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Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

. . . . . [T]he change of consciousness required in the world could only come through a change within each person: it seemed that the possibility of redemption for the world and the possibility of redemption for each person were part of the same process; one could not happen without the other.

(Jean Hardy – A Psychology with a Soul – page 209)

It is the honeybee’s social behaviour, more than its ecological role, that has fascinated and amazed humans down the ages. . . . . No other creature has in turn been used as a metaphor for feudal hierarchy, absolute monarchy, republicanism, capitalist industry and commerce as well as socialist aspirations.

(Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum – A World without Beespages 13-14)

Bee & Snapdragon

At the end of the last post I indicated this one would be dealing with my early meditation practice and beyond.

At that time, I had to do a fair bit of travelling by train and used those journeys to practice meditation. I had been advised to begin with modest amounts of time and build up from there. To begin with, even two minutes of following the breath was as much as I could manage before my mind went walk-about. Not too disconcerting for other passengers then. No chance they’d think I had gone into a coma.

As I remember it took me months – not sure how many – before I could meditate for 10 minutes, and even longer before I reached the magic half-an-hour. By the time this was achieved, I was practising in the morning before I left home. Trains were too distracting to create this amount of quiet time.

Almost two years later towards the end of my Clinical Psychology course and after my prolonged exploration of Buddhism with its intensive meditative practice, I was jolted into re-examining the two schools of therapy I’d put on hold. By this stage I was often meditating for an hour at a time, usually at night. This may have prepared me, in ways I didn’t understand, for the experiences that were to follow. Even so, I wasn’t having any obviously mystical experiences and God wasn’t coming into the equation yet for me.

Existential statesThe core of what is relevant to my next step up the as-yet-undetectable ladder came in a brilliant book on existentialism by Peter Koestenbaum – The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy – which I read at that time.

In this book he states that (page 69):

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

By reflection, amongst other things, he means unhooking ourselves from our ideas.

An example he gives from the clinical context illustrates what he means:

. . . to resist in psychotherapy means to deny the possibility of dissociating consciousness from its object at one particular point . . . To overcome the resistance means success in expanding the field of consciousness and therewith to accrue increased flexibility . . .’

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? In therapy it is the feeling of trust and safety we develop towards the therapist that helps us begin to let go of maladaptive world views, self-concepts and opinions.

This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life.

Koestenbaum explains this (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.

Reflection, he says (page 99):

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

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

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

I was almost at the end of my clinical training when I read those words. At last, I felt, I had begun to understand something of the real power of that idea. With Transactional Analysis I had begun to grasp, in its idea of decontamination, the glimmerings of what might lie ahead in terms of full reflection. I then moved onto my initial practice of disidentification, which could be seen as a strong extension of decontamination, and, at the same time, Buddhist meditation. They all had in their overlapping ways begun to open the eye of my heart.

These words of Koestenbaum words jolted it even wider.

‘That settles it,’ I thought. ‘As soon as I finish this course and get a job, I’ll explore this form of therapy.’

What I didn’t realise, at that point, was how prepared my mind was for another shift of consciousness. I’ve described this at length elsewhere on this blog in Leaps of Faith, so I won’t dwell on it here. In short, I found the Bahá’í Faith and all my spare energy and time, after I completed my course, were invested in learning more about the path I had committed to.

Jean HardyLooking back on that whole process now reveals exactly what I couldn’t see was happening right from square one.

Jean Hardy’s book on Psychosynthesis – A Psychology with a Soul – resonates right from the outset with what I have come to believe as a Bahá’í, though I never encountered her book till much later. Not that this lets me off the hook as she quotes on her opening page a letter of 1819 from John Keats, a favourite poet of mine, to his brother and sister: ‘Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making”.’

This is really close to where I have ended up. In Bahá’í terms this world is a womb (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh LXXXI):

The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.

Different words: same implications. Even more uncanny, if I didn’t know that he had corresponded with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, would be the connection Roberto Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, makes between the personal and transpersonal progress of the individual and the progress of society (Hardy: page 19).

What I had failed to appreciate as I progressed along the road through these countries of the mind was how they represented closely related steps up a ladder of increased understanding. Only now looking back do I see that. The words of T S Eliot, through the mouth of Becket, came floating into my mind as I wrote that: only ‘Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain.’

The upshot was that I plunged deep into a new profession, that felt more like a vocation, and a new spiritual path, that was a declaration of intent rather than an end state, both of which took up almost all my time, leaving no space for training in psychotherapy.

Reflection Cube

The Experience Cube

The Power of Reflection

There’s more now that I need to explain though, I feel. Please don’t groan. We’re almost there.

Right at the beginning of July, when I thought I’d got this sequence almost finished, I realised that I had a strong sense of frustration about something. Slowly light dawned.

I’ve spoken briefly about my 3Rs on this blog before. That’s my mnemonic for the three activities that help me process experience and make better sense of it: reflection, reading and writing. It suddenly clicked that my strong need to find space and time for these was clashing with at least two more Rs: my religion and my relationships, both of which obviously make demands on my time. Recreation, a sixth R, was also competing to a lesser degree.

I spent several days mulling over how to resolve the clash, so that I didn’t feel frustrated when the treadmill of minutes and emails for faith-related matters stopped me from quietly thinking over the events of the day, or feel guilty when writing about my experiences interfered with my time on the treadmill helping my wife in the garden.

The light bulb moment was when I realised that reflection is something I can do all the time. Even more, as I wrote in my journal at the time of this light bulb moment, ‘how I want/need to do everything is reflectively.’ 

This is difficult to explain clearly.

