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I read an interesting article by Yuval Noah Harari in the Guardian some time ago, entitled The New Threat to Liberal Democracy. Astonishingly, from reductionist premises with which I completely disagree, such as that we have no free will, he arrives at the same conclusion as I do about a key mental skill: ‘renouncing the myth of free will can kindle a profound curiosity. If you strongly identify with the thoughts and desires that emerge in your mind, you don’t need to make much effort to get to know yourself. You think you already know exactly who you are. But once you realise “Hi, this isn’t me. This is just some changing biochemical phenomenon!” then you also realise you have no idea who – or what – you actually are. This can be the beginning of the most exciting journey of discovery any human can undertake.’

This is reflective disidentification in effect. More of that in a moment.

The article, from vastly different premises, confirms my feeling that developing the ability to step back from our automatic reactions is a key skill we need to acquire, but our culture militates against it – in fact, all the subliminal influences in our society are working in the opposite direction.

In Tart’s terms, our ‘trance’, and in Bahá’u’lláh’s words our ‘vain imaginings,’ ’superstitions’ and ‘delusions,’ control us, not because we have no will power, but because we fail to tune into the deepest levels of our being and we invest our trust in false gods.

On top of that, our reptilian brain, the amygdala, drowns out the soul’s whispers with its fear and rage.

What follows may not be entirely coherent as it was only recently, while sitting in the garden with a coffee, that an important penny dropped.

I asked myself whether, in my past attempts to look at what narrows the compass of compassion, eg labelling, the reptilian brain, inequality, power differentials etc, I had missed the more generic point that any kind of identification with a feeling, thought, judgement, self-concept, ego function, by definition:

(a) narrows compassion potentially to zero, and

(b) shallows wisdom to the same extent.

Strong identifications of this kind could lead to a container, whose width is compassion and depth is wisdom, to become the size of a thimble – an obvious but useful symbol. Using reflection to remove these false identifications would create an ocean, by comparison. When you add into the mix how reflection facilitates true consultation as a means of enhancing our simulations of reality through a constructive process of comparing notes with others in a spirit of objective exploration rather than adversarial debate, then the potential becomes even greater. The opposite is also true: failure to reflect impedes consultation and fosters conflict, resulting in impoverished representations of reality.

The other important factor is what we choose as our guiding light. As Reitan points out, simply believing we believe in God is not enough: the God we choose to believe in has to be worthy of worship. To make a god out of our ego or a dictator is a fatal mistake. Even our ideals have to be approached with caution, as Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ points out. In his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Another recent article in the Guardian by Michele Gelfand points up the impact of feeling threatened on our openness to others.

His core point in terms of this issue is: ‘Analysing hundreds of hunter-gatherer groups, as well as nation-states including the Aztecs and Incas, we found that cultures that experienced existential threats, such as famine and warfare, favoured strong norms and autocratic leaders. Our computer models show a similar effect: threat leads to the evolution of tightness.’

This maps onto my long explored idea that fear narrows the compass of compassion and makes intolerance and prejudice more likely. The narrower the container, the more likely we are to experience feelings of threat and a strong sense of difference between us and other people.

I’d maybe been putting the cart before the horse in seeing the feelings as ultimately causative rather than secondary. The wider we set our compass of compassion, and the deeper our wisdom becomes, the less likely are we to be fearful, threatened and reactively aggressive. When something disturbing happens and it’s a drop in the ocean you feel no fear. When something happens and it’s a drop in a thimble, all hell spills out.

This may be a two-way street, though, in that fear will reduce the size of our container, just as the smallness of the container is conducive to fear. There is, however, no guarantee that an absence of fear would be conducive automatically to compassion, as the combination of narcissism and fearlessness is found in the psychopath.

Where the process starts may be different for different people in different situations. If it is basically true, however, that fear shrinks compassion and reduced compassion fosters fear, and it seems likely, the dynamic I’ve described would create a vicious circle of a most pernicious and self-defeating kind. I still need to clarify these implications.

This is what I plan to do in a later sequence.

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

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

John Donne wrote:

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

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

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

This means that Donne’s message is still relevant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bahá’u’lláh expresses this second form of unity in powerful terms. We are all created from ‘from the same dust’, and he explains why it is important that we recognise this: ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acquiring this skill is not easy.

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

He states that (page 69):

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

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

Koestenbaum is optimistic about our ability to acquire this skill (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection what he means is definitely something closely related to meditation. Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

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

This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life. In developing that capacity we will have to strive for perfection and be content with progress, as the saying goes.

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

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

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

Why is all this so important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, exactly what is this consultation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

‘A poet of the inner civil war.’

