Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

There’s a sequence coming up that relates to the issue discussed in my very first sequence of posts in 2009. It seemed a good excuse to republish them at this point. They will be posted on consecutive days. 


Can you take it with you when you die?
A very rich man was close to death. As death grew closer he grew more and more unhappy at the idea of leaving all his wealth behind. Night and day he prayed fervently to God: “God! I know everything is possible to you. I beseech you to let me take some of my riches with me when I die.”

This went on for days without an answer. Finally, after hours of constant prayer, he heard a voice from the sky say: “Very well. You can take what ever will fit into one small suitcase.”

The man was overjoyed and spent at least a minute thanking his maker effusively before he set about the important work of deciding what to take. After long hours of solitary  deliberation he made up his mind that the best thing to do was fill his suitcase with gold bars. This he did at the dead of night and dragged the suitcase to his bedside.

Much to the mystification of his family he insisted on keeping the suitcase at the side of his bed from then on.

Sure enough, on the night he died God kept his promise and he found himself at the gates of heaven dragging his heavy case towards Saint Peter. But St Peter found the situation highly irregular and wouldn’t let him take the suitcase in with him.

“But God has given me a special dispensation. I can take just one case of worldly goods into heaven with me,” the man insisted desperately. Saint Peter, inwardly thinking this was all some kind of delusion, reluctantly sent an angel off to ask God what the deal was here.

Ten thousand years later (our time but in a twinkling of an eye up there) the angel returned and to the astonishment of Saint Peter, confirmed the man’s story.

“Streuth!” the Saint muttered, having been too busy to update his oaths since the population explosion of the twentieth century, “I’d better let you in then. But I can’t let you through these gates until I’ve seen what’s in that suitcase. You can’t be too careful, even in heaven. The devil still has some scary tricks up his sleeve.”

So, the man proudly opened his suitcase to display the wonders of his wealth. Saint Peter’s eyebrows shot up over his head: “All this hassle and you brought paving stones!”

[I have adapted this joke  from a wonderful book called “Plato and a Platypus walk into a bar . . . understanding philosophy through jokes”  – pages 177-178]

The joke has more than one sting to it.

We know we couldn’t take a suitcase up to heaven and, in the present security conscious climate, you’d probably be gunned down by a guardian angel long before you got within ten thousand leagues of the pearly gates if you were foolish enough to try. We may even feel there is no heaven to which we could carry anything at all. If there is a heaven and, when we go, we could take with us the stuff that is precious to us here, it would count for next to nothing up there anyway.

Image scanned from the cover of the Norton Coleridge

Image scanned from the cover of the Norton Coleridge

What can’t be lost in a shipwreck?

“You possess only what will not be lost in a shipwreck.”

[El Gazali: I met this first in Tahir Shah’s “In Arabian Nights” ]

And what is that exactly?

To the materialist it’s obvious. There is nothing that can’t be lost in a shipwreck – goods, friends, family, consciousness, individuality, life itself. (Well, strictly speaking you probably won’t lose your house in a shipwreck exactly, but you get the point.) Nothing left over. Death = zero, the great black void. All that remains of you lies rather than lives, for a few more years, in the memories of those you leave behind. And when they die too, those few faint traces of your life die with them.

Those who feel there might be something else can give a different answer, with very varying degrees of confidence admittedly. “My mind lives on,’ they might say, “because I have an immortal soul. And I’ll meet my loved ones on the other side.”

“Yeh, right!” the sceptic responds, shaking his head at the follies of his fellows. Too many people, he feels, still believe too many impossible things before breakfast and for the rest of the day as well!

Most of the answers in the monotheistic religions I grew up with take on some variation of the “I’ll meet my loved ones” form.

In the East – and it’s India, China and the Far East I’m thinking of here – they’re not so sure about whether I have a soul in exactly that sense and whether I will remember who I was in the shape I take on next. I was put off Buddhism, many years ago, when I attended a talk by a Tibetan monk, who insisted I could well come back as a rat or a dog.

