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Posts Tagged ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’

In the area of values, this means that we must learn to value even when we don’t feel like it. We must learn to love even when we are angry, to care even when we are exasperated.

(Steven Hayes et al in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: an experiential approach to behaviour change — page 210)

Picking up on a closing point from the last post, as time went on I came to realise that the bookworm in me had value as part of my 3Rs – reading, writing and reflection. Again this has been explained before, for example in Rings of Self:

For my own purposes I have developed a mock equation as a mnemonic for my preferred approach to deepening my understanding of an issue. This approach, in interaction with experience, involves using meditation as a means of accessing the products of my subliminal thought processes in combination with reading and writing. So, I move in and out of active/passive  engagement with experience through reading, writing and reflection, my three Rs.

Reflection is a term that cuts both ways: it can be used to describe the workings of the intellect – labeled deliberation, in the previous post, to avoid confusion –  or the process of meditation, in which we pull back from identifying with the usual contents of our consciousness. Both processes of reflection and their product are very different from the knee-jerk reactions of instinct described in the first post of this sequence.

So, E + 3R = I, where I = Insight and E stands for Experience. This is one of the roles the writing of this blog is meant to execute.

This led onto the idea, which I’m about to explore, of reflection as a filter and as the core of my process.

Recent developments in my thinking have produced the simple diagram at the head of this post as the most straightforward way of capturing the main issue as I see it when it comes to using reflection as a guide to wise and compassionate action. This acknowledges implicitly that feelings can have complex origins, as explained last time, but it would complicate the diagram too much for present purposes to bring those into the mix now.

This is a different process than the gathering of pollen and nectar from the flowers of experience. What we preserve in terms of our learning about love and wisdom is stored in our hearts and therefore not always explicitly accessible to our heads unless we press the pause button for long enough to quieten our passions down. This is why it is not usually appropriate to act when in the grip of negative or scripted feelings. Negative feelings are more easily identified: rage, pain, fear can be identified as dark and potentially destructive without too much trouble. Apparently positive ones, which can also be scripted, such as the warmth of our attraction to a dangerous person or life path, are harder to detect.

That’s why we need to press the pause button, step back and give ourselves time to reflect.

But how are we to use that reflection time? Part of that is obvious enough. When we have stepped back from scripted feelings we can think about them, almost interrogate them. Where do they come from? When have we felt like this before? What happened next? What do they remind us of? And so on. These can lead us to the kind of understanding of deep-rooted causes we discussed last time.

The answers may help us judge more clearly whether we can trust these reactions in the current situation. The answer is probably that we shouldn’t – or at least not blindly or completely. We need a better compass.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) places great emphasis on the importance of our values as a guide to action. In their book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Hayes et al describe an important distinction between two kinds of valuing (page 208-09):

Among the most important [distinctions] is distinguishing valuing as feeling versus valuing as an action. These two aspects are often thoroughly confused for the client. The example of valuing a loving relationship with one spouse is instructive. One’s feelings of love may wax and wane across time and situations. To behave lovingly (e.g., respectfully, thoughtfully, etc.) only when one has feelings of love, and to behave in opposite ways when the opposite feelings emerge, would be very likely to have problematic effects on a marriage. Yet this is precisely the pickle we are in when values are confused with feelings, because feelings are not fully under voluntary control and tend to come and go. . . . .

In the area of values, this means that we must learn to value even when we don’t feel like it. We must learn to love even when we are angry, to care even when we are exasperated.

There are other aspects of this which are less directly relevant to my current purpose but none the less important. For example, one of the most useful insights I gleaned from Hayes et al’s book concerned their clear definition of a trap you can fall into when you firmly believe you are enacting your values. It’s when you confuse values with goals (page 231).

A value is a direction, a quality of action. By definition, values cannot be achieved and maintained in a static state, they must be lived out.

It is important therefore not to confuse values (why we do things) with the steps we have decided to take to enact them (the what) or even the outcomes that we hope to achieve as a result of those steps. We have to be open to the possibility that this step or that outcome, as we experience working in that way, comes to seem at odds with the value we are seeking to give expression to or with a value we come to realise is more fundamentally important to us than the one we thought we wanted to express.

Also, we cannot always trust the words we think in let alone the feelings we are attempting to describe. This sceptical attitude towards descriptions has to be maintained equally if not more strongly in relation to descriptions of the self (page 182):

. . . when a person identifies with a particular conceptualisation, alternatives to that conceptualisation can seem almost life-threatening. The . . . frame here seems to be “Me = conceptualisation” [i.e. I am exactly what I think I am] and its entailed derivative “Eliminate conceptualisation = eliminate me” [i.e. If you destroy my idea of myself you destroy me]. [Thus], we are drawn into protecting our conceptualized self as if it were our physical self.

To help people step back from such identifications the authors liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board (page 192):

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.

A Plan in the Mind’s Mirror

This relates to the point I made towards the end of the previous post, that sometimes we have to learn to step back from who we think we are to find our True Self. Personally, while I find their analogy helpful, I prefer the idea of a mirror and its reflections. Our mind or consciousness is the mirror and all our experiences, inside and out, are simply reflections in that mirror: they are not who we are, not even the most intense feelings, our most important plans, or the strongest sense of self. We have to learn to see them as simply the contents of consciousness. Only that way can we tune into deeper and wiser levels of our being.

In terms of the issue of enacting our values rather than our feelings, the mind has many tricks it can play to undermine our intentions in this respect. For instance, there is the hypocrisy argument that keeps cropping up. ‘If I’m furious with somebody, it’s just not honest to be nice. I’m just being a hypocrite.’ This neatly lines up fury with principle, and can justify the idea that Oscar Wilde deflates with a skilful pinprick, that there are times when speaking one’s mind is not only a pleasure but a duty.

My strongest response to this mistaken line of reasoning is that it is based on a false identification with the lower self. If all I am convinced I am is my cluster of reptilian emotional residues, then the logic is irrefutable. I must attack viciously or else betray who I really am. But we are not only, or even mainly or most deeply, our reptilian selves.

Even if we only look at this in terms of the material brain, we have higher centres that conform to higher norms. The frontal lobes aren’t there in our heads simply to rubber stamp our animal side: they don’t just stand back and say, ‘You’re right! He insulted you. You’re angry enough. Kill him!’ Well, not unless you are one of those narcissistic sociopaths in prison for murdering the man who drank their Coke without their permission.

