Posts Tagged ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

Vincent to Theo – March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh page 272)

Before Christmas I republished my sequence on Reality, Art and the Artist. This sequence is my somewhat unexpected attempt to dig deeply into this topic from a different angle.  It seemed useful to post this again in the New Year.


Last Monday was not my best meditation day.

I was doing quite well till my mind got hooked by my shirt. I found myself suddenly remembering how I thought twice before letting its red corduroy comfort go to the charity shop as part of our current declutter. Red shirt led to blue shirt, which led to blue jacket, blue trousers and Crewe Station. I was there again. Just as I was boarding the train, one foot on the platform and one foot in the air above the step, carrying luggage that should have made it clear I was a passenger, someone tapped me on the shoulder thinking I was a guard and asked me what platform the Liverpool train was leaving from. I turned to look at them and put my foot down between the platform and the train, scraping the skin neatly off my shin as I did so. Fortunately I dropped my bags on the platform and not on the line. I used a tissue to staunch the blood between Crewe and Hereford. Rather than go straight home, I called in on a friend who got out the TCP and Elastoplast. I still remember the sting to this day. I remembered that this was the friend I’d called on once before 20 years earlier, when – and this came vividly back to me despite the span of time – driving home tired down the Callow at the end of a long week, I was overtaking (legally at the time) in the middle lane (they’ve blocked that option since for downhill traffic), when I saw a car coming up the hill doing the same thing. The long lorry I was halfway past was picking up speed. All I could do was brake. As I tried to pull in slightly too soon, I caught the Lada on the back end of the truck. Fortunately the Lada was made of sterner stuff than most cars at the time and didn’t completely cave in or get derailed, but it was pulled out of shape and the near side front tyre was blown. I pulled into the side of the road and, with the help of the lorry driver who had stopped to check I was OK, changed the tyre. The car was slightly wobbly as I drove off and I knew it was not a good idea to drive it all the way home. I was amazed to pass a parked police car on the way with no interest shown on their part. So, I drove to my friend’s and parked the car on his front lawn, the only safe space off the road. He had a bit of a shock when he got home from work. At this point I snapped out of my trance of associations and brought my mind back to the focus of my meditations, shaking of my irritation with myself and my slight reactivation of the Lada-on-the-lawn stress as best I could.

Incidentally, I don’t wear blue anymore when I’m travelling.


For this and other reasons I am revisiting an all-too familiar theme: reflection. To bring on board those who might not have read all my earlier posts on this issue I’ll pull in now a brief quotation from some time ago. It comes from a book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Hayes et al. It is attempting to explain that transient states of mind and mere self-descriptions are all too often mistaken for our true 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.

Peter Koestenbaum makes essentially the same point more abstractly in his excellent book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

Personally, while I find the ACT analogy helpful, I prefer the idea of a mirror and its reflections, partly I suppose because it uses the same word in a different but helpful sense. 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. Mindfulness at its best can enable us to identify with pure awareness rather than with whatever transient trigger has grabbed our attention.

I have been working fairly hard (not hard enough probably, as the derailed meditation at the start of this post suggests) to put the insights explored in that sequence of posts into action.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 (for source of image see link)

Capturing Consciousness

It has led into me into some interesting territory.

While I was exploring the concept of transliminality even further back in time I came across A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf edited by her husband Leonard after her death by suicide. I was drawn to examine what she wrote in case it shed light on my attempt to link creativity, thresholds of consciousness and so-called psychotic experiences together.

Long before I could integrate what I found there into my model, my focus of interest had typically moved on: my mind is still more of a butterfly than a bee, despite my best efforts so far.

However, the Woolf issue was still stalking the door of my consciousness, whether I was aware of it or not.

As part of my decluttering, I am in the process, as I have mentioned elsewhere, of checking whether I still need all the books I have bought over the years. I take a book off its shelf at random from time to time, open it and see if I have read it or not. Sometimes there are highlighter pen marks within and I put it back, at least for the time being. Sometimes there aren’t and occasionally it’s not even got my name signed on the flyleaf. In which case I dip into it and read a few random pages. I reported on having done that recently with a biography of Hardy. I repeated the same process with Julia Briggs’ account of the creative life of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf: an inner life.

Same outcome: no way that was going to the Oxfam bookshop.

Why not?

Basically her book was a brilliant tour of the writer’s mind. Within that there were a host of insights into aspects of the creative process related to mental health and reflection, or perhaps more accurately in Woolf’s case, creative introspection. Whatever the right term is, part of her genius lies in her capacity to capture in words the subtleties and complexity of consciousness, including the rambling associative networks that can hijack attention at any moment.

Before we tackle that head on, in the next post I’m going to make a detour via some paintings.

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So how exactly did Levine, in his book In an Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness, help me solve a mystery of such longstanding – the meaning of my pool of pain?

Nancy’s story, remarkable as it was, would not have been enough to help me solve my decades’ long mystery feelings of loss, exile and intense grief.

