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The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

‘A poet of the inner civil war.’

(A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson  – page 3)

Given my current sequence on Charlotte Mew it seems a good idea to republish this one on Emily Dickinson. As Fiona Sampson indicates in Two-Way Mirror, there is a strong link between them: ‘Among the many women readers Aurora Leigh will influence around the world and who subsequently become poets [are] Charlotte Mew… and Emily Dickinson.

There will be more on Mew in September. This is for two reasons. As always the footfall on my blog drops in August, and seems to have done so slightly earlier this year. As I want to share with as many people as possible the power of Mew’s poetry, it seems best to delay the rest of this sequence till the footfall picks up again. Also, though, I think I need more time to reflect if I am to do her poems justice.

For present purposes we are now on the brink of the last disclosure. For UK readers of Emily Dickinson the American Civil War can easily become the mastodon hidden in the attic. I think it did for me. This is no longer true for me at least, thanks to Shira Wolosky, one of the writers in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson .

As we will see, for Dickinson the Civil War had an additional stress. She wasn’t sure whether the objectives of the war were worth all the consequent loss of life. Along with all the other possibilities we have explored, this tested various dimensions of her faith – in life, in love and in immortality. And she was not alone. Dickinson crystallised the prevalent atmosphere of doubt into her poems, capturing her state of mind many times with uncanny and haunting precision.

Shira Wolosky

I’ve already mentioned the startling fact of her poetic productivity during the war years, but I’ll repeat it again here in Wolosky’s words in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 107):

[M]ore than half of her poetic production coincides with years of the Civil War, 1861 to 1865. The years immediately preceding the war… were also the years which Thomas Johnson identifies with “the rising flood of her talent,“ as well as with the beginning of her reclusive practices.

There was an amazing peak in 1863 alone. Betsy Erkkila describes it as follows, in a later chapter (page 158):

[O]f the 1789 poems in Franklin’s variorum edition, over half were written during the years of the Civil War between 1861 and 1865; and of these, almost 300 were written in 1863, a year of crisis and turning point in the war, when even Union victories such as Gettysburg had become scenes of horrific bloodletting and mass death on both sides.

It is not surprising that one of the main concerns of these poems is ‘theodicy’ (page 111):

Dickinson’s war poems generally attempt to make out “the anguish in this world“ and to decipher whether it has “a loving side.“ This would mean its fitting into some wider schema, some purpose that would justify suffering…

This was a testing struggle as in war death is (page 112) ‘arbitrary and recalcitrant.’ In fact (page 125):

The Civil War reached levels of carnage before unknown, made possible both by new technology and new strategies of total warfare, in combination with a profound ideological challenge to American national claims and self identity, political and religious.

There is an intriguing consequence of this (page 114), ‘it is, oddly, just where poems are most personal in terms of Dickinson’s suffering, but they are also most culturally engaged.’ The intense resonance of the poet’s mind to the climate of the times is captured in poem after poem.

Religion was a lifelong issue for Dickinson. In many ways it ‘fails her’ (page 116) and her work ‘repeatedly rehearses her reasons for both asserting and denying a divine order, in constant countertension.’ She also raises questions about (page 117) the extent to which’ art can indeed serve as figure for faith’ and ‘in text after text, she returns again to religious premises and promises; again finding them wanting; again finding them necessary.’

At exactly this point a bluebottle landed on the page at the exact paragraph I was dictating into my phone. It rubbed it forelegs together in typical fly fashion. Just as I got out of Notes on my phone and into my camera, a plane flew growling overhead and the breeze flipped my page, and the fly was gone. It felt like a typical Emily Dickinson joke.

One of the challenges war poses (page 119) is that ‘the self is called upon to place life second to, or in service of, community, in the name of a greater purpose.’ Wolosky feels that Dickinson is crushed between these pressure points (page 124):

Dickinson here situates herself at the very clash of contending impulses. Her self, on the one hand, remains independent, even defiant, of society’s claims, with a courage of judgement that is unwavering. On the other hand, she is also sceptical of selves that are invested only in themselves, without reference, or devotion, to anything beyond the self. She is critical, that is, of both social authority and also absolute selfhood.

Her poems are again often masterpieces of inner ambivalence, products of a mind torn between two opposing forces within the individual and within society.

A key passage in the Bahá’í International Community’s document The Prosperity of Humankind examines this same problem, the individual versus society, from the perspective of consultation and its correlate, justice (Section II):

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

It is not a problem that is going to be easily solved: it requires a fundamental collective shift in consciousness.

Poetry often captures the priceless values of both a human life and its sacrifice. As Wolosky puts it, referring to The Martyr Poets (page 125): ‘As in many war poems, self is at once granted enormous value, and yet a value that emerges in self-effacement – indeed, in martyrdom, as witness to others at the cost of self.’

Dickinson’s brief poem reads:

The Martyr Poets — did not tell —
But wrought their Pang in syllable —
That when their mortal name be numb —
Their mortal fate — encourage Some —

The Martyr Painters — never spoke —
Bequeathing — rather — to their Work —
That when their conscious fingers cease —
Some seek in Art — the Art of Peace —

It is perhaps not entirely surprising either that in addition to theodicy as a theme, her poems should also manifest disruptions to the 19thCentury standard verse forms (page 126):

Many have been struck by Dickinson’s apparent modernity; by how her strained and difficult forms – at once contained within and yet strenuously recasting hymnal metres and modes – seem to foreshadow the radical experimentation of twentieth century poetics.

