Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

As the twentieth century draws to a close, it is no longer possible to maintain the belief that the approach to social and economic development to which the materialistic conception of life has given rise is capable of meeting humanity’s needs. Optimistic forecasts about the changes it would generate have vanished into the ever-widening abyss that separates the living standards of a small and relatively diminishing minority of the world’s inhabitants from the poverty experienced by the vast majority of the globe’s population.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

Emp Civil

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

In the last post I shared a somewhat simplified summary of the moral and practical challenges that confront us at this point in humanity’s material ascent from isolated cave to interconnected commerce.

I am now seeking to convey more fully Rifkin’s position in his book The Empathic Civilization on the long-standing interaction he perceives between empathy and entropy in this scenario.

Right at the start he raises the question about whether we have, as the Bahá’í Faith would argue as well, a dual potential (page 18):

Is it possible that human beings are not inherently evil or intrinsically self-interested and materialistic, but are of a very different nature – an empathic one – and that all the other drives that we have considered to be primary – aggression, violence, selfish behaviour, inquisitiveness – are in fact secondary drives that flow from repression or denial of our most basic instinct?

If the answer is ‘Yes,’ as he believes then other things follow (page 24):

A heightened empathic sentiment… allows an increasingly individualised population to affiliate with one another in more interdependent, extended, and integrated social organisms. This is the process that characterises what we call civilisation. . . . . When we say to civilise, we mean to empathise.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

He argues (page 91) that Darwin himself came to recognise the inherent importance of ‘cooperation, symbiosis, and reciprocity’ in the survival of the fittest which, in terms of groups and societies, depends upon our forming ‘cooperative bonds’ with others. He adduces experimental evidence (pages 131-134) to support the idea that empathy is not self-serving in terms of looking good in the eyes of others, gaining brownie points to elicit future favours or even reducing discomfort at the sight of another’s suffering: ‘the primary motivation is pure altruism – that is, caring for the other rather than alleviating their own empathic distress.’

He extrapolates further to discern a possible connection between empathy and democracy (page 161). He acknowledges that effective empathy (page 173) needs to be balanced with a degree of detachment so that we do not end up in the quicksand unable to help either others or ourselves. Interestingly from a Bahá’í point of view, he places great emphasis (page 184) on dialogue, a process which may look essentially the same as consultation within the Bahá’í community, though lacking a spiritual foundation.

At the same time as he is developing this theme he begins to introduce evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start (page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

He then spells out what that means (page 26):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

Much later he introduces a concrete example from ancient history of this problematic interaction (page 222-23):

The same hydraulic technology that unleashed a vast increase in water energy flow, allowing the Sumerian people to build the world’s first great urban civilisation, extend the empathic bond, and advance human consciousness, led to an equally significant entropic impact on the surrounding environment that, in the end, cancelled out much of the gains, leaving both the civilisation and the environment impoverished.

He brings the Roman Empire into the frame later in support of his theory (pages 249-50) though as a psychologist I have always quite liked the lead-piping explanation for their eventually demise: I’m sure you know the gist – lead poisoning, cognitive deficits, military defeats – it’s quite neat really. He is unequivocal though about the way what actually happened confirms his view:

The popular conception is that Rome collapsed because of the decadence of its ruling class, the corruption of its leaders, exploitation of its servants and slaves, and the superior military tactics of invading barbarian hordes. While there is merit in this argument, the deeper cause of Rome’s collapse lies in the declining fertility of its soil and the decrease in agricultural yields. Its agricultural production could not provide sufficient energy to maintain Rome’s infrastructure and the welfare of its citizens. The exhaustion of Rome’s only available energy regime is a cautionary tale for our own civilisation as we begin to exhaust the cheap available fossil fuels that have kept our industrial society afloat.

Shame about the lead hypothesis, but I have to agree that his version makes a lot more sense.

JK 1819

John Keats in July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

He continues to explore the nature of empathy, seeing it as rooted in ‘embodied experience’ (page 273) and fostered by the increasingly empathy inducing artistic creations of myth, epic and, more recently, the novel, which have become accessible to greater and greater numbers of people as time’s gone on (pages 310-12). He brings into the mix the idea, popular with the Romantics and which I have already explored in terms of the work of John Keats, of ‘imaginative identification’ (page 341). He quotes John Ruskin who observed that ‘people would instantly care for others as well for themselves if only they could imagine others as well as themselves.’

He links the development of this capacity to the existence of ‘complex urban environments’ (page 343). He describes the Romantics as extending this fellow feeling beyond human beings alone to include the world of nature and all living beings (page 344).

It is to the mid-nineteenth century that Rifkin dates the use of electricity as a metaphor for describing ‘nature, human nature and the workings of civilisation’ (page 368), something which develops the idea of empathy even further. Electricity was perceived as ‘neither material nor immaterial’ (page 369) and therefore, he extrapolates (page 370):

A new sense of a porous nature helped create a new sense of social fluidity. Bodies were no longer constrained by their corporeality. If the world is both material and immaterial at same time, then the idea of clear-cut boundaries between people is more a social contrivance than a scientific reality.