The first flag to attract my attention to something else, though its relevance did not fully become apparent as yet, was when Levine examines the medical treatment model:[1] ‘The “healthy” (“protected”) doctor treats the “ill” patient. This approach disempowers and marginalises the sufferer, adding to his or her sense of alienation and despair.’ I didn’t fully clock all the implications for me of that word, despair. It did suggest though that fear and anger, the main residues that I was aware of from my hospitalisations, were not the only possible emotions to be derived from this form of trauma.

While his later references[2] to ‘tingling vibrations’ and ‘waves of involuntary shaking and trembling’ clearly resonated they still did not close the explanatory gap that needed filling.

Even when he begins to discuss emotions[3] and refers to the spectrum including ‘fear, anger, sadness, joy and disgust,’ nothing clicked still, even though sadness was mentioned, because I interpreted that list as applying to our full range of emotions rather to the specific ones activated by trauma.

It was a footnote on page 173 that lowered the drawbridge across the moat separating me from a fuller understanding: ‘The sense of a foreshortened life, of wordless despair, is a central characteristic of severe trauma.’ The words wordless despair were the keys to unlocking this forbidding gate.

It’s not that I resonate to the idea of a ‘foreshortened  life,’ – far from it – but the feeling that I experienced when I came in contact with what I named my ‘pool of pain’ was so close to what those two words – wordless despair – describe. I suddenly realised that both experiences triggered by focused breathing while lying down referred back to exactly the same events in my early life. A Eureka moment again!

Unpacking some implications

What is also interesting is that on 22 September 1976, just two years after my Encounter Group revelation, as a member of a Transactional Analysis group, I felt strongly impelled, for some reason that I can’t remember, to work on my memories of my hospitalisations, but by a completely different method – psychodrama rather than focused breathing.

Initially the therapist tried to use hypnosis to put me in touch with my hospital experience. It didn’t work: my diary explanation is that I resisted it because ‘it was too close to chloroform.’ Only by using a fantasy of being safe on a raft on a sunlit sea was I able to step back into the nightmare:

Mum not there – then she was persuading me to stay – her going – my pained disbelief – the men’s ward – me watching the door ashamed of my tears among all these big people – the trolley coming – me wheeled away down shiny corridors – the sinister white coats and masks grouped round me – the pulling backwards – the holding down (two other members of the group enacted this) – the mask over my face (the therapist’s hand) – my surrender to my body’s anguished reaction – such deep sobs I could scarcely breath. The therapist holding me like a mother after the feeling had broken. Just what I needed. Such clarity in my eyes after.

(Incidentally, my aunt said to me later that she had been told that it took five people to hold me down the second time before they could chloroform me: I would’ve been about seven years old at the most at the time, and have no memory as specific as that myself.) Incredible as it may seem, even after this, the penny didn’t drop that the tears from the Encounter group were from the same source as these tears, and belonged with the anger and the fear: they were all to do with the same situation, but I still couldn’t make the link. Just as bizarre in a way is that I had no memory of having experienced this. If I hadn’t noted it in some detail in my diary I’d have been none the wiser now. The converse was true with my Wenlock Rebirthing experience: I wrote no details in my diary yet remember it vividly still. There’s probably an explanation for that but I don’t think it’s worth digging for right now.

More remarkably, and something I had completely forgotten until researching this situation to do a blog post decades later, was that I had written in my diary, on 17 September, just before the first tears I had ever cried for my father, and perhaps preparing myself for the TA group work I was going to request, ‘At the time when I fought the men who were trying to chloroform me, I needed my mother, but she hadn’t been there for me. That’s when I learnt it’s no use struggling, that when the chips are down you get left, that you’ve only yourself to rely on.’ Those words again.

There were other signs I didn’t understand.

One of the main ones was my fear of rage. As a child at junior school I was afraid of my own anger. I ran away from two fights I was winning, one against the railings at primary school and another, somewhat later, in the road just down from where I lived. I remember vividly feeling that if the fight continued I might do my opponent some serious harm. Levine points out how closely connected rage is to trauma,[4] and how much we fear this ‘rage and the associated hyper-intense sensations.’ He explains that ‘the fear of rage is also the fear of violence.’ It had never occurred to me, before reading Levine, to connect my fear of rage to the anger created by my being anaesthetised as a child alone in hospital. The question has come to my mind, since starting this sequence, as to whether I have dealt with the anger as persistently as I have dealt with the pain and fear. I may need to reflect on that more.

Further experiences in the encounter movement, which encouraged the acting out of anger, did nothing but convince me that repressing it was best. I developed an avoidance of confrontation because I was afraid it would trigger my anger and cause me to harm someone, not because I was afraid of other people’s reactions and any harm they might do to me.

However, as a blanket strategy, an absolute disowning of one’s anger is not good. We need to have access to our anger to help us protect ourselves, and others, from injustice and abuse. It was only later though that I came across containment as the alternative to acting out or swallowing my anger.

This is something Levine values as well:[5]

It is the ability to hold back, restrain and contain a powerful emotion that allows a person to creatively channel that energy.

