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Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is often called the father of modern mindfulness. Photograph: Sarah Lee

Friday’s Guardian published an insightful article by Ronald Purser on the limitations of mindfulness practice as it is currently being marketed. Below is a short extract: for the full article, see link.

It is sold as a force that can help us cope with the ravages of capitalism, but with its inward focus, mindful meditation may be the enemy of activism.

. . . what exactly is this magic panacea? In 2014, Time magazine put a youthful blonde woman on its cover, blissing out above the words: “The Mindful Revolution.” The accompanying feature described a signature scene from the standardised course teaching MBSR: eating a raisin very slowly. “The ability to focus for a few minutes on a single raisin isn’t silly if the skills it requires are the keys to surviving and succeeding in the 21st century,” the author explained.

But anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary – it just helps people cope. In fact, it could also be making things worse. Instead of encouraging radical action, mindfulness says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live. And yet mindfulness zealots believe that paying closer attention to the present moment without passing judgment has the revolutionary power to transform the whole world. It’s magical thinking on steroids.

There are certainly worthy dimensions to mindfulness practice. Tuning out mental rumination does help reduce stress, as well as chronic anxiety and many other maladies. Becoming more aware of automatic reactions can make people calmer and potentially kinder. Most of the promoters of mindfulness are nice, and having personally met many of them, including the leaders of the movement, I have no doubt that their hearts are in the right place. But that isn’t the issue here. The problem is the product they’re selling, and how it’s been packaged. Mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.

. . . .

The fundamental message of the mindfulness movement is that the underlying cause of dissatisfaction and distress is in our heads. By failing to pay attention to what actually happens in each moment, we get lost in regrets about the past and fears for the future, which make us unhappy. Kabat-Zinn, who is often labelled the father of modern mindfulness, calls this a “thinking disease”. Learning to focus turns down the volume on circular thought, so Kabat-Zinn’s diagnosis is that our “entire society is suffering from attention deficit disorder – big time”. Other sources of cultural malaise are not discussed. The only mention of the word “capitalist” in Kabat-Zinn’s book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness occurs in an anecdote about a stressed investor who says: “We all suffer a kind of ADD.”

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. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317)

This, then, is what a theory of everything has to explain: not only the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms and their development by evolution to greater and greater functional complexity; not only the consciousness of some of those organisms and its central role in their lives; but also the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value.

(Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmospage 85)

Now I come to the question of transcendence.

Transcending the crocodile does not depend upon accepting the existence of a soul, though that’s where this post will be going in the end.

Even if we only consider the brain and see the sense of self as its product, with no ‘true’ or ‘real’ self beyond that, we have ground to stand on which will enable us to shake off the shackles of the crocodile and avoid the swamp it lives in.

I’ve recently been reading Julian Baggini’s book How the World Thinks. His discussion of the No-Self issue addresses this point succinctly and may help me avoid rehashing arguments used elsewhere on this blog. He explores the Buddhist concept of anattā, which denies the reality of the ātman or self (page 178):

There is no ātman that has physical form, sensations, thoughts, perceptions of consciousness. Rather, what we think of as the individual person is merely an assemblage of these things.

He adds an important qualification (page 179):

If anattā seems more radical a view than it is, that is in large part because its usual translation is ‘no-self.’ But all it really means is no ātman: no eternal, immaterial, indivisible self. This is very different from denying there is any kind of self at all.

That Buddhism then encourages the effortful practice of meditative techniques to free us from the prison of this illusion of self clearly indicates that the no-self doctrine is not incompatible with the idea that we can escape the crocodile inside.

So, whether or not we have an immortal soul or self that is not a by-product of the brain, we can use techniques such as reflection or disidentification to rise above the tangle of thoughts, feelings, plans and perspectives with which we weave our convincing patterns on the loom of consciousness.

If I am relying on reason alone there is no way I can prove that the mind is independent of the brain anymore than someone else can prove conclusively it isn’t. Agnosticism is the only position available to reason alone. Many people are content to leave it at that. They may even happily look at the evidence marshaled for soul or no soul and keep their options open. I did that myself for a number of years.

Some of us though prefer in the end to make a choice. We’d rather decide there is or is not a soul, a God and/or an after-life. Either way that’s an act of faith.

I decided, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog, to believe we have a soul. I now feel this is the simplest explanation for all the data marshalled by psychologist David Fontana in his rigorous exploration of the evidence, Is There an Afterlife? For those interested in exploring further a more accessible book is Surviving Death by journalist Leslie Kean. Powerful individual testimony also comes from Eben Alexander in his account of his own experience as a sceptical neurosurgeon, Proof of Heaven.

If you prefer not to believe in a soul, the vast body of hard evidence still demands some kind of credible explanation, because trying to write it all off as flawed or fake won’t work. The evidence is in many cases more rigourous than that ‘proving’ the efficacy of the tablets we take when we have a problem with our health.

Anyway, I have come to think it’s easier to accept that our consciousness is not just an emergent property of our brain. If you’d like to stick with it we’ll see where it takes us on this issue.

Mind-Brain Independence

A quote from the middle of Emily Kelly’s chapter in Irreducible Mind on Frederick Myers’s approach (page 76) seems a good place to start from, because the last sentence cuts to the core of the challenge constituted by his position and the evidence that mainstream ‘scientists’ ignore:

This notion of something within us being conscious, even though it is not accessible to our ordinary awareness, is an exceedingly difficult one for most of us to accept, since it is so at variance with our usual assumption that the self of which we are aware comprises the totality of what we are as conscious mental beings. Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind Myers’s new and enlarged conception of consciousness if one is to understand his theory of human personality as something far more extensive than our waking self.

The mind-brain data throws up a tough problem, though. 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 (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.

Others are of course now following where he 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 (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, as we will see – “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. Whereas we now can draw upon all the complexities of Quantum Theory to help us define exactly what might be going on behind the screen of consciousness, and Lommel certainly does that, Myers had no such advantage. Nonetheless, he creates a rich and subtle picture of what consciousness might be comprised. He starts with the most basic levels (Kelly – page 73):

. . . . our normal waking consciousness (called by Myers the supraliminal consciousness) reflects simply those relatively few psychological elements and processes that have been selected from that more extensive consciousness (called by Myers the Subliminal Self) in adaptation to the demands of our present environment: and . . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self.