The developments of first the telegraph, and then the telephone enabled ‘direct, instantaneous communication between millions of people’ (page 375). Interestingly, he adds (page 376): ‘The word “phony” emerged at the time to describe the experience of not believing the voice at the other end of the phone.’

It is in the 1890s that Rifkin perceives another pitfall than entropy emerging that could derail the empathic train (page 390):

In the 1890s, at the dawn of psychological consciousness, the long-standing notion of becoming a person of ‘good character’ began to give way to the revolutionary new idea of developing one’s ‘personality.’

He unpacks what that might mean (page 391):

Individuals became less concerned about their moral stature and more interested in whether they were liked by others. A premium was placed on influencing peers. To be personable was to exude charisma, to stand out in a crowd and be the centre of attention.

The detailed idea of levels of consciousness that underpin these points is something I shall be returning to in more detail in the later posts on that subject. On Friday I will be digging a bit deeper into the entropy issue and its links with commerce.

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History has thus far recorded principally the experience of tribes, cultures, classes, and nations. With the physical unification of the planet in this century and acknowledgement of the interdependence of all who live on it, the history of humanity as one people is now beginning. The long, slow civilizing of human character has been a sporadic development, uneven and admittedly inequitable in the material advantages it has conferred. Nevertheless, endowed with the wealth of all the genetic and cultural diversity that has evolved through past ages, the earth’s inhabitants are now challenged to draw on their collective inheritance to take up, consciously and systematically, the responsibility for the design of their future.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

Throughout This Changes Everything, Klein describes the climate crisis as a confrontation between capitalism and the planet. It would be more accurate to describe the crisis as a clash between the expanding demands of humankind and a finite world, but however the conflict is framed there can be no doubt who the winner will be. The Earth is vastly older and stronger than the human animal. . . . . . The change that is under way is no more than the Earth returning to equilibrium – a process that will go on for centuries or millennia whatever anyone does. Rather than denying this irreversible shift, we’d be better off trying to find ways of living with it.

(From John Gray’s review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate)

Emp Civil

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

After something like four years I finally overcame the reservations and irritations recorded in a republished post and finished reading The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. Such a time span is not unusual for me as I read books on rather the same principle as they make Russian dolls. Each book I start triggers me to start reading another until I have several books in progress nested one within the other. Often the one I started last is finished first before I trace my steps back to its predecessor (or not, as the case may be).

I very much want to record my response to this massive survey of the current state of our civilisation and its origins. However, it runs to more than 600 pages and tackles a number of major themes in the process. In the end, I have come to feel that my approach needs to be divided into at least four parts, some of them split into two, and even then I will be doing aspects of his thesis scant justice.

I need to start with an overview, otherwise my approach will be too confusing to be useful.

Then it seems best to tackle his ideas about how the widening circle of our empathy is expanding the reach of our civilisation and at the same time creating a potentially world-destroying level of entropy. This may not become completely clear until the second post.

It’s only then that it will make sense for me to explore his ideas about levels of civilisation. We’ve been here before with Ken Wilber and Jenny Wade. While his approach has echoes of theirs, it is very different. My caveats about his perspective on religion, through relevant at this point, will probably be dealt with in more detail at the very end of the whole sequence of posts.

After the levels, though perhaps most importantly, I plan to look at his ideas on child rearing and education before attempting to express my own take on the issue, which is, of course, deeply influenced by the Bahá’í perspective.

The Overview

Perhaps perversely, my introduction will start with the last paragraph of his book. Don’t worry: I won’t be working backwards from there. He writes (page 616):

The Empathic Civilisation is emerging. We are fast extending our empathic embrace to the whole of humanity and the vast project of life that envelops the planet. But our rush to universal empathic connectivity is running up against a rapidly accelerating entropic juggernaut in the form of climate change and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?

One of the most succinct though not necessarily the clearest passages in the book to unpack some of the implications of this comes on page 254. What follows is the main gist without clearly unpacking his six interconnected points.

He starts from what has come to seem an old chestnut: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. He sees it as an example of a recurring pattern throughout history ‘where the synergies created by a new energy and communications regime facilitate more complex social arrangements, which, in turn, provide the context for a qualitative change in human consciousness.’ Decoded more simply, this means that cooperative connections multiply in an organic fashion over fairly long periods of time and result in our seeing the world and other human beings differently. As he goes on to explain this is very much a double-edged sword (page 254-55):

The change in human consciousness is played out in a dialectic between a rising empathic surge and a growing entropy deficit. . . . . When [entropy] eventually exceed[s] the value of the energy flowing through the society’s infrastructure, the civilisation withers and even occasionally dies. . . . While the unfolding interplay between an empathic surge and an entropic deficit often – but not always – leads to collapse, what remains is a residue of the new consciousness that carries forward, if however tenuously, and becomes a memory lifeline to draw upon when new energy/communications regimes emerge.