She goes onto explain exactly why this might be the case (my emphases):

[This seems] rooted in the ways Dickinson’s work represents an intersection between historical, metaphysical, and aesthetic forces when these are under extraordinary pressure, and specifically, when long-standing, traditional assumptions regarding the basic frameworks for interpreting the world are challenged to the point of breakage. Dickinson‘s work is among the first directly to register the effects on poetic language of such breakdown. Articulate language depends on, even as it expresses and projects, the ability to conceive reality as coherent and meaningful. . . Such “splitting apart of the communion“ between paradigm and world, metaphysics and history, marks modern experience.

Wolosky points out the parallels with Europe’s experience of the Second World War, quoting Theodor Adorno’s words (page 127) which describe how ‘Our metaphysical faculty is paralysed because actual events have shattered the basis on which speculative metaphysical thought could be reconciled with experience.’ She feels Dickinson’s work ‘reveals and dramatises . . . the consequences of such paralysis and assault on the very structure and language of poetry,’ and describes her texts as ‘battlefields between contesting claims of self and community, private and public interest, event and design, metaphysics and history, with each asserted, often against the other.’

This is another challenge Dickinson rises to in expressing her inscape: how to wrench her poetic forms into expressions of dislocated anguish without losing hold completely on its opposite.

As someone old enough to have lived through the traumatised aftermath of the Second World War, while too young to have consciously responded to the war itself, such poems resonate strongly with me. Why I respond more positively to her poems as against, for example, Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, is I think because she holds both memories of harmony in balance with the terrifying disjunctive present through her fractured hymnal verse forms. Jarrell, and other modernists, seem to have given up the struggle to capture some hope of balance or redress. Jarrell’s poem reads:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Wolosky concludes that (ibid):

Emily Dickinson’s texts are battlefields between contesting claims of self and community, private and public interest, event and design, metaphysics and history, with each asserted, often against the other.

Bodies lie in front of the Dunker Church on the Antietam Battlefield.LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. For source of image see link.

Three Other Points of View

There are three other authors in this book whose insights I need to draw on now before concluding this sequence of posts – Betsy Erkkila, Cheryl Walker and Cristanne Miller.

Erkkila subscribes to the idea that these were traumatic times and seeking definitively to label any one aspect as key may well prove impossible (page 150):

‘I have a Terror…’ Dickinson wrote to Higginson in April 1862, ‘and so I sing as the Boy does by the Burying Ground — because I am afraid –.’ Whatever the sources of Dickinson’s ‘terror’ – a personal love crisis, a failure of religious belief, the advent of the Civil War, the collapse of an older New England social order, the horrifying prospect of everlasting ‘Death,’ metaphysical angst, or all these together – her poems powerfully register the disintegrative psychic, emotional, and bodily effects of social transformation and political crisis that marked Dickinson’s years of greatest productivity during and after the Civil War.

She agrees that Dickinson’s religious faith was severely tested and in conventional terms was broken, but also without her having anything with which to replace it (pages 153-54:

[S]he expresses the pain of living in an era of unbelief… As someone who could not believe in either the saving Christian orthodoxy of the past or the progressive demographic ideology of the future, Dickinson gives voice in her poems to the spooked interiors of ante- and postbellum America, the spectres of unmeaning, abjection and death that stalked the American landscape during the Civil War . . .

In consequence, Erkkila believes, she (page 156) ‘turned to writing as a kind of aesthetic substitution, a means of suffering the inner emotional life of the war through writing.’

A complicating factor to her experience of the war concerns her attitude to the question of slavery (page 170):

[I]n a public letter about the 4th of July celebration in Belchertown in 1855, Edward Dickinson [her father] expressed hope that “by the help of Almighty God, not another inch of our soil heretoforeconsecratedto freedom, shall hereafterbe polluted by the advancing tread of slavery“… Although Dickinson opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories, he also opposed the abolitionist goal of immediate emancipation of Southern slaves. For him as for many in the NT Balham area, including Lincoln, antislavery zeal was under written by fear that the white American Republic would be ‘polluted’ by the ‘advancing tread’ of blacknessinto the new states. Emily Dickinson appears to have shared her father’s anxiety about the pollution of the American republic.

In a note at the end of her chapter Erkkila spells out some implications of this for her attitude to the war, in the context of the seven out of 10 poems she published during the Civil War. Her reasons for publication are unclear and may not have been to support the Union cause, as some have argued (page 172- my emphasis):

If she did contribute these poems voluntarily, and there is no evidence for this, they were more likely sent to support the sick, wounded, and dying, who were sacrificing their lives in support of a cause that was – in Dickinson’s view — at best questionable.

I think we must accept that this would have had the effect of making the war more traumatic for her, not less, even if we cannot share her alleged ambivalence about abolition in the form she saw unfolding.

Interestingly (page 163), she stopped making the fascicles in 1864, before the War closed. Erkkila feels that ‘her letters and poems served – especially during and after the war – as prayer, medicine, consolation, gift, and cure,’ and (page 164) ‘she was looking to art – to poetry writing – as a means of overcoming not only “Death” but also the lack of higher meaning, order, and value in the world.’

Cheryl Walker flags up three points of interest here.

First there is (page 178) ‘Dickinson’s infatuation with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.’ My earlier sequence explains why this would be of interest to me at least.

The second takes us back to Gubar and Gilbert’s The Mad Woman in the Attic (page 179):

Women poets were largely inhibited by two tenets of bourgeois ideology; one, that women violated the ‘cult of true womanhood’ . . .  by writing for a public audience; and two, that, when they did write, women poets must avoid transgressing the boundaries of their allotted sphere.