This problem is illustrated by Myers’s very helpful original analogy, and it shows just how far he was prepared to go in taking into account disciplines that others would have felt were beyond the pale (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.

Where does this take us?

Given the mirror used to illustrate the power of reflection, a reasonable description of the effects of sticking with the ego and its crocodile can be found in these words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Promulgation of Universal Peace– page 244):

What is the dust which obscures the mirror? It is attachment to the world, avarice, envy, love of luxury and comfort, haughtiness and self-desire; this is the dust which prevents reflection of the rays of the Sun of Reality in the mirror. The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God.

To find a close correspondence to the idea of disdentification in the words of an 18thCentury thinker felt like a further confirmation of its validity. Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quotes Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):

The conviction which every man has of his identity . . . needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it.… I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment…; But that Self or I, to which they belong, is permanent…

This contradicts my quasi-namesake David Hume’s perception of the situation as quoted by Braggini (pages 185-86):

What you observe are particular thoughts, perceptions and sensations. ‘I never catch myself, distinct from such perception,’ wrote Hume, assuming he was not peculiar.

I noted in the margin at this point, ‘’That’s not my experience.’

So, as good a place as any to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (page 83):

These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.

Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supernormal experiences is strong enough to warrant serious consideration (page 87):

Supernormal processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.

He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91):

The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.

He is arguing that the science of psychology needs to investigate these phenomena. I am not suggesting that, as individuals, we need to have had any such experiences if we are to make use of this model of the mind successfully. I personally have not had any. However, my belief that there is a higher self strongly motivates me to work at transcending the influence of my ego and its crocodile, and I suspect that subliminal promptings towards constructive action in complex and difficult circumstances often come from that direction.

This brings us into the territory explored by Roberto Assagioli in the psychotherapeutic approach called Psychosynthesis, with its use of concepts such as the Higher Self, for which I am using the term True Self.

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

A crucial component in implementing the Psychosynthesis model, in addition to finding it credible, is will power.

Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, contends that we are being raised by a higher force ‘into order, harmony and beauty,’ and this force is ‘uniting all beings . . . . with each other through links of love’ (Psychosynthesis: page 31). He explores what we might do to assist that process, and what he says resonates with Schwartz’s idea that persistent willed action changes brain structure. He writes (The Act of Will: page 57):

Repetition of actions intensifies the urge to further reiteration and renders their execution easier and better, until they come to be performed unconsciously.

And he is not just talking about the kind of physical skills we met with in Bounce. He goes on to say (page 80):

Thus we can, to a large extent, act, behave, and really be in practice as we would be if we possessed the qualities and enjoyed the positive mental states which we would like to have. More important, the use of this technique will actually change our emotional state.

This is what, in the realm of psychology, underpins the power of determination that the Universal House of Justice refers to in paragraph 5 of their 28 December 2010 message:

Calm determination will be vital as [people] strive to demonstrate how stumbling blocks can be made stepping stones for progress.

Changing ourselves in this way as individuals will ultimately change the world in which we live.

I am not arguing that transcending the crocodile is easy, nor am I saying that one particular way of achieving this will suit everyone. It is an effortful path and we each have to find our own. It is important that we do not mistake a credible looking path for the destination itself. If the path is not moving us towards our goal we must find another one. Nonetheless I am convinced the goal is within our grasp if we can believe in it enough to make the effort.

The Higher Good

There is one last important point for those of us who wish to believe in a God of some kind.

My very battered copy of this classic.

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects of man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his bookIs God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

The way forward, I believe, lies in recognising a higher and inspiring source of value that will help us lift our game in a way that can be sustained throughout our lifetime. For many of us that is God (from Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76):

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

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It seems a good idea to republish this sequence from almost six years ago to complement the current sequence on transcending the crocodile within and providing more detailed background to its thinking. This is the first of six.

Some Background Thinking

I thought it was about time I tried to do a post on the work I did for most of my professional life. It could be tricky and might not work out at all.

I have been struggling for ages — at least ten years —  to capture in words the work I used to do. Words like therapist and therapy make me uncomfortable. Even the word counseling implies unequal distributions of wisdom. She who gives counsel is somehow superior to him who receives!

I have come to believe that what I did is best called mind-work. It includes mood-work, belief work and will-work: it should have included ‘soul-care’ but that would have been a step too far for a clinical psychologist’s job description even though ‘psyche’ means ‘soul’ to the Greeks.

Everyone does mind-work up to a point. It’s a bit like cooking though. Almost everyone prepares food at some point in his life but not everyone’s a chef. As a professional mind-worker I was a bit like the chef. I was an expert at the work at the same time as the people who worked with me as clients were experts about their own minds.

Because, to do mind-work, I drew on lots of other disciplines and traditions, including philosophy, psychology, biology, religion (especially Buddhism and the Bahá’í Faith) and the arts, I could sometimes feel like giving myself a fancy title such as psy-culturalist. This captures the richness of the traditions I could draw on and also captures the essential purpose of mind-work which is growth. It also meant I didn’t have to label myself a psychologist with its one-sided implication that I study the mind but don’t work with it, nor did I have to call myself a Clinical Psychologist with its implications of illness and therapy, which are insulting to the client.

Psy-culturalist, as a term, has a similar problem to Clinical Psychology. If we think about gardening, it’s a one-way street. Plants, as a general rule, don’t grow people. Mind-work, though, is both reciprocal and reflexive. I grow you and you grow me and we grow ourselves as well!

In the end then mind-work is a perfectly good description.

Mind-work for the most part involves forming a relationship (much more on that later) that allows words to be used in a process of collaborative conversation (the title of a book chapter I contributed to This Is Madness) to enhance meanings in a way that enables all participants to grow. As I see it every human interaction is an opportunity for mind-work and as many interactions as possible should be used as such. Even the groups of people who traditionally have been seen as experiencing meaningless lives, such as those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia or dementia, are not to be excluded from this meaning-making growth process. My work has mostly been with the former group and what follows discusses some implications of that. For me though, everybody means something and to deny that is to dehumanize us.

