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Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bird feed in the park

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyebrows shot up. ‘A what?’

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

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

She nodded emphatically in agreement.

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

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

‘You just made it in time.’

‘Fortunately.’

‘Been doing anything interesting?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I decided not to push the issue of her beliefs.

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

Another idea flashed through my mind.

‘At the Death Cafe . . .’

I saw the look on Denise’s face.

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

She shook her head. I briefly explained again.

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

Silence.

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

But not for long.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds across water

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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It seems a good idea to republish this sequence from almost four years ago to complement the current new sequence on collaborative conversation. 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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Guernica

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

(MaitreyabandhuThe Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69)

In the last post I tried to pin down what it is that makes a poem. Now I’m moving on to a survey of the creative process from other perspectives than mine, trying to include a sufficient variety of angles without being able to cover all possibilities in such a relatively short post.

What the critics and the poets say about the process:

I’ll start with some hints derived from Peter Conrad’s over-ambitious overview, Creation: artists, gods & origins.

Looking at the ‘psychogenesis’ of art, he quotes Picasso as saying that art is (page 525), ‘the fire of Prometheus,’ by which Conrad thinks he means it is ‘a weapon to be used against orthodox divinities.’ Rank, however, in 1932, apparently took a different view and asserted (page 528) the ‘fundamental identity between art and religion.’ He felt that ‘art made possible our advance “from animism to religion,” because art is our only means “of exhibiting the soul in objective form and giving personality to God.”’

In a chapter titled Protoplasts Conrad notes the descriptions Byron and Shelley used to describe their experience of writing poetry (page 308):

For Byron, a poem was the lava-flow of imagination, a molten river of feeling. . . . . . . Shelley, less eruptive than Byron, called the mind in creation a fading coal, implying that the poet had to work fast before it cooled.

Ann Wroe sheds more light on that (page 311-12):

With inspiration, Shelley told Trelawney, the pressure within himself was . . . a sort of internal combustion under which his brain simmered and boiled ‘and throws up images and words faster than I can skim them off.’ Only after a while, when they had cooled, could he start to put them in order.

Shelley clearly also felt that suffering played a part in the genesis of true poetry. In Julian and Maddalo he puts these words into the mouth of the Byronic character:

He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’

Mondrian apparently connected creativity with his sexuality (Conrad: page 530):

For Mondrian the rigour of creation required strict sexual abstinence: ‘a drop of sperm spilt,’ he calculated, ‘is a masterpiece lost.’

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out the sense of something subliminal going on in more prosaic terms: ‘But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits. Poems, we’ve been told more than once, come from a dreamier, more associative place in the mind (and heart).’

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Psychology’s Angle

There are also many approaches to creativity within psychology. A Wikipedia article painstakingly draws attention to all of them, for those who are motivated to pursue this aspect further.

Among the approaches mentioned are the four Ps model: process, product, person and place (according to Mel Rhodes).[6] There are variations on that. For example, there are theories invoking divergent rather than convergent thinking (such as Guilford).

The article places some emphasis on the work of James C. Kaufman and Beghetto , who introduced a “four C” model of creativity; mini-c (“transformative learning” involving “personally meaningful interpretations of experiences, actions and insights”), little-c (everyday problem solving and creative expression), Pro-C (exhibited by people who are professionally or vocationally creative though not necessarily eminent) and Big-C (creativity considered great in the given field). Again this has been an influential model.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has defined creativity in terms of those individuals judged to have made significant creative, perhaps domain-changing contributions.

The relationship between creativity and mental health has been much explored (see the article itself for the full coverage which has many interesting links). The data they adduce is perhaps relevant here, given the tendency of contemporaries to label both Shelley and Byron as ‘mad,’ and in Byron’s case, ‘bad, and dangerous to know’ as well: however, their final caveat is probably the most important point:

However, as a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.[131]

A reference that maps on more closely to my existing biases is also mentioned:

Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung, noted that in these unconscious scientific discoveries the “always recurring and important factor … is the simultaneity with which the complete solution is intuitively perceived and which can be checked later by discursive reasoning.” She attributes the solution presented “as an archetypal pattern or image.”[161] As cited by von Franz,[162] according to Jung, “Archetypes … manifest themselves only through their ability to organize images and ideas, and this is always an unconscious process which cannot be detected until afterwards.”[163]

I have already noted the possibility of social facilitation effect when I referred to David Gilmour’s creative process and Shelley’s first contact with Byron. This aspect has also been much explored.

