Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

O YE THAT ARE LYING AS DEAD ON THE COUCH OF HEEDLESSNESS! Ages have passed and your precious lives are well-nigh ended, yet not a single breath of purity hath reached Our court of holiness from you. Though immersed in the ocean of misbelief, yet with your lips ye profess the one true faith of God. Him whom I abhor ye have loved, and of My foe ye have made a friend. Notwithstanding, ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you. Were ye but to open your eyes, ye would, in truth, prefer a myriad griefs unto this joy, and would count death itself better than this life.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Persian Hidden Words, No. 20)

I think this sequence of posts is looking a bit over-ambitious. It’s not because I’m not sure what to say but because I have too much to cram in. It could be difficult to make it clear and coherent. However, the issues involved keep bugging me and won’t shut up in my head so here goes.

Global Responsibility

Setting spiritual reality aside at least for the moment (but not for that long!), there are still so many influences upon us and impacts from our actions that are almost or completely invisible in different ways for different reasons.

As Timothy Morton points out, in a recent Guardian interview:

‘There you are, turning the ignition of your car,’ he writes. ‘And it creeps up on you.’ Every time you fire up your engine you don’t mean to harm the Earth, ‘let alone cause the Sixth Mass Extinction Event in the four-and-a-half billion-year history of life on this planet.’ But ‘harm to Earth is precisely what is happening.’ Part of what’s so uncomfortable about this is that our individual acts may be statistically and morally insignificant, but when you multiply them millions and billions of times – as they are performed by an entire species – they are a collective act of ecological destruction. Coral bleaching isn’t just occurring over yonder, on the Great Barrier Reef; it’s happening wherever you switch on the air conditioning. In short, Morton says, ‘everything is interconnected.’

Naomi Klein expands the point to deal with why we do nothing as a collective even when many of us are fully aware of the problem as individuals. The measures we require to take (This Changes Everything: page 21) ‘are now in conflict with the fundamental imperative at the heart of our economic model: grow or die.’ We shouldn’t discount, as well though, population growth. It’s unfortunate that the idea of growth focuses so much on either the economy or population and so little, at national and global level, with how we grow and expand our consciousness.

Klein adds:

What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.

According to Matthieu Ricard in his thought-provoking book on altruism something that should help is a growing awareness that growth cannot continue (page 658):

In the eyes of the politician Anders Wijkman and environmentalist Johann Rockström, there can be nothing more perverse than an economy that grows at the expense of the raw materials that allow it to exist: ‘The world’s population is growing. Consumption is growing. The only problem is that the earth is not growing.’ . . . .

In short, as the English-born American economist Kenneth Boulding said: ‘Those who believe that economic growth can go on forever are either mentally deranged or they are economists.’

Not all economists though fortunately.

There is, for example, a growing trend, Ricard argues, for economists to discard the treacherously misleading GDP as a good guide to whether we are doing all right or not. Because (page 660) ‘[i]t ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality’ it is worse then useless: it is leads to toxic decision-making. Its fundamental insanity is revealed by its inclusion as positives what are in fact evidences of dysfunction (page 667):

If a country has more crime, pollution, war, and disease, GDP increases as a result of financial transactions relating to expenditure in prisons, policing, weapons, and healthcare. This increase enters the accounts as a positive indicator of a growing economy, even though it represents a decline in well-being.’

Ricard acknowledges that (page 679) ‘we must . . . not underestimate the importance of personal transformation.’ From there we must move to the wider society within which we live and, in Ricard’s view (page 681), learn to balance what Mintzberg calls the three-legged stool of a ‘public sector made up of political forces…, a private sector made up of economic forces…, and a plural sector of social forces embodied by robust civilian conveyances.’ It is in the development of the latter that the UK and America, who over-emphasise the private sector, and China, who places too much importance on the public sector, are seriously lacking.

There is yet another step to take.