What point does he feel we have now reached? First of all, there is the question of sheer size (page 424)

The world has shrunk and the human race finds itself nearly face-to-face in the world of cyberspace. Distances are becoming less relevant in the era of globalisation.

Secondly there is the complexity this brings in its wake (page 425):

A vast array of economic, social, and political institutions oversee the most complex civilisation ever conceived by human beings. The entire system is managed and maintained by billions of people, differentiated into thousands of professional talents and vocational skills, all working in specialised tasks in an interdependent global labyrinth.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Empathy has inevitably extended, in spite of the friction entailed (ibid.):

Brought together in an ever closer embrace, we are increasingly exposed to each other in ways that are without precedent. While the backlash of globalisation – xenophobia, political populism, and terrorist activity – is widely reported, far less attention has been paid to the growing empathic extension, as hundreds of millions of people come in contact with diverse others.

Now to one of his key points. This empathic growth comes at a price (page 452):

… the leap in empathic consciousness is made possible by the expropriation of vast amounts of the planet’s energy and other resources to attain the level of economic security necessary to allow people to shift from survival values to materialist values and finally to quality-of-life values. . . . Unfortunately, the leap in empathic consciousness rides atop the growing entropic stream that’s turning much of the planet into a wasteland and further impoverishing a large proportion of the human race. . . .

The question, then, is whether the minority of the human race that is undergoing an empathic surge, but at the expense of impoverishing the planet and a large portion of the human race, can translate their post-materialist values into a workable cultural, economic, and political game plan that can steer themselves and their communities to a more sustainable and equitable future in time to avoid the abyss.

This paves the way for his explanation of a critical set of challenges (page 510):

Half of the human race is using up more of the Earth’s fossil-fuel energy and natural resources than is necessary for a comfortable life and is becoming increasingly unhappy with each increment of additional wealth. The other half of the human race is digging its way out of poverty and becoming happier as it approaches the minimum level of comfort. But there isn’t enough oil and other fossil fuels – or uranium for nuclear power – to keep the wealthy in a luxurious lifestyle or elevate three billion poor people to a comfortable lifestyle.

He recognises that affluence tends to increase our attachment to acquiring additional material wealth and decrease our sensitivity to the plight of others – so empathy tends to go by the board. Our greatest challenge is (pages 510-11):

How, then, do we reorganise our relationships with each other and the Earth so the “haves” can tread more lightly and the “have-nots” establish a more firm footing with the environment, allowing each other to come together at the threshold of human comfort? It’s at the threshold that we optimise empathetic consciousness and create the conditions for a sustainable global society.

If we fail the price could be our survival (page 612):

We now have colonised virtually every square inch of the planet and established the scaffolding for a truly global civilisation that is connecting the human race in a single embrace, but at the expense of an entropic bill that is threatening our extinction.

His analysis of the problem is powerful and compelling.

As I have indicated at the start, the next post will dig more deeply into his exploration of the relationship between empathy and entropy. After that we will move on to considering that old chestnut – Levels of Consciousness – but in his rather different terms. At some point we will need to consider his concept of the biosphere as a motivator for collective action and a sense of transcendence, but first we need to examine his model of child rearing.

A thread that I will not be able to resist weaving into this scheme, probably in the final section, is his rationale for excluding religion from his model. We need to consider whether that makes or breaks his plan for a possible way forward.

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No Surrender

No surrender

For source of image see link

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

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 244)


Because my current sequence of posts refers to the Kellys and their thought-provoking text Irreducible Mind, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence from March 2013. This is the last of the three parts.

In the previous two posts I’ve been moaning about how I was robbed when my training in psychology steered me away from the work of thinkers such as FWH Myers as though they had the plague. What I probably need to do to redress the balance is mention how much I was influenced by thinkers who were deeply influenced by Myers. In one case I know that for certain because I still have Roberto Assagioli‘s introductory text on psychosynthesis, which I read in 1976 and which cites Myers in the list of references at the end of Chapter I. Another was a seminal book I borrowed but never bought, so it is impossible to say whether the influence was direct and acknowledged: this was Peter Koestenbaum’s New Images of the Person.

Assagioli explained in his book the importance of what he calls a ‘disidentification exercise’ (page 22):

After having discovered [various elements of our personality], we have to take possession of them and acquire control over them. The most effective method by which we can achieve this is that of disidentification. This is based on a fundamental psychological principle which may be formulated as follows:

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

(For the psychosynthesis disidentification exercise see the following link.)

Then, in another exciting moment, I came upon Koestenbaum’s ideas about reflection six years after I had read Assagioli. Reflection is the ‘capacity to separate consciousness from its contents’ (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. We become capable of changing our relationship with them and altering their meanings for us. It is like a mirror learning to see that it is not the same as what is reflected in it. So here was a writer in the existentialist tradition speaking in almost the same terms as psychosynthesis. I had practised Assagioli’s exercise for a long period after reading his book. Now I was triggered into resuming the practice again by what Koestenbaum had written.