Perhaps it is important to clarify something. I use the word mind to cover a wide variety of possibilities. Consciousness is only one of them. Many important processes take place outside the circle of light shed by conscious attention. Mind is also where the body is experienced and shares a two-way relationship with the brain, so the realms of the physical are not excluded. The mind is a node in a sociocultural network and is affected by many wider systems which it maps and responds to in a variety of ways. No mind is an island! There is also strong evidence that the mind can operate independently of the body/brain (See Jenny Wade’s Changes of Mind, Ken Ring’s Lessons from the Light and David Fontana’s Is There an Afterlife? as well as posts on this site about the afterlife hypothesis for more detail about that.)

There are differences that should not be obscured. A psychologist is paid for her mind-work: her client is not. That is one difference which can create an undesirable power-differential if great care is not taken to counteract that tendency. Another difference lies in the fact that the client is the expert, as I have said, in his own mind: the psychologist is the expert when it comes to the nature of the work in some of its aspects. That is the only other difference. Both can grow as a result of the mind-work they do together.

That should be enough to set the scene for the exploration of my way of working that follows.

The Client’s Perspective

In 1996 I interviewed someone who had gone through a series of conversations with me about his voices. He was a former miner and an ex-army man from the Welsh valleys. He was articulate but down-to-earth. What he told me enriched my way of doing things considerably and shed a great deal of light into previously dark places. We made a video together, from which the photo  below is extracted but without showing his face, and he was very keen that it be used to help others understand this kind of problem better. At the time of the videoed interview we had been working together for about six months. There was still a long way to go but much of interest had happened. I will call him Ian to protect his identity.

Perhaps most importantly, he emphasised the role of trust.

P.: And it was in November that we first met, wasn’t it?

I.: Yeh. Jenny [his residential social worker not the author of the book recommended above!] had started talking about you, you know? And it was coming up to the meeting with you. And I can remember going to the meeting with you that first time. And I can remember thinking who’s this bloke asking me all these questions, you know? And I didn’t trust you. But Jen was persistent that I could trust you, so I decided to trust Jenny and to talk to you.

P.: And you actually asked if Jenny could come to sessions, didn’t you?BM & PH

I.: Yeh, I asked if Jenny could come, yeh.

P.: Right. And I think she came about the second or third time you came.

I.: Yeh.

P.: And did you feel more comfortable with her there?

I.: I did, yeh.

P.: And did that make you feel more able to begin to trust me at least personally if not what I was doing?

I.: It took about a month to start to trust you. And that was with Jenny backing you up.

This cannot be stressed too much. Trust takes a long time to build and is easily lost. In Ian’s case Jenny who had worked with him for years and vouched for me assisted the development of trust. In a “delusion” exercise I use in workshops we can see how a period of unsympathetic and confrontational treatment at the hands of other people makes it harder for someone to believe we are not going to be the same. We need to prove our trustworthiness over a period of time. We need to be prepared for hostility at worst and the cold shoulder or evasion at best in the early stages of our relationship. We would be wise not to assume that such behaviour is the result of “paranoia.” It is at least as likely, if not more so, to be a natural reaction to months if not years of other people’s outspoken incredulity.

What also was important to the success of my work with Ian was all the effort Jenny put in in-between times.

I.: It took about a month to start to trust you. And that was with Jenny backing you up.

P.: And that was by being there in the sessions and by talking to you between whiles wasn’t it? You used to have meetings and discussions with her between times.

I.: Inbetweentimes, yeh. And we’d talk about what we’d talked about, you know? And she supported you in what she said.

She helped him remember what I had said or correct his distortions of it. She encouraged him to make use of the suggestions we had come up with. She helped him make sense of what was happening to him in the terms I had described it. Isolated mind-work sessions will achieve little if they are not reinforced and supported by a lot of work in-between.

We will hear much more from Ian in the next post.

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I recently have a short talk at the Birmingham Interfaith. It seemed worth sharing here as it relates to the current sequence.

Ever since I studied English Literature, and long before I eventually specialised in psychology or discovered the Bahá’í Faith, the words of a poet-priest from the Elizabethan period have stuck in my mind.

John Donne wrote:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

He wrote those words, part of the third of his five satires, during what must have been an agonising period of his life, when he was deciding to abandon the Roman Catholic faith, for which members of his family had died, and become an apostate. By taking this step, he avoided torture and execution and gained a career at the possible cost, in his mind, of eternal damnation.

While the Western world feels it has moved on from such ferocious divisions, the same does not seem to be true everywhere. Also, we should not perhaps feel we are completely free from milder variations of religious intolerance here.

This means that Donne’s message is still relevant.

The most obvious implication of what he says here is that we have to work hard to find Truth.

However, there are other equally important implications, and one of them in particular is crucial to the work of the Interfaith and makes a core aspect of the Bahá’í path particularly relevant for us in our relations both between ourselves and with the wider community.

Within the interfaith, we are all, in a sense, approaching Truth from different sides of this same mountain. Just because your path looks somewhat different from mine in some respects, it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, yours is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth.

Donne clearly felt so at the time he wrote Satire III:

As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion.

It is clear, if this is as true as I think it is, that we would all move faster upwards if we were able to compare notes humbly and carefully.

I think an aspect of the Bahá’í path is particularly useful for this purpose.

It stems partly from our core beliefs that all the great world religions are in essence one at the spiritual level, coming as they do from the same divine source, and that all of humanity is one at this spiritual level, not just at the level of our increasingly global material connections.

Bahá’u’lláh expresses this second form of unity in powerful terms. We are all created from ‘from the same dust’, and he explains why it is important that we recognise this: ‘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.’

It’s perhaps important to clarify that the unity He describes is inclusive of diversity: it does not mean uniformity. So, there will be cultural differences affecting our perspectives, creating a need to reconcile them if problems are to be solved.