We must move (page 682) from ‘community engagement to global responsibility.’ To do this it is necessary ‘to realise that all things are interdependent, and to assimilate that world view in such a way that it influences our every action.’ He sees altruism as the key to this transition.

There are obstacles though to the full realisation of the need for this key and our ability to turn it in the lock of obstinate resistance.

Undetected Influences

We may also be subject to undetected external influences that shape our behaviour outside our awareness.

Advertisers have known for decades that subliminal stimuli can influence our behaviour and persuade us to buy a product without any awareness on our part that this has happened. This is why such adverts were banned. This is why drug companies keep spending lavishly on lunch time presentations at GP surgeries, leaving behind lots of innocent looking memorabilia plastered with their logos and drug names to subliminally jolt the memory. Studies comparing surgeries that have been visited in this fashion with those that have not indicate that the beneficiaries of drug company lunches prescribe the drug in question more frequently than they used to whereas the control surgeries do not. The GPs themselves believe their prescribing patterns have not changed.

Hypnotic suggestions, as is widely recognised, can subliminally affect our behaviour long after the trance is over.

Admittedly we do sometimes control our responses to external information but not always in wise or fully conscious ways. Confirmation biases cause us to ignore information that contradicts beliefs we have invested in and swallow uncritically anything we’re told that proves we are right.

Even our memories can’t be trusted. There is a self-serving bias in memory.

For example, when anyone used to ask me to tell them about situations where my declaration as a Bahá’í brought me into conflict with the assumptions of my profession as a psychologist, I was a touch too happy to share the story of the time I went for an informal interview for a clinical post soon after I qualified. I was walking with the neuropsychologist, I would say, down towards her office. She was dressed in a white coat so she looked like a doctor from the back. The only thing missing was a stethoscope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potential Damage

If we pause to reflect a moment we can clearly see many of these processes at work, some of them in potentially damaging ways.

We now believe the earth both spins, and revolves around the Sun, even though all we experience are the changing seasons, the alternation of day and night and the slow creep of the shadows along the ground.

We now believe that all the solids that we handle and sit on are made of atoms, which, like microscopic planetary systems, are made up of specks and space. More space than specks by far.

We now believe that light is both wave and particle, even though all we see for the most part are constant colours or bright consistent lights.

Most of us in the West do not believe, though, that souls who have passed on can move matter they have left behind, even though the evidence that they can is piled high in libraries worldwide, as David Fontana testifies in his comprehensive survey of the evidence.

Why do we believe the scientist who says most of the chair I’m sitting on is empty space, and not the painstaking investigator who sees a table rise up to the ceiling having proved no human hand or machine could possibly be involved?

Perhaps one of the many possible reasons is that most of us are happy to take the findings of science on trust until we feel they conflict with our perceived material interests.

Is that why climate change and departed souls are met with so much disbelief? To believe in both of those requires us in different ways to step outside our egotistic materialism and accept our interconnectedness, to set aside our personal advantage in the interests of the many, and to make sacrifices for the common good.

In spite of all our blinkers, we behave as though all we do is carefully chosen in full knowledge of the consequences and causes. Such complacency cannot safely be allowed to continue any longer. Our survival now depends not upon our evolutionary heritage of tunnel vision approximations to reality but upon our transcending these limitations as rapidly as possible both as individuals and as a species. If not, extinction beckons.

Can we do that? A consideration of this will have to wait till next time.


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Seven IllusionsGiven that sequences on this blog are dealing in one way or another with our need to break through to wiser levels of consciousness, it seemed worth republishing this short sequence from 2014. The reservations I shared in the first post have come to seem a familiar response of mine to texts that combine wise insights with what strikes me as fantasy. None the less the insights make books such as this one worth flagging up. This is the final post of the sequence.

I prefaced this review-sequence of posts about Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, partly by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.

Also, I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

This is the last of three parts. The first post looked at her basic intention and flagged up a couple of caveats from my point of view. The previous post focused on the importance of meditation and its challenges. This third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

Why we should change our priorities.