I came across Koestenbaum’s book just before I discovered the existence of the Bahá’í Faith (for a fuller account see link). It helped me take what I had found in Assagioli and fuse it with what I had found in the Faith and create an experiential exercise to express that understanding in action in a way that helped me immensely to adjust to spiritual concepts which until that point had been completely alien to me for decades – all my adult life in fact. The Baha’i Writings talk about certain key powers of the soul: loving, knowing and willing as well as introducing me to the idea of the heart, the core of our being, as a mirror. I pulled this into my version of the exercise (see below). What I didn’t realise until later was that Assagioli had corresponded with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and had therefore to some degree been influenced by Bahá’í thought. (See Disidentification exercise for the final version that I used myself rather than this one I revised to share for the use of others).

Separating the Mirror from its Reflections

How amazing then to find Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quoting Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):

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

What I regret therefore now is that the usefulness of this exercise did not make me trace it back to its source and find out more of what Myers thought about this and many other things of great importance to me. So, better late than never, that is what I am about to do now.

Myers’s the self and the Self

The disidentification exercise rattled the cage of my previous ideas about who I was in essence. While I didn’t quite buy into Assagioli’s other ideas about consciousness at that time I felt, both intuitively and from the experiences I was having, that his idea was completely right that there is some form of pure consciousness underpinning our identity.

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

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

Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supraliminal experiences, used here by me in the sense of things that leak through the membrane from above, is strong enough to warrant serious consideration and he distinguishes between that and subliminal experiences that come, as it were, from underneath (page 87):

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

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

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


Midsummer Night’s Dream

Thin Partitions

He also has much that is interesting and valuable to say about the implications of a proper understanding of these upper and lower thresholds, especially when they are too porous, for both genius and mental health (page 98):

When there is ‘a lack of liminal stability, an excessive permeability, if I may say so, of the psychical diaphragm that separates the empirical [conscious] from the latent [subliminal: unconscious] faculties and man,’ then there may be either an expansion of consciousness (an ‘uprush’ of latent material from the subliminal into the supraliminal) or, conversely, a narrowing of consciousness (a ‘downdraught’ from the supraliminal into the subliminal). The former is genius, the latter is hysteria.

His use of supra- and subliminal is slightly confusing here but the main point is that genius expands what we are aware of, and more comes above the threshold, whereas hysteria narrows our experience so that less comes into consciousness. This is partly clarified by Kelly explaining (page 99):

In short, Myers believed that hysteria, when viewed as a psychological phenomenon, gives ‘striking’ support to ‘my own principal thesis’, namely, that all personality is a filtering or narrowing of the field of consciousness from a larger Self, the rest of which remains latent and capable of emerging only under the appropriate conditions.

Even the expanded consciousness of genius, in this view, is still filtering a lot out – in fact, it still leaves most of potential consciousness untapped.

There is in addition a common quality of excessive porousness which explains why, in Shakespeare’s phrase, the ‘lunatic . . . . . and the poet are of imagination all compact.’ Myers’s view is that (page 100):

Because genius and madness both involve similar psychological mechanisms – namely, a permeability of the psychological boundary – it is to be expected that they might frequently occur in the same person; but any nervous disorders that accompany genius signal, not dissolution, but a ‘perturbation which masks evolution.’

For Myers dreams, though they may indeed be common and frequently discounted, they are nonetheless important sources of data (pages 102-103):

Myers argued [that] dreams provide a readily available means of studying the ‘language’ of the subliminal, a language that may underlie other, less common forms of automatism or subliminal processes. . . . Myers’s model of mind predicts that that if sleep is a state of consciousness in which subliminal processes take over from supraliminal ones, then sleep should facilitate subliminal functioning, not only in the organic or ‘infrared’ region, but also in the “ultraviolet” range of the psychological spectrum, such as the emergence of telepathic impressions in dreams.

This has certainly been my own experience. A post I wrote two years ago will perhaps serve to illustrate that for those who are interested. My dream of the hearth, recounted there, was, incidentally, the only dream I have ever had in which I experienced the presence of God, another reason for my attaching such great importance to it.

An important related topic he also addresses is that of ‘hallucinations.’ People tend to be quite closed minded on this topic, seeing visions and voices as the sign of a mind gone wrong. This is quite unhelpful. There is a mass of evidence that I may come back to some time to indicate that ‘hallucinations’ range from the darkly destructive to the life enhancing and it important to pay close attention to the details of them and the circumstances under which they occur before coming to any conclusion about them. Our society’s default position, the result of exactly the backward step under discussion here that both psychology and psychiatry took in the name of pseudo-science, is harmful rather than helpful quite often (I have explored a more positive approach on this blog – see the six links to An Approach to Psychosis). Pim van Lommel’s research into NDEs replicates the same kind of pattern in that patients whose families and friends were unsympathetic took much longer to integrate their experiences and found it a more painful process than those who were met with support and understanding. He summarises this (page 51):

When someone first tries to disclose the NDE, the other person’s reaction is absolutely crucial. If this initial reaction is negative or skeptical, the process of accepting and integrating the NDE typically presents far greater problems than if this initial reaction is positive, sympathetic, or neutral. Evidence has shown that positive responses facilitate and accelerate the integration process. In fact, without the possibility of communication, the process of coming to terms with the NDE often fails to get under way at all.