How exactly might the hospitalisations link with a feeling of wordless despair in my case? Was it that once my connection with mum and dad was broken by my hospital admissions it never healed, so the loss became permanent? I say ‘admissions’ because I suspect, but cannot prove, that it was the second admission that was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Does my well of tears spring from that? Is all this why trust is so crucial for me before love or even any kind of close relationship is possible? Once trust is broken I can maintain a pleasant relationship but without trust, there is neither love nor closeness, only a guarded kindness at best.

Did my implicit trust in books begin after my second hospitalisation, after the first, or slightly precede them both? I loved them more than people at that time, I think. They never betrayed me. The splintered trust after my hospitalisations was like losing my home — all feeling of complete safety and deep connection was gone. I was in a kind of exile. Is this what inspired the poem at the foot of this post, one that I thought was purely satirical when I wrote it, and was the ‘suicide’ in the poem in fact a metaphor which acknowledged the unconscious shutting down of a huge part of my emotional self, placing it in a kind of deep freeze that I tried to capture in The Freezer?

I am phrasing so much of this as questions because my inner sceptic won’t let me reach closure. It still suspects I may be joining the dots into a misleading but plausible picture. Time will tell.

Anyhow, maybe a residual post-traumatic sense of exile explains why my first pilgrimage triggered such deep tears: it felt like coming home (see link). However, it puzzled me why the well of pain still came back some times. Now I think I know the reason why: it wasn’t exile from the source of my soul that caused me such pain. It was something far more mundane than that. It was the abrupt and complete loss of my childhood connection with my family home. I lived there till I left for university in my teens, but didn’t ever feel at home again and never hankered to return there after my departure. It was duty rather than love or longing that took me back.

Another question, which has often been in my mind, is whether all this was the source of one of my scripts, the one about enhancing understanding in order to reduce pain, not just mine but other people’s as well. I have also often wondered whether this is what drew me to clinical psychology as a profession. Less important and possibly less likely, is whether my attraction to murder mysteries was a substitute consolation for my failure to solve my inner mysteries?

I don’t feel any of this undermines the fact that being born into a household steeped in grief affected me deeply. The history of grief almost certainly prepared the soil for the seeds which the hospitalisations planted, but would not in itself have been sufficient to account for the depth and intensity of the felt emotional pain. I think it’s been a red herring in my search for answers.

Even now, I don’t allow myself to get too attached to any place I live: is this also rooted in my hospitalisations? Are my roots in something far more portable – in my interior, the life of the mind? Is this why the inscape features so strongly on this blog?

More questions rather than conclusions again.

My books of course are important in this respect, and they would be fairly portable if I didn’t have so many. Kindle doesn’t quite do the trick. In the modern world relationships fortunately are also more portable than they ever were, as long as you have a mobile phone at least. Still, virtual contact doesn’t completely compensate for the lack of real proximity.

Final Thoughts

Basically, the core point is that what never made sense to me till now was my experience of the Encounter Group and the well of pain.

This may not be entirely my fault.

Levine has strong reservations about some of the methods used to connect people with the powerful emotions related to a traumatic event. They can culminate ‘in a therapeutic dead end.’[6] Included in his list, unfortunately, are the ones I sampled – Janov’s primal therapy, neo-Reichian encounter groups, and rebirthing. He is more positive about experiential therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which I discovered much later and only read about and tested on my own, rather than signing up for the real process.

Anyway, I owe Levine for the important insights I’ve described, for which I am grateful, even though I recoil from his resolute reductionism, his insistence that we are only an animal and nothing more. On the whole that means less than the insights I have derived from reading this book.

Perhaps it would be fitting to close with brief quotations from towards the end of his book,[7] quotes which resonate with much of what I had learned already on my journey towards the insights I’ve shared in these two posts. That my beliefs and Levine’s are so close in many of these respects and so far apart when it comes to spirituality is another mystery, one which I don’t have the energy to engage with right now.

The ability to effectively contain and process extreme emotional states is one of the linchpins both of effective, truly dynamical trauma therapy and of living a vital, robust life. . . . Rather than feeling our emotions, we become them; we are swallowed up by these emotions. . . . [B]eing informed by our emotions, not domineered by them, is crucial in directing our lives.


[1]. Page 34.
[2]. Page 91.
[3]. Page 150.
[4]. Page 88.
[5]. Page 322.
[6]. Page 312.
[7]. Ibid.

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. . . the purpose of consultation is to show that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Consultation: A Compilation, quoted in the Guardian’s letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of Persia, February 15, 1922, p. 8, Wilmette 1980 ed.)

After the introduction to his book, which I dealt with last time, he moved on to discussing what he calls Habit 1. He covered what to me was fairly familiar ground, not least by using terminology reminiscent of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy:[1] ‘We can subordinate feelings to values’ and later,[2] ‘While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of those actions.’

Principles and Priorities

He captured my interest more deeply when he moved onto Habit 2. He labels it ‘Begin with the end in mind.’ The way he describes it suggests it constitutes a major key to avoiding the trap of the primate brain, locked in the cage of short-term thinking, which I mentioned in the previous post:[3]

By keeping the end clearly in mind, you can make certain that whatever you do on any particular day does not violate the criteria you have defined as supremely important, and that each day of your life contributes in a meaningful way to the vision you have of your life as a whole.’