Karen makes a compelling case, I feel.

As the quotation from Bahá’u’lláh at the end of the previous post implies, it all comes down to a question of priorities. She makes this point strongly (750):

If you put half of the energy you put into work and making money into meditating, you may become enlightened in a year!! Your choice, your will, your life.

If Ehrenfeld is to be believed in his book Flourishing the world will be a far better place simply as a result of this, as well.

Karen is particularly telling in her use of analogies again here (1045)

In general we do not identify with our cars and believe that`s all we are. We do know it`s just a vehicle, and it`s not because the car dies that we will die with it. We know that we will move on. It is exactly the same with our body. By the way, notice that we always say ‘our’ body, like we say ‘our car’ or ‘our house’, something that we possess not something that we are.

This makes for an interesting take on death, which is borne out by the accounts of those who have survived close encounters with the scythe-bearing skeleton (1131): ‘Death is just the end of the vehicle, not the passenger.’

Then we draw close again to the No-Self issue and the movie character analogy (1255-65):

. . . . really who are you? By now you know that you are not your body, you are not your mind, and death doesn`t exist. The ‘you’ you believe in is the one which is not real. It is the one which will die when the body dies. . . . The biggest illusion is to believe that we are the car. That`s a reason why we are so scared of dying, because we know for sure that the car will die. There is no doubt about that. They all die. But we are not the car. We are not the character. And we do not die. The thing is that by identifying too much with the character, we forget who we really are.

The word ‘character’ pins down a key point. In a way there is an unintended pun here. Character can refer either to a person in a novel, play or film script, or it can be used to describe that aspect of a person that has a moral dimension. (In this context I fell over a deliberate pun which I can’t resist sharing. We are dealing with a car-actor here!)

This for me homes in on part of what freeing ourselves from character in the first sense enables us to achieve in terms of creating character in the second sense. The contrast is perhaps most easily captured by the idea of personality (from the Latin persona, meaning a theatrical mask and later the character in a play) versus character (from the Greek, originally also meaning a protagonist in a play, but moving through Aristotle’s emphasis on an ethical dimension to signify something closer to integrity). Meditation enables us to disidentify with the mask we wear, our personality, and to discover who we really are, to become our true selves, if you like.

She goes onto discuss the importance of love and of giving, and how much better it is for us than pursuing our own material advantage (1388-1397):

Our true self is not capable of hurting anyone, of killing, of damaging or stealing other people’s goods. We need to put a costume on in order to achieve that. . . . . your real self is all about giving. Giving is feeding your soul. Seeing the happiness on someone else`s face because of what you gave them, will fill your heart with much more joy than a free meal ticket.

As we have discussed on this blog, for instance in the context of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT – 1456) ‘The veryACT manual common ‘I don`t feel like it’ may only be another trick from your ego to prevent you from realizing who you are.’

ACT takes the view that if we wait until we feel like doing something, we may well never do it. Doing it will make us feel better so we need to get on with it no matter how we feel to start with. In this context, we must accept though, at the same time, that the main rewards of meditation may not come quickly (1478):

You cannot change everything in one day. It will happen progressively. The changes won`t happen faster than you can handle them. If you work on yourself, you will experience the changes as perfect gradual steps, like a beautiful flower gently blossoming.

And we should not have grandiose ideas about how what we can then do will change the world. People who have trodden the path tell a different story (1494):

They don`t talk about changing the world, they perform little or big acts of kindness every day. It may be the family guy who volunteers once a week at his local charity, the kid who shares his lunch with his friend, the lady who feeds the birds in the garden, and the activists who spend months of their life trying to stop whaling.

This is very much in line with the Bahá’í model of community building, the first stage of civilisation building, which starts small but gradually influences greater numbers of people until a tipping point is reached: this will inevitably be ‘the work of centuries.’ Whether we reach the tipping point before we destroy ourselves will depend upon our choices.