The best way I could represent it at first was in the diagram above. All sides of the cube of experience, as I am calling it, interpenetrate. The skylight through which the fullest illumination of reality falls is that of Reflection. At first I saw Reading and Writing as consolidating what could be loosely termed Wisdom, just as Religion (in my case the Bahá’í Faith with Buddhist traces) and Relationships clearly fostered Compassion and a spirit of service to others.

I searched for a way of holding onto this core idea in a more powerful and emotionally richer way than was captured in this rather abstract diagram.

Bee in Snapdragon 3As I sat in our garden with my coffee at the usual dimpled glass table, I watched the bees foraging in the snapdragons close at hand. I am always lost in wonder at the patient and tireless way bees work at collecting the pollen and nectar so crucial for the health of the hive.[1]

‘That’s it,’ I thought. ‘My mind is more like a bee than a butterfly.’

I realised that what I need to be mindful of is how to gather the nectar of love and the pollen of wisdom in every situation, and equally importantly of the need to return to my hive frequently enough to store what I have gathered there before I drop and lose it. In this way the metaphor of the bee will help me remember how I want to be. In that way, doing and being will cease to be at odds.

I couldn’t quite leave it there though, as the slightly illogical twist in the metaphor indicates.

My mind is not a bee but the hive that contains them – and it is not a hive in the chaotic and disparaging way I have used the image in some of my poems, as a buzzing and distracting mess.

My mind is buzzing, and in the past I misunderstood the way much of that buzzing is focused and interconnected. Just as in the hive bees are engaged in activities that gather and process nectar and pollen, which are vital to their being able to feed their young and survive the winter, so my mind sends out feelers to explore its environment. What I have failed to understand is that, beneath my consciousness, my mind has been striving to reflect on what it then experiences so that the nectar of love and the pollen of wisdom can be gathered from the flower of every experience, before being stored so that other largely subconscious processes can strengthen my mind’s ability to reflect even more effectively and consolidate what it is learning.

At the peak of the eureka moment I wrote, ‘No deadlines, only beelines for my reflection work from now on.’ In a way it has taken bees to teach me how to be.

At the risk of creating an infinite regress of a Russian-doll-type, we could say that if we can bring the hive inside our minds into order we can become constructive workers within the hive of society, whether at local, national, continental or global level.

The Experience Cube FinalIn the end all this ties quite neatly into the idea of the Third ‘I’ that I have explored on this blog before and republished recently.

Reflection helps connect me to my heart, the source of deep intuitions. That’s obvious enough. In addition, I just had to modify the Cube of Experience not only to accommodate the Third ‘I’, but also to recognise that I had neglected how important Nature and the Arts are to me and how Reflection is linked more closely than anything else to Wisdom and Compassion.

You may wonder also why Recreation occupies a central role in its panel, rather than religion. I was strongly tempted, for what I expect are obvious reasons, to put Religion in the centre spot, but decided not to. I pondered upon what Recreation – or rather Re-Creation – should be about if it was to be more than simply rest, and wanted to remind myself graphically of my conclusions. I decided that Re-Creation would be both the effect of Religion and Relationships, and in its turn enhance my engagement with them, so it was placed in the middle.

I’m aware that this is still very much a work in progress. Maybe I’ll pull it all together better in a later post somewhat along the lines of the diagram at the bottom, where the end state on the right echoes the traffic light system I’ve explored elsewhere.

Since I began this sequence I have encountered some ideas that I need to ponder on as well. My good friend, Barney, pointed me in the direction of The Shallowsa book by Nicholas Carr about the impact of the internet upon our brains and minds. Even though my shelves are crammed and my pile of unread books is increasing inexorably towards the ceiling, I bought it, and I’m glad I did. Carr explains how undue use of the net is antithetical to the whole idea of reflection. Having discussed how the internet strengthens certain capacities of the brain, he moves on to discuss the downside (page 120):

What we’re not doing when we’re online . . . has neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.

My hope is that if I can approach all experiences reflectively I can have my cake and eat it, gaining the best of both worlds. I can blog and surf the net without damaging my reflective capacities as long as I do it reflectively (probably easier said than done) and as long as I protect with rigorous time-banding sufficient time to read and write (not type on my laptop) in a quiet undistracted space. Carr’s book suggests such an attempt might be an imperative necessary (page 168):

The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. . . . . The problem today is that we are losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind.

What’s rather spooky is that when I had written all this, and picked up The Shallows again to read on, what should I find but the following (page 179):

“We should imitate bees,” Seneca wrote, “and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better. Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and then turn them into a  single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.”

Weird or what, to be unintentionally rendering a faint echo of Seneca across so many centuries. It testifies to the close affinity that exists between humanity and bees.

Anyhow, I’ve said enough for now I think. Instead, I need to make a plan for how to practice what I’m preaching. I need to give myself the time and space to do that so my blog might carry a lighter footprint for the time being.

Psychobabble

Footnote:

[1] It’s perhaps worth pointing out that this picture was obtained at risk of life, limb and camera. As I tilted forward on my plastic garden chair and snapped the bee in the snapdragon I also snapped the chair leg and nearly sent the camera flying as I tried to halt the fall. Was there a warning there somewhere?

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Dream GameAs I hinted at the end of the previous post, I don’t think the Transactional Analysis model goes far enough. It helps us develop a reasonable sense of part of the mind’s layout, but it lacks any contour lines to give us a real feeling of its depth.