There are centres of consciousness in almost all of us that identify with principles of self-control and consideration, and these centres are as much who we are as the animal impulses, if not more so. It takes more effort to enact them, but that doesn’t make them lies. When we behave well no matter how we feel, we are being true to them and they are truly who we are. That is not hypocrisy.

This is where investing our energy into mastering the art of reflection is so important. Without that filter through which to purify our thinking, ridding it of the distracting debris of our conditioning, we will continue to betray our higher self and its transcendent ideals for a downward but easier and enticing path into deeper and more destructive delusions.

It is also probably the key to the skill that I read about many years ago in a book by a Jungian therapist, but can no longer track down. He argued that our society, and perhaps many others as well, offer only two main alternatives when we experience strong feelings: we can either act them out or we can repress them. Neither of these courses of action is usually advisable. Most of us most of the time are not aware that there is a third possibility: to contain the feelings in consciousness. This allows us to use the feelings as information about the situation in which we find ourselves, and also to consider whether we can use them to motivate us to more constructive action than simply venting them would allow for. Containment of this kind, it seems to me, depends upon our capacity to reflect. It may even be an aspect of reflection.

Table of Value Types – Alain Locke. (From ‘Alain Locke and Cultural Pluralism’  – page 105 – by Christopher Buck in Search for Values edited by John Danesh & Seena Fazel)

This all leads me onto the next major issue: how do we best define our values?

We can choose to draw our values from various sources. Alain Locke’s perspective on values theory is as good a way as any to illustrate this. For him, the first African American Rhodes scholar,  ‘human values are central in determining the course of social life’ and the table above illustrates their various possible types or points of origin.

Not only that, but it also may not be as easy as we think to distinguish our feelings from our values. Terry Eagleton touches on some reasons for this in his book Culture and the Death of God (page 41):

The kind of morality [Richard] Price has in his sights can stir men and women to action, but is perilously reliant on sentiment, intuition or moral sense. By contrast, a morality based on Reason is solidly founded, but lacks the power to motivate.

I don’t share his suspicion of intuition, as many previous posts of mine testify, because I don’t equate it with instinct, but I do agree that values are almost always going to have an emotional dimension, or else we would not wish to keep enacting them. Reflection is what helps us check whether we can trust the emotion that is making the value attractive.

Obviously, this act of choosing our values is something we can only do each for ourselves, albeit drawing on ideas from elsewhere possibly in consultation with others. An inescapable criterion which must apply to us all though, it seems to me, is that what we value must not harm others and in fact it should promote the well-being of all life forms.

Apart from that it’s up to us.

What I will describe in the next post briefly is simply what determined my own choices, but along the way I need to explain how I am learning to balance the competing priorities of my life. And this is what brings me to the wheel of life – well, of mine at least: my latest way of holding onto the insights I need to draw on when I’m being triggered, and at other times as well.

Hopefully it will help others devise their own method of doing the same.

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script is a personal life plan which each individual forms by a series of decisions early in her life in reaction to her interpretation of the important things happening in her world.

(Woollams and Brown: TA: the total handbook of Transactional Analysis – page 139)

Some six years ago I was struggling to come to terms with a very testing situation. I don’t want to go into detail. Things have moved on now and, in any case, I never wanted to reveal the details on this blog. The nearest I came was to translate them into a piece of fiction by way of illustration. Hence the cafe dilemma I described in 2013, after a couple of years of intense reflection and self-work.

As time went on, my thinking deepened and I did a sequence on what I called the threebrain issue. It should come as no surprise that my thinking did not stop there.

Life has caused me to take yet another look at the powerful tool/process of reflection, partly in the light of my sequence ending on the idea of the mind’s hive and reflection as collecting the nectar of love and the pollen of wisdom from experience as it flowers, but from a slightly different angle and digging somewhat deeper into the sources of the dark emotions we need to step back from. I am sharing this in the hope that my experiences will be of use to others.

To explain what I’m getting at I need to recapitulate briefly some points made in earlier blogs.

From the mid-70s to the mid-80s, my life morphed at least three times into very different shapes, the gems of transformation being held together by the threads of self-work and meditation. I went from teacher to psychologist, atheist to believer, and single to married. It was a bumpy road at times especially in the 12 months from December 1981 to November 1982.

My diary shows how I was struggling with my personal priorities. Just before Christmas 1981 I’m writing:

People whose lifestyle I wish to copy are Jung, Henry Moore and others who seemed to have vast tracts of time at their disposal to read, discuss, think, and explore their own and others’ minds and feelings. . . . . My lifestyle may be incompatible with any partner’s happiness. I am not prepared to give it up so I must either find a partner with the same priorities or live alone. I do not want to see my preferred way of living bring misery to people that I care for.

Behind these insights was a history of two broken relationships which I refer to later in slightly more detail.

What’s more, even within the context of my priorities, I am clearly at war with myself, as I state on Christmas Day:

I find myself again at Christmas having resolved again upon a new way of living, but my resolve dissolves into confusion. My urge to meditate, my urge to read and my urge to write, all compete. And I am eventually immobilised between these equal and contradictory forces. . . . When I read I hanker to be writing or reflecting and so on. If I slump in front of the television to escape the tension I become tenser than ever.

Some things don’t change – well, not that easily at least. My blog posts testify to how my core interests still conflict. I have not written as much about how the demands of a practical, religious, social and family life also pull me in opposite directions. It’s the same for many of us, I know. Finding the right balance is difficult. What I perhaps had failed to give sufficient weight to, at the beginning of this six year period, was that patterns of feeling, thought and behaviour that I had worked on many times, both before and after the stresses of 1982, had not lost all their power to disrupt my life and my relationships.

What follows in this first post is a description of my later steps along this same journey before looking back again at aspects of 1982.

Previously on this blog I have not gone too deeply into the personal specifics at the root of my gut reactions. Partly I did not want to be boringly narcissistic: partly I was just plain chicken. However, it is not possible to unpack exactly how the present triggers patterns of destructive feeling, thought and action without looking at one’s own past in some detail.

One of the clearest explanations of how our past shapes our present in this way comes in a book on Transactional Analysis, a form of therapy that was of enormous benefit to me in my early days of working in mental health. Woollams and Brown write in their book – TA: the total handbook of Transactional Analysis (page 139):

A script is a personal life plan which each individual forms by a series of decisions early in her life in reaction to her interpretation of the important things happening in her world. The most important decisions determine a person’s character structure and are usually decided upon by age two or three. Most of the rest occur by about age six, while others may be made through adolescence and some even later.