She is on similar ground to ACT again when she discusses the nature of suffering (1535):

There are two types of pain: physical pain, which is as much real as our body is, and emotional pain which is as much an illusion as our mind is.

ACT clarifies that pain is what life brings: suffering is what we add to it by what our minds make of it. Karen begins to tread the same ground.

She begins by looking at emotion (1550-53):

Without emotion we just see life as it exactly is, with a clear perception and without any projections. Without emotion we just become watchers of this movie we are playing. We do not try to change it or wish for it to be different because we REALLY DON`T MIND how it is and how it will end up. Without emotion there is no suffering. . . . . . Emotional suffering is in the mind and the mind only. The pain we experience exists because there is a dichotomy between what is and what we want.

Part of the problem is the sense of separateness (1583): ‘Because we believe ourselves separated we`ve become blind to the perfection and the interconnectedness of all things.’ As some spiritual traditions explain it, because we are underneath the woven carpet of creation, as it were, we see only the knots and tangles and not the pattern.

We have to have faith in the existence of a pattern even if we cannot see it (1595-98):

True faith is not blind faith. True faith comes from knowledge. It comes from learning about life, about God and about yourself.  . . . . Connection is very important to our well being. We need to find connection with life, with people, and with nature. Connection brings us closer to oneness.

This resonates with the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Who also makes the same kind of link with deeds as Karen does at various points: ‘By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.

Here is where things get momentarily slightly confused for me. She begins by saying that (1648): ‘Emotions and feelings help us determine what is good for us, and what is not.’ However, even though the phrasing here suggests they are equivalent what she then says suggests there is a definite distinction in her mind (1652): ‘One is real, the other is an illusion. Feelings are the language of our soul, whereas emotion is the reaction of the mind. Our emotions are our reactions to the world.’

The value of the distinction is then unpacked in more detail (1654 through 1674):

. . . . feelings are our guidance, and instead of being our ‘reactions’ they are our creations. . . . . Feelings are our intuition. . . . . Anger, fear, sadness, pain, frustration, etc, are what we call bad emotions. And joy, happiness, ecstasy, pleasure, excitement, etc, are what we call good emotions. But in both cases they are just illusions.

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman

I think she is basically correct here. However, my personal view is that greater clarity comes from using feeling and emotion as equivalent, so that ‘gut feeling’ can be seen as a product of the reptilian brain and therefore not to be relied upon. Intuition, as distinct from instinct, needs to be reserved for those intimations and promptings from our spirit that can be relied upon. I have dealt with this at great length elsewhere in my discussion of Kahneman’s ideas. Karen’s terminology, though less than optimal in my view, does not distract from the power and relevance of the points she is making.

I do have serious reservations though about the way she phrases her suggestions as to how to deal with emotion (1678): ‘if you are angry, be angry totally.’

I’m not sure this is a helpful way to express what I think she might mean. I feel containment in full awareness is a better way of putting it. This allows you to steer between acting out and repression and also enables you to find the most constructive way of expressing the anger should you chose to do so. At the very least you will be able to integrate it.

In the end though, in spite of all my grumblings here and there, I feel that this is an immensely valuable book. It has helped me in my quest for a deeper experience of my own true nature, though this is still proving quite a challenge. I think the benefits of reading Karen’s powerful insights and following her personal journey far outweigh any disagreements I might have with aspects of her philosophy.

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Seven Illusions

Given that sequences on this blog are dealing in one way or another with our need to break through to wiser levels of consciousness, it seemed worth republishing this short sequence from 2014. The reservations I shared in the first post have come to seem a familiar response of mine to texts that combine wise insights with what strikes me as fantasy. None the less the insights make books such as this one worth flagging up. The final post will appear tomorrow.

I prefaced this review-sequence of posts about Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, partly by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.

Also, I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

This is the second of three parts. The previous post looked at her basic intention and flagged up a couple of caveats from my point of view. This post focuses on the importance of meditation and its challenges. The third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

Why meditation matters

Part of what relates to the importance of meditation, I’ve dealt with in a previous post, which focused on the No-Self issue so I will not revisit that here. What follows will inevitably have implications that are relevant to that issue also.