One of the problems with TA is that it privileges the intellect – our head to use the everyday expression. In a way it has the same weakness as Kahneman’s model, discussed in detail elsewhere. Yes, we can clearly see the importance of distancing ourselves from our gut reactions, which Kahneman in my view mistakenly terms intuition. But, we have only our head to rely on in both these models. I don’t deny that this is far better at making wise decisions than our guts, particularly when complex situations are involved.

The TA psychotherapist who led the group I was in recognised that this emphasis on intellect was a weakness which is why she also drew on Gestalt therapy techniques and dream work in her approach. In fact, when I started to write this sequence of posts I had forgotten that and it was only as I thumbed through a journal I wrote at the time that I saw references to both techniques.

Even with the inclusion of both those methods, and I have given a vivid example in another post of how I used them to powerful effect many years later, TA still did not go far enough, as we will now see.

Star-diagramAn Encounter with Psychosynthesis

There are models that suggest we can and should go one step further at least. We need to be as suspicious about all our thoughts not just some of them. All our thinking is infected or at least influenced by ideas we have never questioned. We need to step back from our thoughts in their entirety just as I had been trying to step outside the prison of my conditioned reactions. Even positive thoughts may not be reliable.

While I was studying for my psychology degree at Birkbeck, I lived in Hendon, not far from the Psychosynthesis Institute. I’m not sure whether that’s what triggered my interest in that particular form of therapy. It may not have been, given the similarity between certain aspects of Psychosynthesis and TA, namely the exploration of subpersonalities. Jean Hardy, in her book on Psychosynthesis – A Psychology with a Soul – explains that (page 38) ‘the concept of subpersonality is a means of approaching… hidden and often seemingly forbidden areas.’

That may have been what drew me to Psychosynthesis, but it was not the main idea I derived from my reading about it.

In the end what captured my attention was the psychosynthesis idea of disidentification. That it presupposes a transcendent dimension including a Higher Self, with which we can get in touch, might have been expected to put me off, given my agnosticism at the time, but it did not seem to. This approach also emphasises the importance of values, which we need to connect with in order to guide our use of will power (yes, Assagioli believes that discredited faculty does exist), but I don’t think that’s what hooked me at the time either.

Assagioli explains (Psychosynthesis – page 22):

We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves.

Hardy quotes Assagioli on this issue (page 24):

. . . . the ‘man in the street’ and even many well-educated people do not take the trouble to observe themselves and to discriminate; they drift on the surface of the mind-stream and identify themselves with its successive waves, with the changing contents of their consciousness.

Psychosynthesis places great emphasis on practising disidentification exercises (see image below for an adapted example) so that we can learn how to step back from the contents of our consciousness and operate more calmly and wisely from a more grounded sense of ourselves. This of course immediately appealed to me, given that I was operating in a bit of a cauldron at work and needed to learn how to maintain my composure and presence of mind under pressure.

disidentification-exercise

Existential Psychotherapy

However, this was not the end of his influence. Assagioli himself, in the opening pages of Psychosynthesis, prompted me also to look at Existential Psychotherapy. At first I was only really aware of the importance this approach attached to meaning and choice: the perspective changing insight from existentialism came much later as I will explain in the next post. At this point in the development of my thinking I could see the importance of both meaning and choice, but somehow the existential approach to meaning seemed to ring a bit hollow.

Ernesto Spinelli’s valuable exploration of existential therapy – Demystifying Therapy – contains a passage that highlights what was the problem for me (page 294):

. . . . we are confronted with the meaningless of it all. The meaninglessness refers to the idea that nothing – not you, nor I, nor any ‘thing’ – has intrinsic or independent or static meaning. If things are ‘meaningful,’ then they are so only because they have been interpreted as being so. . . . . . Each of us, if we follow this line of argument, does not inhabit an independently ‘meaningful’ world – rather, we, as a species, as cultures, and as individuals in relation to one another, shape or create the various expressions of meaningfulness that we experience and believe in.

This sounds rather like Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian, in Carlos Castaneda’s series of books: in explaining the way of the warrior, he argued that the best we can do is achieve a kind of ‘controlled folly’ by investing meaning in the meaningless.

A warrior must know first that his acts are useless, and yet, he must proceed as if he didn’t know it. In other words, a warrior must know he is unimportant, but act as if he is important.

A Moment of Choice

I was struggling to discover where I stood on this for the whole time I was earning my BSc degree. Does life have a meaning or doesn’t it?

As I came to the end of my degree course I had to begin considering my next step. Emotionally, I was clear. I wanted to become a psychotherapist. I wasn’t sure what kind of psychotherapist I wanted to become, but was swinging between two options: Existential Psychotherapy or Psychosynthesis.

I decided to consult with my tutor. I explained my dilemma and also added that ultimately I wanted to work in the NHS not in private practice. I was stunned by the advice I got.

She said, ‘If you go into the NHS as a psychotherapist you will have to work under the direction of a psychiatrist.’

My extreme scepticism about the medical model made this option completely unacceptable.

‘What should I do then if I want to work within the NHS?’

‘I think the best option,’ she said, ‘is to become a clinical psychologist.’

I went off in a state of frustration and shock to explore this idea. In the end I went with it, thinking that when I’d got my clinical qualification I could always do my psychotherapy training.

Spirituality

In re-examining my diaries of the period in which I was doing my Clinical Psychology training, I came to realise that my world-view was fundamentally changing in a way I had failed to remember. I thought I was still resolutely agnostic at least if not downright atheist during all this time. It seems that this was simply not the case: my reality was slightly more complicated. I find the word ‘spirit’ occurring far more often in my journals of this period than I would have expected. The reason for that seems to have been my exploration of Buddhism.