This seemed a far cry from the sophisticated analysis of mental states I had come to admire so much from reading about Buddhism’s core teachings and about the meditative experience, which I was experimenting with myself at the time. While other views of reincarnation are less shape-shiftingly dissonant with our sense of self, they all entail a greater reduction in our sense of who we are than the Christian or Islamic traditions do.

Eastern traditions would generally agree, though, that my mind is able to function in some way and to some degree independently of my brain and that therefore there will be something that is not lost in the shipwreck, though it may not be immediately recognisable to me or anyone else who knew me.  The Dalai Lama, for example, is extremely sceptical about Western near death experiences (NDEs) that describe being met by loved ones after what may or not be an experience of death as it will really be. He feels the predeceased would already have been reincarnated and therefore unavailable. They’d be otherwise engaged, so to speak, unavoidably detained elsewhere, reaping what they had sown perhaps among the scent-drenched pleasures of a dog’s life, if my unfortunate and possibly misleading encounter with the monk is anything to go by.

The Bahá’í view is that we take with us into the next life what we have made of our souls in this one. This world is the womb of the next.

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.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh LXXXI).

What we have learned of love and wisdom, what has nurtured our innate character – the soul, goes with us. We leave all else behind. Clearly that matters to me as an individual if I am a believer: why should it matter to you if you are not?

That is something we can explore together in the next post.

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A relevant blast from the past in the light of yesterday’s post.

Forget about jam and Jerusalem. Marmalade and meditation is the real deal.

Bruce made a significant comment on my review of Iain McGilchrist‘s book about the need for a proper balance between the way the two halves of our brain work together, the left with its word-dependent logic and the right with its creative intuition:

At the time I “found” McGilchrist’s book I was reading concurrently a history of Greek philosophers, a narrative of the development of the “western mind” and a quirky travelogue of discovery of “the psyche of Persia we really don’t know”, searching for something I wasn’t sure existed – a unified view, a coherence that McGilchrist just dropped into my lap . . . .  Best of all, when I put the book down, I find myself more inclined to seek out a wetlands forage for watercress than a newscheck on the internet!

When I read it I felt a twinge of envy at the idea of foraging for watercress in a wetlands habitat. It was only fleeting though. My connection with nature has always tended to be passive rather than active. My interest in gardens, for example, extends only as far as sitting in them with immense pleasure: any actual gardening tends to result in injury or accidental damage. I end up lacerated by thorns or by cutting the trimmer cable in half. This takes the edge of any slight pleasure I might have felt and tips me well over the cliff into aversion.

So, I came to feel, perhaps with a slight sense of smug complacency, that the impact on me of McGilchrist’s insights, though considerable, might extend no further than a bit of meditation laced with poetry. And those who have been following this blog will testify there’s been a lot of poetry recently. I never thought I’d sink to practicalities.

Until, that is, a friend of ours gave my wife a hefty bag of plums. It looked like there were millions of them and they were very small. My wife mentioned something about making jam so I made some excuse about needing to answer a load of emails and disappeared into my study. I was there for what felt like several hours and thought the whole thing would have blown over by the time I came downstairs to make a cup of coffee.

As even Basil Fawlty at his most obtuse would have realised, making coffee requires going into the kitchen, and going into the kitchen, when jam making is in the air, is not a smart move for those who don’t want to make jam. As soon as I walked in I knew I had made a fundamental error. There on the table was a mountain of plums piled carefully in a massive bowl. Within seconds – I’m still not sure how it happened – I was back on my computer looking for recipes for plum jam. One of the drawbacks of Google is that you can find exactly what you don’t want if you make the mistake of looking for it. And I did.

Initially I emailed three of the recipes to my wife and came back downstairs to continue making the coffee.

‘Have you got the recipes, love?’ my wife asked quietly.

“I’ve emailed them to you,’ I said defensively.

‘Couldn’t you print one off?’ came the response.

It was at that point I knew the game was up.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

What I didn’t yet realise was how fulfilling the making of plum jam would be. And how my decision to resume regular and disciplined meditation two months previously had made it possible for me to take pleasure in exactly the kind of fiddly repetitive task that would have driven me to complete distraction just a few short weeks ago. Meditation had enabled me to maintain focus far better, accept the repetition in good spirit, notice with genuine surprise and pleasure the way each rounded fruit was subtly different from the last one and learn by stealth rather than conscious effort how to become more efficient and dextrous at getting every last piece of flesh off even the tiniest the stone. Preparing the plums in this way became a form of meditation in itself, a spiritual discipline that changed my consciousness, heightened my awareness and developed new skills. It changed me in a way that generalises to many things I do from emptying the dishwasher to replying to emails.