This entails perfecting my maps[4] so that ‘the paradigms from which my behaviour and attitudes flow are congruent with my deepest values and in harmony with correct principles.’ Covey defines this sense of direction as an awareness of our ‘unique meaning,’ our ‘mission in life.’ This initiates a virtuous circle: by conforming our actions to true principles[5] ‘the more clearly we can focus the lens through which we see the world’ thereby enhancing our grasp of the principles.

This is probably one of the clearest explanations I’ve read of how this process might work.

He summarises his position so far by stating:[6]

As a principle-centred person, you try to stand apart from the emotion of the situation and from other factors that would act on you, and evaluate the options. Looking at the balanced whole… you’ll try to come up with the best solution, taking all factors into consideration.

Writing a mission statement, as he recommends at this point, helps, but is not in itself enough. What is needed is[7] ‘the ongoing process of keeping your vision and values before you and aligning your life to be congruent with those most important things.’ He reminds us, in terms of guiding principles, that[8]‘central to all enduring religions in society are the same principles and practices clothed in different language.’

Not only does that idea resonate with me as a Bahá’í, but so does his description of family life from within his model:[9]

The best mission statements are the result of family members coming together in a spirit of mutual respect, expressing their different views, and working together to create something greater then any one individual could do alone.’

That sounds very much like Bahá’í consultation to me.

Back to Quadrants again now, but we need pause only briefly here as this was touched on at the start of this sequence.

An interesting point he makes here that might be worth mentioning is that,[10] if we are going to be able to ‘say “yes” to important Quadrant II priorities’ we ‘have to learn to say “no” to other activities, sometimes apparently urgent things,’ and this is made much easier[11] ‘by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.’

There are many other useful insights scattered along the way, such as[12] ‘people are more important than things,’ and ‘Trust is the highest form of human motivation. It brings out the very best in people.’ However I very much want to move on to what Covey refers to as Public Victories.

Putting it into practice

Before doing so in detail in the next post in this sequence, I want to bring in some quotes from my diary of Autumn 1992. This was in the immediate aftermath of reading Covey for the first time. I was clearly dead impressed: ‘The book expresses clearly truths and practical ideas that I was groping for and in some cases had got to by a different route and in different words, and it takes them further.’ I even go as far as saying, ‘I am determined to make use of it and not simply admire it.’ There are pages of scribble, which document the way I was making use of his ideas. I summarised this by saying that I was ‘using some of the ideas in Covey’s book to place my life, work and priorities more effectively upon a more principled basis.’

This may seem odd given that I had spent almost a decade at that point striving to bring my life increasingly into line with Bahá’í principles and practice. There is no real contradiction though. Covey analyses brilliantly in my view how to consolidate the implementation of ideals into the daily fabric of one’s life in an enduring way. It captures the pragmatics of self-improvement in terms that resonate with a bookish nerd like me. It would probably have worked in the same way for other kinds of people as well, so don’t let yourselves be put off before I move on to the profoundly interesting parts of his approach.

My first mission statement, devised at this time, was to live more closely in tune with the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. Because it was not pragmatically specific enough, as future experience proved, it did not work too well. I had to revise it significantly, as I’ll discuss later.

The next stage is his detailed examination of the paradigms of interdependence. He describes this desirable state of affairs early in the chapter on this topic:[13]

As we become independent – proactive, centred in correct principles, value driven and able to organise and execute around the priorities in our life with integrity – we can then choose to become interdependent – capable of building rich, enduring, highly productive relationships with other people.

What does Covey feel is the exact nature and importance of interdependence?

He acknowledges that[14] ‘acute pain’ can be caused within our relationships with others. We mistakenly believe we can treat the symptoms of the pain with ‘quick fixes.’ However, that is an illusion, because ‘until we stop treating the symptoms and start treating the problem, our efforts will only bring counter-productive results.’

We have to invest a great deal of effort and energy in building up trust.[15] When trust is low because my behaviour has eroded it, ‘I’m walking on mine fields. I have to be very careful of everything I say. I measure every word. It’s tension city…’

How, though, do we do that?

More of that next time.


[1] Page 71.
[2] Page 90.
[3] Page 98.
[4]. Page 106.
[5]. Page 123.
[6]. Page 127.
[7]. Page 132.
[8]. Page 135.
[9]. Page 138.
[10]. Page 156.
[11]. Page 157.
[12]. Page 170.
[13]. Page 187.
[14]. Page 187.
[15]. Page 188.

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There are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.

(Universal House of Justice: The Promise of World Peace – page 9)

Four years ago I posted a sequence titled ‘From Veils to Values’ which included quotations from Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson’s Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I was focused on the idea of withdrawing our identification with false ideas of our self. To help people step back from such identifications Hayes at al liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board.

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.[1]

They place store by this aspect of the self, the one that remains the same as changing experiences flow past: they call it the observing self and believe, rather implausibly, that it derives from language. They believe that operating from the observing self enables us to unhook ourselves from disabling scripts and discover, choose to live by and enact our deepest values in spite of all the discomfort that inevitably attends upon such a commitment. Our lives become value- rather than language-centred.