Osho-Buddha-MAJJHIM-NIKAYAI can still remember the day I stood in front of the Surrey University library shelves and took down a book on Buddhism. Memory says I did this because I’d had a heads up about how sophisticated the Buddhist model of the human mind was. This may have been the case. It may have been more complicated than that at the unconscious level, in that my aunt, by then in her late 80s, had asked me to investigate Roman Catholicism again and, refusing to see a priest, I had agreed to look at a book on the subject, pulled down from shelves in the same section of the library.

Whatever the reason, I not only read about Buddhism, I also visited the Buddhist Centre in London and attended classes on meditation. I can locate this accurately in time as I was in the first year of the course doing my child specialism placement. By the 11 January 1981 I was taking detailed notes from Alan WattsThe Way of Zen. My comment on my reading up to that point may be revealing:

That reading stemmed from my need for some moral or value focus in my life. Interesting that in 1792 the Retreat in York was founded by Tuke, a Quaker, on moral principles not knowledge, and yet achieved so much so far ahead of its time for ‘lunatics.’ And yet so much harm has been done by fanatics in the name of various moralities. Only a life-centred rather than idea-centred morality will serve. Buddhism comes closer than any I know.

A fortnight later, while reading Christmas Humphreys‘ book, my thinking has moved on:

Even being committed to the “right” side in a battle… blinds my mind to the transcendent realisation that both sides are in the last analysis one. Best to tend the wounded of both sides than fight, even for freedom!

I was already showing strong reservations about the limits of psychology and responding strongly to Buddhism:

I will continue to think about Buddhism. It’s shedding an unbelievably clear light on my problems and giving me the strength to cope with them.…. People and their welfare are more important than the sterile ideas peddled on the course, more important than any ideas at all in fact. I can at least use the experience of the course better to understand my fellow human beings and myself under stress – it won’t be wasted.

A year later I seem to have achieved a more harmonious perspective:

My life is slowly becoming simpler, more integrated, less fearful. I can see how poetry, psychotherapy and Buddhism fit together. And perhaps how they all cohere with my personal life.

More on my struggles to learn how to meditate next time and on one of the epiphanies that helped shift my perspective radically.

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Illustration by Michelle Laporte.

Illustration by Michelle Laporte.

A recent comment on my blog alerted me to this intriguing article by Carolyn Rose Gimian, which I felt was well worth drawing more attention to even though is more than ten years old now. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

The Lords of Form, Speech, and Mind – we think they’ll make us happy and secure, but Carolyn Gimian tells us that everything wrong with the world and our lives is their creation.

The Kalachakra tantra talks about a time when the three lalos, the barbarian kings, will rule the earth. In the 1970’s, Buddhist author Chögyam Trungpa referred to the three lalos as “the Three Lords of Materialism.” That translation has been adopted as the standard, perhaps because it so aptly describes the attitude that rules the modern world. Indeed, materialism is king.

The Three Lords are the Lord of Form, who rules the world of physical materialism; the Lord of Speech, who rules the realm of psychological materialism; and the Lord of Mind, who is the ruler of the world of spiritual materialism.

All Three Lords serve their emperor, ego, who is always busy in the background keeping his nonexistent empire fortified with the ammunition supplied by the Lords. According to the Buddhist understanding, the ego is a collection of rather random heaps of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and basic strategies for survival that we bundle into a nonexistent whole and label “me.” The Three Lords act in the service of this basic egomania, our deluded attempt to keep this sense of self intact.

On a simple level, these aspects of materialism deal with the challenges of everyday life: fulfilling one’s needs for food and shelter for the body, food for thought, and spiritual sustenance. The problem arises when we begin to pervert these parts of our lives, adopting them as the saving grace or using them to protect us from our basic insecurities.

Why are you unhappy? What is it that you need in life? When you begin to think that the pink pair of shoes you saw last week at the mall is going to really rock your boat and rescue you from depression, that is the moment when the Lord of Form, or physical materialism, begins to hold sway. Think that all your problems will be solved by winning the lottery, writing a bestseller, or being the winning contestant on Survivor? Welcome to the game show of the Lord of Form.

Just about any religion or spiritual movement will tell you that physical materialism is not the ultimate solution. It is an extremely powerful force, especially in the world today, but it is easier to deconstruct than the other two Lords—although not necessarily easy to escape from. Psychological materialism, on the other hand, is much more subtle, and religion is split on whether or not psychology, philosophy, and scientific systems of belief are enemies or friends.

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Chekhov LettersThat an artist’s sphere is free from questions and is solidly packed with nothing but answers can be claimed only by one who has never written and has nothing to do with images. The artist observes, selects, surmises, composes – actions which by themselves presuppose a question at their very beginning… In demanding from an artist a conscious attitude toward his work you are right, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct posing of a question. Only the second is obligatory for an artist

(Letters of Anton Chekhov edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky – page 88)

I found a blue notebook in my drawer the other day. It seems to date from the 1970s. It contains notes taken from many books by various authors including Victor Serge, Anthony Storr, Donald Kaplan, Ken Keyes, and Robert White. I have no memory of reading any of these books from which I took such care to record quotations, though I remember my fascination for the topics they cover, ranging from creativity through personal growth to revolution, because they continue to fascinate me to this day. I owned none of them. They were borrowed from the Hendon Library. I owe a lot to libraries, and that one in particular (see link). They are a necessity not a luxury even in the age of the internet.

One set of notes grabbed my attention in particular though. These come from Sophie Laffitte’s book on Chekhov. I can’t find much information at all about her on the web. A used copy of her book can apparently be obtained from Amazon at the cost of 1 penny. New it would cost over £70. Read into that what you wish!