(A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson  – page 3)

For present purposes we are now on the brink of the last disclosure. For UK readers of Emily Dickinson the American Civil War can easily become the mastodon hidden in the attic. I think it did for me. This is no longer true for me at least, thanks to Shira Wolosky, one of the writers in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson .

As we will see, for Dickinson the Civil War had an additional stress. She wasn’t sure whether the objectives of the war were worth all the consequent loss of life. Along with all the other possibilities we have explored, this tested various dimensions of her faith – in life, in love and in immortality. And she was not alone. Dickinson crystallised the prevalent atmosphere of doubt into her poems, capturing her state of mind many times with uncanny and haunting precision.

Shira Wolosky

I’ve already mentioned the startling fact of her poetic productivity during the war years, but I’ll repeat it again here in Wolosky’s words in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 107):

[M]ore than half of her poetic production coincides with years of the Civil War, 1861 to 1865. The years immediately preceding the war… were also the years which Thomas Johnson identifies with “the rising flood of her talent,“ as well as with the beginning of her reclusive practices.

There was an amazing peak in 1863 alone. Betsy Erkkila describes it as follows, in a later chapter (page 158):

[O]f the 1789 poems in Franklin’s variorum edition, over half were written during the years of the Civil War between 1861 and 1865; and of these, almost 300 were written in 1863, a year of crisis and turning point in the war, when even Union victories such as Gettysburg had become scenes of horrific bloodletting and mass death on both sides.

It is not surprising that one of the main concerns of these poems is ‘theodicy’ (page 111):

Dickinson’s war poems generally attempt to make out “the anguish in this world“ and to decipher whether it has “a loving side.“ This would mean its fitting into some wider schema, some purpose that would justify suffering…

This was a testing struggle as in war death is (page 112) ‘arbitrary and recalcitrant.’ In fact (page 125):

The Civil War reached levels of carnage before unknown, made possible both by new technology and new strategies of total warfare, in combination with a profound ideological challenge to American national claims and self identity, political and religious.

There is an intriguing consequence of this (page 114), ‘it is, oddly, just where poems are most personal in terms of Dickinson’s suffering, but they are also most culturally engaged.’ The intense resonance of the poet’s mind to the climate of the times is captured in poem after poem.

Religion was a lifelong issue for Dickinson. In many ways it ‘fails her’ (page 116) and her work ‘repeatedly rehearses her reasons for both asserting and denying a divine order, in constant countertension.’ She also raises questions about (page 117) the extent to which’ art can indeed serve as figure for faith’ and ‘in text after text, she returns again to religious premises and promises; again finding them wanting; again finding them necessary.’

At exactly this point a bluebottle landed on the page at the exact paragraph I was dictating into my phone. It rubbed it forelegs together in typical fly fashion. Just as I got out of Notes on my phone and into my camera, a plane flew growling overhead and the breeze flipped my page, and the fly was gone. It felt like a typical Emily Dickinson joke.

One of the challenges war poses (page 119) is that ‘the self is called upon to place life second to, or in service of, community, in the name of a greater purpose.’ Wolosky feels that Dickinson is crushed between these pressure points (page 124):

Dickinson here situates herself at the very clash of contending impulses. Her self, on the one hand, remains independent, even defiant, of society’s claims, with a courage of judgement that is unwavering. On the other hand, she is also sceptical of selves that are invested only in themselves, without reference, or devotion, to anything beyond the self. She is critical, that is, of both social authority and also absolute selfhood.

Her poems are again often masterpieces of inner ambivalence, products of a mind torn between two opposing forces within the individual and within society.

A key passage in the Bahá’í International Community’s document The Prosperity of Humankind examines this same problem, the individual versus society, from the perspective of consultation and its correlate, justice (Section II):

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

It is not a problem that is going to be easily solved: it requires a fundamental collective shift in consciousness.

Poetry often captures the priceless values of both a human life and its sacrifice. As Wolosky puts it, referring to The Martyr Poets (page 125): ‘As in many war poems, self is at once granted enormous value, and yet a value that emerges in self-effacement – indeed, in martyrdom, as witness to others at the cost of self.’

Dickinson’s brief poem reads:

The Martyr Poets — did not tell —
But wrought their Pang in syllable —
That when their mortal name be numb —
Their mortal fate — encourage Some —

The Martyr Painters — never spoke —
Bequeathing — rather — to their Work —
That when their conscious fingers cease —
Some seek in Art — the Art of Peace —

It is perhaps not entirely surprising either that in addition to theodicy as a theme, her poems should also manifest disruptions to the 19thCentury standard verse forms (page 126):

Many have been struck by Dickinson’s apparent modernity; by how her strained and difficult forms – at once contained within and yet strenuously recasting hymnal metres and modes – seem to foreshadow the radical experimentation of twentieth century poetics.