I’ll use the simplified diagram above to illustrate one of my scripts. I am aware that this does not include a whole host of things that also helped shape my character, such as my sister’s death before I was born, my parents’ grief, and their very different ways of impacting upon me as a child – my father modelling the stiff upper lip approach to the point of rigidity until his last moments, as the poem at the top of this post attempts to capture, and my mother racked with anxiety and unremitting grief. No surprise really then that I chose to copy dad’s frozen stoicism, something it took nearly three decades to melt down.

So we are shaped by a multitude of factors and devise several interacting scripts in response. For clarity’s sake I’ve stuck to only one script in its simplest form.

This schema attempts to incorporate the roots of some of the insights that were facilitated by breakthroughs via rebirthing, Gestalt and TA in an evolving process. Recent experiences definitely confirmed that scripts travel with us to the grave. We can resolve them each time they are triggered, and they may never be triggered in exactly that way again. But that does not mean that a different event later cannot trigger them in a different way. Previous work can help weaken them somewhat, but they can still slide under our guard.

So, I had to dig this one out again for another look.

I have always known that I had had two difficult experiences in hospital sometime between the ages of four and seven. I knew I needed to work out what that had meant to me. The Primal Scream approach to therapy broke me through to an inexplicable pain but shed no more light on the content of any connected experience. Rebirthing, another breathing therapy, which came much later finally pulled the connections together in a way that TA and Gestalt hadn’t quite managed to do. As I was reconnected with the moments before being anaesthetised a second time, what was new was that I vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts. And yet I had no difficulty retaining it and explaining it to the therapist. And I remember it still without having taken any notes at all at the time that I can now find. The journal entry recording the event is a single line – no more.

And what were the thoughts?

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

Once I could build this insight firmly into the picture of my script I could more fully understand how it made sense of other aspects of my behaviour. My reading wasn’t only to do with my childhood illnesses, my need to do something with the time I spent in bed, and my desire to escape from my mother’s fear that I would die young as her daughter had.

The diagram attempts to map how that scripted decision shaped my reactions to events within relationships with people later in life. It’s simply here to illustrate what kinds of patterns are buried in all of us, triggering feelings that we must filter through reflection, as I will be explaining in a later post, before we act. As we will see, this is why acting on deeply held, tried and tested values rather than feelings is so important.

The stressors I referred to at the start of this post, and which I illustrated with the cafe story I linked to, reactivated aspects of the script particularly relating to trust and  keeping my distance which in turn began to trigger action patterns that would break a relationship or at least test it to breaking point.

I had not noticed this link at first because I was assuming my reactions were all perfectly natural under the circumstances, or else explicable in terms of other less sensitive areas of my scripts. In the end the penny dropped. Here I go again. Only later still did I realise this reactivation did not, as in the past, apply simply to the person who had pressed the button: it also affected my feelings about other people as well. This was an important realisation to keep hold of and reflect upon.

A simple imaginary example will illustrate how this might work. There are three brothers. They’re close but one of them, Jim, has a similar script to mine.  Chris, his younger brother, betrays his trust by stealing money from his desk. Not only does this cause Jim to cut all contact with Chris, but he starts to wonder whether he can trust his older brother, John. He begins to pull back somewhat from their original closeness just in case. John notices and gets a bit upset. Jim picks up on this and sees it as confirming what he thought and pulls back even more.

Once I cottoned on to this tendency for the trigger’s impact to generalise in this way, it helped me put potentially damaging reactions on hold so I did no further harm to other relationships in addition to the triggering one.

Putting these ideas outside me in this way eventually began to enable me to escape even further than I already had from the clutches of my scripts and drivers, but was not enough to release me more completely to reconnect more consistently with my deepest self.

Even so, this whole experience taught me that life is not a smooth ascent but a series of climbs and falls as tests come in different shapes and sizes.

The ideas also helped explain with hindsight why an early close relationship in my life splintered completely once trust was broken, and goes some way to explain why I retreated from a second when I feared it might go the same way because of our incompatibility. Books and meditation helped sustain me through the next difficult year of 1982 in the aftermath, even though I felt my fixation on books was not entirely healthy, as a poem I completed a few years later tried to express in a tongue-in-cheek take on the matter via a persona created for the purpose.

In the next post I’ll go on to describe how I developed a more positive take on my bookworm tendencies.

After that, even more reflection about reflection was required before I could disentangle myself more satisfactorily from the still smouldering scripts that I thought I had left behind. A critical skill that I have struggled to master for many years now is to recognise, right at the time it is triggered, that this pattern of reactions that I am calling a script is not who I am: it is simply a pattern of behaviour I have learned and can unlearn. I can spot it, step back and stop it, before deciding to put something more constructive in its place.

This goes somewhat beyond the simple traffic light system I discussed in the Three-Brains Revisited sequence. I’m not just disidentifying from a simple feeling but rather from a complex constellation of characteristics that I had previously mistaken for a self. This is how reflection can take us to increasingly higher levels of understanding and transformation. I needed to find a way of consolidating even more firmly my hold upon this truth.

More on that later.

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Had the life and growth of the child in the womb been confined to that condition, then the existence of the child in the womb would have proved utterly abortive and unintelligible; as would the life of this world, were its deeds, actions and their results not to appear in the world to come.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í World Faith: page 393)

This is the last of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014 and 2015. It seems doubly appropriate to publish them yet again, both because they follow on naturally from the recently republished posts on the currency of suffering and because Emma’s recent comments on my blog reminded me yet again of the value of his perspective. 

In the previous two posts, I have been looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD) most particularly for what it has to say about suffering.

Both TPD and a rich and interesting approach to psychotherapy – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – owe much to existentialism. Mendaglio acknowledges his debt in the last chapter of the book he edited on this subject (page 251):

However, there is a great deal of similarity between existential psychology and the theory of positive disintegration. Both emphasise similar key concepts such as values, autonomy, authenticity, and existential emotions such as anxiety and depression. A more fundamental similarity is seen in the philosophical underpinnings of TPD, which is in large measure existentialism.

In spite of my own immense debt to existentialist thinking, only rivalled by my debts to Buddhism and to the Bahá’í Faith, I have certain reservations about Dabrowski’s take on the degree of choice we are able to exercise.

Crucial Caveats

His take on suffering is truly inspiring. Care needs to be taken though that we do not adopt this view in a way that assumes that those who are crushed by their sufferings are somehow to blame.

It is true that his model presupposes that each of us will probably meet a challenging choice point sometime in our lives, where we can either cling to the familiar comfortable half-truths that have failed us or strive to rise about them to higher levels of understanding. It is also true that he feels that many of us are capable of choosing the second option, if we only would.