This may go some way towards explaining Dickinson’s reluctance to publish, but cannot be the whole story as her poem suggests:

Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty – be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly – but We – would rather
From Our Garret go
White – unto the White Creator –
Than invest – Our Snow –

And finally, and perhaps  most importantly of all, she in her turn concludes, quoting Camille Paglia (page 181): ‘without her struggle with God and father, there would have been no poetry…’

Cristanne Miller reinforces Dickinson’s anticipations of modernism (page 205):

[M]any critics have argued that Dickinson participated in the modernising climate of her times by creating a protomodernist lyric, a poetry that rebels against ‘patriarchal’ metres, conventions of punctuation, grammar, rhyme, or even print to construct a new kind of poem. . . . The extreme compression of Dickinson’s language and its multiple forms of disjunction – grammatical, syntactic, tonal, and logical – strikingly anticipate features of modernist verse.

And about her feminism she writes (page 225):

Dickinson’s feminism was as complex and contradictory as other aspects of her art: while the poet’s life and poetry are feminist in some respects, she was in other ways more conservative socially and politically than many of her female contemporaries, who chose to publish poems of explicit cultural and political critique – albeit in less interesting verse forms.

Her poetry does not so openly rebel either (page 227):

[S]he wrote largely in ballad form or using other fundamentally regular rhythmic and rhyming patterns, which she disrupted continuously, in sly ways. . . . Fox-like, she appeared to conform while rebelling indirectly, through omission, dissonant or slant-rhymes, irony, and wit.

So?

Where does all this leave me?

Yes, it’s clear that there could be at least four major factors influencing Dickinson’s themes and forms: the repression of women, disappointed passion, epilepsy as a stigmatising illness and the American Civil War. It is safe to conclude also, on the basis of the timing of her output, that the Civil War had perhaps the greatest impact. The following diagram attempts to capture them.

It is perhaps worth spelling out some assumptions linked to the factors. It is the timing of the Civil War and the episodes of disappointed love that are often adduced to help interpret a poem. The restrictive conventions imposed upon women are quoted as relevant to some of her references to ‘white’ as of course is faith, death and immortality. Whether her apparently chosen seclusion is to be explained by her epilepsy or by agoraphobia is still an open question. Seclusion, a quality she shares to some degree with other major writers, is generally accepted as the key to her power as a poet of the interior. The exact impact of the slave question is also  not entirely resolved in terms of the Civil War and its meaning for her.

So, I must ask, is her elliptical and slanting style the result of thwarted and socially unacceptable passion – a love ‘that dared not speak its name’ in both the case of Sue and a probably married man? Could she not speak more directly about almost anything because she was a woman, because she was epileptic or because she knows she is being ‘heretical’? Or was it the result of unbearable anguish in the face of the Civil War’s inescapable acting out of man’s inhumanity to man?

Whatever the answers to any of these questions turn out to be, I feel that it is beyond reasonable doubt that among her poems are unquestionable masterpieces that remain as relevant to us now in our age of war, uncertain faith and questionable ideologies, as they were when she wrote them. They pull me into her passionate intense interior with a power that would be hard to resist, even if I wanted to.

I am setting myself the task of re-reading the 294 poems that are labelled in my R. W. Franklin edition as having been written in 1863, to see what I now make of them in the light of all this recent reading about her.

It’s high time I let her speak to me herself.

Unexpected Coda

As a Bahá’í though, I can’t resist mentioning, before I close, that 1863 was the very year Bahá’u’lláh declared his Mission, His divinely ordained responsibility to convey to humanity a vision of the future that held out hope of resolving the major war-engendering and repressive tendencies of our times. This all-too-obvious connection with the peak of Dickinson’s productivity did not occur to me until after I had made my plan, probably because I was not expecting any such thing as I pursued this investigation.

Just when she, a possibly self-incarcerated prisoner in her own home in Amherst, was grappling, through her most prolific period of creativity, with the titanic and traumatic challenges her country was facing, a prisoner in exile in Baghdad, shortly to begin a deportation that would eventually consign Him and all His closest family to the disease-ridden prison city of Akka, was openly proclaiming for the first time His world-embracing, world-healing Message, one that she was never in a position to hear, even though (op. cit.: page 85) ‘Many of her contemporaries (notably Shakers, Millerites, and Adventists) awaited imminent fulfilment of revelation with Christ’s second coming.’ She was only 14 when their very public disappointment of 1844 occurred.

The essence of His message can perhaps be best summarised briefly here by quoting from The Hidden Words (Arabic No. 68 – there is more at this link):

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.

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ParaPSYConf

My latest sequence of posts concerns itself with the possible nature of a spiritual psychology   It therefore seemed reasonable to republish this short sequence. The second part comes out on Saturday.

Recently Sharon Rawlette left a comment on my blog in response to a link I posted about Emma Seppälä’s book The Happiness Track. We hadn’t exchanged comments for quite some time so I checked out her blog again and was reminded of a piece she’d posted in 2014 titled Evidence for Telepathy in an Autistic Savant about the work of Diane Powell.

This prompted me to see how her work had progressed since then.

In a video posted on her website Diane Powell deals in passing with the notion that autistic savants and others with brain damage illustrate how impaired cortical functioning can seem to give direct access to deep level answers to complex problems/experiences within the mathematical, musical or linguistic fields, with no possibility of calculation involved.