She goes onto explain exactly why this might be the case (my emphases):

[This seems] rooted in the ways Dickinson’s work represents an intersection between historical, metaphysical, and aesthetic forces when these are under extraordinary pressure, and specifically, when long-standing, traditional assumptions regarding the basic frameworks for interpreting the world are challenged to the point of breakage. Dickinson‘s work is among the first directly to register the effects on poetic language of such breakdown. Articulate language depends on, even as it expresses and projects, the ability to conceive reality as coherent and meaningful. . . Such “splitting apart of the communion“ between paradigm and world, metaphysics and history, marks modern experience.

Wolosky points out the parallels with Europe’s experience of the Second World War, quoting Theodor Adorno’s words (page 127) which describe how ‘Our metaphysical faculty is paralysed because actual events have shattered the basis on which speculative metaphysical thought could be reconciled with experience.’ She feels Dickinson’s work ‘reveals and dramatises . . . the consequences of such paralysis and assault on the very structure and language of poetry,’ and describes her texts as ‘battlefields between contesting claims of self and community, private and public interest, event and design, metaphysics and history, with each asserted, often against the other.’

This is another challenge Dickinson rises to in expressing her inscape: how to wrench her poetic forms into expressions of dislocated anguish without losing hold completely on its opposite.

As someone old enough to have lived through the traumatised aftermath of the Second World War, while too young to have consciously responded to the war itself, such poems resonate strongly with me. Why I respond more positively to her poems as against, for example, Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, is I think because she holds both memories of harmony in balance with the terrifying disjunctive present through her fractured hymnal verse forms. Jarrell, and other modernists, seem to have given up the struggle to capture some hope of balance or redress. Jarrell’s poem reads:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Wolosky concludes that (ibid):

Emily Dickinson’s texts are battlefields between contesting claims of self and community, private and public interest, event and design, metaphysics and history, with each asserted, often against the other.

Bodies lie in front of the Dunker Church on the Antietam Battlefield.LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. For source of image see link.

Three Other Points of View

There are three other authors in this book whose insights I need to draw on now before concluding this sequence of posts – Betsy Erkkila, Cheryl Walker and Cristanne Miller.

Erkkila subscribes to the idea that these were traumatic times and seeking definitively to label any one aspect as key may well prove impossible (page 150):

‘I have a Terror…’ Dickinson wrote to Higginson in April 1862, ‘and so I sing as the Boy does by the Burying Ground — because I am afraid –.’ Whatever the sources of Dickinson’s ‘terror’ – a personal love crisis, a failure of religious belief, the advent of the Civil War, the collapse of an older New England social order, the horrifying prospect of everlasting ‘Death,’ metaphysical angst, or all these together – her poems powerfully register the disintegrative psychic, emotional, and bodily effects of social transformation and political crisis that marked Dickinson’s years of greatest productivity during and after the Civil War.

She agrees that Dickinson’s religious faith was severely tested and in conventional terms was broken, but also without her having anything with which to replace it (pages 153-54:

[S]he expresses the pain of living in an era of unbelief… As someone who could not believe in either the saving Christian orthodoxy of the past or the progressive demographic ideology of the future, Dickinson gives voice in her poems to the spooked interiors of ante- and postbellum America, the spectres of unmeaning, abjection and death that stalked the American landscape during the Civil War . . .

In consequence, Erkkila believes, she (page 156) ‘turned to writing as a kind of aesthetic substitution, a means of suffering the inner emotional life of the war through writing.’

A complicating factor to her experience of the war concerns her attitude to the question of slavery (page 170):

[I]n a public letter about the 4th of July celebration in Belchertown in 1855, Edward Dickinson [her father] expressed hope that “by the help of Almighty God, not another inch of our soil heretoforeconsecratedto freedom, shall hereafterbe polluted by the advancing tread of slavery“… Although Dickinson opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories, he also opposed the abolitionist goal of immediate emancipation of Southern slaves. For him as for many in the NT Balham area, including Lincoln, antislavery zeal was under written by fear that the white American Republic would be ‘polluted’ by the ‘advancing tread’ of blacknessinto the new states. Emily Dickinson appears to have shared her father’s anxiety about the pollution of the American republic.

In a note at the end of her chapter Erkkila spells out some implications of this for her attitude to the war, in the context of the seven out of 10 poems she published during the Civil War. Her reasons for publication are unclear and may not have been to support the Union cause, as some have argued (page 172- my emphasis):

If she did contribute these poems voluntarily, and there is no evidence for this, they were more likely sent to support the sick, wounded, and dying, who were sacrificing their lives in support of a cause that was – in Dickinson’s view — at best questionable.