Chekhov was a major influence on my development. Part of that was because he combined professional writing with the work of a doctor. I’ve recorded the following in my notes (page 71[1]):

Medicine is my lawful wife, literature my mistress. When I tire of the one, I spend the night with the other. . . . . If I did not have my medical pursuits, I should find it difficult to devote my random thoughts and spare time to literature.

I don’t know whether his reason for this difficulty was the same as mine when I was balancing impossible demands and wrote this in my journal in September 2000:

When I’m on the treadmill of tasks dictated by other people’s agendas I know I’m doing something useful but I feel totally alienated from myself. When I am writing, reading or reflecting for myself — or simply slumping in a deckchair in the sun sometimes — I feel close to the heart of who I really am — absorbing sensations and impressions, reflecting upon them, but doing nothing with them — but at the same time guilt gnaws away at me. I feel it is all profitless, pointless, indulgent. . . . . . So, I spend my life being the railway while longing to be the grass.

He probably made better use of his down time than I was able to do.

At the point in my life when I took the notes, I was combining training as a psychologist with a passion for poetry. His life resonated strongly for that reason. I was yet to experience any extreme conflict between duty and creativity: this only became apparent later. I may even have believed I could emulate the balance he achieved, albeit in a minor key, such is the arrogance of immaturity.

I can take some comfort perhaps from the words of Virginia Woolf (A Writer’s Diary – page 29):

I don’t like time to flap. Well then, work. Yes, but I so soon tire of work – can’t read more than a little, an hour of writing is enough for me.

I had been nudged even more strongly to take this moment down memory lane seriously when, after putting the notebook away again, this time on a shelf near my desk, I started to read Lydall Gordon’s introduction to A Writer’s Diary and found another fascinating angle on the man. Gordon describes Woolf as using her diary to commune ‘with her secret self, what Chekhov calls the kernel[2] of a life.’

Even though I blog, have used various psychotherapies and am very open with those I become close to, I think my diaries and journals are my way of reaching far deeper into the ground of my being than I can achieve in the company of or in communication with others.

Good I got the notebook down again because that was not all.

It was what he stood for that influenced me most and the purple scrawl of my notes reminded me of this when I looked at them again more closely.

I’ve rabbited on a lot about idealism and its costs and benefits, quoting Jonathan Haidt admiringly for his insights. Chekhov, who died in 1904 at the age of 44, exactly captured Haidt’s key insight into the means/ends problem. He wrote, at the age of 32 (page 179):

Disgusting means used to achieve excellent ends make the ends themselves odious… Were I a political man, I should never be able to bring myself to dishonour the present with a view to the future, even if, for a gramme (sic) of despicable lies, I were promised a hundred kilograms of future bliss.

Blue book

He sets out his standards for the writer (page 19):

(1) absolute objectivity; (2) truth in the description of people and things; (3) maximum brevity; (4) boldness and originality; (5) compassion.

My memory of his stories and plays suggests that he managed to hold to those standards in his later work. What resonates most strongly for me is the idea of upholding both truth and compassion. It is easier to honour one of those than both. There is a link for me there with both the Buddhist ideals of wisdom and compassion, and the Bahá’í ideal in consultation of combining truthfulness and courtesy. I’ve described that in training materials available on my blog as learning how to walk a razor’s edge.

Chekhov believed (page 71) that ‘to educate oneself requires ceaseless, unremitting work, night and day. Every hour counts.’ He advocated ‘constant reading’ and ‘the development of will power.’ We’re on Baumeister’s ground with that last remark. And Leonard Woolf testifies to his wife’s similar tenacious dedication to her novelist’s art (Writer’s Diary – page ix):

The diaries at least show the extraordinary energy, persistence, and concentration with which she devoted herself to the art of writing and the undeviating conscientiousness with which she wrote and rewrote and again rewrote her books.

Chekhov believed (Laffitte: page 85) that ‘educated men should . . . fulfil’ certain conditions, including ‘respect’ for their ‘fellow men,’ being ‘compassionate, not only towards beggars and cats. Their hearts are also moved by what is not visible to the naked eye.’ More below on what I think he means by that last point.

He also felt they should not lie or be vain. His comment on talent is relevant to his art:

If they have some kind of talent – they respect it. They sacrifice leisure, women, wine and futile pursuits to it.

The lives of many writers, artists and composers clearly reveal that this is easier said than done. I’ve blogged about this before and won’t rehearse it all again here.

It is towards the end of this collection of Chekhov quotes that I find perhaps the most powerful of all.

First, there is this brief comment ((page 115):

. . . . man’s destiny either does not exist at all, or exists in one thing only: in a love, full of self-sacrifice for one’s neighbour.

Chekhov Sophie LaffitteHe goes on to amplify that in a longer passage from Gooseberries, which I feel needs to be quoted in full:

We neither see nor hear those who are suffering and all that is appalling in life takes place somewhere off-stage. Everything is calm and peaceful and only mute statistics prove the opposite: so many people driven insane, so many buckets of vodka drunk, so many children dead from hunger. And this state of affairs is apparently necessary. Apparently, a happy man only remains so because the unhappy ones bear their burden in silence, and, without that silence, happiness would be impossible. It amounts to mass hypnosis. Behind the door of every happy contented human being, there should be someone armed with a small hammer, the blows of which would constantly remind him unhappy people do exist and that however contented he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws; misfortune, illness and poverty will eventually strike him down and, when they do, no one will see or hear him, just as now, he, himself, neither sees nor hears anyone. But the man with the hammer does not exist, the happy man goes on living, small everyday cares touch him lightly, much as the wind gently stirs the leaves of the aspens, and everything continues as before. . . . In actual fact, there is no happiness and there should be none, but if our life has any meaning or aim, that meaning and aim are in no way concerned with our personal happiness but with something far wiser and more important.