She argues, in the light of this kind of evidence, that the higher cortical functioning on which we pride ourselves seems to be an obstacle between our surface consciousness and its deepest levels.

This really set me thinking. So much so that when I was on one of my brisk daily walks I found myself wondering whether one of Bahá’u’lláh’s prayers that I recite every day contained a phrase I still did not fully understand. There are many such phrases, by the way, but this one resonated particularly strongly right then for some reason.

Bahá’u’lláh writes that in this day, for far too many of us, our ‘superstitions’ have become ‘veils’ between us and or ‘own hearts.’ In the same passage He also uses the possibly even stronger word ‘delusion’ to describe the path along which we walk.

When I first became a Bahá’í and read Bahá’u’lláh’s use of the word ‘superstition’ in this context I interpreted it simply to mean hopelessly primitive religious beliefs. With time and terrorism it became clear that I needed to add fanatical fundamentalisms into the mix. I wasn’t too phased either by the idea that such destructive beliefs bordered on the delusional, as even then I regarded delusions as part of a continuum along which we all are placed.

However, as someone trained in psychology, an essentially religio-sceptical discipline, it took somewhat longer for me fully to accept that scientism was right there with the rest as a front-line superstition, possibly even delusional when held with an intensity sufficient to achieve total impenetrability to all contradictory evidence, no matter how strong. This felt far too close to home but I had to accept the possibility nonetheless: the case in its favour was much too strong to ignore.

Since then, I’ve written a great deal over the years on this topic, both arguing that bad science is built on bad faith and also that our heads block us from hearing what our heart has to say. Most of us, most of the time, are blind to both these realities, and happy to be so as what we believe seems not only obvious common sense but also indisputably useful. Not only that but to doubt science and listen to our hearts looks like a soft-centred prescription for disaster, likely to plunge us back into the Middle Ages, ignoring the fact that some parts of the world never left there, and more disturbingly other parts have been only too eager to return there ahead of us already, hoping to drag us back with them eventually. The second group completed the regression so swiftly and effectively largely by allowing their head to agree with their gut and ignoring their heart completely. And, just for the record, to add credibility to my suspicions, people of a so-called scientific bent are surprisingly well-represented among the ranks of ISIS, but students of the arts and social sciences seem not to be so gullible. But that’s another story.

This conventional wisdom is unfortunately delusional and based on a fundamental if not fundamentalist misunderstanding of what true science is, of how it is in harmony with true religion, and also of what the limitations of instinctive and intellectual cognitive processes are and how necessary it is to balance them with more holistic levels of processing. I am not going to rehash here all I have said elsewhere: I’ll simply signpost the thinking and the evidence to support what, in my view, is this saner view of things.

Master and EmissaryReasons to doubt Materialistic Dogma

Two of the most impressive bodies of evidence I came across of this necessary shift in perspective were, first, Iain McGilchrist’s masterpiece The Master & his Emissary, and second Irreducible Mind by the Kellys.

The conclusion McGilchrist reaches, that most matters to me when we look at our western society, is on pages 228-229:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Irreducible MindThe Kellys take the critique even further.

For them, the so-called science of psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it (page xx)?

The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction.

The Irreducible Mind points up very clearly how psychology must at some point bring this aspect of reality into its approach. Referring amongst other things to psi phenomena, Edward Kelly writes (page xxviii):

These phenomena we catalogue here are important precisely because they challenge so strongly the current scientific consensus; in accordance with Wind’s principle, they not only invite but should command the attention of anyone seriously interested in the mind.

The prevailing attitude of course in many cases goes far beyond methodological naturalism into the strongest possible form of it (op.cit. page xxvii):

Most critics implicitly – and some, like Hansel, explicitly – take the view that psi phenomena are somehow known a priori to be impossible. In that case one is free to invent any scenario, no matter how far-fetched, to explain away ostensible evidence of psi.

When you look at the evidence dispassionately, rather than from a dogmatic commitment to the idea that matter explains everything, the mind-brain data throws up a tough problem. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though, as Emily Kelly suggests (page 73):

The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.

Pim van Lommel

Pim van Lommel

Others are of course now following where they marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon as well as carefully investigated specific examples of Near Death Experiences (page 177):

It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?

The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, a 19th Century pioneer of this perspective – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. In fact it is remarkable how close the correspondence is. This is Myers’s view as Emily Kelly expresses it (Irreducible Mind – page 78):

Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.

I recognize that it may not be enough though to adduce evidence, which satisfies me, to support the idea of a non-material reality ignored by the mainstream because of a bias in science that discounts it. I need also to have some sound reasons for my claim that there is a valid distinction to be made between a good science, prepared to accept the possibility of transpersonal explanations, and a bad science, dogmatically committed to ruling any such explanation of experience out of count on the a priori grounds that it couldn’t possibly exist no matter what evidence was brought forward in support of it.

That’s where we’re going next.

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Ridván Gardens

The Ridván Gardens

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

(Shelley from the Preface to The Cenci)

On the run-in to Christmas during this difficult time in terms of the current context of political uncertainty and division, it seemed a good idea to republish one of my longest sequence of posts ever, which focuses on the power of art.

Where do I stand in all this?

I felt it necessary to bear most of the ideas I’ve discussed in the previous posts in mind, but at this point to focus on how best to define what I felt would be most useful to capture in terms of my future exploration of this topic. I also want to find a way of making sure to include what can best be termed the spiritual factors involved in creativity.

I have already looked at this in part in an earlier post.