This radical concept of oneness and interconnectedness is at the root of two Bahá’í practices that relate to our ability to work together in a way that transcends our differences. The skills appealed to me deeply as a way of enriching my therapeutic work with people whose perspectives on life were causing them painful problems.

One practice is shared by just about every religious tradition to some extent, and perhaps most extensively by Buddhism, which has the longest and richest tradition in this area.

This is termed reflection, meditation or contemplation in the Bahá’í Writings. There is one particular fruit of the meditative process that is most relevant here.

This spiritual skill or discipline helps create the necessary detachment and humility for true consultation to take place, because we are able to step back and withdraw our identification from our thoughts and ideas sufficiently to listen sympathetically and open-mindedly to what others are saying.

My experience as a Bahá’í strongly suggests that the detachment necessary for effective consultation between people cannot be achieved easily or possibly at all without this complementary process within each of us. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Son of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith,  describes it at one point as the ‘faculty of meditation’ which ‘frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1972][1] He also uses the terms reflection and contemplation to describe this state of mind. This process is so powerful that a tradition of Islam, quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states, ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ [Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán 1982]

The simplest way of explaining my understanding of what this involves is to use the image of consciousness, or in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms ‘the meditative faculty,’ as a mirror. At one level the mind simply captures as best it can what it experiences just as a mirror captures what’s in front of it.

A deeper implication is that, just as the mirror is not what it reflects but the capacity to reflect, our consciousness is not the same as its contents. To recognize this and develop the capacity to withdraw our identification with the contents of our consciousness, whether these be thoughts, feelings, sensations, or plans, enables us to consult with others effectively and reflect upon, as in ‘think about,’ our experiences, ideas and self-concepts. Once we can do this it becomes easier to change them if they are damaging us or other people.

Acquiring this skill is not easy.

An existential philosopher called Koestenbaum expresses it very clearly in his book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy.

He states that (page 69):

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

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? True reflection at the very deepest level, it seems to me, has to ultimately depend therefore upon the degree of our reliance upon God, but can also be achieved to some degree by disciplined practice alone.

Koestenbaum is optimistic about our ability to acquire this skill (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 what he means is definitely 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.

Reading Koestenbaum has helped to deepen my understanding of this concept.

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. In developing that capacity we will have to strive for perfection and be content with progress, as the saying goes.

As a process within the individual, it is complemented by and interacts with the process of consultation, as we will now explore.

Once we can reflect, we can then consult. Interestingly I see this as a two-way street. Just as reflecting more skilfully makes for better consultation, so does striving to consult properly enhance our ability to reflect.

And consultation makes the creative comparison of paths and perspectives possible, as we will see. As far as I am aware no tradition other than the Bahá’í Writings makes this link between these two skills so clearly nor emphasises so strongly the need for consultation as a dissolver of differences and enhancer of understanding both at a practical and a theoretical level.

Why is all this so important?

A statement on prosperity from the Bahá’í International Community, an NGO at the UN, states a key weakness of our culture’s basic approach:

Debate, propaganda, the adversarial method, the entire apparatus of partisanship that have long been such familiar features of collective action are all fundamentally harmful to its purpose: that is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.

Karlberg, in his book Beyond a Culture of Contest, makes the compelling point that for the most part our culture’s processes are adversarial: our economic system is based on competition, our political system is split by contesting parties and our court rooms decide who has won in the battle between defence and prosecution, rather than on the basis of an careful and dispassionate exploration of the truth. The French courtroom is, apparently, one of the few exceptions.

The Bahá’í International Community explain how we need to transcend our ‘respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals.’ They speak of ‘an atmosphere, characterized by both candour and courtesy’ where ‘ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur during the discussion but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued.’

Karlberg describes this alternative model in far more detail in his book than is possible to include here. His approach is based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is that (page 131: my emphasis):

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

It isn’t too difficult to see how all this might be applied to our interfaith work.

Paul Lample, a member of the Bahá’í supreme body, the Universal House of Justice, explains further (Revelation and Social Reality – page 215):

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context. Consultation is therefore, the practical, dialogical means of continually adjusting relationships that govern power, and, thus, to strive for justice and unity.

So, exactly what is this consultation?

Shoghi Effendi, a central figure in the explication of the Bahá’í faith after the deaths of its Founder, Bahá’u’lláh, and His son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as saying that ‘the purpose of consultation is to show that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1922[2]]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out the qualities required of us if we are to consult effectively. These include ‘purity of motive,’ ‘detachment from all else save God,’ (detachment – that key word again that helps us be united), ‘humility,’ and ‘patience.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1978[3]]

It should be clear by now that bringing those qualities to any process of collective decision-making will be made far easier if participants have already begun to master the art of reflection. In fact the link is so strong that Paul Lample, in his book Revelation & Social Reality,expresses it as follows (page 212): ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

In the light of all this, to summarise the core aspects, we could say that consultation as Bahá’ís understand it, is a spiritually based process of non-adversarial decision-making which assumes that:

  • no one person can formulate anywhere near an adequate representation of the truth. In a study group on consultation I facilitated at a Bahá’í summer school in Scotland last year, one of the participants nailed an extremely important point to the wall of our understanding. He said, ‘Being honest is not the same as being truthful. None of us can be sure what the truth is. That’s why we need to consult.’ An important implication of this is that even when we are convinced we are telling the ‘truth,’ we need to have the detachment to accept we might still have got it wrong, objectively speaking. So,
  • groups of people, if they pool their perspectives in a collaborative fashion, formulate increasingly accurate but still never fool-proof approximations to the truth, and
  • today’s formulation, no matter how useful, may be out-of-date by tomorrow.

Only its proper use can be guaranteed to transcend differences and discover the most effective and constructive lines of action.

The unity we all both desire and need is an ideal that may not be possible without true consultation, which is a spiritual discipline not easily or cheaply achieved.

Hopefully we can all agree that these concepts constitute fruitful food for thought, or do I really mean reflection?

Footnotes:

[1]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:Paris Talks(Bahá’í Publishing Trust UK – pages 173-176).

[2]. `Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in a letter dated 5 March 1922 written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, published in “Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932”, pages 21-22.