Even in the age of the internet we can find enough distractions to make widely publicised suffering invisible. Chekhov’s insights are still painfully relevant.

It seems that I could do a lot worse with any spare time I have than re-read Chekhov. The Guardian article at the Gooseberries link certainly suggests so. In discussing reservations about comfort reading Chris power states:

According to Vladimir Nabokov, “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader”. Sean O’Faolain, discussing Anton Chekhov’s short story Verotchka, writes, “Having reread it I feel … that nobody should read more than he can in 10 years reread; that first reading is a pleasure for youth, second reading an instruction for manhood, and third reading, no doubt, the consolation and despair of old age. . . . . .” What O’Faolain identifies here is an altogether higher form of comfort: that provided by an inexhaustible work of art.

Footnote:

[1] I’m not sure how reliable the page numbers are as I could only use Google Books who wouldn’t let me inside the book itself, simply dredging up accurate quotes to only some of my searches. I hope that doesn’t mean I transcribed the original text inaccurately!

[2] Gordon misleadingly quotes from The Lady with the Little Dog (Introduction: page xii): ‘He had two lives one, open, seen and known… and another life running its course in secret… Everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people.’ This is Gurov reflecting upon his life of deception as he conducts his affair with Anna Sergeyevna, the only woman he has ever been able to love. I do not feel this to be the same as the ‘kernel’ of one’s inner life, which is what I think Virginia Woolf was concerned with and to protect which both Leonard, her husband, and Virginia herself constructed a ‘carapace,’ to use Leonard’s term in his autobiography (Gordon’s introduction – page xiii). David Magarshack does not use the word kernel at all in his translation (Penguin Edition: page 279), although he uses the word husk to describe the lies that conceal ‘the quintessence of [Gurov’s] life.’

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Mindfulness booksA interview with Jim Doty, posted by Kira M. Newman last week on the Greater Good website, clarifies exactly what the weakness is in the current way that mindfulness is peddled. Uprooted from its spiritual soil it can wither into being merely an instrument of more effective competition. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

According to neurosurgeon Jim Doty, mindfulness and compassion must go hand in hand.

Growing up, Jim Doty had many strikes against him: an alcoholic father, a mother with depression, a family living in poverty. But somehow—in a journey he recounts in his new book, Into the Magic Shop—he managed to overcome them.

Dr. Doty is now a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University. He founded and directs the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), where the Dalai Lama was a founding benefactor. As a philanthropist, he has given millions of dollars to support health care and educational charities around the world.

He attributes his success partly to a kind woman named Ruth, who took 12-year-old Doty under her wing. Over the course of a memorable summer, she taught him techniques of mindfulness, visualization, and compassion that would transform his life. Now, with his book and with CCARE, he is sharing those practices (and the new science behind them) with others—and hoping to help them avoid his mistakes.

“It can hurt to go through life with your heart open, but not as much as it does to go through life with your heart closed,” he writes.

I interviewed Doty about the importance of teaching compassion along with mindfulness, the crisis of compassion in health care, and what’s coming next in compassion research.

Kira M. Newman: You believe that mindfulness without compassion—what you call in your book “opening the heart”—is problematic. Why is that?

Jim Doty: If one looks back on Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness without compassion can be hollow. In fact, the crux of Buddhist philosophy is the combination of these two practices, which together allow one to develop wisdom.

What happens for some people unfortunately is that it stops [with mindfulness]. For certain types of individuals—often Type-A, driven individuals—this is a wonderful technique to become more attentive and more focused. But the problem is that unless you incorporate the other techniques that Ruth taught me, that we now know are critically important, it can be detrimental and make a Type-A person a more competitive, ruthless individual.

The other thing I’ve noticed, especially here in Silicon Valley, is for the same Type-A people, it also creates a competitiveness about how mindful they are. Somebody in a conversation with me recently said, “You know, this is my third 10-day silent retreat.” [laughs]

Unfortunately, mindfulness is another way that people sometimes use to compete and compare, and of course this is the antithesis of this practice. If you go back to its origins, ultimately the goal here is to develop less ego, not to use this practice to support one’s ego.

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Bird feed in the park

The previous post ended just as I arrived at the venue for my meeting. This post picks up the threads after the meeting was over.

My friend and I, returning from our meeting via a walk across Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, had got ourselves sorted at a table with one reserved seat for the return journey via Newport. My phone was plugged into the charger to tether my laptop ready to answer emails and create the report about the meeting.

Pretty soon after, a pale woman in her early thirties came rushing towards us brandishing her ticket and claiming ownership of the ticketed window seat, loudly but pleasantly. She was clearly a character. My friend slid out and sat across the aisle. She flopped into her seat, plugged in her phone and produced leaflets galore and a writing pad. Someone else clearly on a mission.

I couldn’t resist finding out what was going on and she was more than happy to tell us. She’d been facilitating a Dementia Training Day for support workers. She’d been doing this kind of work for about ten years and was clearly committed to it. She was adamant that people with this problem needed to be treated with care and respect. She shared how people irritated her so much when they said ‘I am just a carer.’

‘Just a carer! I hate that phrase. What on earth are they talking about? Don’t they understand how important caring is? People should recognise how valuable a carer is so that carers don’t feel they have to almost apologise for getting paid. End of rant!’