We tend to underestimate the frequency of ‘hallucinations’ in the ‘normal’ population, something the Myers was already aware of (page 108):

One of the most important accomplishments of Myers, Guerney, and their colleagues in psychical research was in demonstrating the previously suspected, but as it turns out not infrequent, occurrence of hallucinations in normal, healthy individuals.

Not all them should be dismissed as fantasy (page 109):

These studies and surveys also demonstrated that such hallucinations are not always purely subjective in origin. Some, in fact, are veridical – that is, they involve seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing some event happening at a physically remote location. . . . . Using their own figures for the frequency with which people recall having hallucinations in a waking, healthy state, together with statistics regarding the incidence of death in the United Kingdom, they concluded that hallucinations coinciding with a death happened too frequently to be attributable to chance.

All in all, Myers’s mould-breaking approach to the mind and to the problems of consciousness is refreshing to say the least, and maps onto my own long-standing interests in spirituality, creativity and ‘psychosis.’ It was icing on the cake to find what he said about science and religion, a point to savour and a good note to end this post on (page 113) :

On the one hand, . . . he believed that science could ‘prove the preamble of all religions’ – namely, that the universe extends far beyond the perceptible material world. On the other hand., religion could contribute to ‘the expansion of Science herself until she can satisfy those questions which the human heart will rightly ask, but to which Religion alone has thus far attempted an answer.’

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Reality Model

Because my current sequence of posts refers to the Kellys and their thought-provoking text Irreducible Mind, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence from March 2013. The third part will appear on Wednesday.

Why it matters to me

As I partly explained in the previous post, my education as a psychologist was rooted in a discipline whose mainstream had chosen for almost a century to ignore subjective consciousness, probably the most important spectrum of human experience, in favour of what could be more easily quantified and externally observed. Most psychologists solved, and continue to solve, the mind-brain-reality problem by turning their backs both on the mind in any sense that is not reducible to brain activity and on any reality that appears to challenge the idea that there is nothing but matter.  The poem I once posted – Letter to a Friend in Winter – gives a sense of the issues I was wrestling with on the eve of my first encounter with the Bahá’í Faith in the spring of 1982: the same can also be said of the next poem I will be posting.

Deciding to become a Bahá’í pulled me up short, as I described in the first post of this series. I had not realised that we do not have to choose between material and spiritual models of mind and reality. There is in fact a third way. It involves opening the mind to all the evidence on both sides of the divide and developing a more adequate simulation of reality. And that’s precisely the challenge that Myers had taken up in the 19th Century. It’s time I did him the respect of beginning to grapple, albeit through an intermediary, with his position on this instead of looking only to modern writers for help. I have bought his key text – Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (the title was given posthumously and gives too narrow a sense of the book, apparently) – ready for the next stage, but feel I need to limber up in this way before tackling him head on.

If we start from the core point it will be easiest. To quote Ellen Kelly in the Kellys’ monumental book Irreducible Mind  (page 64):

In keeping with his “tertium quid” approach, [Myers] believes that the challenge to science does not end but begins precisely when one comes up against two contradictory findings, positions, or theories, and that breakthroughs occur when one continues to work with conflicting data and ideas until a new picture emerges that can put conflicts and paradoxes in a new light or a larger perspective.

She quotes from the man himself in terms of his sense of the divide between spirit and matter (page 70):

“The line between the ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial,’ as these words are commonly used, means little more than the line between the phenomena which our senses or instruments can detect or register and the phenomena which they can not.”

Is the mind only our brain?

The mind-brain data throws up a tough problem, though. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though (page 73):

The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.


A Transceiver

Others are of course now following where he marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon (page 177):

It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?

The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, as we will see – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. Whereas we now can draw upon all the complexities of Quantum Theory to help us define exactly what might be going on behind the screen of consciousness, and Lommel certainly does that, Myers had no such advantage. Nonetheless, he creates a rich and subtle picture of what consciousness might be comprised. He starts with the most basic levels (page 73):

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

So what is consciousness?

But in keeping with his ‘tertium quid’ approach, Myers believed (page 74) that “The reconcilement of the two opposing systems [the spiritual and material] in a profounder synthesis” is possible. According to Kelly (page 75) he drew on many traditions:

The rapidly multiplying observations of experimental psychology, neurology, psychopathology, and hypnotism clearly showed that the human mind is far more extensive than ordinarily thought, since much psychological functioning remains outside the range of our conscious mental life . . . .