To describe our life as we perceive it, Karen uses the metaphor of a film to convey that what we experience is only a simulation and not reality. To over-identify with our character, in the Hollywood sense, is to surrender to the illusion and we can choose otherwise (429):

You have the free will of letting the Ego control you, or you can become the master and start living the movie through a totally different perspective.

She argues that (433): ‘To find yourself and to find presence, meditation is the best tool that you have.’

Even so, the task that confronts us will not be easy. Our movie role will not give up without a fight (435):

The Ego, the mind will try to prevent it, it will do anything to stop it. Of course, because the more you do it, the more IT will disappear.

She clarifies what we must do in response (437):

The challenge is to still do it under any circumstances, despite what is being said inside your head.

She shares some of her most telling insights and useful analogies here to help us see what we must do and why (531):

. . . when we are listening to the mind, we find ourselves in the past or a probable future. It is really an amazing tool, which is here to help us survive in a physical body in this three dimensional world. The problem is that we forget that it is just that, a tool, a computer. Over the years we put effort into making it strong, sharp and intelligent. Unfortunately, we overuse it and we forget to turn it off.

This is territory that Hanson and Mendius also explore from their slightly different and somewhat more academic angle. They Buddha Brainanalyse in some depth the neuropsychology of this survival tool from the perspective of brain science.

Karen is very clear about the trap that has been sprung on us by the worldly and practical success of our survival tool (535):

After a while we even forget that we are actually separate from it. This is the biggest illusion, the identification with the mind.

I might want to take issue with her terminology here, when she is discussing what she refers to as the ‘mind’ (582-89):

It is a computer, gathering, analyzing data and offering solutions. It never stops. It is restless. We made it that way. It will only exist in time, in the past or in the future, and it will always try to escape the present, because in the NOW the mind is not. . . . The main problem is that the brain takes everything the mind thinks as real. For the brain there are no differences between an actual physical danger, and your mind thinking about a fictional, imaginary danger.

This conflicts with the understanding I have developed after years of reconciling psychology with Bahá’í spirituality. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá assures us that the mind is an emanation of the spirit and not a product of the brain: this fits with the idea of the brain not the mind as a transceiver, ie it both receives and generates data as the computer does. The brain therefore can be seen in this version of the model as the source of ‘static’ that interferes with our access to the mind, which is our direct link to the world of spirit. However, I don’t think this possible quibble should deter us from recognizing the value of what she then goes on to say on the back of this analogy. Her core point is none the less clear (599-600):

If the mind is only a computer, then it is there for someone to use it: you.  The mind is just a tool, but a wonderful tool. The only problem is the common mistake of identifying with that tool. . . . . You need to find yourself. You need to find where and who you are. And I will say it again: meditation is the only means through which you are going to find these answers.

This does not mean that we should devalue what she calls the mind (613-621):

First of all, it does help you take care of your body to survive in the world. . . . . Secondly, it enables us to project ourselves in time, in the past and in the future, so we can understand what went wrong and avoid the same mistakes, and we can anticipate and plan for our future. . . . . Then, the mind helps us to tap into and translate information from the spirit world, . . . . . Also, a clear, focused and pointed mind will help us achieve anything we dream of. . . . . . Last, but not least, the mind will translate into words your true being, your soul.

Also that description indicates to me that her concept of mind is closer to that of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá than her original points suggested.

Nor do I want to argue with her next main point (622):

Our essence, our soul is energy and only energy. It does not communicate with language. It communicates with impressions, feelings, and intuitions.

She then moves onto a theme close to my heart (sorry if that sounds like a joke!) and one dealt with in some detail already on this blog so I won’t dwell at length on it here (625):

We are under the impression that our head says something and our heart, our inside, is trying to say something else. Believe me, in these situations, always listen to your heart. Always.