However, not everyone is so lucky. I include here a brief summary of the life history of Ian – the man whose interview I have quoted extensively in the first three posts on An Approach to Psychosis.

His history shows very clearly that he could only make the second choice at times and then meet the pain and work through it to alleviate his tormenting voices. At other times the voices were preferable to experiencing the guilt and he chose what we might call madness rather than lucidity. Given the horrors he had faced it was clear that he should not be thought a failure. I would probably have done the same had I gone through what he had experienced in his life, from his earliest days.

Dabrowski seems to feel that our capacity to choose is genetically determined. Mendaglio explains (page 250):

Dabrowski . . . . postulated the existence of a third factor of development, representing a powerful autonomous inner force which is rooted in the biological endowment of individuals.

It seems to me that it would have taken a truly exceptional individual to make the choice to experience Ian’s level of pain in order to progress. If that does not seem quite convincing, there is another case history I would like to share very briefly.

Among the sequence of posts related to mental health there is a poem called ‘Voices.’ The woman upon whose experiences that poem is based, was brutally abused by her father, sexually, and by her mother, physically, from her earliest years through her mid-teens.

She came to us to work on her father’s abuse. We developed a safe way of working which involved starting with 15 minutes exploring how things had been since we last met. Then we moved on to 15-20 minutes of carefully calibrated work on the abuse. Then the last half hour of the session was spent helping her regain her ordinary state after mind after the work on her early experiences had intensified her hallucinations.

After almost a year of this work things seemed to be going well. Then came the unexpected. She found herself in a building that closely resembled the building strongly connected with the worst episode of abuse she had experienced at the hands of her father. Just being there was more than she could cope with. She became retraumatised in a way we none of us could have anticipated or prevented. The next time we met she could not stop sobbing.

We discussed what she might do. There were two main options.

She could, if she wished, continue on her current low levels of medication and move into a social services hostel where she would be well supported while we continued our work together, or she could be admitted onto the ward and given higher levels of medication in order to tranquillise her out of all awareness of her pain.

She chose the second option and I could not blame her in any way for doing so. It would be a betrayal of the word’s meaning to suppose she had any real choice at that point but to remain psychotic while the medication kicked in rather than deal with the toxic emotions in which she felt herself to be drowning.

It is when I consider these kinds of situation at my current level of understanding of his theory, that I feel it could leave the door open to destructive attitudes.

He believes, if I have understood him correctly, that some people’s genetic endowment is so robust they will ultimately choose the harder option regardless of the environment in which they grew up. Most of us are in the middle and with an environment that is not too extreme we will do quite well. The endowment of some is so poor, he seems to be saying, that it requires an optimal environment if they are to choose to grow even in a modest way.

This approach, if I have got it right, has two problems. The first, which is less central to the theme of this post, is that it is perhaps unduly deterministic because of the power that is given to inherited ‘endowment’ to determine the life course of any individual. The second problem is more relevant to current considerations in this post, though related to the first point. By placing such a determining role upon heredity, the force of the environment may be unduly discounted.

I am not claiming that he attaches no importance to environment. In fact, education for example is much emphasised in his work and he is clearly aware that limited societies will be limiting most people’s development – and he would include the greedy materialism of Western cultures in that equation. I’m not sure where he would place the impact of natural disasters in his scheme of things.

He may though be minimising the crushing impact of such experiences as the two people I worked with had undergone, in the second case throughout almost all her formative years. Could a strong genetic endowment have endured such hardship and come through significantly less damaged? If you feel so, you may end up not so much thinking ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I!’ but more ‘They broke because they were weak.’ Empathy, which Dobrawski values so much, would be impaired because we can start to define people as essentially different from us, not quite part of the same superior species.

More Complexities

This is a truly complex area to consider though, and I will have to restrict myself at this point to a very brief examination of one approach to it which does justice to that complexity.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his description of the various components of our character, suggests that what we inherit is a source of either strength or weakness (Some Answered Questions: page 213):

The variety of inherited qualities comes from strength and weakness of constitution—that is to say, when the two parents are weak, the children will be weak; if they are strong, the children will be robust. . . . . . For example, you see that children born from a weak and feeble father and mother will naturally have a feeble constitution and weak nerves; they will be afflicted and will have neither patience, nor endurance, nor resolution, nor perseverance, and will be hasty; for the children inherit the weakness and debility of their parents.

However, this is not quite the end of the matter. He does not conclude from this that moral qualities, good or bad, stem directly from the inherited temperament of an individual (pages 214-215):

But this is not so, for capacity is of two kinds: natural capacity and acquired capacity. The first, which is the creation of God, is purely good—in the creation of God there is no evil; but the acquired capacity has become the cause of the appearance of evil. For example, God has created all men in such a manner and has given them such a constitution and such capacities that they are benefited by sugar and honey and harmed and destroyed by poison. This nature and constitution is innate, and God has given it equally to all mankind. But man begins little by little to accustom himself to poison by taking a small quantity each day, and gradually increasing it, until he reaches such a point that he cannot live without a gram of opium every day. The natural capacities are thus completely perverted. Observe how much the natural capacity and constitution can be changed, until by different habits and training they become entirely perverted. One does not criticize vicious people because of their innate capacities and nature, but rather for their acquired capacities and nature.

Our habits and choices have a crucial part to play. Due weight though has also to be given to the power of upbringing and the environment (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 95, pp. 124–25):

It is not, however, permissible to strike a child, or vilify him, for the child’s character will be totally perverted if he be subjected to blows or verbal abuse.

This theme is taken up most powerfully by the central body of the Bahá’í Faith ((Universal House of Justice: April 2000):

In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate. Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially. Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty. This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere. The social dislocation of children in our time is a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition–it cuts across them all. It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are employed as soldiers, exploited as labourers, sold into virtual slavery, forced into prostitution, made the objects of pornography, abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention. Many such horrors are inflicted by the parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

This position allows for the fact that we need to take responsibility for our own development while at the same time acknowledging that we may be too damaged by the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous’ upbringing to do so to any great extent without a huge amount of help from other people. And most of us are the other people who need to exert ourselves to protect all children and nurture every damaged adult who crosses our path to the very best of our ability. Maybe Dabrowski is also saying this, but I haven’t read it yet. Even so his thought-provoking message is well worth studying.