[3]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá –number 43.

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Heart to heart

Humanity’s crying need . . . . . calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.

(From a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001)

This seems worth republishing at this point, given its relevance to nature as an issue in the current sequence.

I had a recent deep discussion with an old friend (of course, I mean old in the sense of ‘known a long time.’) We are close in many ways. We share a similar sense of humour and many core values. However, we are hugely different in our interests – hers practical, mine theoretical – and temperament – she, extravert: me, introvert.

She was completely unable to understand how I could combine a deep love of nature with a completely passive attitude to gardening.

I gave into the temptation to react, which generally involves treading on dangerous ground and attempted to point out that she similarly fails to understand why I spend so much time and energy reading and writing, even though she values some of the ideas that come out of all that effort.

I referred to her passion as horticulture. It’s then that the concept of ‘hearticulture’ came to me in a flash, as a good way of contrasting our intense enthusiasms.

This idea has had a long gestation period though.

First of all there was the slogan used many years ago in the Bahá’í community ‘Uniting the World: one heart at a time’ with the logo that accompanied it (see picture at the head of this post). I used to joke that this meant we were involved in heart-to-heart resuscitation.

Then there was the idea of ‘psy-culturalist’ which I coined in my discussion of my approach to mind-work, more specifically working with those who were experiencing distressing and abusive voices and the delusions that sometimes accompanied them. I wrote:

Because, to do mind-work, I drew on lots of other disciplines and traditions, including philosophy, psychology, biology, religion (especially Buddhism and the Bahá’í Faith) and the arts, I could sometimes feel like giving myself a fancy title such as psy-culturalist. This captures the richness of the traditions I could draw on and also captures the essential purpose of mind-work which is growth. It also meant I didn’t have to label myself a psychologist with its one-sided implication that I study the mind but don’t work with it, nor did I have to call myself a Clinical Psychologist with its implications of illness and therapy, which are insulting to the client.

Psy-culturalist, as a term, has a similar problem to Clinical Psychology. If we think about gardening, it’s a one-way street. Plants, as a general rule, don’t grow people. Mind-work, though, is both reciprocal and reflexive. I grow you and you grow me and we grow ourselves as well!

Flowers near the Shrine

Flowers near the Shrine of the Báb

Thirdly, there was all my pondering on the issue of the ‘understanding heart.’ In that process I attempted to unpack some of the implications of a key image in the Bahá’í Writings: the heart as a garden. I wrote:

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.

I know that the term ‘hearticulture’ could still be seen as one-sided. I’m the gardener and you’re the garden. But in terms of the Bahá’í perspective that would be missing a crucial point: I need to tend my heart, you need to tend yours and we can both help each other in this process. We both can help each other develop a growth mindset, to borrow Carol Dweck’s terminology.

Once we begin to see what this means, every interaction with another human being, or even with an animal, insect or plant, becomes an opportunity to facilitate our growth and the growth of the being with whom we are interacting. And, what’s just as or even more important, they can facilitate ours.

That heart is an anagram of earth just makes the metaphor even more appealing. I have come to realize that hearticulture is my true passion. Everything I do is influenced, perhaps even entirely reducible, to that purpose. I want to understand myself and others better, that’s true, but not just for its own sake, but for the purpose of growth. And if our hearts grow, so will the earth as a whole benefit. When our hearts shrink, the world dies a little. If all our hearts should shrivel completely, the world as we know it would be utterly destroyed. We would wreak such havoc that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be utterly dwarfed by the consequences.

Basically, I have to learn how to expand my heartfelt sense of connectedness so that it embraces the whole earth. I believe that’s what we all need to learn. I want to learn it too, and as fast as I can, but I have discovered over the years that the metaphor of gardening applies here also in a way. I cannot grow faster than the laws of nature and the limitations of my own being allow. To paraphrase a Bahá’í pamphlet on making the equality of men and women a reality, hearticulture will also take love, patience and the passage of frustratingly long spans of time.

But that is not a reason not to persist in the attempt.

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O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh  No. CLII)

My wife and I were sitting reading on the upper deck as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon. The sea was calm. There was a low band of cloud floating just at the bottom of the sky-line. It didn’t look as though we’d get the spectacular fire-forge of a sunset we’d been hoping for. Still, it was pleasant to sit, stroked by a relatively gentle wind, before a sky far wider than we usually enjoyed.

I took out my copy of Mindfulness and the Natural World by Claire Thompson. I had decided to use one of her meditations (page 124) to help me tune in more to nature.

‘Write a list of five things in nature that you noticed that day and feel grateful for.’ I started to work on my list, glancing at the sinking sun as I scoured my memory.

There was the fig tree in the square in Cadiz, at least I think it was a fig tree. The fruit hanging from its branches might have been just a tad too large to be a fig, but I wrote that down anyway.

Then there was the old tree in the coastal garden there. We’d been hurrying back to the boat at that point so I didn’t really have time to savour fully the complexity of its system of branches, but the impact it made even so had stuck in my mind.

I was beginning to struggle at this point. Clearly my campaign to connect with nature was getting off to a bad start here.

As I gazed at the slowly reddening sun, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a woman with an expensive camera leaning over the rail and staring at the water.

The melons I had eaten in my fruit salad came to mind for some reason. I wrote it down. That concoction was going to be a regular feature of my on-board diet, though I didn’t know that yet. Gratitude would shift into boredom.

Then I remembered the flocks of seagulls swooping down towards the waves as we pulled out of Cádiz.

As I worked on remembering another item to make my list of five, and tried to summon up a feeling of gratitude for the experiences I had remembered, the lady with the camera approached.

‘Hallo,’ she said, in a clearly Spanish accent.

‘Hi,’ I responded. ‘Glad you came up to speak to us. I was wondering what you were hoping to catch in your camera.’

‘Whales or dolphins.’

‘Ah, that explains your badge,’ I said, catching on slightly late to something I had noticed earlier even at a distance. I could read it clearly now. ‘Orca. What does that mean exactly?’

She gave me her opt-in card.

‘We’re giving a talk tomorrow. Would you like to come? It’s at 10 o’clock in the theatre.’