He defined exactly what he meant (page 76):

. . . .  something is ‘conscious’ if it is capable of entering waking awareness, given the appropriate conditions or the discovery of an ‘appropriate artifice’ or experimental method to elicit it . . . . Given this new, expanded conception of what is ‘conscious,’ Myers therefore considered such terms as “‘Unconscious’ or even ‘Subconscious’ . . .  [to be] directly misleading” and he proposed instead the words ‘supraliminal, and ‘subliminal’ to distinguish between streams of consciousness that are and are not, respectively, identifiable with ordinary awareness. (page 76)

Kelly agrees that these two uses of the threshold concept can cause confusion. Myers is after all not only concerned with what rises into consciousness from beneath a lower threshold and but also what falls into it from above through a higher one.


Stellar Spectra (from this website)

This problem is illustrated by Myers’s very helpful original analogy, and it shows just how far he was prepared to go in taking into account disciplines that others would have felt were beyond the pale (page 78):

Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.

He does not feel we are yet at our highest achievable level (page 80): ‘. . . our present sensory capacities and our normal waking consciousness [do not] mark the final point of the evolutionary process.’ This gels strongly with my own feelings about the matter as does most of what he wrote. Basically, consciousness is to all intents and purposes infinite. Currently we can read only a tiny fraction of it.  Our brains are capable of evolving far further and of taking in or ‘reading’ a broader range of wavelengths from this spectrum of consciousness.

From here Kelly goes onto look at his concept of the self. This is too complex a topic to cram into the end of this post so it will have to wait for next time.


Picture from this link.

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Dr Penny Sartori (for source of image see link)

It is more than two years since I posted this short sequence. Given my recent sharing of Sharon Rawlette’s review, it seemed a good time to republish it.

I recently read yet another book about NDEs –  The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences: How Understanding NDEs Can Help Us Live More Fully by Dr Penny Sartori.

Much of it covered very familiar ground and I won’t be dwelling on those aspects in detail here as I have dealt with such things as the basic elements and the implications for consciousness elsewhere. I want to look at what the book seems to add to our understanding of this contentious area of investigation.

Some of what she writes simply adds to my understanding of aspects which have been well-researched already. For example, previous studies, such as those of Ken Ring, have rightly emphasised the impact that an NDE can have on someone’s subsequent pattern of life, often radically altering a person’s priorities, shifting them from the material towards the moral/spiritual. What Sartori includes is some concrete evidence that supports the idea, which writers such as Eben Alexander put forward, that genuine knowledge beyond the person’s previous capacity can be acquired during an NDE. One example (Kindle location 325) describes a presentation at an NDE conference of the NDE experienced by someone called Rajaa:

During the conference a video recording of an interview with Rajaa’s university professor was broadcast. He stated how puzzled he was about Rajaa’s level of knowledge of quantum physics. The knowledge and understanding that she has cannot be acquired by attending an accelerated course or reading lots of books about quantum physics. What I found particularly intriguing was that he said that not even he understood some of what Rajaa was writing about but her work had since been confirmed by recent papers that had been published in physics journals.

Because she is a nurse by profession she is particularly interested in the clinical implications of the NDE. This gives her treatment of the subject a specially valuable slant.

She gives a clear account of the challenges the experience can present in its aftermath. She feels that ‘six major challenges that the NDErs [are] faced with’ have been identified (697). She lists them as (698):

• Processing a radical shift in reality
• Accepting the return to life
• Sharing the experience
• Integrating new spiritual values with earthly expectations
• Adjusting to heightened sensitivities and supernatural gifts
• Finding and living one’s purpose.

As will become clear later the attitude of important others is of particular significance in helping people comes to terms with these challenges. NDEs may be particularly testing for children (1464):

Connecting with unconditional transcendent love, then returning to life was confusing for many childhood NDErs. Many children reported that they wanted to return to where they were and would even attempt suicide to get there. Suicide in this case is not a means of self-harm but a means to return to that wonderful place of love.


In her own practice as a nurse she was challenged by the way that clinical teams managed death and dying and by accounts of NDEs that she met en route. She watched as four members of staff, intent on saving the life of an elderly woman who was certain to die soon, mounted a massively invasive mechanical campaign to prevent the inevitable, only to prolong her suffering to no useful purpose whatsoever.

She decided to embark upon her own investigation of NDEs. It was a demanding exercise to undertake given her duties as a nurse at the time (2605-8):

After the first year I had interviewed 243 patients but only two reported an NDE (0.8 per cent) and two reported an OBE (0.8 per cent). . . . . So by the by the end of the five years, out of 39 patients who survived cardiac arrest, seven reported an NDE (17.9 per cent). . . . . in total, during the five years, 15 patients reported an NDE and there were eight reports of OBE-type experiences.