The key idea of this perspective is that a deeper understanding of how creative outputs are generated and become accepted can be achieved only by placing the individual within a network of interpersonal relationships. The influence of the social context in which individuals are embedded determines the range of information and opportunities available to them during the creative process. Several studies have begun to expose the network mechanisms that underlie the genesis and legitimacy of creative work.[178]

OatleyWhat Art can Achieve – The Novel & Consciousness-Raising:

Although Ricard’s book on altruism has almost nothing to say about the role of the arts, in a much earlier post I have discussed how systematic evidence points to the power of the novel to increase empathy. This is the only significant text I have so far come across that deals in any depth with the power of an art for positive moral good, so I will quote from it at some length here.

The general point can be summarised by Geoffrey Nash’s view (from Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald):

Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

Keith Oatley expresses his view by saying (from the Preface to his book Such Stuff as Dreams) ‘. . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.’

Obviously I need to be careful not to overextend to poetry what might only apply to novels but I do think his points are worth consideration here.

Keith Oatley’s book tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value.

So, what justifies my belief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art. Clearly there would be forms of verse that fit this kind of description and are merely entertainment. Similarly with his category of debasing fiction that, for example, promotes violence or abuse.

He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 177):

In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.

Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral, and finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects – page 159):

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):

The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).

You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog  This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):

The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.

Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):

Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.

Samadhi_Buddha_01What Art can Achieve – The Power of the Poem

In a previous sequence of posts I looked in depth at the nature of poetry, focusing in particular on the thinking of Maitreyabandhu, who has a rich and subtle take on this whole issue.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.)

We’ll come back to that quote later.

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges overall? He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):

I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. I want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.

He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):

At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.

Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):

Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. . . . . illuminat[ing] meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.

Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.

He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.

Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end is close to the one in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which we dealt with earlier. Fromm defines two types of stimuli (page 269):

What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. . . . .

The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.

While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.

Maitreyabandhu moves on, in the remainder of his article, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):

Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.

I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.

What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):

When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).

Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative – beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’

He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):

He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.

Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).

It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):

Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.

This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’

He then begins to tease this out (page 68):

Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.

But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc — breakthroughs into new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.

Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

Where Maitreyabandhu distinguishes between fancy and imagination, others take a slightly different angle on the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FWH Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ It’s a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live. We have to learn to distinguish between the two both as poets and readers.

In the end, for me, great poetry must combine music with a kind of algebra. By the latter word I mean what John Hatcher refers to in his book on Robert HaydenFrom the Auroral Darkness (pages 16-17):

. . . . . the one quality of poetry which in every interview and discussion about Auden, Hayden inevitably mentions is Auden’s analogy between good poetry and algebra. This notion of poetry as a process of ‘solving for the unknown’ [captures the theory that influenced him].

If a poem can successfully combine these two things in a positive way, the experience it creates will raise consciousness to a higher level and enable us to connect with all life more effectively, and will almost certainly stimulate us to act in ways that enhance the world we live in. These are the criteria I will now seek to apply to three of Shelley’s poems in order to assess their quality before analysing the possible sources of their inspiration.

I’ll follow up on that next Monday.

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Builth

On the way to the venue the first morning

Last weekend I was fortunate to be able to participate in a meditation weekend at Builth Wells. The experience was organised so that three facilitators shared their sense of how the meditative faculty might be facilitated with three groups of about fifteen people who moved from facilitator to facilitator over the course of the weekend.  Hopefully everyone found something from among the experiences shared that helped them move further down the road of exploring this special state of mind. I thought it might be worth sharing the basic notes used to structure the sessions I was involved in. So, here they are with a few pictures thrown in for good measure. 

First Session

Overview (15 minutes)

The wine of renunciation must needs be quaffed, the lofty heights of detachment must needs be attained, and the meditation referred to in the words “One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship” must needs be observed . . . .”

(Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 238 US edition, page 152 UK edition)

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No. 68)

This weekend gives an opportunity to explore different approaches to what is usually referred to as meditation. Many years ago, when I was exploring Buddhism, I discovered that it might not be wise to advocate any one form of meditation as suitable for everyone. A school of Tibetan Buddhism had an approach that surprised me at the time. Each novice monk or nun who enrolled in this order was each given their own unique meditative path on the grounds that no two people will benefit from exactly the same process. Each mantra and each mandala were created specially for each acolyte.

The Bahá’í position is in part the same. We do not teach any particular form of meditation though we are all encouraged to meditate. We each have to discover our own best path.

As a psychologist I am well aware that we all differ in crucial respects that will affect our preferred meditative path. Some of us are very visual and can summon up vivid pictures in our minds – I’m not one of those for sure; others respond most strongly to hearing with a feeling for the sounds of words even when they repeat them silently in their minds; others are labelled kinaesthetic, and I am one such, and respond best of all to sensation and movement, so exercises such as following the breath work well for them.

The aim, though, of all approaches to meditation is to enable us to quieten the mind, separate our consciousness from the constant film show and chatter we have learned to mistake for who we really are, and gain increased awareness of our true spiritual core, hidden behind these veils.

One of the images used in the Bahá’í Writings to help us understand this is the mirror: it is interesting therefore that we find the word ‘reflection’ also used to describe the skill we are seeking to learn. Not only do we have to cleanse the mirror of dirt before it can reflect exactly what is before it, we need to understand as well that if the mind is like a mirror it is also never what is reflected in it.

In this way we can avoid two deadly traps.

When we have turned the mirror of our hearts and minds towards worldly things we can make the mistake of assuming that the reflection of this material version of reality is who we really are and what the world is really like. When we do this we are caught in a trance that keeps us shackled to materialism.

When we have cleansed the mirror of our heart, and it is turned towards the world of the spirit and has begun to reflect the glory we find there, we can make the mistake of thinking we are glorious. The pride that follows will destroy us spiritually. We have to realise we are not the glory. We are only a channel for this spiritual power, just like a mirror that shines the sun’s light into a dark cave.

As you may have already worked out by now, the meditative approaches I will be sharing play to my relative strengths: they involve sensations and sounds, especially words. If, by trying these out patiently over a reasonable period of time, they clearly do not work for you, that is not a problem. There will be an approach that works for you somewhere, and hopefully you will find pointers in that direction during this weekend.

I just would like to add that in the Bahá’í Faith we don’t see this kind of private reflection as the only spiritual discipline. We also believe that when people come together, whether as family, as friends or in some form of work environment, and consult with one another to solve a problem or make a plan, this consultation works best when it draws on the same state of detachment as we can develop in meditation, and when it does it is a spiritual process too. We cannot compare our different views of reality effectively and develop a new understanding if we are so attached to what we think and feel we are unable to hear and learn from what others say.

As a result of the consistent practice of these twin disciplines, in a context of awareness that all living things are deeply interconnected, we will be able to achieve a level of consciousness that increasingly corresponds to what Bahá’u’lláh describes in the second quote at the head of this hand-out, where ‘the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment’ are manifested. We will then be more capable of effectively addressing the problems that face us all at this crisis point in our civilisation.

First Experience to Test the Water (20 minutes maximum)

First we need to spend a few moments practising tuning into our body and our breathing so as to begin to process of calming down so we can have the best chance of silencing the chatter in our heads. [Spend a few moments body scanning and following the breath to settle the mind.]

Next, can we all remember the words of part of a song, poem, prayer or piece of prose, which is positive and uplifting? [If so, spend five minutes or so with everyone attempting to maintain focus as they silently repeat the words in their minds.]

Finally for this part, please can we share how that worked for us?

Beginning to Learn How to Separate Consciousness from its Contents

(30 minutes)

At the beginning I mentioned that one goal of meditation, and a very important one, is for us to experience the fact that we are not what we think, feel and intend, anymore than we are who or what we have come to believe we are. This is easier said than done, as I have discovered over the years.