And it paved the way for making marmalade. My favourite form of jam.

But before I come onto that perhaps I’d better explain why I started to meditate again so much in earnest.

Sam Harris meditation pic

Meditation from Article by Sam Harris


It’s true that I have always done some meditation ever since I first learnt at the London Buddhist Society in the early 70s. But it had been a long time since I had done so with the discipline of those early days. It’s also true that for some years the emphasis psychology now places on mindfulness rekindled my interest a little. But I had of late been much more interested in reading about it than really doing it. And the McGilchrist book, while it drew me back to music and poetry, left my pattern of meditation very much as it found it.

In truth, I felt I was far too busy to make the time for anything more than a perfunctory gesture at the task. I had far more important things to do and I raced around doing them until the warnings from my interactions with the world became too strong for me to ignore.

First, in spite of my lip-service to mindfulness, I became so ungrounded by the pace I was keeping up, that I spilt coffee on my lap top and destroyed it. That jolted me more than a little but I still did not fully wake up to my need to change something radically until, late at night a month later, in a haze of fatigue, with my whole close family in the car, convinced I was already on the dual carriageway which was in fact still half a mile down the road, I moved out to pass the slow moving car and trailer ahead of me. I was alerted to my mistake when I saw, with initial incredulity, the headlights of an oncoming car heading straight for me in the distance. I pulled back inside with time to spare more by good luck than good judgement. What shocked me most about this incident was that fatigue had warped my perception of reality so much that what I believed about where I was completely overrode the cues telling me otherwise that were plainly there for me to see and respond to.

I remembered the story about a well-known Bahá’í, Dorothy Baker, who had a serious and almost fatal car-accident on a steep mountain road.

She mused aloud to a friend: ‘I wonder what God is trying to tell me.’

To which the reply came: ‘Dorothy, you drive too fast!’

The same kind of answer came to me in a flash, in the aftermath of this near collision: ‘Pete, you’re driving yourself too fast.’

Carl Jung used to say something like, ‘When life has a message for you, it first of all taps you gently on the shoulder, may be more than once. Then, if you don’t notice, it will slap you in the face. If you still don’t pay attention it will bang you hard in the head.’ This moment was my bang in the head.

It became clear to me that I had to take meditation seriously, slow down and trust that I would still be able to do all that was truly important to do.

So, at the start of every day since then, for half an hour at least, I have practised a form of meditation. (I won’t bore you with the details here but for anyone interested I’ve posted the basic model, as used in a group exercise, at this link Turning the Mirror to Heaven. It also explains how the method can be used alone.)

Initially I found it almost impossible to step back from a very disempowering belief. I believed that making time to meditate, and then using the calm I had generated to slow down my pace of work, would in fact make the whole situation much worse by leaving a trail of neglected tasks in my wake for others to trip over.

And it’s true I’ve had to decline some requests to take on more than I could do, and that was hard. But to my astonishment, almost all the major projects I’ve taken on continue to progress, though it still is hard to trust that the pace is fast enough – but as far as I know there’s no great harm done (‘yet’ says the voice I have to fight every time I meditate or do things mindfully).

And the strangest thing of all is that there has been time to make my own marmalade. I never thought I’d see the day when I would take pleasure in slicing orange peel into thin strips as though I had all the time in the world, my enjoyment marred by only the faintest suspicion that in doing so I must be neglecting something more important.

So my present unprecedented state of mind seems to be thanks to marmalade, McGilchrist and meditation. I still find myself wondering quite often, though, how long it will be before life pricks this bubble too. Some people are never satisfied.

Oh and, by the way, we gave a jar of plum jam to the friend who’d set this whole jam thing going and to my surprise she seemed to love it. Perhaps she was just being polite.

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. . . . . [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.



[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.


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.


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.


[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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