In my draft of the post on my laptop I included a footnote which read:

Their thinking in this area is influenced, I think, by someone they don’t acknowledge in their references anywhere as far as I can so far tell. Stephen R. Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster: 1992), has a Chapter on Principle-Centred Living (Habit Two: pages 97-144) interestingly titled ‘Begin with the End in Mind.’

That chapter deals at length with the importance of rooting your life in true values. More of that in a moment.

Time Management

What is of interest to me now is that in a conversation recently I was trying to help someone work out what their priorities should be if they were to disconnect from a chronic sense of anxiety about all the possible things they should be worried about. As I spoke I remembered a two-by-two table in Covey’s book.

I promised I would scan the table from the book and send it them. As I flicked through the pages I noticed a number of highlights, many of them to passages of which I had no memory at all. Not really surprising since it is 27 years since I read the book.

When I found the table I was looking for and read quickly through the surrounding text I realised there was an important, somewhat counterintuitive point about the way to use the table that I had completely overlooked:[2]

Effective people stay out of Quadrants III and IV because, urgent or not, they aren’t important. They also shrink Quadrant I down to size by spending more time in Quadrant II.

Quadrant II is the heart of effective personal management. It deals with things that are not urgent, but are important. It deals with… all those things we know we need to do, but somehow seldom get to doing, because they aren’t urgent.

This enables us to ‘think preventively,’ to be truly proactive, in a way that saves us from time-consuming remedial work at a later date, and more importantly enables us to truly match our efforts to our most important priorities, rather than mainly to priorities that have been imposed on us.

Values and Principles

I sent the table off, and knew at the same time that I must read this book again to find out what else I had failed to pick up on the first time round or forgotten about with the passage of time. In re-reading Donaldson’s book Human Minds, prior to my most recent sequence, I believe I have finally learnt the value of revisiting seminal books rather than constantly chasing the latest apparently promising publication in a chronic state of FOMO.

I can pick up this thread of mislaid insights fairy early on with Covey’s emphasis on our having only maps of reality which are not reality itself; as he puts it[3] ‘these maps are not the territory.’ I’ve held onto that idea with help from various quarters explored already on this blog. A distinction he makes which I had failed to hold in mind relates to the difference he defines between values and principles:[4]

Principles are not values. A gang of thieves can share values, but they are in violation of the fundamental principles we are talking about. Principles are the territory. Values are maps. When we value correct principles, we have truth – a knowledge of things as they are.

While it is possible to use the word ‘values’ in a way that suggests it means the same as ‘principles,’ on re-reading this again I could see the usefulness of making this distinction. We are prone to mistaking our subjective values for objectively valid principles by which to live. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, whose relative importance I have explored elsewhere on this blog, seems almost to collude with this. Hayes et al describe[5] morals ‘as social conventions about what is good’ whereas ‘values are personal choices about desirable ends.’ The therapist is encouraged to see ‘valuing as essentially a personal exercise.’

It would be far healthier, it seems to me, to subject our values to careful scrutiny before awarding them the accolade of truth. This does not mean we will have to fall into the trap of preaching to others about the values they should espouse: rather it means there should be a willingness to join together with others in our collective attempt to ensure that we are using a properly calibrated compass to navigate our way through life.

Covey is clear that connecting with our validated values helps us define the direction we wish our lives to travel along. Our happiness depends upon choosing wisely, in a way that helps us overcome the tendency of our primate brains to value immediate satisfactions over long-term gains. Covey doesn’t buy into the primate trap:[6]

Happiness can be defined, in part at least, as the fruit of the desire and ability to sacrifice what we want now for what we want eventually.

This was not an unfamiliar idea to me even on first reading. As a psychologist, I was well aware of our default position in this respect. Every smoker I knew, including myself in earlier days, was more than happy to forfeit future health and a longer life, for the instant nicotine hit.

What he goes onto to describe as the stages of maturity, an important variable to add into the mix, highlights a key goal to aim for that will enable us to overcome this deficiency:[7]

Dependent people need others to get what they want. Independent people can get what they want through there and effort. Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of the others to achieve their greatest success.

More on interdependence much later. The next post will focus on some of the early beneficial habits he describes.


[1]. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: page 192.
[2]. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – pages 153-54. Unless otherwise indicated all references are to this book.
[3]. Page 33.
[4]. Page 35.
[5]. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – page 230.
[6]. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – page 48.
[7]. Op. cit.: page 49.

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Ye must therefore put forth a mighty effort, striving by night and day and resting not for a moment, to acquire an abundant share of all the sciences and arts, that the Divine Image, which shineth out from the Sun of Truth, may illumine the mirror of the hearts of men.

(Selections from the Writings ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 140)

At the end of the previous post we left Donaldson’s question hanging in the air:[1]

Is there any evidence that people can function in modes which parallel the intellectual modes but in which emotion, rather than thought, has primacy?

Mainly the Value-Sensing Transcendent Mode

At this point she begins to unpack what is meant by what she calls the ‘value-sensing transcendent’ mode, contrasting it with its complementary opposite the ‘intellectual transcendent mode:[2] ‘what is to be regulated by this [mode’s] control will be thinking of a kind that might interfere with emotion rather than emotion of a kind that might interfere with thought.’

