Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’
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 fourth of six.
Only Our Simulations to Go On
At best we never achieve more than a simulation of reality. Even something as apparently clear-cut and concrete as colour is no exception.
What we perceive as red is really nothing more than a wavelength of light and our experience of red is a coded response that has been allocated quite arbitrarily. We could just as well have experienced the “red “ wavelength as blue! More abstract things are of course even more liable to be the product of construction and elaboration in the brain-mind system which habitually fills in the gaps in experience as best it can to make sense of it all. For present purposes three aspects of this simulation concern us most: experiences, beliefs and flexibility.
Experiences are the raw material of the mind. They are what we access of the inner and outer worlds through our senses, albeit modified by the interpretive activity of the brain. Experiences range from mainstream to the extremely idiosyncratic. Dreams are about as idiosyncratic as experience gets for most of us unless we are placed in strange, extreme and possibly frightening circumstances. For some people however dreams seem to become part of their waking reality.
Beliefs are the ideas we form usually on the basis of experience. We often make heavy emotional investments in our important ideas. These then colour experience in turn and can even distort it at the time it happens or in memory. Again beliefs range from the conventional to the extremely unusual. Even the most middle of the road person can find their way of looking at the world morphing into strange and frightening shapes as a result of such things as prolonged isolation.
Experience suggests that most people manage to negotiate their way through the world without too much of a problem on the basis of the models of the world they have developed. Many people whose experiences and beliefs are well outside the usual run of the mill rub along quite well. There are relatively small numbers of people whose beliefs and experiences are not only unusual but also very troubling. These are often the people mind-workers have to deal with. The majority of them have only short-lived difficulties.
Much of my work, before I retired, was with those who are stuck in their difficulties. Their experiences are unusual, troublesome and intractable. It is in helping people deal with this intractability that the model of mind-work I am proposing here is most useful.
Steering between Rigidity and Chaos
Most of us live somewhere between rigidity and chaos. Our models of the worlds are sufficiently malleable to respond flexibly to the shifts and changes of the world around us. If systems of thinking are too unstable or unformed we will be unable to make sense of our world and make reasonable responses to it. If they are too fixed and too compelling we cannot adapt when circumstances require it. The antidote to such unhelpful fixity is the flexibility which comes from reflection, relatedness and relativity.
Complete fixity, which often though not always in psychosis results from the kind of high emotional investment and simplification of thinking that feelings such as terror can induce, makes therapeutic work of the kind I am describing difficult. Someone who believes that their survival is in doubt is unlikely to see too much point in a leisurely exploration of their inscape! If the terror, or whatever is driving the investment that is creating the fixity, can be somewhat reduced, then conversation becomes possible. I suspect that medication, where it works, achieves its effect by calming someone down.
Increasing our Leverage
Once conversation is possible two powerful tools, implied in all that has been said above, become available. First, some space can be created between consciousness and its contents, and secondly there is a chance for more than one mind to be brought to bear upon the experiences. The space can be used for people to compare notes as equals – as two human beings, both with imperfect simulations of reality at their disposal, exchanging ideas about what is going on, with no one’s version being arbitrarily privileged from the start. There is a wealth of information that suggests most strongly that this process of collaborative conversation (Andersen and Swim), of consultation in the Bahá’í sense (see John Kolstoe), of inquiry (see Senge), of interthinking, can achieve remarkable results: Neil Mercer talks of the crucial function of language and says:
it enables human brains to combine their intellects into a mega-brain, a problem-solving device whose power can be greater than that of its individual components. With language we are able not only to share or exchange information, but also to work together on it. We are able not only to influence the actions of other people, but also to alter their understandings. . . . . Language does not only enable us to interact, it enables us to interthink.
I’d like to slightly alter the wording of one sentence there to capture the essence of what I think I’m describing:
We are able not only to influence the actions of one another, but also to alter one another’s understandings.
I feel that the conditions that I have sought to describe in this sequence of posts go a long way towards making effective interthinking possible. Effective interthinking and mind-work are closely related activities. Neither can happen at their best and most constructive in the absence of good relationships, reflection, relativity and relatedness.
Posted in Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged autism, Bahá'u'lláh, brain, consciousness, Diane Powell, Edward F Kelly, Emily Williams Kelly, FWH Myers, Iain McGilchrist, Irreducible Mind, Mind, NDE, Pim van Lommel, The Master and his Emissary on 28/03/2016 | 1 Comment »
Recently Sharon Rawlette left a comment on my blog in response to a link I posted about Emma Seppälä’s book The Happiness Track. We hadn’t exchanged comments for quite some time so I checked out her blog again and was reminded of a piece she’d posted in 2014 titled Evidence for Telepathy in an Autistic Savant about the work of Diane Powell.