I think we must accept that this would have had the effect of making the war more traumatic for her, not less, even if we cannot share her alleged ambivalence about abolition in the form she saw unfolding.

Interestingly (page 163), she stopped making the fascicles in 1864, before the War closed. Erkkila feels that ‘her letters and poems served – especially during and after the war – as prayer, medicine, consolation, gift, and cure,’ and (page 164) ‘she was looking to art – to poetry writing – as a means of overcoming not only “Death” but also the lack of higher meaning, order, and value in the world.’

Cheryl Walker flags up three points of interest here.

First there is (page 178) ‘Dickinson’s infatuation with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.’ My earlier sequence explains why this would be of interest to me at least.

The second takes us back to Gubar and Gilbert’s The Mad Woman in the Attic (page 179):

Women poets were largely inhibited by two tenets of bourgeois ideology; one, that women violated the ‘cult of true womanhood’ . . .  by writing for a public audience; and two, that, when they did write, women poets must avoid transgressing the boundaries of their allotted sphere.

This may go some way towards explaining Dickinson’s reluctance to publish, but cannot be the whole story as her poem suggests:

Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty – be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly – but We – would rather
From Our Garret go
White – unto the White Creator –
Than invest – Our Snow –

And finally, and perhaps  most importantly of all, she in her turn concludes, quoting Camille Paglia (page 181): ‘without her struggle with God and father, there would have been no poetry…’

Cristanne Miller reinforces Dickinson’s anticipations of modernism (page 205):

[M]any critics have argued that Dickinson participated in the modernising climate of her times by creating a protomodernist lyric, a poetry that rebels against ‘patriarchal’ metres, conventions of punctuation, grammar, rhyme, or even print to construct a new kind of poem. . . . The extreme compression of Dickinson’s language and its multiple forms of disjunction – grammatical, syntactic, tonal, and logical – strikingly anticipate features of modernist verse.

And about her feminism she writes (page 225):

Dickinson’s feminism was as complex and contradictory as other aspects of her art: while the poet’s life and poetry are feminist in some respects, she was in other ways more conservative socially and politically than many of her female contemporaries, who chose to publish poems of explicit cultural and political critique – albeit in less interesting verse forms.

Her poetry does not so openly rebel either (page 227):

[S]he wrote largely in ballad form or using other fundamentally regular rhythmic and rhyming patterns, which she disrupted continuously, in sly ways. . . . Fox-like, she appeared to conform while rebelling indirectly, through omission, dissonant or slant-rhymes, irony, and wit.

So?

Where does all this leave me?

Yes, it’s clear that there could be at least four major factors influencing Dickinson’s themes and forms: the repression of women, disappointed passion, epilepsy as a stigmatising illness and the American Civil War. It is safe to conclude also, on the basis of the timing of her output, that the Civil War had perhaps the greatest impact. The following diagram attempts to capture them.

It is perhaps worth spelling out some assumptions linked to the factors. It is the timing of the Civil War and the episodes of disappointed love that are often adduced to help interpret a poem. The restrictive conventions imposed upon women are quoted as relevant to some of her references to ‘white’ as of course is faith, death and immortality. Whether her apparently chosen seclusion is to be explained by her epilepsy or by agoraphobia is still an open question. Seclusion, a quality she shares to some degree with other major writers, is generally accepted as the key to her power as a poet of the interior. The exact impact of the slave question is also  not entirely resolved in terms of the Civil War and its meaning for her.

So, I must ask, is her elliptical and slanting style the result of thwarted and socially unacceptable passion – a love ‘that dared not speak its name’ in both the case of Sue and a probably married man? Could she not speak more directly about almost anything because she was a woman, because she was epileptic or because she knows she is being ‘heretical’? Or was it the result of unbearable anguish in the face of the Civil War’s inescapable acting out of man’s inhumanity to man?

Whatever the answers to any of these questions turn out to be, I feel that it is beyond reasonable doubt that among her poems are unquestionable masterpieces that remain as relevant to us now in our age of war, uncertain faith and questionable ideologies, as they were when she wrote them. They pull me into her passionate intense interior with a power that would be hard to resist, even if I wanted to.

I am setting myself the task of re-reading the 294 poems that are labelled in my R. W. Franklin edition as having been written in 1863, to see what I now make of them in the light of all this recent reading about her.

It’s high time I let her speak to me herself.