‘On a related topic but somewhat to one side, I was at a Death Cafe last month,’ I said.

Her eyebrows shot up. ‘A what?’

I explained it was where people could talk about death and dying without being shut up or criticised and how hard it was for some of the dying to feel that they were understood and truly cared for. Death, like dementia, was a subject that was almost taboo. Speaking of it could get you quarantined. And the dying could be rendered almost invisible.

‘Just as with Alzheimer’s, even if ordinary consciousness is warped, lost or nearly lost in the dying process, there is still a person in there. They must be treated the same as anyone else, even though they do not respond or communicate.’

She nodded emphatically in agreement.

The train had not set off yet and we were already in the thick of a deep conversation. I could see my report time being swept away on these waves of thought.

A young girl slid smoothly into the seat opposite me. We all smiled. The lady with the leaflets couldn’t remain silent even though I could see she was jotting down notes on her pad.

‘You just made it in time.’

‘Fortunately.’

‘Been doing anything interesting?’

‘I’ve been on a two day training course for dental assistants.’ She was by far the youngest of the four of us and seemed slightly more reserved though friendly. She mostly only answered questions and seldom chipped in with her views as the journey back to Wales began. She was heading for Cardiff like the Dementia trainer.

I never found out their names but feel it would be easiest to give them invented names for this account. So, the Dementia trainer will be Alison from now on, and the Dental Assistant in the making will be Denise.

Denise helped reassure Alison that there need be no pain from injections at the dentist, but the needles, which Alison found so daunting, had to be frighteningly long. She explained this and how the pain could be avoided completely but I was too busy typing my second paragraph to register what she said. I’m afraid I’m not up to Proustian multi-channelling. If the account of his friends is anything to go by Marcel Proust could listen to an opera, talk to his friends and monitor the conversation in the neighbouring box, all at the same time. He even registered key changes in the score, not just plot lines, apparently!

Alison began describing her work to Denise, who wanted to know more. She came across as warm, compassionate and dedicated to her work. She was skilled at keeping her explanations clear and accessible. She avoided the technicalities of amyloid plaques and focused more on the nature of the memory problems and how to help people maintain a happy quality of life in spite of them. I couldn’t resist praising her positivity and dedication. It was truly admirable.

She was hesitant about one thing though. There was the possibility of participating in a research project testing a new medication. She was quite scared of doing so because of the possible side-effects creating long-term damage. Denise thought that unlikely. I wasn’t so sure, sharing that this was difficult to assess as much of the research data generated by drug companies was kept under wraps so it was impossible to determine how many people had been adversely affected.

‘Maybe I’ll do it when I’m older,’ she added, with a rueful smile. I didn’t say so, but I felt that she was contributing hugely as it was. More was not required of her.

The ticket inspector suddenly appeared — well, suddenly to us as we had been so deep in conversation we never saw him coming. Alison produced a hand of cards.

‘Which one do you want?’ she asked. ‘I never travel on trains. This is only the second time in ten years. I’ve no idea.’

‘Paddington to Cardiff looks good,’ he said. ‘I don’t need the other ones.’ He moved on down the carriage.

I had noticed the silver crucifix pendant on her necklace and decided to comment on it now.

‘It looks as though you have a spiritual angle on all this as well.’

‘Some people see me as very Christian about all this,’ she sidestepped slightly, looking a bit embarrassed.

I decided not to push the issue of her beliefs.

‘I certainly have a spiritual take on it all. As a Bahá’í I believe our soul is still intact even when our body and brain are shutting down. At that level we know how we are being treated. That’s even more reason to deal with those who are damaged in this way with dignity.’

Another idea flashed through my mind.

‘At the Death Cafe . . .’

I saw the look on Denise’s face.

‘Ah! You weren’t on the train when talked about that were you?’

She shook her head. I briefly explained again.

‘At the Death Cafe,’ I picked up the thread, ‘it was amazing to be able to discuss the whole spiritual dimension freely with everyone feeling it was OK to say what they believed.’

Silence.

I looked down at my computer and the first few words of the report I had been planning to draft on the train. I began to type. I noticed that my friend across the aisle was nearly asleep. For a short while Alison seemed happy to sort her papers out and make her notes in silence.

But not for long.

 

Park FountainI’m not sure how we got there but Alison was explaining how, at a recent training, she had seen how someone with dementia was managing to take care of herself and perform routine tasks with the help of prompts and lists. This triggered my memory of a recent TV documentary by Angela Rippon on the subject of dementia. It included a moving section in which a GP explained how she coped with her dementia with the help of a QR reader and an iPad, and by keeping all her dishes in the sink to remind her what she had eaten and drunk during the day. She was handling her problem so well she was even able to run a cognitive stimulation group for other sufferers based on Japanese research. Truly inspiring.

Even antihistamines came up as a topic as Alison shared that she might have to consider which brand to take. Amazingly I was able to share my own attempts to shed light on the topic. The evidence I’ve found suggests that anticholinergics like Piriton which cross the blood-brain barrier, trigger memory loss in some people. This may be true even for Loratadine, whereas Zirtek, which apparently doesn’t get into the brain, is safer. Alison was surprised that her own team did not seem to have this knowledge and noted it down to check it out.

I cannot help but feel that this established for me a degree of credibility so that when it later became my turn to rant I was listened to with patience and understanding.

The conversation had reverted to mortality, death, and the importance of being compassionate and helpful.