She fears that the development of the value-sensing mode at this level might be so alien to us that we will not concern ourselves with it at all ‘because progress in science and technology has led to a dangerous imbalance, so that we have become one-sided.’

She feels that evidence in support of the existence of this mode and its predecessor might be found ‘in responses to art and music, and in certain kinds of experience that we call religious or spiritual.’ She adds:[3] ‘I shall call the modes we are discussing value-sensing modes, with the proviso that the values in question must transcend personal concerns.’ In this case ‘thought and emotion would again be separated, but this time emotion would be the primary function.’ The value-sensing modes would be essentially acognitive.

I did find her apparent fusion of emotion/feeling/sensing somewhat confusing at times.* Anyhow, with the help of my exposure to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy I came to define the value-sensing mode as the state of consciousness in which we are most in tune with our positive value system. ACT argues that operating from the observing self enables us to unhook ourselves from disabling scripts and discover, choose to live by and enact our deepest values in spite of all the discomfort that inevitably attends upon such a commitment. Our lives become value- rather than self- or language-centred. If we do not achieve this level of understanding, in their view, we are condemned to betray our highest values because we have confused ourselves with what we are telling or have been told about ourselves.

Their History

Donaldson begins[4] with the question of whether our modern conviction that only the intellectual mode has validity ‘has always existed.’ She admits to speculating somewhat when she claims[5] ‘the value-sensing construct and transcendent modes are probably at least as old as their intellectual counterparts, which would place their advent in the middle or earlier half of the second millennium BC.’

From the ninth to the twelfth centuries in Europe,[6] ‘[t]he culture overwhelmingly favoured and promoted the value-sensing construct mode’ and ‘[i]t came to be thought positively improper to press inquiry too far,’ thus placing a bar against intellectual exploration to such an extent that[7] ‘[c]uriosity was, then, at risk of becoming impiety and investigation had to be curbed, out of respect’ for the divine nature of nature. She argues that it was ‘not until the twelfth century that things really began to change.’

Even so,[8] ‘[t]he hold of the value-sensing construct mode on European minds would remain strong for centuries more. But the process of challenging its dominance had at last begun.’

Clearly there had been a long-standing ‘imbalance in the direction opposite to that which obtains today.’ The emotional core modes were valued more than the ‘relatively neglected’ intellectual ones.

It was not until the 17th century that[9] ‘the establishment of modern science . . .  was fully and decisively achieved.’ The belief began to prevail[10] that, far from prohibiting investigation ‘God was now supposed to want us to try to understand.’ As that process unfolded[11] ‘what happened to the other advanced modes . . ?’

There was no sense in which this favoured[12] ‘a parallel development on the value-sensing side.’ Instead[13] ‘society became progressively, and in the end very thoroughly, secularized,’ passing ascendancy[14] ‘more and more completely to the intellectual modes.’

Poetry and music may have allowed ‘spiritual feeling’ some degree of expression. Beethoven and Wordsworth are possible examples of that. Even though[15] ‘Wordsworth’s writings were influential . . . they did not redress the balance.’ Materialism basically triumphed.

I want to pause for a moment and consider this. Jonathan Bate’s recent biography Radical Wordsworth goes some way to explain both how far the poet kept spirituality alive and also what might have prevented his revitalizing it more effectively.

A poem of Wordsworth’s that I consider to be one of his greatest is Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. One stanza should be enough to convey the depth of its spirituality.

                                                     Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Bate quotes[16] his use in another poem of the expression ‘eternal beauty’ as applied to a landscape, to suggest that Wordsworth perhaps believed in some form of pantheism. He feels[17] that the poet ‘was articulating a radical alternative religion of nature.’

So, where’s the problem?

Possibly the most eloquent example of where the problem lay, according to Bate, was the quality that gave Wordsworth the confidence to write an epic poem with himself as hero, his Prelude. Many of his contemporaries were unimpressed by what Keats defined as the essential drawback of Wordsworth’s poetry. Keats believed[18] “that the problem with what he calls ‘the Wordsworthian’ was the ‘egotistical sublime’, the perpetual writing from the point of view of the self.” In contrast, Keats was keen to incorporate ‘a counter-model that was the antithesis of egotism.’

Wherever the truth lies in this case, poetry and music did not have a sufficiently strong hold on the imaginations of that period to keep the value-sensing mode alive and improving.

She quotes an illuminating episode from Darwin’s life to illustrate what might have been happening in this particular respect on a much wider scale:[19]

Along with the loss of religious belief there developed in Darwin what he himself calls a ‘curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes.’ His mind became ‘a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,’ so that he ceased to enjoy poetry, paintings and music. This, he tells us, it is ‘a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.’

So, are we now stuck so firmly in the quicksand of unbalanced materialism that there is no possible remedy? Consideration of that will have to wait until next time.