Unexpected Coda

As a Bahá’í though, I can’t resist mentioning, before I close, that 1863 was the very year Bahá’u’lláh declared his Mission, His divinely ordained responsibility to convey to humanity a vision of the future that held out hope of resolving the major war-engendering and repressive tendencies of our times. This all-too-obvious connection with the peak of Dickinson’s productivity did not occur to me until after I had made my plan, probably because I was not expecting any such thing as I pursued this investigation.

Just when she, a possibly self-incarcerated prisoner in her own home in Amherst, was grappling, through her most prolific period of creativity, with the titanic and traumatic challenges her country was facing, a prisoner in exile in Baghdad, shortly to begin a deportation that would eventually consign Him and all His closest family to the disease-ridden prison city of Akka, was openly proclaiming for the first time His world-embracing, world-healing Message, one that she was never in a position to hear, even though (op. cit.: page 85) ‘Many of her contemporaries (notably Shakers, Millerites, and Adventists) awaited imminent fulfilment of revelation with Christ’s second coming.’ She was only 14 when their very public disappointment of 1844 occurred.

The essence of His message can perhaps be best summarised briefly here by quoting from The Hidden Words (Arabic No. 68 – there is more at this link):

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

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IMG_2413I recently was involved in a series of workshops at Builth Well in Wales. I thought it worth sharing the materials used. The second set will come out next Monday and the last next Thursday. What the simple presentation of these materials fails to capture of course is the wealth of insight that comes from exploring the riches contained in the quotations used. The only way of accessing that would be to try approaching them in the same way.

Prayer

O compassionate God!  Thanks be to Thee for Thou hast awakened and made me conscious.  Thou hast given me a seeing eye and favored me with a hearing ear, hast led me to Thy kingdom and guided me to Thy path.  Thou hast shown me the right way and caused me to enter the ark of deliverance.  O God!  Keep me steadfast and make me firm and staunch.  Protect me from violent tests and preserve and shelter me in the strongly fortified fortress of Thy Covenant and Testament.  Thou art the Powerful.  Thou art the Seeing.  Thou art the Hearing.

O Thou the Compassionate God.  Bestow upon me a heart which, like unto a glass, may be illumined with the light of Thy love, and confer upon me thoughts which may change this world into a rose garden through the outpourings of heavenly grace.

Thou art the Compassionate, the Merciful.  Thou art the Great Beneficent God.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Overview

In the Bahá’í Writings the phrase ‘understanding heart’ is used more than thirty times. Of the heart, in various places Bahá’u’lláh uses three images, one of the mirror, one of the lamp and one of the garden. It is on this last that most of the focus will be in this aspect of the weekend course.

In the Persian Hidden Words Bahá’u’lláh writes: ‘‘In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love . . . .’ (PHW: 3). Also in the Hidden Words He speaks of the ‘hyacinths of wisdom’ (PHW: 33), which will grow as a result of sowing ‘the seeds of Divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart.’

It is easy to access the obvious meanings of these passages. We will be exploring as deeply as we can in the time available what implications they might have for how this process might work and what we might do to foster it. This will include unpacking exactly what we think Bahá’u’lláh might mean by the word ‘pure’ in this context.

1. Preparing the Soil of the Heart’s Garden (90 Minutes)

There are three practices that we will be drawing on as we grapple with what the quotations from the Bahá’í Writings mean to us and seek to internalize them.

Reflective Consultation

The first I will introduce now: we will be drawing on it soon. It is a process of group consultation pioneered in Colombia in the early days of the Ruhi Institute. What does it involve? First, people ask for or offer clarification of any words that are difficult to understand.

In turn each person reads a quotation out loud. The one who first reads the quote acts as a group leader for the consultation on that quote.

Then each person re-reads the quote before sharing one response (s)he has to the quote. Every one in turn expresses their responses to the quote in this same way, whether as thoughts, feelings, intuitions or whatever. All group members should at least read part if not all of the quotation even if they feel they will have nothing to share after doing so.

This goes on until all the members feel they have said all that they wish to say or time has run out. There are no right or wrong answers during this process. It is an opportunity to reflect deeply and share the result.

Efforts should be made not to respond to what others have said but simply to focus on one’s reaction at the time one reads the quote again. Attention should be paid to what implications the quote has for our own lives and to suggestions as to how we might apply what we have learned.

The group leader’s only job is to see that everyone follows these rules, i.e. reads the quote prayerfully and shares one (and only one) response without referring to what others have said!

Introduction

When we apply the metaphor of gardening to the cultivation of our spiritual core, the heart, what might be involved? Hopefully, as we explore further, we will develop a stronger sense of what the word ‘heart’ means in this context. For now I suggest we stick to simple basic implications of the image.

What do we do when we garden? We need to clear and prepare the soil. We need to decide what seeds or shoots to plant, and then place them in the ground. We need to tend them afterwards, keeping them out of the frost, for example, and ensuring they receive sufficient water and sunlight.