To help us take the first step on this long ladder I have borrowed and adapted an exercise from Psychosynthesis. It has a rather off-putting title: disidentification. Basically, all it means is spending a few moments every day repeating to ourselves a description of the true reality: we are not our thoughts, feelings or intentions. We are instead a centre of pure consciousness and will, as they describe it. [Give out the Disidentification handout adapted from Psychosynthesis to separate out clearly what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá regards as three separate powers of the soul: knowing (here expressed as the basic ability, thought, that rises at its highest to wisdom), loving (here feeling whose highest expression might be termed compassion), and willing (whose highest expression might be the disposition towards altruistic action).Separating the Mirror from its ReflectionsExplain that before we start the exercise itself it is important to spend a few moments grounding ourselves by body scanning and/or following the breath. Spend 15 minutes on this. The link with developing what is termed detachment is fairly clear, I hope.

At the end, we can take a few minutes to share our experiences and reflect upon them.

Using a Mantram (25 Minutes)

There are many ways we could now choose to help us move nearer to the goal of achieving awareness of pure consciousness. As I explained earlier, my own meditative experiences have focused on words and sensations. Following the breath has always helped me quieten my mind down preparatory to using other powerful techniques.

This next method is deceptively simple but very effective, in my view.

We all have heard of the mantram, I’m sure: a short phrase or even a single word or sound that is repeated silently in the mind for significant periods of time in meditative practice and then can be used in other situations to help us calm down and become grounded. An excellent explanation of this method can be found in Eknath Easwaran’s rewarding book on meditation: Meditation: common sense directions for an uncommon life.

He first of all makes clear that he does not see meditation as a kind of hypnosis nor any kind of navel gazing or rumination (page 9):

[Meditation] is, rather, a systematic technique for taking hold of and concentrating to the utmost degree our latent mental power. It consists in training the mind, especially attention and the will, so that we can set forth from the surface level of consciousness and journey into the very depths.

He speaks of ‘the great discovery’ (page 24-25):

As long as we identify with the body and the mind we bob around on the surface level of consciousness, chasing after the fleeting attractions of life outside us.… now, in profound meditation, we drop below all that and become concentrated on one thing and one thing alone: our true identity. In this absorption, this great gathering within, we break through the surface of consciousness and plummet deep, deep into our real nature.

He recommends the mantram as something portable, that need not be confined to the quietness of a room set aside for meditation. He explains the origin of the term (page 59): the word is linked to ‘the roots man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” The mantram, repeated regularly for a long time, enables us to cross the sea of the mind. An apt image, for the mind very much resembles the sea. Ever-changing, it is placid one day, turbulent the next.’

For him, the mantram links us to (page 60) ‘the supreme Reality,’ whatever we choose to call it:

What matters greatly is that we discover – experientially, not intellectually – that this supreme Reality rests at the inmost centre of our being. . . . the mantram stands as a perpetual reminder that such perfection is within all of us, waiting to flow through our thoughts, words, and deeds.

He feels that (page 70) ‘the mantram works best when we repeat it silently in the mind with as much concentration as possible.’ He’s not in favour of counting with beads or linking it to the breath because it divides attention. He also feels strongly that once we have chosen our mantram we must stick with and not keep chopping and changing it.

In the Bahá’í Faith we are given something we can use in this way if we wish. It is what we call the Greatest Name: Alláh-u-Abhá (‘God the All-Glorious’). We are required to repeat this 95 times every day: it is an obligation to do so. To then also use it as our mantram, a separate though related spiritual skill, seems an obvious step to take, though we are free, of course, to choose something else if we wish.

Those of us here who come from other spiritual traditions, or perhaps no spiritual tradition at all, will have to give some thought to what can be used instead. It is important that, at the very least, the word(s) or sounds(s) chosen do not have any negative connotations. What are for us neutral or relatively meaningless sounds such as ‘Om’[1], can none the less be effective, at least to a degree, as they serve to give the distracted mind something to hold onto to help it turn away from all the chatter and become calmer and quieter.