The first key issue to note is that the reduction of genius to creativity is in danger of missing the point (page 425):

[T]he study of the real thing – “genius” – has largely degenerated in modern times into the study of diluted cognates such as “creativity” or even “talent” which happen to be relatively accessible to the more “objective” means of investigation currently favoured by most investigators.

A brief quote from a recent book should serve to illustrate what they are saying. Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin, in their treatment of the issue in Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation, define creativity as they see it (page 4):

In human behaviour, creativity refers broadly to generating new ideas, whereas innovation refers to changing the way in which things are done. Creativity is displayed when an individual develops a novel form of behavior or a novel idea, regardless of its practical uptake and subsequent application. Innovation means implementing a novel form of behaviour or an idea in order to obtain a practical benefit which is then adopted by others.

It is immediately apparent that this is a long way short of what Myers is speaking about when he refers to genius (page 426):

In Human Personality vol 1, page 71, he writes of genius as: A power of appropriating the results of subliminal mentation to subserve the supraliminal stream of thought. . . . . [Inspiration] will be in truth a subliminal uprush, an emergence into the current of ideas which the man is consciously manipulating of other ideas which he has not consciously originated, but which have shaped themselves beyond his will, in profounder regions of his being.

I accept that it is likely to be impossible to define in words the exact nature of the creative process when conceptualised in this way and at this level. However, I did feel initially that the best metaphoric model to capture it, from among all the somewhat tired analogies on offer, was likely to be an organic rather than mechanical one. I could see why the idea of volcanic eruption or fire was so appealing. I felt at first that it misses a crucial dimension: creation is a living rather than purely material process.

Does that mean I accept some kind of Freudian reduction of creativity to a purely sexual sublimation process? No it doesn’t. Jung’s break with Freud was over the excessive value the latter placed on sexuality as the ultimate explanation of everything about human behaviour. Jung felt passionately that this discounted the spiritual dimension.

So, no surprise then to those who have read some earlier posts. I’m for a model that is rooted in a non-reductive model of consciousness. Clearly though I had to find some way of bringing this down to earth so I could define the important variables and seek them in the experience of the artists we read about or in our own experience of creativity, whatever that may be.

I didn’t use the word earth by accident. So no prizes for guessing where I started from.

Our garden meadow

Schematic Presentation:

Any model I provisionally devised needed to account for the power of external triggers, conscious sensibility and subliminal processes to contribute to creativity. I perhaps also needed to distinguish, if at all possible, between influences that push the creative process (‘subliminal uprush’ might be one such) and those that pull on it (such as the sense of purpose in the artist).

Because it helped me think clearly I started with a pseudo-equation (Did I hear someone groan?), sketching out one possible model.

Seeds + Soil + Cultivation + (Sun+Rain) + Seasons = Harvest

a. Seeds are such things as activating stimuli from reading and experience: these are more likely to push than pull the process.

b. The Soil is the subconscious, which in an artist is particularly rich and accessible. The soil quality is probably the result of:

  • Genetic predisposition and congenital influences (push?);
  • Early experience (push);
  • Skill acquisition; and
  • Spiritual orientation (pull?).

c. Cultivation is anything, such as weeding or fertilizer, connected with the process of planting and later material influences of a human kind that nurture the growth of the artefact. These may come from the artist or from outside: this includes the facilitation of creativity by interactions with friends – good examples are how his association with Byron helped produce Julian & Maddalo and his wife Mary’s trigger to write Frankenstein. I have also made mention of David Gilmour. These are more likely to be push factors.

d. Sun and Rain are the cosmic processes not in human control. Their influence can be strengthened by consciously trying to connect with them, for example through nature, meditation or prayer. Probably these are pull factors.

e. The seasons, probably push factors, are to do with the timing of developmental triggers related to the creative process and not in our conscious control.

f. The harvest is the work of art. Harvesting is its production and publication and involves a degree of conscious organisation and selection to ensure the result is as good as it is possible to make it.

An excellent harvest (f) will not be possible without all the preceding stages/components. Without the careful and diligent exercise of conscious control under cultivation (c) and harvest (f) the art will earn Myer’s stricture concerning Blake – that the subliminal uprush has not sufficiently been subject to conscious control. With excessive and constricting conscious control, or in the absence/depletion of seeds (a), soil (b) or climate (d), the work will not resonate at the highest levels of great art.

The Dissolute Artist Problem

The operation of none of these factors depends upon the artist being in anyway anarchic in his personal life, although not following convention in any way that hampers the creative flow is an advantage. It can be tricky to distinguish between meaningless and unimportant conventions and core moral values. Transgressing the former will not damage and might even foster the quality of the art: transgressing the latter will probably damage the art, or at least stifle its full potential.

Ludwig Tuman, in his thoughtful book The Mirror of the Divine, shares insights that are helpful on this issue, though he is addressing a slightly different aspect of the problem. He argues (page 114-15):

The tension between artist and society is… resolved by recognising his right of self expression, and by recognising, too, that the freedom of the individual must be tempered with a sense of spiritual responsibility towards the community. In conclusion, the Bahá’í teachings would seem to condone neither of the two extremes found in the history of art: neither the extreme of suppressing the artist, for to do so transgresses against his rights as an individual: nor the other extreme of allowing him absolute license, for the rights of those who are affected by his work must also be taken into account.

Two Key Issues

There are at least two other key issues to be resolved.

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

Bahíyyih Nakhjavání

1. How does one write with such a high intent without falling prey to Shelley’s strained and overwrought diction? (This is closely related to the issue of didacticism and dissonance, which I have dealt with already, so I won’t rehearse all that again here.) George Herbert manages not to sell his ideals short, where many others fail. Humility may be a key factor here.