‘We will do. By the way it’s a bit of a coincidence that I was trying to tune into nature better when you showed up.’

I showed her the page I was working on and what the meditation was about.

She expressed polite interest before moving on to the next deck chair.

Later, at her talk, we learned, amongst other things, that the Orca, though it is known as the killer whale, is really a dolphin because it has teeth, which whales do not. There are 29 species of the whale/dolphin family in the Mediterranean. The tongue of the largest whale is large enough for an African elephant to stand on and its heart is the size of a VW car, apparently. The Orca is more modestly sized as a bus. The sperm whale can hold its breath for two hours. I’m not sure this factual approach was helping me in my efforts to tune in to the natural world.

After she walked away, I remembered the pigeons cooling off in the fountain just off the Plaza de España in Cádiz. I was kicking myself for not having taken a photograph.

I had a half-hearted attempt to meditate with gratitude on the five things in nature I’d recently noticed, before picking up the book to read some more, glancing at the setting sun as I did so, but failing to wonder why I hadn’t used that in my list instead of the melons.

Unfortunately I bumped up against one of my bêtes noirs almost as soon as I started reading (page 33

Like our bodies and our senses, our minds came from nature and were shaped by living in the natural world.

It is amazing to me how deep-seated and taken for granted this reductionist view of the mind is, spawned within the default materialism in which our minds swim. A materialistic model of the mind leaves us only with the Earth as a self-transcendent source of meaning and a motivator to lift our sights higher and behave more morally. This is the problem I have discussed before in reaction to Rifkin’s prescription for a change that would save our civilisation. Rifkin clearly feels our connection with the earth is the best hope we’ve got (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

As I expanded on in that post, my sense is that, sadly, nature alone will not be enough to lift us above our tendencies to self-destruction.

Of course, I also accept that some forms of ‘religion’ have led to the opposite problem, an exploitative contempt for nature and recognize that we need to integrate both religion and nature constructively if we are to survive.

Thompson’s reductionist assumptions continued (page 49):

To live in the realms of our minds and to cling to the idea of a constant separate ‘I’ experiencing our entire lives lies at the heart of most of our unhappiness.

It is true that our idea of who we are can cause unhappiness, but it does not prove that believing there is no self at all will make us happy. She is conflating mind with its contents. She is not considering the possible nature of pure consciousness, another issue I have dealt with at length elsewhere in a discussion of Sam Harris’ position in the light of his meditative practice. The part of it that is relevant to recall here, because of Thompson’s attachment to Buddhism, is this:

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to something Harris says: ‘The implied centre of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.’

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

I put the book down again and picked up that day’s Sudoku puzzle, something the cruise printed off every morning for all passengers to battle with between watching the waves, the sunset or the dancing lessons in the Atrium (that term is an interesting remnant of the Roman civilisation which made it difficult to shake of the amphitheatre associations I described last time).

Instead of focusing on the numbers, I found my mind drifting back to another book I’d read before setting off on this trip, one that dealt with nature, this time in the context of poetry, and hadn’t pressed my anti-scientism button to quite the same extent, but enough to explain why my mind now drifted off in that direction.

Before setting foot on any deck, I had completed my reading of Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth. Its rich and intriguing exploration of the relationship between poetry and nature was reshaping my understanding of both nature and poetry. I took it with me onboard ship along with his biography of John Clare, a sensation in his time as a peasant poet, an English equivalent of Robert Burns. The lifelong theme of his poetry was nature. His almost obsessional life’s work was a vast collection of poems rooted in his passionately intense and minute observations of the natural world.

I had naively thought that the cruise would bring me closer to the sea in a way that would deepen my relationship with nature. I had underestimated how hard the glittering carapace of the cruise ship would make connecting with the sea it sailed on, and how the instrumental architecture of the docks we landed at would virtually delete from sight the land we disembarked on. Cranes and containers, warehouses and duty free shops, competed for my attention instead.

Even driving through the countryside near Livorno, on the way to Pisa, had its ironic contrasts: on the right flourished green glades of umbrella pines opposite the war machine of an American army base.

Even so the conclusions Bate had reached in The Song of the Earth were still rattling round my head.

An important insight towards the end of the book comes from a poet whose complete works I recently took to the local Oxfam shop as not worth keeping. Bate writes (page 238):

Murray implies that the vastness and untamability of Australia mean that the peculiar power and sacredness of that land may still be sensed. He christens this religious sense ‘Strine Shinto.’ His own poetry – though tempered with wryness, irony and self-deprecation – undertakes a complex integration of the ancient idea that nature is the book in which a transcendent God writes his presence with a kind of secular Shinto which serves as the ground for an environmental ethic.

The insight, combining as it does the sacred and poetic with the natural, resonated strongly with me. I have written before of how repellant I find our exploitative relationship with the earth, a point that Bate touches on (page 244):

Advanced Western culture has a distinctive and perhaps exceptionally divisive understanding of humankind’s relationship to nature, an understanding which may for convenience be traced back to Baconian empirical science and Cartesian philosophical dualism, and which was further developed in Kantian idealism.

He pushed me to confront an issue that I hadn’t really thought much about before (page 251):

If ‘world’ is, as Ricoeur has it, a panoply of possible experiences and imaginings projected through the infinite potentiality of writing, then our world, our home, is not earth but language. . . . There is a special kind of writing, called poetry, which has the peculiar power to speak ‘earth’. Poetry is the song of the earth.

I’m not sure I agree with his point about where our home is, but I was eager to explore the idea of poetry as the ‘song of the earth.’

The sun was almost set now. Time to go back to our room and listen to the news before attempting to go to sleep, in my case with the usually reliable sedative of a good book.

As we took the lift down through the eight levels to Deck 5 after our conversation about whales and dolphins, I remembered the point in the mindfulness book that had linked with Thompson’s reductionism and Bate’s use of the example of one poet who has always intrigued me, though also frustrated my full understanding of what he is attempting to say (page 263):

In a letter of 13 November 1925 to his Polish translator, Rilke explained his purpose in his master work, the Duino Elegies. He considered these meditations as responses to the transience of all earthly things. In the face of transience, the poet must undertake the work of transformation. . . The language of unification and transformation, the yoking of earth and consciousness, the divinisation of the immanent world as against a withdrawal to a transcendent realm: these are all the moves which Wordsworth made in ‘Tintern Abbey’.