Also important, though we may not have time to reflect on this aspect this weekend, is the climate that surrounds us. If we have enough sunlight and rain, flowers will bloom and the fruits come in abundance. If the days are dark or there is drought, plants will shrivel and die. In spiritual terms sunlight and water are seen as coming from God, from immersing ourselves in the Writings of His Messengers, from pure-hearted prayer, from a community of seekers and from sincere acts of service. If we deprive ourselves or are deprived of any of these aspects of the spiritual life, which are also ways of tending the seeds we are sowing, we will risk creating a winter or a desert for our hearts. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained:

But instead of this, what has taken place! Men turned away their faces from following the divinely illuminated precepts of their Master, and winter fell upon the hearts of men. For, as the body of man depends for life upon the rays of the sun, so cannot the celestial virtues grow in the soul without the radiance of the Sun of Truth.

(Paris Talks– page 31-32)

Coming back to the main focus of the day, what might preparing the soil of the heart involve?

Practice of Reflective Consultation

To begin our exploration of this let’s use the process of reflective consultation we spoke of earlier on one of the following quotes:

Return, then, and cleave wholly unto God, and cleanse thine heart from the world and all its vanities, and suffer not the love of any stranger to enter and dwell therein. Not until thou dost purify thine heart from every trace of such love can the brightness of the light of God shed its radiance upon it, for to none hath God given more than one heart. . . . .  And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided. Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of any one besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness, the Exalted, the Great.

(Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh: page 52

O My Brother! A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

(Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys: pp 21-22)

What do we feel we have learnt from that process?

Further Considerations

Bahá’u’lláh makes it clear that this process of preparation, purification if you prefer, cannot be avoided.

. . . the lilies of ancient wisdom can blossom nowhere except in the city of a stainless heart. “In a rich soil, its plants spring forth abundantly by permission of its Lord, and in that soil which is bad, they spring forth but scantily.”

(Kitáb-i-Íqán UK Edition– page 122)

Before all else (the friends) must sanctify their hearts and purify their motives, otherwise all efforts in furthering any enterprise will be fruitless.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quoted by the Universal House of Justice in a message: 10 February 1980)

O SON OF BEING! Thy heart is My home; sanctify it for My descent. Thy spirit is My place of revelation; cleanse it for My manifestation.

(Bahá’u’lláh – AHW No 59)

. . . a man should make ready his heart that it be worthy of the descent of heavenly grace.

(Bahá’u’lláh – The Four Valleys page 54)

If we are to weed effectively we need to have some idea of what a weed looks like before we can get rid of it. Perhaps using the same method of reflective consultation will help us glean some insights from the one or both of following quotes.

When a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading unto the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. He must purge his breast, which is the sanctuary of the abiding love of the Beloved, of every defilement, and sanctify his soul from all that pertaineth to water and clay, from all shadowy and ephemeral attachments. He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 162– UK Edition page 123)

O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge. Be ablaze as the fire, that ye may burn away the veils of heedlessness and set aglow, through the quickening energies of the love of God, the chilled and wayward heart. Be light and untrammeled as the breeze, that ye may obtain admittance into the precincts of My court, My inviolable Sanctuary.

(Gleanings No. CLII)

Looking Ahead

In the third session we will be exploring the idea of planting seeds in the garden of the heart. Memorising quotations is a useful tool for this purpose. This is also the second practice we will be using, and the foundation of the third one.  I am hoping that before tomorrow’s session you will be able to find time to look at this idea. Here is a possible way to make it easier for those who find memorizing difficult. The method I am quoting here has been adapted from a way of memorising poetry. I sorry to say that I have no record of whose original idea I have borrowed here.

How to Learn Passages: 

  1. Read the passage once. Then divide it into convenient short sections, each equivalent to a line of poetry.
  2. Now read the first section out loud. Take your eyes from the page and immediately say the section again. Glance back to make sure you got it right. If you made a mistake, try again. Now do the same with the second section. Repeat the procedure for every section in the passage.
  3. Go back to the beginning. This time, read the first two sections out loud, look away and repeat them aloud. Check. If you made a mistake, try again. Now move onto the next two sections, going through the whole passage two sections at a time.
  4. Repeat the passage three sections at a time, then four sections at a time, then five and then six. By the sixth pass, no matter how long the passage, you will have memorised it.
  5. Recite the whole passage just before going to bed at night.
  6. Crucial: stop thinking about the passage. Your sleeping mind is very important for memory.
  7. The next day, you should find (after a glance at the first section to bump-start your memory) that you can recite the whole passage.