A key point comes slightly later and, though apparently simple, is in my view of profound importance, not just in terms of schooling, which is her point at the time, but for all of us throughout our lives (677): ‘we are not taught how not to use the mind when we do not need it.’ This is something crucial which it is never too late to learn.

ThriveShe emphasises that (677) children, if properly taught, ‘would learn how to focus and use their mind to solve problems, as well as how to turn the mind off in order to not over load it and stay stress free.’ And also, I would say, to gain access to other aspects of consciousness with different powers. Layard and Clark are similarly advocating the teaching of mindfulness in schools in their book Thrive, reviewed earlier on this blog Unfortunately there is little sign yet that schooling will shift from its current reinforcement of the language-bound ruminating mind any time soon.

One of the challenges of undertaking meditation is that the rewards, in terms for example of a quietness and expansion of consciousness, cannot be experienced except as a result of meditation itself, so we have to embark on an effortful discipline motivated by faith alone. She puts it succinctly (716):

That silence and that space cannot be understood at all by the mind or the intellect as it is a no-mind place. The only way to comprehend it is to experience it, to live it. You need to find it for yourself.

Even so (722) ‘Enlightenment is not something far away and complicated to reach. It has always been there, inside you, easy to grasp, just waiting for you to be ready.’

Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, says essentially the same thing (Gleanings: CLIII):

Deprive not yourselves of the unfading and resplendent Light that shineth within the Lamp of Divine glory. Let the flame of the love of God burn brightly within your radiant hearts. . . . O My servants! My holy, My divinely ordained Revelation may be likened unto an ocean in whose depths are concealed innumerable pearls of great price, of surpassing luster. It is the duty of every seeker to bestir himself and strive to attain the shores of this ocean, so that he may, in proportion to the eagerness of his search and the efforts he hath exerted, partake of such benefits as have been pre-ordained in God’s irrevocable and hidden Tablets. . . . This most great, this fathomless and surging Ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life-vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.

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Given that sequences on this blog are dealing in one way or another with our need to break through to wiser levels of consciousness, it seemed worth republishing this short sequence from 2014. The reservations I share at the start have come to seem a familiar response of mine to texts that combine wise insights with what strikes me as fantasy. None the less the insights make books such as this one worth flagging up. The remainder of the sequence will follow on consecutive days.Seven Illusions

I need to preface this review of Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, and not just by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.

Basically, I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

Another reason it has taken some time to get round to publishing this is that there are parts of the book I can’t buy into and generally I don’t review anything about which I have such significant reservations in terms of the central message. However, I am also aware that I have learnt a great deal from the book, which is rooted in her direct experience of the matters she speaks of. She says much that touches me deeply. It doesn’t seem fair not to bring such gems to people’s attention when my reservations might be my blinkers.

This is the first of three parts dealing with her basic intention and flagging up a couple of caveats from my point of view. The next post will focus on the importance of meditation and its challenges. The third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

The Purpose of the Book

As I understand it the book it written to encourage us all to build our search for happiness and fulfillment on a sounder basis (Kindle Reference 70):

[This] is what you have been looking for and searching for all your life. But you were scared, and instead of looking inside you went to look outside.

Changing the direction of our gaze (111) moves us towards ‘[b]ecoming the person you`ve always wanted to be’ which, she feels would be ‘the real source of happiness and as such the real and only thing worth manifesting?’

Part of this process will involve our spotting negative thoughts (156) and ‘counteract[ing] them with positive affirmations.’ ThisBuddha Brain of course is easier said than done given the Teflon tendencies for positive thought discussed in the Buddha’s Brain book already reviewed.

The core aspect of happiness she defines as follows (248):

As we`ve seen before, happiness is the contentment with what is. It is not wishing for life to be different. It is not wanting something that we don`t have.

This is a question of choice (313):

In a nutshell, things are as they are, whether you cry or laugh because of them is your choice. Choosing happiness or unhappiness, anger or compassion, worry or trust, fear or love are our main choices in life.