This prompted me to see how her work had progressed since then.
In a video posted on her website Diane Powell deals in passing with the notion that autistic savants and others with brain damage illustrate how impaired cortical functioning can seem to give direct access to deep level answers to complex problems/experiences within the mathematical, musical or linguistic fields, with no possibility of calculation involved.
She argues, in the light of this kind of evidence, that the higher cortical functioning on which we pride ourselves seems to be an obstacle between our surface consciousness and its deepest levels.
This really set me thinking. So much so that when I was on one of my brisk daily walks I found myself wondering whether one of Bahá’u’lláh’s prayers that I recite every day contained a phrase I still did not fully understand. There are many such phrases, by the way, but this one resonated particularly strongly right then for some reason.
Bahá’u’lláh writes that in this day, for far too many of us, our ‘superstitions’ have become ‘veils’ between us and or ‘own hearts.’ In the same passage He also uses the possibly even stronger word ‘delusion’ to describe the path along which we walk.
When I first became a Bahá’í and read Bahá’u’lláh’s use of the word ‘superstition’ in this context I interpreted it simply to mean hopelessly primitive religious beliefs. With time and terrorism it became clear that I needed to add fanatical fundamentalisms into the mix. I wasn’t too phased either by the idea that such destructive beliefs bordered on the delusional, as even then I regarded delusions as part of a continuum along which we all are placed.
However, as someone trained in psychology, an essentially religio-sceptical discipline, it took somewhat longer for me fully to accept that scientism was right there with the rest as a front-line superstition, possibly even delusional when held with an intensity sufficient to achieve total impenetrability to all contradictory evidence, no matter how strong. This felt far too close to home but I had to accept the possibility nonetheless: the case in its favour was much too strong to ignore.
Since then, I’ve written a great deal over the years on this topic, both arguing that bad science is built on bad faith and also that our heads block us from hearing what our heart has to say. Most of us, most of the time, are blind to both these realities, and happy to be so as what we believe seems not only obvious common sense but also indisputably useful. Not only that but to doubt science and listen to our hearts looks like a soft-centred prescription for disaster, likely to plunge us back into the Middle Ages, ignoring the fact that some parts of the world never left there, and more disturbingly other parts have been only too eager to return there ahead of us already, hoping to drag us back with them eventually. The second group completed the regression so swiftly and effectively largely by allowing their head to agree with their gut and ignoring their heart completely. And, just for the record, to add credibility to my suspicions, people of a so-called scientific bent are surprisingly well-represented among the ranks of ISIS, but students of the arts and social sciences seem not to be so gullible. But that’s another story.
This conventional wisdom is unfortunately delusional and based on a fundamental if not fundamentalist misunderstanding of what true science is, of how it is in harmony with true religion, and also of what the limitations of instinctive and intellectual cognitive processes are and how necessary it is to balance them with more holistic levels of processing. I am not going to rehash here all I have said elsewhere: I’ll simply signpost the thinking and the evidence to support what, in my view, is this saner view of things.
Two of the most impressive bodies of evidence I came across of this necessary shift in perspective were, first, Iain McGilchrist’s masterpiece The Master & his Emissary, and second Irreducible Mind by the Kellys.
The conclusion McGilchrist reaches, that most matters to me when we look at our western society, is on pages 228-229:
The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . .
There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .
On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.
For them, the so-called science of psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it (page xx)?
The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.
This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction.
The Irreducible Mind points up very clearly how psychology must at some point bring this aspect of reality into its approach. Referring amongst other things to psi phenomena, Edward Kelly writes (page xxviii):
These phenomena we catalogue here are important precisely because they challenge so strongly the current scientific consensus; in accordance with Wind’s principle, they not only invite but should command the attention of anyone seriously interested in the mind.
The prevailing attitude of course in many cases goes far beyond methodological naturalism into the strongest possible form of it (op.cit. page xxvii):
Most critics implicitly – and some, like Hansel, explicitly – take the view that psi phenomena are somehow known a priori to be impossible. In that case one is free to invent any scenario, no matter how far-fetched, to explain away ostensible evidence of psi.
When you look at the evidence dispassionately, rather than from a dogmatic commitment to the idea that matter explains everything, the mind-brain data throws up a tough problem. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though, as Emily Kelly suggests (page 73):
The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.
Others are of course now following where they marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon as well as carefully investigated specific examples of Near Death Experiences (page 177):
It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?