If you are not sure what passages to pick to practice on here are two suggestions relevant to that session’s theme.

Sow the seeds of My 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 the heart.

(Bahá’u’lláh PHW No 33 – see also No 78)

Know verily that the purpose underlying all these symbolic terms and abstruse allusions, which emanate from the Revealers of God’s holy Cause, hath been to test and prove the peoples of the world; that thereby the earth of the pure and illuminated hearts may be known from the perishable and barren soil. From time immemorial such hath been the way of God amidst His creatures, and to this testify the records of the sacred books.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Kitáb-i-Íqán UK Edition – page 32)

IMG_4078

Sunset in Builth

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Video May 1993

In the main video interview transcript, an extract from which features at the beginning of the first post in this sequence, there is a very important passage focusing on one aspect of the impact of consultation on a key aspect of Ian’s difficulty with the voices. It concerns his memories of what he had done that made him feel so guilty.

I.: Well, when I was ill, it didn’t seem real. You know what I mean? My memory didn’t seem real. It was like a dream. And it was as if I’d never done anything. But talking to you reminded me that I’d actually done these things, you know? And that it was memory. And that I’d actually done the things.

P.: It was memory not imagination?

I.: That’s right. It was reality.

P.: And how did knowing that it was reality prove so helpful? What did it do?

I.: Well, it proved the voices wrong for a start.

P.: Ah. Why? Were they saying that they were real and your memories weren’t?

I.: Yeh. It proved the voices were wrong. And that my memory was right. And talking to you fetched it out into the open.

In a later video interview in September the following year, Ian explained that he felt as though talking helped get the feelings he had repressed ‘out into the open.’ He was in effect able to consult about them. Reflection had paved the way towards his being able to think about the feelings and begin to feel them. Talking about them brought them more fully into the open and enabled him to make better sense of them. The voices on the other hand fed on his habit of suppressing his feelings.

The September interview also explained how we had refined our understanding of his pattern of suppression. If he began to feel low, slightly depressed, he’d switch off his feelings which then brought the voices back.

But I must not make this process sound too simple. Yes, it is true that learning to reflect can pave the way both to a better understanding of our own mind and heart as well as potentially enabling us to share our discoveries with someone else and compare notes in a consultative fashion. But the transition is not necessarily automatic.

Video September 1994

The Importance of Trust

Take this extract from the May 1993 video. Jenny was his care worker.

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

I.: Yeh. Jenny had started talking about you, you know? And it was coming up to the meeting with you. And I can remember going to the meeting with you that first time. And I can remember thinking who’s this bloke asking me all these questions, you know? And I didn’t trust you. But Jen was persistent that I could trust you, so I decided to trust Jenny . . .

P.: Right.

I.: . . . and to talk to you.

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

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

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

I.: Yeh.

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

I.: I did, yeh.

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

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

P.: And that was by being there in the sessions and by talking to you between whiles . . .

I.: With Jenny.

P.: . . . betweentimes.

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

This extract testifies to how hard Ian found it to trust me. If it had not been for the fact that he had been living for some time, since his discharge from hospital, in a social services home specialising in the care of people with serious mental health problems, and if he had not had the time to build up a trust relationship with his care worker, Jenny, over that period, on an almost daily basis, who knows how long it would have taken him to trust me enough to work with me, or whether he would ever have been able to trust me enough at all, given we met only once a week. A sense of trust is not easy for someone who has been abused and a sense of safety is not easy for someone who has been traumatised. Ian had experienced both abuse and trauma.

After the May interview, the field of consultation had expanded beyond his Thursday meetings with me and his regular conversations with Jenny to include a Voicework Group, which had been set up at his instigation. He felt strongly that these opportunities for consultation were as important for him as his medication. Without Jenny, though, building sufficient trust to do effective work it would have taken far longer to reach this point, though he felt it would have happened in the end even so. I’m not so sure on that as he was.

Detachment

There is one quality that has been implicit in much that I’ve said so far. It is both the fruit of even the early stages of reflection and the soil from which a further ability to reflect more deeply springs. It is also an essential prerequisite of consultation. Those who are too attached to their own perspective will always find it hard to consult. I am speaking of the quality of detachment. Its power goes even further than this. Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, wrote (Arabic Hidden Words No 68 – my emphases):

Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

If we are divided against ourselves we are also going to be in conflict with others. If we can, by a process of reflection, become both more detached and more integrated, we can transcend both our inner conflicts and our conflicts with others.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes this possibility in the following words (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá 1978 – page 76):

. . . .all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

Even if we do not believe in a God but at least have faith in the essential oneness of all humanity, this will help remedy our current conflicted state, wherein we are at war with ourselves as well as with others. This is Bahá’u’lláh’s description of the challenge we face compared with the reality most of us are blind to (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh = CXII):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

This is another two way street. As individuals in harmony with ourselves we become more able to love and care for others, and as communities in harmony with one another we become more able to support and care for our fellow human beings.