In the end though, as the quote at the beginning of this post suggests, any consideration of suffering that fails to include a reality beyond the material leaves us appalled at what would seem the pointless horror of the pain humanity endures not only from nature but also from its own hands. I may have to come back to this topic yet again. (I did in fact return to a deeper consideration of Dabrowski’s model in a sequence of posts focused on Jenny Wade’s theory of human consciousness: see embedded links.)

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In the Hindu religion, indeed, there are three planes of consciousness – the subconscious (instinctive and affective thought): the conscious (ideological and reflexive thought) and the superconscious (intuitive thought and the higher truth).

(Jean Hardy – A Psychology with a Soul – page 66)

Jean HardyWhen I began writing this sequence of posts I thought I knew what it was I wanted to say. As I got half-way through it hit me that I was writing it in a way that missed the most important point of all for me. So, this is now a complete re-write. What was meant as a simple tribute to the value to me of one school of psychotherapy has become something much more complicated. Why shouldn’t that surprise me!

In the Beginning!

To do this properly now I have to go back to the beginning of my psycho-spiritual journey.

After my father died of cancer in 1967, for seven years I anaesthetised myself. As far as I remember I never cried. I can’t check that out because I wrote no journal then.

I gave up smoking immediately, because I didn’t want to die that early, but carried on drinking because I didn’t want to feel. This carried on until 1974.

That was when I had my weekend encounter group experience in London in the early 70s. It was then I first discovered the existence of an intense pain within me, previously undetectable beneath an invisible threshold I didn’t even suspect existed.

This is what happened as I recall it.

I climbed the steep and uncarpeted stairs to the therapy room on that first Friday evening with a degree of trepidation, my footsteps echoing off the bare walls and uncarpeted steps. I walked through the door into a converted bedroom with a spongy covering over the entire floor. Spread around the room were countless pillows. There were about fifteen of us who would spend the entire weekend till Sunday afternoon breathing hard and/or pounding pillows with very little sleep until a small minority of us plunged through the floor to the basement of our minds to confront whatever demons had been locked away there. The process was blended from at least two approaches popular at the time: Primal Therapy and Reichian Therapy.

Those with anger as the dominant emotion were the ones to pound the pillows most, often shouting out their rage to the person they’d been paired with for the purpose. Others, like me, who tried pounding the pillows hunting for anger but failed to connect, and who were completely unable to put any kind of label on the emotional quarry we were pursuing, spent a lot of time lying on our backs focusing on our breathing. Friday night was a disappointment. The rabbits of our primal pain were still deep in their burrows, silent and invisible.

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

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

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

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

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

This put my foot on the first rung of a long ladder out of my deep hole. Till then, to use the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy analogy, I had been using the spade of alcohol to dig myself deeper.

I was still largely blind to my predicament. I had no idea what this well of tears signified. Connecting with it rather than concreting it over was hugely important, though. It showed me previously unsuspected depths to my own mind, even if what they meant remained a mystery. And what I could do about it was still unclear.

My move from teaching into mental health marked the next rung on the ladder, but not for any obvious reason that I could have guessed at in advance.

When I began working in the field of mental health, the main problem for me was not the clients but the staff. The tensions ran very high, so high in fact that at the end of about eighteen months or so, of three people who had been newly taken on at the same time, one of us had had a heart attack and the other two were heading for the exit as fast as possible. One of those two, after leaving, could not pass by the place he had worked without his heart racing at the memory of working there.

Things were so intense initially that I needed two glasses of wine to calm me down when I got back home after a bad day.

I began reading self-help books to assist me in managing the stress. I can still remember one key insight, though I’ve no idea now where I read it. The book raised the question of how we should deal with intense reactions to other people’s behaviour. It asked, ‘Why do we give other people so much power over our own minds?’ This was an early encounter with Frankl’s insight that, while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it.

Sad as it seems, that was a revelation to me. I’d thought that reactions were the almost inevitable consequences of a stimulus.

I needed more than that book though to help.

TATransactional Analysis

Transactional Analysis (TA), the creation of Eric Berne, proved to be one of the keys for me to managing this testing situation. I was determined that this bad experience would not drive me out of the career I had set my heart on pursuing.

I attended a TA group for 18 months or so.

It helped me see that interactions between people often took the form of a ‘game.’ In this brief overview I will only explain enough to convey the flavour of this model in simple form: for a deeper understanding a good place to start would be Stan Woolams and Michael Brown’s TA: the total handbook of transactional analysis.

Games are sequences of interactions with a pay off. One person would be unconsciously trying to hook another person into a kind of social dance to their advantage. This is done by acting in a way that consciously and superficially communicates a harmless message, but which also carries a second message beneath its surface with a potentially destructive effect. For example, ‘Can I help you?’ could be an honest offer of assistance. However, if the speaker holds the unconscious opinion that the person he is speaking to is a worthless loser, this is the potential start of a game.

Game quote

To do this they would be acting in a way shaped by unconscious negative patterns of acquired behaviour called scripts, which drive them to try and trigger similar states in others.

Scripts are unconscious patterns of action and reaction, either emotional or cognitive, that lead us to feel or think things and which end up with us starting and/or joining in a destructive dance. The aim of the game is for one of the participants to get a pay-off. This confirms that we are bad or useless, or at least that they are better than us, and wins the game. TA defines these kinds of end results as states of being I’m OK: You’re not OK or even, if the instigators are quite damaged themselves I’m not OK: You’re not OK, or even, if their damage is worse still, I’m not OK: You’re OK. The only acceptable position is I’m OK: You’re OK.

Script Quote

Contaminated ego statesMost of us, when we start off, are not in a good place to keep clear of these games. The Adult part of us, as TA describes it, is contaminated by negative messages we have acquired usually in childhood or perhaps from later traumatic undermining experiences. That’s what the diagram on the left is meant to illustrate. We can’t think clearly or constructively because we have a critical parent shouting at us in our heads and a negative adapted child (ie one who has bought into all this criticism and thinks its true) weeping and wailing inside us, drowning out any calm and sensible thoughts and constructive feelings we might have.

From TA’s point of view the first thing we have to do is become aware of this and begin to realise that all this noise is not reality, so that we can begin to quieten it down and tune into our Adult mind so that we can respond to hooks designed to catch us like fish by ignoring them, and choosing to respond in an entirely different way that cuts across the game and leaves us feeling OK, no matter how the other person ends up. We’re not out to destroy them, merely trying not to join them in their folly and damage ourselves.

This is of course easier said than done, and without the TA group I probably wouldn’t have learned to manage the situation as well as I did. Also, it has its limitations, for example about how we learn to enact our highest values in situations that drag us down.