The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, a 19th Century pioneer of this perspective – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. In fact it is remarkable how close the correspondence is. This is Myers’s view as Emily Kelly expresses it (Irreducible Mind – page 78):
Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.
I recognize that it may not be enough though to adduce evidence, which satisfies me, to support the idea of a non-material reality ignored by the mainstream because of a bias in science that discounts it. I need also to have some sound reasons for my claim that there is a valid distinction to be made between a good science, prepared to accept the possibility of transpersonal explanations, and a bad science, dogmatically committed to ruling any such explanation of experience out of count on the a priori grounds that it couldn’t possibly exist no matter what evidence was brought forward in support of it.
That’s where we’re going next.
Posted in Mindfulness, tagged Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, consciousness, Evelyn Underhill, heart, instinct, intellect, intuition, Ken Ring, Piero Ferrucci, Psychosynthesis, Raymond Moody, Sam Harris on 16/11/2015 | 1 Comment »
O SON OF SPIRIT! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.
(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No. 13)
I have to be honest. The main benefits of meditation that I have achieved so far are a calm state of consciousness, a steady groundedness and an intermittent connection with my subliminal mind. No mystical moments or experience of my Soul – so far as I’m aware at least. I could’ve been bathing in bliss, I suppose, and just not realised it. In any case it wouldn’t count for present purposes if I didn’t know it.
In fact, it seems that nothing much has changed since May 1982, when I wrote in my diary, after about a year of consistent meditation:
I have been astonished at the power of meditation to help me bring about fundamental changes in my thinking and orientation…, and all that without any dramatic experiences within the period of meditation. In fact, even the simplest aspects of meditation are a hard struggle – maintaining the posture, following the breath, passive watchfulness and not fidgeting. It takes all my concentration to achieve any one of those for the briefest period.
I think I might have been selling myself short a bit there.
There seemed to have been a flicker of something more significant a few days later when I commented:
I finally achieved an experience unlike any other. I felt my being forced open by something which dissolved my boundaries, physical and mental. There was, for a brief moment, neither inside nor outside. My self as I knew it shrank to a few fragments clinging to the edges of this something which ‘I’ had become or which had become me or which I always am deep down. I was frightened. I dared not quite let the experience be.
Although there was a repeat of that some weeks later, I came to feel that it was probably an artefact of the way my breathing slowed as my meditation got deeper, and I have never been able to entice any such experience without reducing my breathing in a way that creates a blending sort of buzz in my brain that goes nowhere and probably means nothing.
So, when it comes to writing about the True Self I’m going to have to rely on the testimony of others even though perhaps the main purpose of meditation for me is to achieve contact with that part of me which is really all that matters about me, if it exists as I believe it does.
Not exactly brimming with confidence, am I?
The ‘No Self’ Issue
I am aware that I have already posted at some length on the ‘No Self’ position so I’ll rehash that quickly now before moving onto slightly different ground. Last December I posted on this issue, looking at Sam Harris’s argument in An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality that there is no ‘real self,’ and concluded:
To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to something Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.’
He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.
But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.
NDEs and OBEs
In that post I launched into a consideration of the evidence that suggests the mind is not reducible to the body/brain and it may even survive bodily extinction. Elsewhere I have explored at length the evidence Near-Death-Experiences (NDEs) provide to support the idea that the mind or consciousness is not dependent upon or reducible to the brain.
There are also examples in the NDE literature that in those states of consciousness people have access to levels of understanding far beyond those accessible in ordinary consciousness. For example, a respondent to Raymond Moody wrote (quoted in Ken Ring’s Lessons from the Light – page 177):
One big thing I learned when I died was that we are all part of one big, living universe. If we think we can hurt another person or another living thing without hurting ourselves, we are sadly mistaken. I look at a forest are a flower or a bird now, and say, ‘That is me, part of me.’ We are connected with all things and if we send love along these connections, then we are happy.
Right now in this post, though, I am looking for any evidence that suggests there are people who have connected with that transcendent aspect of themselves outside the NDE context and that this is something the rest of us might be able to achieve at least momentarily and possibly at will in our ordinary lives. I also would like to examine evidence that might indicate that by experiencing this Mind we can access levels of wiser understanding than are available in ordinary consciousness.
Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, out-of-body experiences, while sometimes giving access to factual information at least anecdotally, do not seem to bring moments of deep insight. Experimentation is largely focused on seeking examples that will point towards mind/brain independence but not I think towards wisdom and ‘illumination.’