*This, I think, may derive from my attachment to the distinction Stephen Covey makes, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, between feelings, values and principles. We can, and often should[20] ‘subordinate feelings to values.’ However, values are not infallibly reliable guides to right action:[21] ‘Principles are not values. A gang of thieves can share values, but they are in violation of the fundamental principles we’re talking about. Principles are the territory. Values are maps. When we value correct principles, we have truth…’ There’ll be more about Covey coming up in my next sequence of posts.


[1] Page 141. Unless otherwise stated all references are from Human Minds: an exploration.
[2] Page 142.
[3] Pages 142-143.
[4] Page 156.
[5] Page 158.
[6] Page 164.
[7]. Page 165.
[8]. Page 166.
[9]. Page 167.
[10]. Page 174.
[11]. Page 176.
[12]. Page 178.
[13]. Page 180
[14]. Page 181.
[15]. Page 183.
[16] Radical Wordsworth – page 47
[17] Radical Wordsworth – page 186.
[18] Radical Wordsworth – page 402:
[19] Page 184.
[20] The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  – page 71.
[21] The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  – page 35.

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Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

My recently published sequence of two posts on the power of metaphor suggested strongly that I should publish this sequence again. It is a perfect illustration, in my view, of Lakoff and Johnson’s contention in Metaphors We Live By that (page 193):

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.

In the end, they feel that (page 233) ‘much of self-understanding involves consciously recognising previously unconscious metaphors and how we live by them’ and ‘engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.’  Until I read their words I don’t think I had fully appreciated exactly what I was doing when I grappled with the challenges of understanding what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the phrase ‘understanding heart.’

In an attempt to shed light on what is meant by the phrase ‘understanding heart’ in the Bahá’í Writings, it seemed a good idea to use metaphors to explain a metaphor, given that logical language would probably not be up to the task.

I have reflected so far upon two images, used in the same scriptures, which shed some light on the matter: a lamp/candle/fire and the garden. These two images are not all we have to go on though. The mirror image is equally fruitful to contemplate.

O My Brother! A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

(Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys: pp 21-22)

In previous posts I have discussed the value of reflection, though not in the sense of the way that mirrors reflect, yet the link is interesting. I have drawn on writers such as Koestenbaum who describes how reflection is a process of separating consciousness from its contents. I have used the analogy of the mirror to illustrate what this might mean. What is reflected in the mirror is not the mirror. In the same way what we are thinking, feeling and planning may not be the essence of our consciousness, simply the ‘objects’ that are reflected in it.

This discussion tended to presuppose that the mirror of our consciousness was clean enough to reflect what it was turned towards. This pins down the two essential aspects of the mirror of the heart that concern us here. Let us side-step for now whether the deepest and usually inaccessible levels of consciousness are what Bahá’u’lláh means by the heart: I will return to that topic again shortly.  Let’s consider instead the issues of dust on the mirror and the direction of its orientation.

In Bahá’í terms, as I understand them, turning the mirror of your heart towards debased objects defiles or dirties it.  It therefore has to be cleansed before it can reflect higher spiritual realities even if it is turned towards them.

The mirror referred to in the quote above is one of the ancient kind made of metal. It would need to be burnished with chains not with a soft cloth and polish – altogether more effortful, even painful. And the burnish is defined as love and detachment from all save God. This suggests that we are back with the idea that all the many different attachments we harbour in our hearts, all the different kinds of meaning systems we have devised as lenses through which to experience reality, are just dirt on the mirror of our heart.

It is fairly obvious then that metaphors such as weeding or purifying by fire, as one can do with metals when they’re mined, all add to our idea of what to do and how to do it in order to further this process that is described in terms of a mirror as ‘burnishing.’ We can set aside time to be mindful and locate in our own being the weeds of hatred and envy, for example, and see refusing to act them out and replacing them with kindness and admiration as a kind of weeding or burnishing depending upon what most vividly makes sense to and motivates us. Our minds all work in different ways and there is no one method that suits all.

Whatever method we use to step back from identifying with what impedes us (see link for one example: Disidentification exercise), I feel it could therefore be argued that if we were able to peel back all this dross that veils our hearts from discerning reality for what it truly is we would in effect be unhooking our consciousness from all the curtains that hide reality from us.

Wert thou to cleanse the mirror of thy heart from the dust of malice, thou wouldst apprehend the meaning of the symbolic terms revealed by the all-embracing Word of God made manifest in every Dispensation, and wouldst discover the mysteries of divine knowledge. Not, however, until thou consumest with the flame of utter detachment those veils of idle learning, that are current amongst men, canst thou behold the resplendent morn of true knowledge.

(Kitáb-i-Íqán: pages 68-69)

It’s intriguing that Bahá’u’lláh seems to be saying there that detachment will enhance our understanding of symbolic terms such as the metaphors we are examining here. If I was more detached I would not need to struggle so hard to understand what the metaphor ‘heart’ means in the first place!