She argues strongly against NDEs as some form of wish fulfilment, partly on the grounds that these experiences do not conform to expectations and are sometimes decidedly unpleasant. One ‘was so terrifying for the patient that I had to terminate the interview.’ She adds (2725):

Such experiences are hardly the outcome of wish fulfilment. Further to this, some patients met dead relatives they did not expect to see and some had unexpected reactions from these relatives while others did not experience what they had expected. It seems that expectations were not met and some unexpected factors arose.

She quotes Bruce Greyson’s pithy summary of the situation as far as systematic investigation is concerned (2786):

It is interesting to note Professor Bruce Greyson’s comment: ‘Why is it that scientists who have done the most near-death research believe the mind is not exclusively housed in the brain, whereas those who regard NDEs as hallucinations by and large have not conducted any studies of the phenomena at all?’

She dismisses the contention that NDEs are drug induced on the basis of considerable evidence to the contrary, for example (2807-9):

Interestingly, when drug administration is considered in the hallucination group, out of the 12 patients who reported bizarre hallucinations, 11 (almost 92 per cent) of them received both painkilling and sedative drugs. This appears to suggest that drugs greatly contribute to confusional, bizarre hallucinations . . . . which are in stark contrast to the clear, lucid, well-structured NDEs that were reported. 


For source of image see link

She then moves into an area of particular practical interest to me given my involvement in NHS Chaplaincy.

She begins by explaining that, in general (2967), ‘spiritual aspects of patient care are an area which is greatly lacking for many reasons, such as lack of confidence or experience, or lack of continuity of care, but probably the biggest factor is excessive workloads and resultant lack of time and nurses.’  She is clear that (2970) ‘addressing spiritual needs of patients and treating patients holistically has the potential to accelerate healing and recovery, reduce medication and resources required and so reduce the hospital stay’ and that (2973) ‘[c]aring for patients’ spiritual needs could also prompt healthcare workers to explore their own spiritual needs.’

She makes the same point (2977) as the recent Horizon programme on the placebo effect also demonstrated experimentally, ‘Drawing on the latest research of the effect of positive emotions on health, it has been shown how feelings of wellbeing and love can greatly enhance recovery and healing.’

What has this to do with NDEs? Quite a great deal as it turns out. First of all these experiences are usually wrongly categorised (2987):

NDEs are often misdiagnosed as post-traumatic stress or a dissociative disorder, despite the literature warning against this, and they are categorized into conventional diagnostic illnesses that are not appropriate for NDEs.

There is widespread ignorance amongst health staff which adversely affects the care they provide (3003):

Despite NDEs being highly popularized in the media, healthcare workers still lack the knowledge to provide the level of care that these patients require.

She argues for the importance of a more understanding approach (3032):

Caregivers should not discredit NDE/end-of-life experiences because they are at variance with their own worldview but should encourage the person to use it in a positive way and see it as a gift. Although as nurses we are trained to ‘correct’ hallucinations, it is most important that NDEs are not treated in this way but listened to.

She unpacks why this matters (3040):

NDEs are still regarded by some people as hallucinations and many try to explain them away as being due to drugs or lack of oxygen. This is not a criticism; when NDEs are taken at surface value these appear to be very rational, plausible explanations – in fact, these were my own initial reactions to NDEs. Research in the clinical area is now showing these factors to be inadequate explanations and such a response can be detrimental to the NDEr understanding and integrating their experience.

This can lead to long term negative consequences as the patient retreats into silence about the whole experience, questions his or her rationality and suffers from a feeling of alienation.

The next post will go into more detail about what the book reveals of the implications and the aftermath of an NDE.

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Coffe cup on garden tableI’m asleep. At least I think I am. We’re altogether this time, sitting round the glass table in the garden. We are wrestling with the problem of how to find out if my head has any other entities lurking beneath consciousness and if so, how to get in touch with them. We’ve postponed trying to reach agreement on how to reflect more often and more effectively until we’ve sorted this issue out.

‘We don’t seem to be getting very far with our watching brief plan. And I don’t think we’re going to. We need to do something more proactive.’ He paused for a moment and when no one else spoke he added, ‘Why don’t we try using an ouija board?’ Frederick Mires seems slightly embarrassed to be making this suggestion.

‘Good to see a brain scientist prepared to put something so discredited to the test, Fred.’ Christopher Humfreeze finds it hard to conceal his pleasure at scoring such an unlikely point. For once he is not on the receiving end of Mires’s unremitting need to test the validity of his faith in meditation.

‘Too easy to fake, isn’t it?’ comments the pragmatic Emma Pancake dismissively. Anything so flaky is unlikely to receive the support of such a hard-line campaigner in the socio-political sphere.

‘What’s an Ouija board?’ asks the bewildered William Wordless. Exploring and rhapsodising about mountains and forests has obviously given him too little time to explore the esoteric.

I feel it’s time I stepped in.