The lives and experiences of the great mystics provide inspiring examples of direct access to a transcendent realm and the wisdom it enshrines. Evelyn Underhill, in her book Mysticism, summarises it as follows (page 23-24):
Of all those forms of life and thought with which humanity has fed its craving for truth, mysticism alone postulates, and in the persons of its great initiates proves, the existence of the Absolute, but also this link: this possibility first of knowing, finally of attaining it. It denies that possible knowledge is to be limited (a) to sense impressions, (b) to any process of intellection, and (c) to the unfolding of the content of normal consciousness. The mystics find the basis of their method not in logic but in life: in the existence of a discoverable ‘real,’ a spark of true being, within the seeking subject, which can, in that ineffable experience which they call ‘the act of union,’ fuse itself with and thus apprehend the reality of the sought Object. In theological language, their theory of knowledge is that the spirit of man, itself essentially divine, is capable of immediate communion with God, the One Reality.
The quote from the Bahá’í Writings at the head of this post suggests that something like this is possible, though Bahá’í Scripture also points out that the Great Being we refer to as ‘God’ is not in fact reducible to what we can experience, no matter how advanced we are spiritually, even though that experience can give us a sense of what the Great Being is like – the attributes, to use a Bahá’í expression.
Unfortunately, systematic scientifically acceptable studies confirming the objective validity of such mystical moments are as rare as hen’s teeth. Even when claims are made for replicable brain changes that correlate, for example, with deeply stable and focused attention, it’s usually on the back of something like 19,000 hours of practice (see Matthieu Ricard’s Altruism – page 251). Such a person is described as ‘relatively experienced.’ To be really good at effortlessly sustaining such focused attention an average of 44,000 hours is required.
As I generally manage to meditate for something like 20-30 minutes only each day, to reach those larger numbers would take me 241 years. So, it’s a relief to read (pages 252-53) that even ‘eight weeks of meditation on altruistic love, at a rate of thirty minutes per day, increased positive emotions and one’s degree of satisfaction with existence.’
At this late stage of an imperfect life, I consider my chances of attaining anything remotely close to that kind of effortless attention, let alone contact with the divine within, to be vanishingly small, so I think it more realistic to focus on a more modest objective.
A good and accessible source of guidance for me is to be found in books about Psychosynthesis – take Piero Ferrucci for example. In Chapter 20 of his book What We May Be, in a discussion of Silence (pages 217-226) there are many useful insights that confirm my own experience so far, make me feel less guilty about my interrupted meditations and perhaps point a way further forwards. He writes about the ‘state of intense and at the same time relaxed alertness,’ which comes with silence. He speaks of how ‘insights flow into this receptive space we have created.’ He goes onto explain what might be going on here:
While the mind [in my terms intellect] grasps knowledge in a mediated way . . . and analytically, intuition seizes truth in a more immediate and global manner. For this to happen, the mind becomes at least temporarily silent. As the intuition is activated, the mind is gradually transformed . . . .
He unpacks the kinds of intuition to which we may come to have access: about people and about problems, but beyond that also at ‘the superconscious level’ we can have ‘a direct intuitive realisation of a psychological quality, of a universal law, of the interconnectedness of everything with everything else, of the oneness of all reality, of eternity, and so on.’
Intuition perceives wholes, while our everyday analytical mind is used to dealing with parts and therefore finds the synthesising grasp of the intuition unfamiliar
Intuitions are ‘surprisingly wider than the mental categories [we] would usually like to capture them with.’
He provides a useful list of facilitators of intuition over and above the role of silence. We need to give it attention, as I have already discovered in my own experience. Intuitions often come in symbolic form, as I have found in both dreamwork and in poetry. We have to be prepared to learn the code or language of our intuitive mind and there are no manuals for this: everybody’s intuitive self speaks a different dialect. Last of all we have to keep ‘an intuition workbook.’ Writing an insight down facilitates the emergence of others, and insights often come in clusters if we encourage them in this way.
There is one more priceless potential outcome of this kind of process:
There is, however, one higher goal – higher even then the flower of intuition – to which the cultivation of silence can bring us. While it is rarely reached, it is of such importance that no discussion of silence can be complete without it. I refer to illumination. While intuition can be thought of as giving us a glimpse of the world in which the Self lives, illumination can best be conceived as a complete view of that world. In fact, illumination is the act of reaching the Self and contacting it fully.
So, maybe I am on the right track after all, just not very consistent in my treading of it. I’m encouraged enough by all this to persist and hope that one day, before I move on from this body, I will connect with my true Self and deepen my felt understanding of my purpose here before it’s too late, of what interconnectedness is, and of how to develop a greater depth of more consistent altruism than has been in my power so far.