It is possible that my misgivings about Shelley’s diction are misplaced. I say that in the light of Bahíyyih Nakhjavání’s article Artist, Seeker and Seer, which addresses almost the same issue. She writes:

Great art, therefore, is the expression of the soul’s glimpse of certitude in the double-lensed burning glass of an aesthetic structure commensurate with the patterns it perceives. To be great it must also seize us with an entirety that leaves no word untouched by wonder, no line untouched by light.

Maybe I’m just a pathologically understating Englishman cringing irrationally at the faintest hint of exaggeration! I leave that for you to decide. In the meanwhile, I will hold onto my doubts about Shelley’s high-flying style.

I perhaps need to clarify that this issue is not the same as the problem that some modern readers might have with what they could experience as an ‘archaic’ or ‘old-fashioned’ style. The latter problem is worth struggling to overcome as Shelley is in that case simply writing according to the conventions of his time and very effectively so at his best.

2. It might also be argued that empathy and art could clash if too much concern for family, friends and others distracts the artist from his work. However, if we take seriously the evidence Ricard adduces in his brilliant book Altruism, then it could be that compassion energises as well as bringing wisdom, suggesting that altruism, a disposition to consider the needs of others rather than a simple feeling state, and art would be deeply compatible to the great benefit of the art, and probably of the artist and of society as well. Presumably also the wider the compass of compassion and the stronger the disposition towards altruism, the greater the art will be.

Questions concerning the Model

In terms of a model of inspiration, various other questions arise. Should we be talking about triggers as the promoters of ‘subliminal uprush,’ or would the idea of pricking the membrane between consciousness and the subliminal be a better way of conceptualising it. This would make my soil model ineffective as an explainer. The subliminal could also be building up a kind of pressure that creates the possibility of its breaking through without a trigger – more like Byron’s laval image.

One Size will not Fit All

All of which inevitably leads me to feel that probably any one model of creativity is going to be too simplistic to cover all bases. I am reminded that Bahá’u’lláh, in conveying to us the nature and processes of the human heart, used at least three different images at different times: earth, fire and mirrors. I’ve explored these at length in an earlier sequence of posts.

The earth metaphor is relatively consistent in the Bahá’í Writings. The heart has or is soil in which spiritual qualities are to be planted, such as the hyacinth of wisdom or the rose of love. We need to weed it, seed it and tend it.

The mirror image is similarly consistent. Our heart, if polished and clean, will faithfully reflect what is placed before it, and it is advisable that we are turning it towards life enhancing aspects of experience, as well as keeping it clean.

Fire is slightly more complex in that it can be either the means of cleansing the heart, for example in the prayer which reads:

Ignite, then, O my God, within my breast the fire of Thy love, that its flame may burn up all else except my remembrance of Thee, that every trace of corrupt desire may be entirely mortified within me, and that naught may remain except the glorification of Thy transcendent and all-glorious Being.

Or of lighting its candle as in:

O BEFRIENDED STRANGER! The candle of thine heart is lighted by the hand of My power, quench it not with the contrary winds of self and passion.

This makes me fairly sure that the soil metaphor, which was influenced both by Bahá’u’lláh and by Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, has some value.

However, at times, as Byron and Shelley themselves testify, inspiration looks more like a volcano or a fire. So I think I have to find a way of factoring at least those two into the mix.

I realised then that I needed to see if Shelley’s writing contained the idea of a mirror anywhere in this kind of context before I simply began pulling that in as well.

shrine-mirror

Shelley and the Mirror

It was no surprise to find, in Shelley’s The Defence of Poetry, many references to the idea of a mirror linked to poetry.

After explaining (Duncan Wu’s Romanticism: page 946) that ‘poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by that imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man’ Shelley goes onto add that, for him, ‘language . . . . is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being’ than other more plastic or acoustic forms of art.

Presumably, to reconcile this with Iain McGilchrist’s view of right-brain holistic experience as being inherently inexplicable, Shelley simply means that poetry succeeds best in communicating with verbal consciousness because it has translated ineffable inner experience into musico-metaphorical terms that get as close as possible to transmuting those experiences into a form that left-brain language doesn’t have to decode before trying to understand them.

The key point that Shelley goes on to make is probably more crucial. He distinguishes rightly between ‘conception’ (an interesting word as it can mean an idea or a moment when the birth process is initiated) and ‘expression.’ He sees them both as means of ‘communication’ for the ‘light’ to use, but the conception is a ‘mirror which reflects’ that light, whereas expression is a ‘cloud which enfeebles it.’ He seems to be privileging language over other means as a communicator, in a way which I’m not sure I yet understand[1].

Shelley goes onto describe (page 947) ‘[a] poem [as] the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.’ He sees prosaic accounts as ‘epitomes’ or summaries stripped of their essential core and therefore subject to the corrosion of time. Poetry, however, ‘forever develops new and wonderful applications of the eternal truth which it contains.’ His conclusion is that:

A story of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful; poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.

There are two other less relevant references to mirrors in The Defence before Shelley reaches his triumphant conclusion (page 956):

Poets are the hierophants [expounders] of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

This clearly suggests that even the poet does not know the full import of what he says. He is simply a channel for meanings beyond his reach.

I think that just about clinches it. I have to draw on all three metaphors.

neardeathexperience

For source of image see link

Overarching Assumptions

There is the possibility for two overarching assumptions to any model I then create.