We can also choose how we respond to the testing behavior of other people, with potentially constructive consequences (372):

Someone is verbally attacking you, calling you names. You can consciously choose to stay at their level and send the same back, or you can choose to send some kind words instead. You should try it once, no argument can last more than a minute if one party is sending love back at anger, negative energy cannot be sustained on love.

In speaking of the way we think about the future she revisits familiar territory reminiscent of the Twain/Montaigne problem – ‘There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened’ – but pointing out that positive as well as negative expectations can be equally pointless (396):

Guess what: ninety nine percent of your thoughts about the imaginary future will not happen. What you are so scared of happening will not happen. The house you would buy if you win the lottery will not happen. What you are doing now by thinking about the future is wasting your present.

It’s in the process of unfolding this explanation that she brings in the stumbling blocks for me – first of all, her reincarnation model.

For reasons I have explored at some length, this view of the afterlife is not one I find easy to accept. I won’t rehearse all my arguments here. I will simply state her position without further comment. She believes (308):

. . . . souls choose to incarnate on the earth for the purpose of learning, growing and helping others. They know what they need to work on, and also what they need to do to achieve their goals. So they have a pretty good idea of the life they need. Then, they plan very carefully their next incarnation, choosing their place, date, and family of birth.

She uses this model to explain certain types of evil (423):

You see, if someone wants to experience forgiveness, and needs someone to hurt her/ him, someone else needs to be the malevolent actor. How can a beautiful soul full of love and light harm anyone?

I think it best to leave the readers of this post to make up their own mind on this one.

The second stumbling block is to do with the power of positive thought to change what happens.

Her often repeated belief is that if you believe confidently enough that your needs will be met or your problems solved, they assuredly will be. A succinct statement of this kind of thinking is if, for example when you are in dire financial straits (336), ‘You trust that enough money will come to cover your needs’ then ‘it always does.’ She explains more fully later with an example from her own experience (1615):

. . . one day, when my car broke down at a time in my life when I had no fixed income, a very high rent, and when I  needed to come up with a couple of thousand dollars in two weeks, I totally panicked. My mind repeated ‘I’ll be ok’, ‘I’ll get the money’; yet my body was stressing as much as it used to. Hadn`t I learned my lessons? Of course the money came, in unexpected ways, at the right time, and exactly the amount I needed…silly me. I KNEW IT!

But for some people the money doesn’t come – and it’s too easy to say that this is because of their negative attitude.

Much as I value her authentic experiences of meditation, I am not convinced by this anecdote that this is a general truth. I think there are far too many examples in the world as a whole of widespread and persistently unremedied suffering for me to accept that kind of claim. I also find myself wondering where her mocking reference to positive fantasies about the future – ‘The house you would buy if you win the lottery will not happen’ – leaves her on the power of positive thoughts issue.

However, in spite of what I perceive as these blemishes, the book as a whole has a great deal of value to offer. Except for her reincarnation model and the power of positive thoughts issue, I have no problem with any of this, which maps onto much of the literature from which I have already learnt so much.

With one minor exception, I will from now on focus on the positives, as they far outweigh these reservations.

trigger for meditation

After this nit-picking and before pausing until the next post on this topic, I feel I need to end with a longer quote from Karen’s book to illustrate why I find it so valuable. It is the way she manages at times to fuse a compelling and vivid account of her direct experience with an explanation of some of its implications. These are the gems that make the book so well worth reading. I find such passages moving as well as inspiring and convincing – and there are many of them.


. . . what you want to find is silence. Silence inside your own head. Now I couldn`t imagine living again with incessant chatter in my mind. I love that silence. I love that peace. And I love the ability to gently disregard the thoughts which I don`t want. In that silence, in that space where there are no thoughts, in that absolute peace, I bathe in awareness. I bathe in being.