Posted in Mindfulness, tagged Anima Mundi, Bahá'u'lláh, consciousness, Daniel Albright, Edward Kelly, heart, instinct, intellect, intuition, Michael Grosso, William Butler Yeats on 09/11/2015 | 4 Comments »
Sow the seeds of My divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of thy heart.
(Persian Hidden Words, No. 33: Bahá’u’lláh)
In the previous post I had come to the conclusion that some problems cannot be solved by reason alone even when we saturate our mind in the available information. It is then, I felt, that we need to become aware that intense thought, marinating the mind as it does in the details of a complex situation, is also doing something else. The contents of surface consciousness are seeping down to deeper levels of awareness with access to other powerful but essentially non-verbal methods of problem solving and decision-making.
We are not yet required to invoke any kind of spiritual concept. There’s plenty of evidence to support the notion that many creative and problem-solving processes are at work beneath the surface of ordinary consciousness. They deliver the fruits of their labours in dreams or else in unexpected flashes of insight when we are walking, cooking, meditating or simply day-dreaming.
This makes it seem legitimate to see the processes of effortful thought as a form of seed sowing. Most of the time most of us don’t realise that this is what we are doing. This is partly because we’ve never been told that this is what can happen. Also there can be such a lapse of time between rumination and insight we don’t really connect the two, rather like a gardener who forgets what he planted last year when it flowers this spring.
This makes it clear that accessing intuition takes time. It also requires us to be alert for the subtle and often whispered promptings of the subliminal mind. We do not by and large pay attention to our dreams and we are often too distracted by the treadmill of our daily tasks and routines to notice the signs of the fleeting presence of a preconscious insight. We haven’t even learned to expect it or value its wisdom. I have dealt with this in more detail elsewhere. For present purposes it is enough to say that slowing down, silencing the distracting contents of my mind and catching the butterflies of insight in the net of consciousness are vital skills to practice everyday. Once an insight comes I find it necessary to use the notebook I carry with me all the time to write it down: I have learned that if I do not, that butterfly of wisdom is usually gone for ever.
The evidence for the existence of this kind of process is well documented. The authors, Edward Kelly and Michael Grosso, in the brilliant, exhaustive but for some possibly exhausting book Irreducible Mind, adduce examples of this before explaining that inspiration (page 441):
. . . is essentially the intrusion into supraliminal consciousness of some novel form of order that has gestated somewhere beyond its customary margins. The content of such inspirations can vary widely in character, scope, completeness, but psychologically the process is fundamentally the same throughout its range.
What’s my take on this?
In the meditation evening experience I posted about recently, I spoke of the discussion we had about how we should react when creative and problem-solving ideas come to us in meditation. It’s a dilemma for me but it illustrates the main point I am making in this post.
I meditate every morning for at least 20 minutes. Typically the first few minutes go well. My mind settles and I have little or no trouble focusing on my mantram or my breath, whichever is the centre of my attention at the time. Then, as my mind quietens down more completely, it happens. If I have been agonising over what to do about some problem or other, a possible and plausible solution comes to mind. Or if I am stuck in my drafting of a post for this blog, the possibly perfect development comes to mind.
What do I do?
If I steer my mind back to my breathing or my mantram for the next ten minutes or whatever is left of my meditation period, you can bet your life I will have forgotten what the idea was. If I distract myself from the breath or the mantram by reminding myself regularly of what I had thought I’m not really meditating anymore. My mind it split. And even though someone suggested it is fine to do this, I cannot reconcile myself to focusing on the idea rather than the mantram or breath for the rest of the time.
So, right or wrong, what I do is thank my subliminal self for the inspiration, pause the timer and jot down the ideas in the notebook I keep at my side during meditation. It just doesn’t feel right to reject the gift, especially when, in a sense, I have asked for guidance by sweating over the problem or the draft for ages already. Once the idea is captured I restart the timer and go back to my meditation.
For me this is a regular occurrence and usually the ideas I receive stand the test of implementation and are better than I had been able to create by conscious effort alone. There is no doubt in my mind at all that my intuitive, creative or subliminal self is a lot smarter in many ways than my conscious self. It may even be more authentically who I truly am, or at least far closer to that core of being if it exists, as I have come to believe it does.
For my own purposes I have developed a mock equation as a mnemonic for my preferred approach to deepening my understanding of an issue. This approach, in interaction with experience, involves using meditation as a means of accessing the products of my subliminal thought processes in combination with reading and writing. So, I move in and out of active/passive engagement with experience through reading, writing and reflection, my three Rs.
Reflection is a term that cuts both ways: it can be used to describe the workings of the intellect – labeled deliberation, in the previous post, to avoid confusion – or the process of meditation, in which we pull back from identifying with the usual contents of our consciousness. Both processes of reflection and their product are very different from the knee-jerk reactions of instinct described in the first post of this sequence.