(1) If there is no transcendent realm, then we might only need to adapt McGilchrist’s concept of right-brain holistic, metaphorical, nonlinear kinds of processing, which create experiences irreducible to language. These processes frequently occur beneath awareness and produce new insights, sometimes quite complex, that surprise. We still would need to prepare the ground, protect the flame or shine the mirror to foster such experiences, enable us to see the truth at some level of our being, and permit it to enter fully into consciousness. None of this would require moral rectitude or spiritual development as an essential or even important component.

(2) If there is a transcendent realm, then all of the above would apply but also, moral rectitude/spiritual development would be an essential prerequisite for the highest levels of achievement.

At this point I have no intention of pretending that my tripartite model is correct. I merely want it to be useful as a lens through which to examine other creative lives and the art they have produced.

My assumption for now is going to be that, while it is theoretically possible for the transcendent realm, which I believe is there, to seed the soil of an artist’s subconscious, be reflected in the mirror of his consciousness or shine from the lamp of his mind to illuminate the present, I am going to be very cautious before concluding that any significant work of art I examine will provide evidence of any such thing.

I am going to be more confident of supposing that the greatest works of art are partly the product of subliminal processes of some kind, and I want to understand more clearly what they might be.

I also would like to believe that great art will teach us something of value to improve our daily lives, perhaps by connecting us with nature, enabling us to understand other human beings better, or showing us how to bring more beauty into the world. I will be looking for evidence of that, most probably in the art form I understand best – poetry.

Exactly how and when the metaphors of earth, fire and mirrors should be applied is going to be an empirical one, I feel, and I shouldn’t leap at this point to claim I have an integrated model.

Art and the Artist – a final thought

As a final thought, this whole process has led me to believe that as Shelley matured as a man, through personal suffering, key friendships and exposure to testing events in the politico-social sphere, he also matured as a poet. I feel that there is therefore a relationship between the development of the person and the development of the art which is not reducible to a question simply of skill acquisition.

The blind spots of the human being limit the reach of the art. However, because the impaired vision of the artist can be more penetrating than mine, even a flawed artist can open my eyes to truths unavailable otherwise to me. It saddens me to realise how much more such an artist would have achieved with more focus on his or her own spiritual and moral development. Defying pointless convention is one thing: debasing yourself is quite another. We all need to get better at telling the difference.

Let’s see where my next exploration leads me, whenever that will be!

Footnote:

[1] He wrote: ‘For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination, and has relation to thoughts alone; but all other materials, instruments, and conditions of art have relations among each other, which limit and interpose between conception and expression. The former is as a mirror which reflects, the latter as a cloud which enfeebles, the light of which both are mediums of communication.

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Given the current sequence taking another look at trauma, it seemed worthwhile republishing this sequence.

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

The Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Holographic Approach

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

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

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

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

It’s implications are profound:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holotropic Breathwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distinguishing Criteria

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

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

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

Coda

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

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

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

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

Footnote:

[1] Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition.  These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning.  Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

After three hours I was trembling all over. I was resisting letting go and ‘embracing’ the experience. When I eventually did the quaking literally dissolved in an instant into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time. I had always known that something like it happened. What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

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

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

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

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

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

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

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

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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.

kenmare-reflections2

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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Light & Lamp

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.’

So far we have seen that aspects of the idea of the heart as a garden inched us towards a slightly better sense of what Bahá’u’lláh might be seeking to convey when He writes of the ‘understanding heart.’ I have still some way to go though with my struggles to grasp this concept. It keeps slipping through my fingers.

At the end of the last post, I said I felt my best hope of making further progress was to use other metaphors, in this case from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, to help unravel the deeper meanings of the heart metaphor.

There are two caveats to bear in mind here.

Metaphors help us understand but are not in themselves the reality which needs to be understood: this could apply even to the phrase ‘understanding heart.’

Also it may not be possible to translate metaphors fully and clearly into prose descriptions. Often we have to allow the metaphor to sink deep into the mind and then wait for the fragrance of its implications to slowly permeate our consciousness and influence our thoughts. Our culture privileges numbers and prose over imagery, shape and melody as a means of understanding, much to the detriment of right- as against left-brain processes. What I am about to do may therefore be a bit testing for some of us!

There are two other prevalent images for the heart in the Bahá’í Writings apart from the garden: the lamp or candle and the mirror. I repeat, at the risk of being boring: we would do well to bear in mind that we should not mistake these images for the Real, whatever that is. However, reflecting on their implications might get us significantly further.

O brother! kindle with the oil of wisdom the lamp of the spirit within the innermost chamber of thy heart, and guard it with the globe of understanding, . . .

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 61)

Given that I was earlier supposing that wisdom would result from searching to connect with the understanding heart, you may not be surprised to find that I have been discouraged at times to feel that I need wisdom to ignite the lamp of my spirit. What if I haven’t got any wisdom to use in this way?

Not to give up hope quite yet!

I think wisdom is one of those spiritual qualities, like detachment and compassion, that is both an end state and a process, and that no end state we can reach in this life would be the end of the journey in any case. By applying such wisdom as I have to fuel the light of my spirit, however paltry the resulting light may be, will enable me to see significantly further than I would have been able to do otherwise. Seeing further I will become wiser and will consequently have more oil to use next time.

This quote, also, is almost insisting on its relevance to the current exploration by introducing the idea of the ‘globe of understanding’ as a protector of the light. 