Words with spiritual meaning for us are preferable, as they also have the effect of facilitating the connection we are seeking to make with the truest core of our being. If words are used they should be no more than a very short phrase such as Easwaran suggests (pages 65-66): Ave Maria, the Hebrew Barukh attah Adonai (‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord), from Islam Allah u Akbar (God is Great), Lord Jesus Christ, or Om mani padme hum (‘the jewel in the heart of the lotus’). Easwaran feels strongly (page 70) that we should ‘choose a mantram that has been sanctified by long use – one of proven power, that has enabled many men and women before [us] to realize the unity of life.’

For the purposes of this experience it is fine to make a provisional choice that can be changed later.

A key point to remember is that repeating a mantram is not like lifting a weight in an exercise regime. The repeated lifting of a weight will strengthen our muscle even if, at the same time, we are thinking about what we had for breakfast or the film we watched last night. Not so with a mantram. If we repeat it on automatic pilot while our mind wanders among the daisies there will be no benefit.

We must insist that our mind focuses on every repetition. If it has wandered we must bring it back, not in anger but firmly nonetheless. The best way to make our minds understand that we mean business is to build in a cost, such as adding on extra minutes of meditation time for every period of distraction longer than brief moment. [Then follows about 10 minutes practice.]

At the end we need to reflect upon how the experience went.

Meditation weekend school

Second Session

Using a Memorised Passage (45 minutes)

This may prove to be the hardest part of this set of experiences. It involves using a passage that we have learned by heart. Our culture tends to despise rote learning and describes it as learning ‘parrot fashion.’ (Not that I have anything against parrots. They’re very bright for a bird.) As a result many of us nowadays do not feel confident when trying to learn anything by heart, and are probably not very motivated to do so anyway as we think it a waste of time.

Parroting facts may really not be very useful if we do not understand their underlying meaning as a result of careful, creative and independent thought. Spiritual words though operate on many different levels, as Easwaran explains (page 9):

An inspirational passage turns our thoughts to what is permanent, to those things that put a final end to insecurity. As we drive it deeper and deeper, the words come to life within us, transforming all our thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds.

This not to say that we can keep on using the same passage indefinitely (pages 39-40):

Using the same passage over and over is fine at the outset, but in time, the words may seem stale. You may find yourself repeating them mechanically, without sensitivity to their meaning. I suggest you memorise new pieces from [various religious] traditions so you will have a varied repertoire. As you commit a new passage to memory, it is good to spend some time reflecting on the meaning of the words and their practical application to your life. But please don’t do this while you are actually meditating.

He adds another crucial piece of advice (ibid.):

. . . avoid choosing passages that are negative, that take a harsh and deprecatory view of the body, of our past mistakes, or of life in the world. We want to draw forth our positive side, our higher Self . . . .

We need to spend a few moments now quietly deciding what passage we are going to use. Then, after grounding ourselves as usual, we can begin 10-15 minutes of meditation on the passage we have chosen. How should we do this? As Easwaran points out (page 32), we have to find the pace that suits us best: ‘the space between words is a matter for each person to work out individually.… If the words come too close together, you will not be slowing down the mind… If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together…’

If we find our mind has wandered, we should, without getting irritated with ourselves, begin the passage again at the beginning. This teaches the mind that it cannot get away with wandering: there is a price to pay.

In these early stages we should consider ourselves very successful if we can meditate in this way upon a text for five minutes without losing our concentration. Our aim over a period of months could be to increase their concentration span to something like 20 minutes. Clearly this would enable us, if we wished, to memorise longer passages for reciting, rather than repeating the same short text.

After that a few moments of reflection can follow, first of all on the meditation we have just done, and then upon the whole experience of the morning/afternoon. Among the hoped for results of all these experiences in a felt sense as well as intellectual understanding of how a mantra and meditation upon scripture help us move away from our identification with our conditioned patterns of thought and feeling to connect with our deepest self, a connection that will enable us to tune in more effectively to the people around us. As a result of this we will be able to respond to them as they are and in terms of what they need rather than to what we think they should be, as well as being able to learn from them what will help us grow in our turn.

Footnote:

[1] In Hinduism, Om is a spiritual symbol (pratima) referring to Atman (soul, self within).

Meditation quintet

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