So, E + 3R = I, where I = Insight and E stands for Experience. This is one of the roles the writing of this blog is meant to execute.
If we add spirituality into the mix, then we would also be considering two other possible aspects of this process.
First we could potentiate our chances of being inspired with the best possible solution if we prayed and reflected upon Scriptures relevant to our dilemma or problem.
Secondly, we would be prepared to consider the possibility that there is a part of our nature that is not reducible to our brain and body, something that is more like a transceiver than a calculator, that has access to a universal mind, an Anima Mundi, a repository at the very least of all the accumulated wisdom of preceding ages, and possibly beyond that of all ages past and yet to come. This was very much the position that the poet William Butler Yeats espoused. The introduction to Albright’s Everyman edition of Yeats’s poems puts it succinctly (page xxi):
He came to the conclusion that there was in fact one source, a universal warehouse of images that he called the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. Each human soul could attune itself to revelation, to miracle, because each partook in the world’s general soul.
But more of the spiritual side next time.
Posted in Mindfulness, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh, consciousness, Daniel Kahneman, Daniel Levitin, heart, Iain McGilchrist, instinct, intellect, intuition, System 1, System 2 on 02/11/2015 | 2 Comments »
‘In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire loosen not thy hold.
(Persian Hidden Words, No. 3: Bahá’u’lláh)
. . . . it is evident that the method of reason is not perfect, for the differences of the ancient philosophers, the want of stability and the variations of their opinions, prove this. For if it were perfect, all ought to be united in their ideas and agreed in their opinions.
(Some Answered Questions, page 298: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
When we have a problem situation to which we cannot find an easy solution, when our instinctive responses, whether or not they are obviously destructive, fail to deliver, we need to move from what Kahneman calls System 1 thinking, and which I have described as instinct, to the slower processes of System 2, what I am here calling intellect.
In order to access those processes we need to keep instinct on pause for significantly long periods of time.
Some, such as Kahneman, believe that this is as far as we can go in terms of depth processing. There is nothing else to do and it works well for most of the problems we will encounter.
Up to a point I agree. Effortful, conscious and carefully researched thought in itself constitutes a perfectly valid approach to problem-solving and decision-making. There are many excellent treatments of this theme, including Kahneman’s. Another good place to start is Levitin’s The Organised Mind. His book has some rather pedestrian passages which give over-extended illustrations of his main point, but one of the best chapters concerns Organising Information for the Hardest Decisions: When Life Is on the Line. This chapter almost makes the book worth buying even if the rest is something of a rehash of Kahneman.
He explains (page 221) why deploying the intellect is so important in making decisions about our treatment for medical problems: ‘Cognitive science has taught is that relying on our gut . . . often leads to bad decisions, particularly in cases where statistical information is available. Our guts and our brains didn’t evolve to deal with probabilistic thinking.’ And probabilistic thinking, based on an adequate understanding of statistics, is precisely what is required when we have to weigh up whether or not to have major surgery or cancer treatment. Then we are often dealing with a complex cost-benefit analysis. For example, he nails an important issue on page 239: ‘Ask your doctor not just about efficacy and mortality, but quality of life and side effects that may impact it. Indeed, many patients value quality of life more than longevity and are willing to trade one for the other.’
He uses prostate cancer (page 240) as an example. Surgeons in the US are prone to recommending surgery on diagnosis. There are complicating factors though. Prostate cancer is a slow killer – ‘most men die with it rather than of it.’ Also there is ‘a fairly high incidence of recurrence following surgery,’ along with a high risk of other side-effects including erectile difficulties (80%), urinary (35%) and faecal (25%) incontinence. Agreeing to surgery is therefore not a simple decision to make. Our gut is not to be trusted and we should not simply accept the default recommendation. We need to think hard and assess whether the benefits of surgery truly outweigh the costs for us. That’s where System 2 is on home ground and should be energetically deployed, and Levitin gives detailed guidance about how we can best use its strengths to disentangle the complexity and clarify the issues.
However, Iain McGilchrist in his masterpiece, The Master & his Emissary, has exposed for all to see how dangerous it can be for us to rely even on this supposedly rational aspect of our being to solve all our problems and make all our decisions for us. The conclusion he reaches that most matters for present purposes is on pages 228:
The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates [in our society] . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .
He draws a further disquieting conclusion (page 229):
Once the system is set up it operates like a hall of mirrors in which we are reflexively imprisoned. Leaps of faith from now on are strictly out of bounds. Yet it is only whatever can ‘leap’ beyond the world of language and reason that can break out of the imprisoning hall of mirrors and reconnect with the lived world. And the evidence is that this unwillingness to allow escape is not just a passive process, an ‘involuntary’ feature of the system, but one that appears willed by the left hemisphere. The history of the last 100 years particularly . . . , contains many examples of the left hemisphere’s intemperate attacks on nature, art, religion and the body, the main routes to something beyond its power.
On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the richly textured right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a deep morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.
This implies that penetrating beyond the intellect’s currently preferred, complacent and self-protecting shell will require effort and skill. It is necessary to do so because some problems are so complex and nuanced that our intellectual processes do not seem able to crack the code and come up with an answer.
It is then we need to become aware that intense thought, marinating the mind as it does in the details of a complex situation, is also doing something else. The contents of surface consciousness are seeping down to deeper levels of awareness with access to other powerful but essentially non-verbal methods of problem solving and decision-making. It is as though we are sowing seeds in the subliminal mind where they can germinate in the earth of the heart to produce the fruit of creative solutions which will break through into consciousness at some unpredictable moment of insight.
That forms the theme of the next post.
Posted in Mindfulness, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh, consciousness, Daniel Kahneman, heart, instinct, intellect, intuition, Jeffrey M. Schwartz, OCD, pattern breaking, System 1, System 2 on 26/10/2015 | Leave a Comment »
O SON OF SPIRIT! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.
(Arabic Hidden Words -No. 13: Bahá’u’lláh)
Recently I explained how I have come to use a traffic light system to help me remember not to rely on gut instincts unless the situation I am facing is a genuine emergency. This is not because gut instincts are always destructive. There are many stories of heroic reactions to life-threatening dangers resulting in people being rescued from drowning or worse, by split second decisions to act on the part of strangers. It’s simply that when there is no emergency a pause for thought leads to wiser decisions, especially if anger and terror not altruistic concerns are triggered.
While the traffic light system is helpful, I felt the need to develop my model further and have devised as a necessary complement a target system.
Most of the time, as Kahneman explains in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, we operate in instinctive mode (he uses the word intuition which I think is misleading for reasons I have explained at length elsewhere). This is highly adaptive as we would hardly be able to get dressed in the morning before it was time to go to bed if we had not automated every routine task in this way. Where instinct breaks down as a reliable guide about what to do is where the negative emotions of our reptilian brain kick in and/or the situation is complex. Reptilian reactions are the ones centred around rage, fear, shame, disgust and the like. They are what push us in extreme situations to override our sense of common humanity and seriously injure our fellow human beings, either emotionally or physically.
I use the term reaction to describe our impulses at this level. For me the target’s guide to determine what I should do is the bull’s eye of this diagram: the True Self. There is no sense, of course, that this is any kind of bull, so the metaphor is in that respect unfortunate. However, it works as a short hand for my present goal.
Unfortunately it is easier said than done to access this reservoir of wisdom for reasons I’ll come on to in more detail in a moment.
Some would say, ‘Of course. It’s not just hard but impossible because it doesn’t exist.’ Because I haven’t experienced it directly myself I can’t claim to know that it exists. I simply trust that it does.
One of the reasons for this confidence lies in the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 175: Paris Talks):
Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate.
It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.
Before I can have any chance of accessing my deepest levels of consciousness I have to learn how to deal with its surface turbulence. Automatic reactions, especially problematic ones, tend to come in potentially predictable patterns: they exert a strong pull and are hard to resist.
Four Step Method
A few years ago I read an excellent book – The Mind & the Brain – by Jeffrey M Schwartz and Sharon Begley. It’s dealing with really serious mental health problems such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). However, I resonated strongly to his Four Step method of managing obsessions and compulsions (pages 79-91). He speaks of ‘the importance of identifying as clearly and quickly as possible the onset of an OCD symptom.’ At that point it is important to ‘Relabel’ it: this means recognising that the symptom is not you but your OCD.
The next step is ‘Reattribution.’ This goes slightly further than Relabelling: ‘the patient then attributes [the symptom] to aberrant messages generated by a brain disease and thus fortifies the awareness that it is not his true “self.”’ Furthermore:
Accentuating Relabelling by Reattributing the condition to a rogue neurological circuit deepens patients’ cognitive insight into the true nature of their symptoms, which in turn strengthens their belief that the thoughts and urges of OCD are separate from their will and their self.
This amplifies mindfulness which ‘puts mental space between the will and the unwanted urges that would otherwise overpower the will.’