This still leaves the problem, though, of knowing what it means to treat the heart as a lamp that needs to be lit in some way. Sometimes the source of this light or fire is love, and sometimes, as here, it is wisdom. Buddhism sees wisdom and love, or compassion, almost as two sides of the same coin.

I find it easier to see love as being the spark that ignites the lamp of the heart. The words of a prayer I memorised very early on after I set my foot on the Bahá’í path express it beautifully:

Ignite, then, O my God, within my breast the fire of Thy love, that its flame may burn up all else except my remembrance of Thee, that every trace of corrupt desire may be entirely mortified within me, and that naught may remain except the glorification of Thy transcendent and all-glorious Being.

My mind teems with ways that this might work: prayer obviously as here, reading the Bahá’í Writings and the Scriptures of other great world religions, helping other living beings, meditating so as to purify the mind of all but the silence which opens the heart to the intuitions of the spirit, and so on. There are many quotations that point in that general direction. For example:

Were any man to ponder in his heart that which the Pen of the Most High hath revealed and to taste of its sweetness, he would, of a certainty, find himself emptied and delivered from his own desires, and utterly subservient to the Will of the Almighty. Happy is the man that hath attained so high a station, and hath not deprived himself of so bountiful a grace.

(Gleanings: page 343: CLXIV)

Wisdom as a spark is harder to fathom. The best I can manage right now is to say that all of the above can also serve to trigger a spark of wisdom.  Perhaps because of the way my mind works, I somehow experience love more often as fire and wisdom as light, though the Bahá’í Writings have no such bias.

Flowers near the Shrine

Flowers near the Shrine of the Báb

The garden image implies that many of the processes that promote spiritual development have a far slower pace than either light or fire would suggest. The image is also powerfully suggestive of how the processes of spiritual growth are an interaction between what we do and what is accomplished by infinitely greater powers that work invisibly on the garden of the heart over long periods of time. It takes only a few seconds to plant a seed, it takes some degree of patience then to nurture and protect it, but by far the greater determinants of what happens in the end come from the soil, the weather and the sun.

When, for example, I read a passage of Scripture I am sowing seeds. When I perform acts of kindness as a result I water that seed. My heart’s garden then benefits with flowers and fruit because of the rich nutrients of the spiritual soil and the energising power of the divine sun. By analogy, these fruits yield further seeds that I can plant if I have the wisdom and caring to do so, and my heart will benefit even further.

It is therefore becoming obvious that no one image captures every facet of the process of spiritual development and no one metaphor conveys all I need to know if I am to grasp what it means to have an understanding heart. Something is becoming clear from the imagery we have looked at so far.

First of all, there is a key feeling and a crucial power of the mind that need to be kindled/planted in our heart, and a sense of that feeling and that power is best captured by the ideas of fire and/or light and seeds and/or flowers. In addition to roses of love Bahá’u’lláh writes of the ‘hyacinths of wisdom.’ Their perfume pervades their surroundings just as light is spread from the lamp and warmth from the fire.

Secondly, that simply lighting the flame or planting the seed is not enough: we have to act to protect the flame or nurture the seed. There is an implication that the fuel that feeds the flame is not of our making even though we are the channel for its reaching the lamp, just as it not our light but the sun’s that enables the plant to grow, flower and fruit. None the less if we do not tend the flame and the flower these other sources of sustenance will not be able to do their work.

Last of all, whatever the understanding heart is it needs to both contain and nurture/protect these candle flames or seeds. In a way, the dream I recently wrote about provided the perfect fusion for me of these two functions. My unconscious mind, may be my soul even, provided the image of the hearth: this one word contains the word we are trying to understand, ‘heart,’ and word to express this dual nature: earth and hearth. Both a hearth and a garden need clearing of those things that will choke the fire and the flowers. Ash and weeds must not be allowed to gather, so watering the flowers or sheltering the fire will not be enough.

kenmare-reflections2

The feeling is growing in me, as I write, that the phrase we are exploring fuses wisdom (understanding) and love (heart) in the highest sense of those two words. If I do not know enough I will fail to prevent either the flame of love in my heart from being extinguished by the gusts of passion blowing from the Sahara of the reptilian self that we described in a previous post, or the seedlings of compassion as they grow in the garden of my heart from falling sick, like Blake’s rose, infected by the pests and parasites of envy, greed and hatred.

It’s probably worth emphasising at this point that I am not arguing that such basic emotions as rage, fear, shame and guilt are always unhelpful and destructive. For instance, a complete absence of anxiety would render us dead in short order. However, excessive anxiety such as experienced in phobic disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder can be completely disabling. In the same way, anger can help us defend ourselves or right wrongs at temperate levels, and make us a murderer in excess.

The problem is when we unreflectingly identify with any of these emotions from the reptilian brain. It’s then that we extinguish the flame of love and shatter the globe of understanding into a thousand fragments. We need to disidentify from these feelings, step back into a calmer place in our minds and, while taking these emotions into account, decide to act without being driven by their pressure to act them out destructively.  We will come back to the nature of reflection in the next post.

So, cultivating an understanding heart is not just about what I do with my mind and heart: it hinges even more perhaps on what I do with my hands and with my tongue, and these patterns of thought, feeling, speech and action need to combine compassion and wisdom in equal proportions.

I have to exert myself to mobilise my current level of understanding of both of these qualities to the best of my ability, no matter how low that level is, in order to lift that level even higher. Operating on the basis of prejudice, greed and any other lower form of feeling or understanding will set me back. 

The garden and the flame though are not the only images we can draw upon to assist us. There is at least one more equally powerful image that Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly uses. More of that next time.

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