’ and ‘half-true’ (page 216-17):

On Putnam’s reading, what is merely verified is always only “half-true” for James, while what is “true” by contrast, is true absolutely, standing in relation to an ideal or absolute truth to which we imagine all our formulations will converge.

Which is not the same, by any means, as saying that anyone knows the absolute truth (page 217):

“No relativist who ever actually walked the earth,” writes James, “has denied the regulative character is his own thinking of the notion of absolute truth. What is challenged by relativists is the pretence on anyone’s part to have found for certain at any given moment what the shape of that truth is.” James concludes by noting that “the proposition ‘There is absolute truth’ is the only absolute truth of which we can be sure.”

He continued (page 220):

. . . “[W]e have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.” . . . . . “No pragmatist needs to dogmatise about the consensus of opinion in the future being right,” James writes; “he need only postulate that it will probably contain more truth than anyone’s opinion now.”

Lamberth unpacks exactly what this implies, clearly and succinctly (page 222):

On this view, truth claims – however stable – are only ever hypothetical and provisional; moreover, counterfactuals, should evince some concrete grounding in fact, are only the beginnings of new trails of enquiry that lead to the revision of old truths or the addition of new ones. For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

A Two Way Street

Lamberth explains that after James’s death (page 226):

. . . the study of religion . . . . . developed in such ways that the insights of James’s views, in particular, the varied commitments of radical empiricism as a systematic, spiritualistic world-view, were never fully explored, much less embraced.

Science nominally endorses James’s criteria for the correct application of empiricism, but in practice privileges its own untestable assumptions while dismissing those of others. James has little patience with this kind of double standard[2].

Lamberth explains (page 227):

James seeks critically to hold off temptations towards reduction, whether reduction to quasi-mystical phenomenalism that eschews valuable reflective insights – scientific or philosophical – or reduction that privileges the philosophical or scientific account over the concrete, diverse first-order experiences that are its spark.

Lamberth nails his own colours to the mast shortly after this (page 229):

I . . . think that James’s turn to experience – understood in the broader context of his radical empiricism – is of crucial, substantive importance to the philosophy of religion, now and in the future.

A core component in his view as in James’s is a two-way street (page 234):

Considering James closely suggests that we should not adopt a theoretical stance that presumptively protects dominant metaphysical assumptions concerning “scientific” or “realistic” explanations from . . . scrutiny any more than we should adopt such a protective strategy for religious explanations and experiences.

If science were (page 235) to subject ‘its own metaphysical assumptions . . . to critique, testing and revision in a dynamic, empirically informed but rationally accountable form of inquiry, ’Lamberth feels, ‘such an open, minimally presumptive stage for investigation’ would be most beneficial. It would facilitate two important things:

1. the productive reopening of a range of presumptively foreclosed questions for novel reconsideration; and

2. the development of new insights.

Bahá’í Implications

A full understanding of all the implications of these insights goes further than simply hoping to reconcile science and religioncolorful_hands_small while they continue to go on their separate ways.

The Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively action is transforming our communities[3].

For those who have the time, a viewing of the video below will demonstrate a part at least of what I am trying to say.

Here we see communities across the globe applying their current understanding of the Bahá’í model for community action, learning from what goes well and what does not, to enhance their implementation.

It is important also to realise that all significant details concerning these experiments are fed back to the centre of the faith, collated and fed back to the Bahá’í world as a whole for further implementation, experimentation and hopefully eventual validation. What is learnt is also preserved, to be cascaded down through time as well as across widely dispersed locations.

It is precisely the lack of this co-ordinated and consolidated kind of information preservation and exchange that Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Andersen lamented in Cultural Creatives, their seminal examination of modern movements for cultural change. Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. When a group in one place dies, as is often the case, all that they learnt is lost. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded (page 246):

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.

For pragmatism, scientific or religious, to produce valid revisable conclusions of lasting practical value, the improbable combination of radical open-mindedness and strong institutional co-ordination is vital. It is to this combination of essential qualities that the Bahá’í community aspires – not an easy task by any means, calling as it does for a degree of detachment from what you think you are doing so you can see what is actually going on, whether at the individual, community or institutional level.

Whereas so far the main attempts to validate religious practice have focused on such admittedly significant areas as meditation, and the related experience of mysticism, or the correlation between religious beliefs and an individual’s charitable action, there have been very few examples indeed of the careful examination of the beneficial impact of constructive religious practices on communities as a whole. This is what in my view makes the Bahá’í process an innovative if embryonic example of pragmatism in the Jamesian sense. To operate this way effectively, of course, those who are testing the model need to accept that they will sometimes get it wrong as well as right.

It is for me exciting to see a rigorous explanation of why, in philosophical terms, such an enterprise makes sense, though it is also disappointing that there are, so far, so few concrete examples in either field of pragmatic and dispassionate investigation crossing the currently great divide between religious and scientific practice, though both these disciplines have the capacity to mount them and a self-evident duty to do so.

[1] A wind rose is a graphic tool used by meteorologists to give a succinct view of how wind speed and direction are typically distributed at a particular location. When the magnetic compass began to be used in navigation, the wind rose was combined with it and used as a compass card.

[2] Not everyone would agree that science lacks this kind of humility. For instance, Paul Jerome Croce describes it somewhat differently in his book Science and Religion in the Era of William James – page 4 – stating ‘probabilism, relativity, and hypothetical methodologies firmly established the fundamental uncertainty of modern science.’ I will be looking at this in more detail in a subsequent post. My suspicion is, as Croce also suggests, that the evangelists of science, who tend to monopolise the public gaze, were then and, for me, are now mostly dogmatic materialists. This is even more true in the UK, I suspect, than in the States.

[3] There are those on what are probably the edges still of the scientific community who would already recognise this as a viable method of investigation, one that will enhance both understanding and practice. One example is the model of action research described by Peter Reason.

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