This gives patients the chance to Refocus their attention onto ‘pleasant, familiar “good habit” kinds of behaviour.’ Keeping a diary of such activities and their successful use was also found helpful as it ‘increases a patient’s repertoire of Refocus behaviours’ and ‘also boosts confidence by highlighting achievements.’
There is one more extremely important step if this approach is to succeed more often than it fails: Revaluing. ‘Revaluing,’ he explains, ‘is a deep form of Relabelling. . . . . In the case of OCD, wise attention means quickly recognising the disturbing thoughts as senseless, as false, as errant brain signals not even worth the grey matter they rode in on, let alone worth acting on.’ One patient of his described them as ‘toxic waste from my brain.’
There is one last consideration to bear in mind. Pattern breaking in this way requires determination and persistence. As Schwartz puts it (my emphasis), ‘Done regularly, Refocusing strengthens a new automatic circuit and weakens the old, pathological one – training the brain, in effect, to replace old bad habits . . . . with healthy new ones. . . . . Just as the more one performs a compulsive behaviour, the more the urge to do it intensifies, so if a patient resists the urge and substitutes an adaptive behaviour, the [brain] changes in beneficial ways.’ He feels we are ‘literally reprogramming [our] brain.’
The implication of this is that the longer we have displayed a pattern we now want to change, the longer it will take us to resolutely practice our chosen substitute before the old habit is completely replaced. As a very rough and ready rule of thumb, for every year we’ve had the problem it will take a month’s intensive practice to get rid of it. What I am convinced of by all the available evidence is that if we want to enough, and practice enough, we can change any pattern we wish to that is in any sense under our voluntary control.
Scwartz feels that the Four Steps constitute a move towards ‘self-directed neuroplasticity.’ For future reference in this sequence of posts, and chiming harmoniously with all my previous rants about the mind not being reducible to the brain, Schwartz concludes with strong conviction that ‘the results achieved with OCD supported the notion that the conscious and wilful mind differs from the brain and cannot be explained solely and completely by the matter, by the material substance, of the brain.’
I was so impressed that I decided to adapt the Four Step approach somewhat for use with the far less compelling patterns I was typically dealing with in my own life.
Once I become aware of a ‘Here I go again’ moment that has caused me difficulty in the past, I found I can set myself the task of spotting the earliest possible warning signs. At first I might only notice that I’m doing it again when it’s already too late to stop myself. But I can reflect immediately afterwards on my recollection of how I got to that point. If I leave it, the memory will fade and I will not be able to bring to mind an earlier warning sign. By repeating this exercise there will come a point where I can spot the cloud before the emotional storm breaks.
Once I can spot the approaching storm early enough I can stop it. The mind’s weather, unlike the climate’s, is in our control, believe it or not.
The trick here is to invent a method that suits me best for pressing the pause button. I might shout at myself inside my head, ‘STOP!’ Or I might imagine a big red button that I press or a lever that I pull down, that brings the gathering storm to a halt. If I try this too late in the process it won’t work and I will have to learn to spot it earlier. At that point I also need to reinforce my sense that this is simply a habit and not who I really am (we’ll come back to defining that more clearly in a later post). It’s even better if I can see it as senseless, neural noise, useless and pointless. This helps me realise it can change.
Initially while I’m testing out whether I can make this work, I can count very slowly, one slowed down breath at a time, to 90. This is usually enough time for the immediate power surge from the amygdala, at the brain’s emotional centre, to die down. This does not mean it would be a good idea to get stuck right into the situation again and respond. If I can get to 90 at a slow enough pace, I will find I am much calmer if not completely calm.
This is the time to activate step three: Swap It. If I simply leave it there, on the pause button, and do nothing else, it won’t be long before my brain starts revisiting the trigger situation and stoking up the storm again. An empty brain will fill itself with the old familiar script if you leave it to itself.
So, I will have to give some careful thought beforehand about what I will put in place of the void I have created. There are many possibilities.
If all I want to do is to make sure I don’t escalate a row, I could go for a walk round the block, as long as that’s at least a mile from start to finish.
If I want to be sure that I am avoiding a slide into deep sadness, into planning my revenge or into full-blown panic, I will have to substitute a longer, more creative and more absorbing activity. Gardening or cooking works for some. Playing a musical instrument or painting can do the job. Learning a language or studying something really interesting is another possibility. If all else fails, decluttering the chaos of an attic might work. It’s impossible to say what will work for everyone. We’re all so different.
The mnemonic I use for this series of steps is Spot It, Stop It, and Swap It. If we compare our hearts and minds to a garden in need of clearing, this process is analogous to weeding. It can take a bit to time before we can reliably move on to planting, which is the focus of the next post.