‘I don’t think we have to explain that to you, Bill, I’m happy to say. I’m not convinced that tables, letter cards and up-turned tumblers are going to get us very far towards solving this problem. We’re not in a material space now but an immaterial one: dreamland requires a different approach, I feel.’

There is a period of silence.

‘I have an idea but it’s unlikely to work,’ Mires muses.

‘We’d be glad to hear it, whatever it is,’ is my attempt at an encouraging response.

The Conscious Universe IRM‘Well, you know I’ve been investigating consciousness for decades now, and there is one method that in my view, if it can work at all, could just possibly work as well in dreamland as in waking time.’ He pauses dramatically.

‘Come on, Fred. Don’t keep us hanging in suspense.’ Pancake has little patience with anyone’s dramatics except her own.

‘Calm down, Emmie! I’m going to tell you now. If we had access to a psychic, a spirit medium, we could possibly detect and access whatever is there.’

‘That puts the kibosh on that one then,’ gloats Pancake. ‘We haven’t got a medium.’

‘Slow down a moment, folks. Not so hasty.’ Bill clearly doesn’t like Pancake’s knee jerk dismissal of this idea. There’s always been a tension between them. He knows she despises his love of poetry: she sees it as an impractical waste of time. He, on the other hand, distrusts the frantic activity with which she chases her dream of changing the world.

‘Maybe we have someone who doesn’t know they’re a medium.’

‘How likely is that, Bill?’ asks Mires. ‘We’ve been together in here for decades. We know each other really well. I don’t see anyone among us with a secret gift for contacting spirits.’

‘That’s where I think you’re mistaken, Fred. You’ve never been convinced that meditation does what Chris says it can. What if he’s right? What if he is closer to his soul than any of us? What if that means he can tune in to the world of souls and spirits that we can’t sense?’

‘Steady on, Bill, for heaven’s sake,’ Humfreeze butts in. ‘It’s my head you’re talking about here. Don’t let your poetic imagination run away with you. I have never had, and I do not expect ever to have, psychic powers, whatever they are. That’s not why I meditate.’

‘I’m not suggesting that is why you do it, only that it might have helped you be able to do it and not even know. Why don’t you just give it try? We really need to find a way to do this.’

Humfreeze seems to be shrinking with repugnance at the whole idea.

Image adapted from the Taschen edition of Renee Magritte

Image adapted from the Taschen edition of Renee Magritte

‘I know this probably cuts across everything you feel you are trying to do,’ Mires interjects sympathetically, ‘and I will respect and understand whatever decision you make in the end. However, I think there is something here that trumps your reluctance. If there is a hidden entity inside Pete’s head and if contacting it results in us all becoming more able to do more good, then there’s no blame attached to your testing the existence of a possible skill you never tried to acquire. It can do no harm and might do a lot of good.’

‘That’s an awful lot of ifs,’ laments Humfreeze. He pauses for a moment as he ponders what to say. We all realise this is a tipping point and keep schtum.

‘OK. This is the deal. I want to hear everyone’s opinion on this insane suggestion. If I end up feeling that all of you are definitely in favour of this plan, I will give it a go. I will try three times and three times only. If nothing happens, I’m not doing it again, do you all understand?’

‘Thank you, Chris. That’s very gracious of you, and we really appreciate how much it cost you to say that. So, what do we all think of the plan, then? You first, Emmie.’ Mires gives Pancake a searching look.

‘Did you have to start with me, Fred?’ Pancake complains. ‘I need more time. Ask someone else.’

Mires’s stops himself from commenting that this is the first occasion to his knowledge that she has wanted more time before deciding to act.

‘I’ll come back to you then. What do you think, Bill. Are you still for the idea?’

‘Definitely. I think we have to give it a go.’

‘Pete, what do you think?’

‘Well, I’m not very happy to go down this road, but I can’t think of a better idea. I have a really strong sense there is some kind of being underneath our awareness that we absolutely need to get in touch with, so I feel we should accept Chris’s generous offer and see if he’s psychic after all.’

‘Back to you then, Emmie. I’m in favour of trying this out even though I’m anything but sure it will work. It can’t do any harm and there’s a lot at stake here, and I’ve been wrong before.’

‘Can I have that in writing, Fred, for use in future arguments?’ quips Pancake. We all laugh, glad to have an excuse to break the tension a little.

‘I’ve had time to think and I agree we should go with this idea. I find it hard to believe it will work but we’ve got nothing to lose by trying.’

‘That’s it then, Chris. I come back to you with a unanimous decision that we ask you to try.’

‘I was afraid that would be how it turned out. I said I would do it if you all agreed and I’ll stick to my word. Can you give me just a bit more time to prepare?’

We all nod and agree to meet as soon as Humfreeze lets us know he’s ready.

Coming through the open window in the heat, the sound of the milkman’s van outside wakes me up. It’s light already but far too early to get up. I turn on my other side mulling over the contents of the dream as the mist of sleep slowly blots out my thoughts.

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