Road less travelled

Scott Peck, in spite of his well documented failings as a human being, was one of the first writers I came across who made it clear that love is not just a feeling if it’s a feeling at all in our usual sense of that word. He stated strongly that love is not a feeling: it is a kind of work (The Road Less Travelled pages 116-119):

. . . love is an action, an activity. . . . Love is not a feeling. . . . Genuine love . .  implies commitment and the exercise of wisdom. . . . . In a constructive marriage . . . The partners must regularly, routinely and predictably, attend to each other and their relationship no matter how they feel. . .  Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy takes much the same line (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – pages 218-19):

Marrying because of love is considered quite reasonable in our culture, and love is dominantly thought to be a feeling, not a kind of choice. The feelings of love are extremely unpredictable. We speak of love as if it were an accident; we say that we fall into and fall out of this emotional state, for example. It should not then be a surprise when we fall into and fall out of marriages in much the same way. . . . Consider how much easier it is to keep a marriage vow if marriage is based on a choice to marry and love is considered to be a choice to value the other and hold the other as special.

They go on to speak of the importance of commitment.

It’s taken a long time to get to this point. Better late than never though.

Obviously now one of the things that bedevils our ability to understand what the heart is in a spiritual sense, apart that is from taking it too literally and piling on too much baggage from our culture, is that we base our idea of the heart on feelings that come from the gut. We discount the possibility that the feelings that originate in the heart as the doorway to moral and spiritual progress may not feel like feelings at all in the same way. The feelings from the gut promise much and are so easy to give expression to, lie so close to what we see as our comfort zone, but they all too frequently fail to deliver on their promises and bring profound discomfort in their wake.

The feelings from the heart, on the other hand, compel us upwards, involve effort and even hardship often, but the rewards are beyond my ability to describe – of course, that applies only as long as it’s not for the rewards that we follow them. They seem more to do with enacted values than emotions in the usual sense of that word. We tend to forget that emotions and motives have the same root in the idea of movement. We all too often feel moved without moving, or else set off in the wrong direction!

We need to remember, not just sometimes but always, the words of Al-Ghazali: ‘You possess only whatever will not be lost in a shipwreck.’ Near Death Experiences have a similar message. In Lessons from the Light one woman reports that the being of light sent her back and, when she asked what she should do, she was told that she could bring with her to the next world only what she had learned of love and wisdom. This seems a general lesson from such experiences:

One task that NDErs seem to agree on is to learn about love. We do that in a world limited by time and space where we have to make our choices. Many NDErs will agree we have a free will and we are free to choose our way through our world. But since we are part of a Unity Universe our interconnectedness makes that everything we do has an effect somewhere else. All our actions, even the seemingly insignificant ones, ripple through the universe. They have an effect.

So, in the end, it seems that I will only be able to get a better hold of what it means to have an understanding heart by increasing my level of detachment by way of a strenuous and continuous attempt to live in as wise and loving a fashion as I am capable of.

The evidence from research in neuropsychology is clear now that focused and deliberate effort changes the brain, and some research is said to suggest that years of meditation can lead to a synchronisation of the two halves of the brain that creates a very significant change of consciousness. Given that the left-brain is connected with logic and the right-brain with deep intuition, perhaps this gives some idea of the possible physiological substrate of an understanding heart as well as of the prolonged effort that would be necessary to connect with it consistently in consciousness.

Easier said than done, then, but I suspect I have no choice.

So, it has become clear that the heart cannot be the seat of understanding if we coast comfortably along assuming that it is the natural home of feelings in a conventional sense. If it were, how could the understanding heart, for example, protect the flame of love we are encouraged to kindle there from the gusts of negative feeling that blow from the emotional centres of the brain? If we are treating these feelings as though they are what the heart is evolved to house all the time, we’re in trouble. The heart, in the sense we are concerned with here, can’t both harbour the gales of emotion and at the same time shield us from them. The light of love will end up inevitably and rapidly extinguished.


This is where the mirror image is so helpful. It assists us in separating out what is part of the heart in its true sense and what is not. An account of a dream I had many years ago might help here.

There is a lake in the mountains. By its shore a rabbit squats munching leaves or grass. Overhead a hawk flies. A slight breeze wrinkles the surface of the lake so the image of the sky and clouds is crumpled too. Only my eye is there to see this scene: I am not aware of my body at all.

To simplify somewhat, as the dream has other implications as well, after some work on its content I came to see it as an image of my mind. The hawk is my anger, the rabbit my fear, the surface of the lake my superficial consciousness. Not only the sky but the hawk and rabbit are reflected in it.

If I see the surface of the lake as who I truly am I will live my whole life a prey to fear, anger and all the other changes in the mental weather – the clouds, winds, rain and so on of my inscape – that disturb and distress me. But in essence I am not these things. They are only the contents of my consciousness just as they are not the lake itself in the dream, only reflections in or perturbations of its surface.

My mind is the lake itself and the more deeply I allow myself to experience its full reality the closer I get to the ground of my being, where the essence of who I truly am is most closely in touch with the foundation of my existence. If I live my life from this level of awareness I will be authentic, I will be who I really am in essence rather than the person I seem to be in appearance: I will be in touch with my understanding heart. Heaven knows, if I persevere sincerely enough for long enough, one day I might even become capable, before I die, of being my understanding heart, at least for fleeting moments here and there. 

Thanks to all those who have stuck with me this far and I’m sorry if the final conclusion seems disappointingly modest after all the high-flown expectations!

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