I’ll take a quick look at a working example next time to illustrate the psychobabble before we move higher up the ladder.

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Observer Objects Eye v2

 

When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing today, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This first sequence is about my struggles with practising mindfulness: this is first part of the sixth post.

The much earlier post on interconnectedness included a declaration of intent – I was going to seek a deeper understanding of the concept both by reading and by the practice of mindfulness, amongst other things.

So, once more I face the question: how have things been going in this latest phase of mindfulness practice derived from  Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s  book  on  Mindfulness?

Last time I shared how hard I was finding the Exploring Difficulties exercise. ‘Why were you so surprised?’ I hear you ask. I’m just hopelessly optimistic, I suppose.

The core problem, as I explained, was that I was finding it tough to park a problem on the work bench of my mind and then focus on the effects it was triggering in my body. I recalled that I am kinaesthetic rather than visual or auditory in my processing and remembered my last successful attempt at using breathing to connect with memories that seemed to be stored kinaesthetically.

Thought Train

I was considering looking again at the ACT version of this exercise where they use the analogy of standing on a bridge and watching the cars of thought pass beneath. This led me to go back and explore the whole ACT model again more carefully for the first time since I retired and recorded my enthusiasm for it on this blog.

As I did so it occurred to me that my problem with Exploring Difficulties may not be so much in me as in the fact that the method was not appropriate for my issues. The penny dropped that it shared its key characteristics with models of therapy used for treating PTSD, for example Eye Movement Desensitisation (EMDR):

Phase III Assessment

During phase III, the therapist will ask the client to visualize an image that represents the disturbing event. Along with it, the client will describe a thought or negative cognition (NC) associated with the image. The client will be asked to develop a positive cognition (PC) to be associated with the same image that is desired in place of the negative one. The client is asked how strongly he or she believes in the negative and positive cognitions to be true. The client is also asked to identify where in the body he or she is sensing discomfort.

Phase IV Desensitization

At this time, when the client is focused on the negative cognition as well as the disturbing image together, the therapist begins the bilateral gestures and requests the client to follow the gestures with their eyes. This process continues until the client no longer feels as strongly about the negative cognition in conjunction with the image.

The elements in common are the summoning up to consciousness of the troubling experience combined with a distractor activity that helps induce greater calm in the presence of the stress stimulus. This allegedly works well for those with readily accessible and strongly negative emotions connected with a clear experience. It may be, I reassured myself, that I had already done enough effective work on the troubling situations I was using to have defused them reasonably successfully.

Swaddled in this comforting assumption, I felt released to re-explore ACT quite freely.

There was much there to intrigue me but I homed in on one particular exercise in which we are asked to experience ourselves as the observer of our thoughts rather than, as in the Disidentification exercise I’ve mentioned before, simply learning to tell ourselves that we are not our thoughts, feelings etc.

I found it moving to read about the idea of experiencing my ‘observing self’ and, to my surprise, tears were in my eyes as I started to practice it at the dimpled-glass garden table in the afternoon sunshine, simply staring at the parasol pole and becoming clearly aware that I am not what I observe in the external world. Not too difficult that, of course.

Observer Objects Eye v3

I then moved from object to object on the table – my notebook, pen,  stylus, highlighter pen, iPad – to reinforce the same sense of separation before closing my eyes and trying to achieve the same awareness in relation to my sensations. This was relatively easy – the sense data from my body seemed to parallel the stimuli from my eyes.

My thoughts and feelings, however, were a very different matter. This was far more difficult and a sense of separation was only imperfectly achieved for fleeting moments.

It left me with a sense that there are objects and sensations that are very easily experienced as out there somehow. Then there seems to be a window or lens, of thought and feeling fused, through which I experience everything else and from which it is very hard to separate any kind of observing self.

The closest I can get is to imagine I am a mirror in which all this is reflected. It is still hard even then for me as mirror not to be entangled with what is reflected in that mirror. I have written intellectually about the mirror analogy many times, and am crystal clear it describes one aspect of the nature of consciousness very well. I have used it in conversation and in writing so often I thought I thoroughly understood it.

However, when the ACT book challenged me to experience the separation between mirror and the reflections in the mirror, I couldn’t or at least not for long and not strongly. I’m sure there are many of you out there wondering why I am making such a meal of what seems a doddle to you. All I can say is that I am telling it as best as I can as I am experiencing it, and nobody could be more surprised than I am that this simple idea is so difficult to put into practice.

I sense that until I can more consistently and more clearly experience the split between the mirror of my consciousness and what is reflected in it, I am not going to make much progress with mindfulness, so I’m going to work on that.

I will complete the issues raised at this point with a second post tomorrow which will fully explain the raindrops idea.

bubbles

For source of image see link

 

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The Liberator v2

Image adapted from Marcel Paquet ‘Magritte’ (Taschen)

When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing today, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This first sequence is about my struggles with practising mindfulness: this is the fifth post.

The much earlier post on interconnectedness included a declaration of intent – I was going to seek a deeper understanding of the concept both by reading and by the practice of mindfulness, amongst other things.

Initial Impressions

So, how have things been going in this latest phase of mindfulness practice based on Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book on Mindfulness?

Well, I’ve reached the practice which I thought would be the most fruitful and intriguing. It involves what they call Exploring Difficulty. The technique they suggest is to call to mind a problem or source of stress or upset. Once you have got the issue clearly in mind, you then shift the focus of your attention to the body and look for physical sensations that link to the experience you have called up to consciousness. They describe it as parking a problem on the work bench of the mind and focusing upon its effects on the body.

Pretty easy to do, I thought. Not so as it turned out. I’d bring to mind a problem situation and then scan my body for what the guidance said might be subtle traces of reaction.

Zilch.

Half the week was wasted as I tried to visualise various different testing situations as their spiel suggests. I had started with low key problems in case I got flooded and couldn’t cope. As time went on and the days past, I went for really heavy stuff. Still no trace of physical reaction. I was almost beginning to think I was either seriously dissociated or mildly psychopathic.

Then, I remembered. I don’t do visualisation. When I try to summon up a picture of anything that has ever happened to me, I get a virtual blank. There may be the faintest of possible traces of some visual aspect of the experience, but as a means of revisiting such situations it’s virtually useless. This relates, I’m sure, to the lack of visual awareness of my surroundings, described in an early mindfulness bulletin, that is my default state. I have to make great and conscious effort to notice the details of anything. I look carefully enough to slap a label on it then move my attention onto something else.