Now it feels as if I used to be buried behind layers and layers of incessant, illogical, and uncoordinated thoughts. But one day I finally emerged. One day I found myself deep into my own abyss. And since then I have remained at the surface, always breathing, always being. And only when I managed to come to the surface did I finally see reality as it was.

I now see the world clearly and simply, without judgment, without descriptions, without words inside my head to tell me how it is. That space in between thoughts is a special place. It is where everything is. It is where everything comes from. That place of silence is a pure magical beauty. It needs to be experienced to be understood. The mind cannot fathom just a portion of that reality.

That silence and that space cannot be understood at all by the mind or the intellect as it is a no-mind place. The only way to comprehend it is to experience it, to live it. You need to find it for yourself. You need to look within. Go inside yourself and find this beautiful sacred place. Once you find this silence, you will be overwhelmed by its music. It is a deep sense of knowing and of purpose, a feeling of finally being home.

Then you`ll never want to come back to the busyness, to the craziness, to the chaotic world of the mind where only fear reigns. The silence is what you were always looking for. That`s where YOU are. Everybody is looking for themselves, they just don`t look in the right place. You will find yourself in this silence. You will find yourself out of the mind. Really, it is so simple, so close, and so easy. Enlightenment is not something far away and complicated to reach. It has always been there, inside you, easy to grasp, just waiting for you to be ready.

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Echoing the theme of the poems that were published in honour of the seven Bahá’í prisoners, the Bahá’í Teachings website is running a sequence concerning the ten women executed in Iran in 1983. Below is a short extract from one such post: for the full article see link

All ten of the Baha’i women who willingly sacrificed their lives for their beliefs anticipated the providence that awaited them.

Today, let’s meet another of these shining lights. Cheerful and loveable, Simin Sabiri was born into a large family with eleven children. Only 24 when she wore the necklace of rope that freed her spirit, she was the youngest of five children from her father’s second marriage. Simin had six step-siblings from his first marriage, which ended with the untimely passing of his wife. Simin’s father, who came from a Muslim background, and her mother from a Jewish one, found a common faith as Baha’is.

Simin studied at secretarial college and then found work with an agricultural firm. But she and her family had to flee when, in November of 1978, many Baha’is were forced from their homes by marauding mobs seeking to drive them out. Relatives managed to make room for Shirin’s big family.

Simin’s arrest came on October 26, 1982. Like all the others, she had done nothing to deserve her imprisonment—other than being a Baha’i and believing in the oneness of humanity.

Fearless in front of her interrogators, she was outspoken about her Baha’i activities and dared to lecture them about the validity of the teachings of Baha’u’llah. In jail she was known to be strong and resilient and never to have expressed sadness. Her strength amazed her fellow prisoners.

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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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Mona Mahmudnizhad

Echoing the theme of the poems being published currently in honour of the seven Bahá’í prisoners, the Bahá’í Teachings website is running a sequence concerning the ten women executed in Iran in 1983. Below is a short extract from one such post: for the full article see link

She was vivacious. She was joyous. She was focused. She dreamed of becoming a doctor. She was a 17-year old high school student. They hanged her.

She was Iranian, but she was first and foremost a Baha’i. She was devoted to God and to her Faith. She loved children; she taught Baha’i children’s classes. She was bold and audacious. She was named Mona—Mona Mahmudnizhad. Her name will never be forgotten.

It may seem odd, but when I think of Mona, the lyrics of a Beatles’ tune runs through my head:

Well, she was just 17. You know what I mean. And the way she looked was way beyond compare. – The Beatles, I Saw Her Standing There.

It’s just a love song about a boy and a girl, or a man and a woman, you might think. Instead, though, it can be about an inspiration—and those she inspires.

On the 23rd of October 1982, when the Revolutionary Guards came to her home to arrest her, “Well, she was just 17.” She was a young woman whose crime had been to teach children’s classes to young Baha’is who were not then allowed to attend school. It seems unfathomable. “You know what I mean.”

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