The phrase ‘as against a withdrawal to a transcendent realm’ struck a warning bell to which I will return later in this sequence – shades of reductionism again perhaps?

For now the key point is the haunting truth that (page 281):

The poetic articulates both presence and absence, it is both the imaginary recreation and the trace on the sand which is all that remains of the wind itself. The poetic is ontologically double because it may be thought of as ecological in two senses: it is either (both?) a language (logos) that restores us to our home (oikos) or (and?) a melancholy recognising that our only (oikos) home is language (logos).

It relates to something I was already aware of: transience. A haunting example cut literally across my path in China when I saw a man writing in water on the path of a Shanghai park. I learnt that this was a symbol of transience, of how all things fade eventually as time goes by.

When we got back to our cabin we watched Sky news, our default channel and not my preferred fare, which on this occasion was focused partly on the earthquakes in Indonesia. There had been a second one, slightly weaker than the first but still causing damage and possible loss of life. We promised ourselves we’d check with our steward the following day to make sure his family were all OK. 

Writing with Water in a Shanghai Park – a Buddhist symbol of Evanescence

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PTSD and war

Before we plunge further in from where we got to last time, I need to look briefly at what is known about the impact of war trauma on those affected by killing other human beings. This will help clarify just how disabling the effects of Ian’s experiences were likely to be on someone who was already undoubtedly very vulnerable.

There was an in-depth look at this in a television documentary in the wake of the Falklands War. The programme adduced a wealth of evidence that most human beings have a powerful and deep-seated aversion to killing other people. Approximately 98% of us are to varying degrees averse. For example, there were soldiers in the days of muzzle-loading muskets, who died with their muskets in their hands, the barrel full of undischarged ammunition balls. They had faked reloading without firing, so reluctant were they to risk killing anyone. Others, using rifles, were known to aim to miss or to wound slightly rather than to kill.

There are two outliers, representing about 1% in each case, who have no such inhibitions. One such exception is, not surprisingly, the psychopath. The other exception, which is very surprising, is an otherwise morally and emotionally normal individual who has no compunction about killing.

Psychologists, to their shame, devised training methods, using probable battle scenarios, that made rapid and automatic shooting to kill seem easy and unproblematic. These scenarios were practiced repeatedly until the lethal reaction was instinctive. What no one predicted was how traumatic many soldiers found it, to be confronted in battle with the consequence of their training: a dead soldier they had killed without a moment’s thought. As with Ian, the post-traumatic reactions were often devastating, with guilt and horror as key components of flashbacks and nightmares. In his case the signs of trauma were the unrelenting voices, a waking nightmare in effect.

Some of the horror of this is captured in Keith Douglas’s poem of the Second World War, How to Kill.

keyesdouglas

Keith Douglas

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

This is an equally disturbing but different kind of trauma from the kind captured in Wilfred Owen’s poems, such as Dulce et Decorum Est.

The intense guilt Ian harboured about his army experiences was too hard to bear and he had buried it. However, his subsequent guilt over throwing his alcoholic partner out of the house because her drinking was consuming his income from three jobs and he couldn’t cope any longer, reactivated the earlier even more intense guilt, because he thought she might die on the street, meaning that he might in a sense have killed her.

During the first period of therapy he felt that he was dealing only with his guilt about her, and that this was the main problem in terms of his voices. This was hard enough. Only later did he come to realise, by the impact of an anniversary effect I’ll come to in the next post, that the far darker army experiences, that he hadn’t yet dealt with, lay still active in this respect underneath.

What use is religious practice here?

There is much evidence that faith and religion are beneficial to mental (and physical) health. They reduce amongst other difficulties: depression, anxiety, suicide, & psychosis. The protectors they provide include: greater meaning and purpose, higher self-esteem, social support, less loneliness and more hope. (Harold Koenig at al. in Religion and Health’ Chapter 15)

My focus now will be on two aspects: reflection and consultation. Buddhism offers the most obvious example of powerful reflective processes. There is also a wealth of information that suggests most strongly that the process of collaborative conversation (Andersen and Swim), of consultation in the Bahá’í sense (see John Kolstoe), of inquiry (see Senge), of interthinking, can achieve remarkable results: Neil Mercer talks of the crucial function of language and says:

it enables human brains to combine their intellects into a mega-brain, a problem-solving device whose power can be greater than that of its individual components. With language we are able not only to share or exchange information, but also to work together on it. We are able not only to influence the actions of other people, but also to alter their understandings. . . . . Language does not only enable us to interact, it enables us to interthink.

It is the special combination of both these processes that is unique to the Bahá’í Faith as far as I am aware, though variations of each alone can be found in other either religious or educational/therapeutic contexts.

After I qualified and became a member of the Bahá’í community, fully integrating my understanding and practice of these processes into my clinical repertoire took a couple of years. I came to feel the benefits of that were considerable.

These weren’t the only factors I tried to accommodate. The hardest to digest was the belief that the mind is not dependent upon the brain. I have dealt with that in detail elsewhere.

The easiest was the notion that not only is the spiritual core of all religions essentially the same, but also humanity is in essence one: we are all part of the human family and all interconnected, not just at a material level but at a spiritual one as well. This is relevant here. This concept of unity not only serves to dispel any residual sense we might have that someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia is somehow a different kind of being from us, but it also clarified that being inwardly divided, as many of us are, is not only a betrayal of our own essential inner oneness but an obstacle to our connecting with others, not just as a therapist but in any relationship. Similarly a community that is at odds with itself with find it hard to connect with everyone on a harmonious basis. I will be returning to that point.

My shorthand description of reflection is to say that it involves separating consciousness from its contents. Consultation, in similarly brisk terms, is the dispassionate comparison of notes, with the emphasis here on the word ‘dispassionate.’