I switched to using my verbal memory which is usually a much more effective system, certainly as far as remembering what I’ve read is concerned. I summoned up memories of what was said, something I find far easier to do, though it was not as vivid as I thought it would be. This is perhaps because I don’t usually recall the exact words – rather I remember what I thought people had said – not quite the same thing and it doesn’t seem to work well for these purposes.

Certainly, this approach did engender very faint physical responses, but nothing proportionate to the distress I had originally felt and the traces evaporated rapidly as soon as I turned my attention to them.

Rebirthing Experience

I found myself reflecting afterwards and remembering my use of the continuous conscious breathing approach which achieved a major break through for me into a very early experience. I have blogged in more detail about this already for those who are interested.

Rebirthing was the name of the therapy which provided the experience that gave me this major break-through in self-understanding. 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.

robert_sessionI had found a therapist in Much Wenlock. I went for eight sessions and it was the last one that brought about the dramatic shift in consciousness.

The breathing had gone well as usual but this time, after less than half and hour, I began to tremble, then shiver, then shake uncontrollably. This was not a result of hyperventilation: I’d got past that trap long ago. She quietly reminded me that I simply needed to watch the experience and let go. Watching was no problem. Letting go was quite another matter. I couldn’t do it. I knew that it must be fear by now, but the fear remained nameless, purely physical. And this was the case for more than two hours of breathing. Eventually, we agreed that, in terms that made sense for me, Bahá’u’lláh was with me at this moment and no harm could befall me. There could be no damage to my soul and almost certainly no damage to my body. And at that moment I let go. Several things happened then that would be barely credible if I had not experienced it myself.

First, the quaking literally dissolved in an instant – the instant I let go – into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. My experience of the energy had been completely transformed.

Secondly, I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time.

This was not new material. I had always known that something like it happened. I had vague memories of the ward I was on and the gurney that took me to the operating theatre. 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.

This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts. And yet I had no difficulty retaining it and explaining it to the therapist. And I remember it still without having taken any notes at all at the time that I can now find. The journal entry recording the event is a single line – no more.

And what were the thoughts?

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

This was more like a preverbal injunction to myself for which my adult mind found words instantly. For the child I was at the time, it had been a white-hot blend of intolerable pain and unshakable determination. It shaped a creed that had been branded on my heart at that traumatic moment, and its continuing but invisible hold on me till the explosion of insight was why it had taken me so long to let go.

Kinaesthetic Consciousness

So, clearly under the right conditions I can find traces in my body of earlier painful experiences. It seems, though, as if trying to recreate them in my imagination by either word or pictures in order to gain that access doesn’t work very well. Rather than simply following the breath as a means of unhooking from my thought patterns, it seems that manipulating the breath unlocked the doors of memory in my body’s store.

I’ve known for a long time that my strongest modality is kinaesthetic. That’s why I usually do not enjoy museums much. I can’t handle anything. Only when I can touch an object will I begin to experience it fully and remember it well. And when I make use of an object I will remember it even better.

This creates problems for the purposes of this mindfulness exercise. I have never learnt how to tune into my body’s memories of past events from my head directly. Society has always prompted me to try and use pictures or words. And because I’m just about good enough at extrapolating from that in my subsequent descriptions, I have managed to disguise the flimsiness of the foundations, not just from others but from myself as well. My only way of tapping into my body’s memory store has so far been this breathing technique with ancient roots: a convenient label is breathwork.

The Thought Train

Thought Train

I was almost at the end of this period of practice and needed to decide how best to proceed. I was tempted to try the ACT version of this exercise using the analogy of standing on a bridge and watching the cars of thought pass beneath me, dividing them into three categories for subsequent recording.

It was after this point, when I decided to have a closer look at the whole ACT model, that things became even more complicated but very fascinating to me at least. It suggested that there might be at least one other reason for my failure to benefit from this exercise in the form I tried it.

I think I’d better come back to that in a later post as it opened up to conscious inspection by my Writing Mind previously untapped dimensions of experience.

Oh, and it’s probably worth mentioning, in case all of this seems far too fraught, that my moments of pure pleasure in the natural world are increasingly all the time. I may not be able quite yet to see my thoughts as simply clouds crossing the sky of my mind, but I can certainly appreciate the beauty of real clouds far more.

Sky

 

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Corvusation

Integrity

At the end of the previous post I reflected on the following quotation:

CXXXIX: . . . Beware . . . lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds. Strive that ye may be enabled to manifest to the peoples of the earth the signs of God, and to mirror forth His commandments. Let your acts be a guide unto all mankind, for the professions of most men, be they high or low, differ from their conduct. It is through your deeds that ye can distinguish yourselves from others.[1]

ACT ManualIt is important that we remain true to our deepest self. While we can correct the way that we use words, and if that is done for the right motive it will change us for the better, it is just as, if not more important to align our inner being with spiritual lines of force.

It is easy to see how certain words in that quotation lend force to what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) prescribes. ‘Strive’ embodies the idea of commitment. ‘Commandments’ suggest the idea of values, so important in ACT. And the emphasis on ‘acts’ makes the connections obvious.

In this way we may not be subject to Bahá’u’lláh’s stricture concerning those whose words outnumber their deeds, that is if, and only if, our words, our deeds and our inner being – note that word ‘mirror’ again – are all of a piece and in tune with the spirit of the Faith.

This creates inner and outer unity such as Bahá’u’lláh described in the Hidden Words:

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.[2]

And in His Tablets He laments the lack of this unity:

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union.[3]

And, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá further explains, there is only one truly effective way out of this impasse:

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.[4]

My very battered copy of this classic.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Eric Fromm, a psychoanalyst, explains how this makes sense even in more materialistic terms[5]:

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.’

When we dismantle the barriers within us, often mediated by language, we can also become better able to dismantle those between us.

Of course we must refrain from lying, criticism and backbiting. Of course we must strive to practise true consultation. But we must not observe these verbal obligations divorced from basic processes of spiritualisation such as those the Universal House of Justice draws our attention to as Bahá’ís (though these are written for Bahá’ís you could apply them to any benign spiritual path):

  1. The recital each day of one of the Obligatory Prayers with pure-hearted devotion.
  2. The regular reading of the Sacred Scriptures, specifically at least each morning and evening, with reverence, attention and thought.
  3. Prayerful meditation on the Teachings, so that we may understand them more deeply, fulfil them more faithfully, and convey them more accurately to others.
  4. Striving every day to bring our behaviour more into accordance with the high standards that are set forth in the Teachings.
  5. Teaching the Cause of God.
  6. Selfless service in the work of the Cause and in the carrying on of our trade or profession.[6]

to which have now been added the sacred right and responsibility of Huqúqu’lláh, enabling us to enhance our use of material resources, and the daily recitation of Alláh-u-Abhá 95 times[7], a form of meditative discipline. It is important to note that it is not just what we do but how we do it that is of paramount importance: when we pray, it should ideally be with ‘pure-hearted devotion,’ when we reading Scripture it needs to be with ‘reverence, attention and thought,’ and meditation on the Teachings has to be ‘prayerful.’ Not an easy ask.