‘From my perspective as a Bahá’í, it’s really important that we all recognise that we are all members of the same human family. None of these divisions we’ve created count for anything really. Nationality, creed, race, and all the other labels we bring out are real. They’re creations of our cultures. Beneath all that we’re fundamentally the same, in body, mind and spirit. And until enough of us really believe that we’ll never solve the problems we’re facing now. The core of all positive belief systems in the end is love and wisdom, and as the being of light told someone before they were sent back to this life, that is all we can take with us when we die.’

“You had your rant before the end!’ Alison said with big grin on her face. We all laughed.

My friend roused from his slumber at this point. He seemed to have heard more than we thought and spoke of how this was true of all Faiths, including Islam, which he explained is much misunderstood at present. Both Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, and Muhammad, expressed this spirit of love in their lives.

‘We can see this aspect of Muhammad’s character in the incident with an old woman. She really did not like Him. To express her contempt she used to throw garbage in His way whenever He passed by her house. One day, when He walked past her house there was no garbage thrown. This made Him check out where the old woman was. He came to know that she was sick and went to visit her offering His assistance. The old woman felt extremely humbled and ashamed of what she had done. She became convinced that Islam must be a true religion.’

As my friend spoke I tried to read the expression on Denise’s face. Was it boredom? Irritation? I couldn’t quite tell. She was looking a little pale.

My friend paused for a moment. No one spoke. He continued, ‘Bahá’u’lláh showed the same spirit. He was being taken to prison. As He was approaching the dungeon, an old woman emerged from the crowd with a stone in her hand. She was eager to throw it in the face of Bahá’u’lláh. Her eyes glowed with determination and fanaticism. Her whole frame shook with rage as she stepped forward and raised her hand to hurl her missile at Him. “I adjure you,” she pleaded, as she ran to overtake His captors, “give me a chance to fling my stone in his face!” Bahá’u’lláh said, “Suffer not this woman to be disappointed. Deny her not what she regards as a meritorious act in the sight of God.”’

Just then Denise almost fell off her seat in her sleep and had to be steadied by Alison. I put this down to her tiredness at the end of her demanding training rather than to her lack of interest in the topic. Not that I’m biased in anyway.

With perfect timing the train approached Newport where my friend and I had to get off. As I did so Alison spoke of how a blog would be a great way of capturing what we had all been talking about. I barely had time to scribble the name of this blog on her pad before I sped to the exit just in time to descend onto the platform as the train came to a complete halt.

My friend, who lived close by, helped me find the bus stop I needed. We said our goodbyes. As I stood waiting I noticed that a tanned, slim, elderly man in a dark suit carrying a suitcase was looking slightly puzzled. We started chatting. He’d been to London to watch the cricket at Lords.

I was able to help him clarify which bus we needed and he was grateful as he had not understood the mumbling rail staff’s hurried explanation that the first bus was a stopping service and the 18.00 was the one that went direct to Hereford.

Once on the bus our chat continued. It roamed across many topics: left-wing politics including socialism, pacifism through Buddhism to the Bahá’í Faith, republicanism, as well as our experiences of university. To go into more detail would tax any reader’s patience.

I definitely felt at the end of these two journeys in and out of London that my declared delight in deep conversations was being put to the test. I think it passed because, even after such an early start and all the constant talking throughout the day both on the trains and in the meeting, I was uplifted rather than exhausted. I am grateful for having been able to spend such fascinating spans of time with such interesting people.

Birds across water

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buddhistThis article by Maya Bohnhoff on the Bahá’í Teaching website is a valuable starting point for anyone trying to learn how to engage in a constructive dialogue with others on the nature of religion. Several of my posts in the next few days will be illustrating my own inadequate forays into this area. This morning’s post is a cinch by comparison as it ducks the religion question altogether, even though my faith lies behind my statement about unity. Others show me trying a bit harder. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

I’m a writer by passion and profession. I write a lot about religion, even though it tops the list of things one supposedly shouldn’t discuss in “polite company.” If you do talk about religion with others—if you study it, read about it, write about it, care about it, or simply wish to understand the elements of some religious dialogue—then I’d like to provide some food for thought.

I deal with religion, magic, faith, or some sort of spiritual belief system in most of my fiction and a great deal of my non-fiction. I write essays, give presentations, and blog about comparative religion on a fairly regular basis, and I’ve also ghost- or shadow-written memoirs for people of different faiths. If not the main thread, religion, faith, spirituality and magic and/or science form at least a subtle part of the world in which my all of my fictional characters operate.

These are not simple things to write or talk about, and there are a number of pitfalls inherent in dealing with matters of faith and spirituality in fictional and real life contexts. Many people avoid discussing religion or reading about it for a variety of reasons. They may find the subject confusing, or they may be afraid that reading about the beliefs of others will challenge their own strongly held beliefs, or that they will cause offense by expressing those beliefs. They may fear drawing censure for expressing themselves, or for displaying their ignorance in some way. They may, in fact, have very deep and sophisticated thoughts about any number of subjects relating to faith and reason and simply feel incapable of expressing them.

On top of all that, the terminology of religion can seem dauntingly alien. Someone from a Buddhist background might wonder what a Christian meant when they talked about “the Rapture,” or “the Trinity.” As a young Christian, I didn’t know what to make of terms like “avatar,” “karma,” or “Nirvana,” either.

This can even happen within a single religious community. A Methodist may hear “transubstantiation” from the lips of a Catholic and draw a complete blank. A Baha’i of Buddhist background might confuse one from a Christian or Wiccan background by referring to Abdu’l-Baha as a bodhisattva. Moreover, a key doctrine to one religionist may be completely meaningless to another.

 

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