Reflection

In discussing the nature and power of reflection I usually start with Peter Koestenbaum’s book, New Image of the Person: Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy.

Reflection, he says (page 99): ‘. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.’ I will look more closely at exactly what this might mean in a moment. Before we move on from his take on the matter, 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 am quoting this upfront so that, if you find what I’m going to say from a faith perspective hard to accept, this might help.

In earlier posts I have discussed how psychosis is a very rigid and inflexible state of mind. I believe it is simply at the end of a continuum along which we all are placed. We all to some degree at times overvalue our beliefs, our perceptions, our simulation of reality. This can bring about a degree of attachment to them that makes us inflexible and highly resistant to contradictory evidence or different perspectives. This does not create a huge problem if our take on reality is not also destructive or frightening or both.

Fixity in the face of often extremely unpleasant phenomena causes an unacceptable and virtually inescapable amount of distress to the sufferer and of anxiety in his friends and family. The distress is what brings the sufferer to the attention of the psychiatric services. Psychiatry then applies the label schizophrenia. This label, in my view, mixes up the content of the experiences with the person’s relationship to those experiences in what can be a most unhelpful way.

Just as it is important to separate our perceptions (voices, visions and other internally generated experiences in other sensory modalities) from our understanding (beliefs, models, assumptions, meaning systems etc), it is crucial also to separate out, from the nature of these experiences in themselves, this loss of perspective and flexibility which I am calling fixity.

I have examined elsewhere on this blog the various ways that this fixity can be dispelled. Here I plan to focus simply on reflection. This is not because they are irrelevant. One, which I term disowning, by which I meant discounting or suppressing uncomfortable contents of consciousness such as pain, grief or guilt, was something Ian described in in the process of our shared reflections: he saw himself as increasingly ‘recognising’ his feelings rather than ‘repressing’ them.

My focus though will be on how reflection enables us to contain unpleasant material in consciousness, giving us time to think about and explore it, prior to integrating it.

Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, in the Kitáb-i-Íqán (Book of Certitude) quoted a hadith from the Islamic tradition: ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to 70 years’ pious worship.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

His son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, explored this in a talk he gave at a Friends’ Meeting House in London in 1913. He spoke of reflection, meditation and contemplation as virtually equivalent concepts. He went on to explain their power (Paris Talks – pages 174-176):

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. . . .

Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . .

The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these. . . .

What he says for me maps onto Koestenbaum but in more directly spiritual terms. It explains why reflection, also connected with meditation and contemplation, is so powerful from a Bahá’í point of view.

The mirror analogy along with Bahá’u’lláh’s various references to the human heart as a mirror, led me to ask: what are the possible similarities between consciousness and a mirror?

Basically, a mirror is NOT what is reflected in it. In the same way, consciousness is not its contents. We are not what we think, feel, sense, plan, intend, remember, imagine and so on. This is also known as Disidentification in Psychosynthesis. In Jessica Davidson’s very brief summary, the affirmation exercise this form of therapy uses reads like this:

I have a body and sensations, but I am not my body and sensations. I have feelings and emotions, but I am not my feelings and emotions. I have a mind and thoughts, but I am not my mind and thoughts. I am I, a centre of Pure Awareness and Power.

Less controversially for most people I suspect, I would prefer to affirm that I have sensations, but these change from moment to moment so I cannot be my sensations. I am the capacity to sense. And so on with feelings, thoughts, plans, memories and imaginings, including our ideas about ourselves and what or who we are. Assagioli’s final affirmation was, as I remember, ‘I am a centre of pure consciousness and will.’

Reflection enables us to find meaning in what we are tempted to call ‘madness.’ It gives us the freedom to examine it even if only in our own minds. Psychosis is almost always meaningfully rooted in a client’s experience.

How might reflection help us find meaning?

Reflection helps counteract the fixity of attachment to the contents of consciousness that characterises what is called the ‘psychotic’ experience. The crucial stepping back relates not just to the experiences themselves, such as visions and voices, but to the explanations the sufferer has created for the experiences, which then cease to be delusional.

What Ian thought was just schizophrenia had meaning. Understanding and integrating that meaning released him from his voices. To understand his psychotic experiences he had to neither suppress them nor surrender to them: he had to contain them so he could examine them.

Recognising that they were simply the contents of his consciousness enabled him to step back, experience and think about them. They no longer had power over him.

I will sharing some of his thoughts on this in the final post.

Consultation

But there is one step further we can go.

When Ian loosened his identification with his experiences, he was able not just to think about them, he could also compare notes with others about what they might mean: he could consult in a Bahá’í sense of that undervalued word.

The Bahá’í International Community, which represents the Faith at the United Nations, quotes Bahá’u’lláh on consultation (The Prosperity of Humankind Section III): ‘In all things it is necessary to consult. The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.’

What might He mean by that. Paul Lample in his excellent book Revelation and Social Reality puts forward his view: (page 199):

Consultation is the method of Bahá’í discourse that allows decisions to be made from the bottom up and enacted, to the extent possible, through rational, dispassionate, and just means, while minimising personal machinations, argumentation, or self-interested manipulation.’

Key words and phrases here are: ‘from the bottom up’ which I take to mean not imposed in some condescending fashion by those who feel superior; ‘dispassionate’ meaning objective and detached (something I’ll come back to in more detail in the next and last post); and ‘minimising . . . manipulation,’ so no ulterior motives or advantage seeking creep in.

Later he adds further illumination (page 215):

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context.’

The key concept here is the ‘collective investigation of reality.’ This means that all parties involved in consultation are comparing notes, sharing perspectives, without undue attachment to their own point of view and not in an attempt to win an argument but with a sincere striving to understand reality better.

Just as the client needs to reflect, so does the ‘therapist.’ It is a two way street. And the therapist needs to model what she wants the client to learn: reflection. If she does not consultation is not possible. She must be as detached from her conclusions as she wants the client to be. If both client and therapist can reflect together as equals they are genuinely consulting. They can achieve a higher level of understanding, a better simulation of reality, together, than they ever could alone.

We are now ready to explore the impact of these processes on Ian and to examine some other important factors and considerations. More of that next time.

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