If we are sincerely treading this path to the best of our ability, then perhaps our words can exercise the influence described by Bahá’u’lláh when he writes:

No man of wisdom can demonstrate his knowledge save by means of words. This showeth the significance of the Word as is affirmed in all the Scriptures, whether of former times or more recently. For it is through its potency and animating spirit that the people of the world have attained so eminent a position. Moreover words and utterances should be both impressive and penetrating. However, no word will be infused with these two qualities unless it be uttered wholly for the sake of God and with due regard unto the exigencies of the occasion and the people.

The Great Being saith: Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets.[8]

This spells out that the power of such words derives from the Word of God and that its efficacy depends upon the purity of our inner lives. We also have to be sensitive to what psychologists have called the pragmatics of communication, i.e. the need to tune what we say to the receptivity of the listener.

Within that framework we also need to be aware that not all words are equally benign:

Every word is endowed with a spirit, therefore the speaker or expounder should carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place, for the impression which each word maketh is clearly evident and perceptible. The Great Being saith: One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility. . . . . It behoveth a prudent man of wisdom to speak with utmost leniency and forbearance so that the sweetness of his words may induce everyone to attain that which befitteth man’s station.[9]

It is therefore impossible, according to my understanding, to separate words from enacted values. If we do, words then become barriers to insight and wisdom.

Hauser bookThe Bigger Picture

Obviously the ground this sequence of posts covers constitutes a minute fraction of the terrain mapped out in the Bahá’í Writings. All of this has to be placed in that wider context.

For instance, certain kinds of language are particularly toxic. One example of this are the denigrating labels one group of people can use against another. Referring to others as ‘rats,’ ‘cockroaches’ or ‘a swarm’ are typical examples of this abuse. This denigrating terminology usually triggers the deep-seated disgust response in the group who uses it and places the people of whom the words are used in a non-human category: once this manoeuvre is performed the usual restraints of conscience that prevent one human being from degrading, raping, torturing or even murdering another human being are suspended and the newly classified non-human being can be maimed and slain with a clear conscience.

This point is succinctly made by Hauser in his book Moral Minds (page 199)[10]:

Disgust wins the award as the single most irresponsible emotion, a feeling that has led to extreme in-group/out-group divisions followed by inhumane treatment. Disgust’s trick is simple: Declare those you don’t like to be vermin or parasites, and it is easy to think of them as disgusting, deserving of exclusion, dismissal, and annihilation. All horrific cases of human abuse entail this kind of transformation . . . .

However, there are other setting conditions for this kind of behaviour which relate to other Teachings of the Faith in a way that illustrates the beautiful coherence and interdependence of the various aspects of the whole of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation. Take economic inequality. The Faith emphasises the importance of reducing such inequity. This would of course be important simply to alleviate the effects of the resulting extreme poverty on the disadvantaged such as greater health problems and a shorter life. However, inequality also has implications for the issue of denigrating language and persecution.

Chua bookChua pursues a complex argument which links a minority’s economic dominance with a savage backlash from the deprived majority[11]. Of course Chua is not claiming that extremes of wealth justify the extermination of the wealthy by the impoverished, nor is she arguing that such extremes are the only motive for genocide. She is, though, saying that extreme inequality is an important but previously discounted factor that has to be added into the mix. The inequality is what needs to be eliminated not the people!

So, indeed we do need vigorously to pursue our spiritual development, both as individuals and communities: this is done by turning away from words as veils and using values as our compass. This redeems words and makes them a force for good.

But that in itself is probably not enough. It important also not to lose sight of the wider picture.

We need to hold in mind a vision of the completely different kind of civilisation towards which we are all aspiring, one based on humanity’s essential unity, the supreme value that co-ordinates all our other values. We need to see how all its aspects, individual, community, institutional, systemic, local and global, are linked together. The state of the world as a whole will either inhibit or enhance the impact of our efforts just as much as our efforts will either help or harm the world. Our efforts are aimed at the ultimate transformation of the world, though as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:

. . . peace must first be established among individuals until it leadeth to peace among nations.[12]

It is imperative though that we continue to strive to bring both our speech, our actions and our inner beings into line with the spirit of the age as expressed by Bahá’u’lláh so that we may avoid contention and achieve the level of unity required for the problems of the world to be resolved [although His words may sometimes seem to be addressed mainly to Bahá’ís they are to be taken to heart by everyone]: in this way we will complete the process of shifting words from truth-concealing veils to world-transforming values.

The worldwide undertakings on which the Cause of God is embarked are far too significant, the need of the peoples of the world for the Message of Bahá’u’lláh far too urgent, the perils facing mankind far too grave, the progress of events far too swift, to permit His followers to squander their time and efforts in fruitless contention. Now, if ever, is the time for love among the friends, for unity of understanding and endeavour, for self-sacrifice and service by Bahá’ís in every part of the world[13]

[Oh, and by the way, in relation to the problem I described right at the beginning of this sequence, the question to ask one of the guards is: ‘If I asked the other guard which door leads to freedom, what door would he point to?’]

Footnotes:

[1] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh.
[2] (Bahá’u’lláhArabic Hidden Words No. 68)
[3] Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, pages 163–64.
[4] Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76.
[5] Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – page 260.
[6] Messages from the Universal House of Justice: 1963-1968 (BPT: US): page 588.
[7] The former became obligatory as of Ridván 1992 (Universal House of Justice Ridván Message 1991) and the latter in December 1999 (Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the World: 28 December 1999).
[8] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh page 173.
[9] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh pages 172-173
[10] Published by Little, Brown 2006. These issues, and other related ones are also extensively and illuminatingly discussed by Phillip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect (Rider: 2007 – pages 308-311).
[11] Amy Chua World on Fire (Heinemann: 2003) pages 111-112.
[12] SWAB: page 246.
[13] Universal House of Justice 1994 – letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the USA concerning Rights and Freedoms, Paragraph 19. This is downloadable from http://bahai-library.com/published.uhj/irf.html.

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