Such levels of detachment, reflection and consultation are not easy to reach and are even harder to sustain, but the effort of attempting to do so is amply rewarded. Usually the effort is more than compensated for by the benefits gained.

Crucial Caveats

However, it would be too simplistic to suggest that people struggling with challenges as monumental as those Ian had to battle with can always achieve these benefits in a sustainable way. I am not arguing that reflection and consultation are always possible for people in such extreme distress.

Many of the contexts in which a person struggling with psychosis is placed seem neither safe not trustworthy. Sometimes the contents of a client’s consciousness prove so terrifying or distressing they cannot feel safe dealing with them nor trust their ability to manage them.

There came a point where the lady with the history of abuse chose mind-numbing medication rather than deal with the worst of her experiences.

After almost a year of our work together things seemed to be going well. Then came the unexpected. She found herself in a building that closely resembled the building strongly connected with the worst episode of abuse she had experienced at the hands of her father. Just being there was more than she could cope with. She became retraumatised in a way we none of us could have anticipated or prevented. The next time we met she could not stop sobbing.

We discussed what she might do. There were two main options.

She could, if she wished, continue on her current low levels of medication and move into a social services hostel where she would be well supported while we continued our work together, or she could be admitted onto the ward and given higher levels of medication in order to tranquillise her out of all awareness of her pain.

She chose the second option and I could not blame her in any way for doing so. It would be a betrayal of the word’s meaning to suppose she had any real choice at that point but to remain psychotic while the medication kicked in rather than deal with the toxic emotions in which she felt herself to be drowning.

Ian did the same when it came to his memories of slaughter from his army days. It was in June that he experienced a devastating return of the voices that led to his hospitalisation. Further exploration discovered a link between a traumatic army experience, which had occurred at that time of year, and an overwhelming reactivation of the voice-inducing guilt – far stronger than anything he had experienced in connection with his breach with his alcoholic partner. Each year after that he preferred to allow himself to become psychotic rather than attempt to process the intolerable guilt. He chose increased medication and admission to hospital till the anniversary effect was over, when he would be discharged to resume a relatively normal life until the next anniversary.

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is on a continuum with Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

A Genuine Help

What I am contending from my decades working with ‘psychosis’ in the NHS is that my CBT training was made more effective by my spiritual practice and the facilitation of those twin skills: reflection and consultation. The meanings achieved as a result facilitated flexibility and personal integration, as against the distressing rigidity and disturbing inner and outer conflict of the psychotic experience.

Hopefully one day these conclusions from personal practice will be validated in systematic studies.

An additional point to mention is that this is not just a model for psychosis. Take Laura for example, with her diagnosis of endogenous depression, ie one that her doctor felt was not explicable in terms of her life situation. She used to believe that her parents were more or less perfect. The work we were doing became very stuck and seemed to be going nowhere.

We had plateaued on bleak and distressing terrain, more tolerable than her previous habitat but too unwelcoming to live on comfortably for the rest of her life, and yet with no detectable path towards more hospitable ground.

Frustrated by the protracted lack of movement, I began to see discharge as a very attractive option. I discussed this with my peer supervision group.

Effective group supervision provides a context where fruitful consultation can take place and better decisions about the most fruitful line of action can be made. We decided that I should continue with the processes of exploration but make sure that I did not continue my habit of stepping in relatively early to rescue her in sessions from her frequent experiences of intense distress.

I continued to see her. Laura and I consulted carefully and jointly agreed that I would allow her to sink right into the “heart of darkness” in order to explore it more fully and understand it more clearly. The very next session, when we first put this plan into action, after I had left her alone in her silence for something like half an hour, Laura came to a powerful realisation at the heart of a very intense darkness. She said: “I think my mother threw me away even before I was born.” Thankfully consultation had helped me manage to avoid doing something similar by discharging her before we had resolved the causes of her depression.

This paved the way for deeper and more fruitful explorations of the reality of her childhood, continuing to use the same reflective and consultative process I have been describing in this sequence of posts.

Ian’s Last Word on the Matter

P.: Is there anything else that you feel that you want to say that I haven’t brought out by the questions I’ve asked you?

I.: No, except that the pain, you know, the questions you asked were painful. And I didn’t want to answer them.

P.: And you didn’t see the point of answering them either, did you?

I.: No, I didn’t see the point in answering them because I didn’t recognise myself that the problem lay there. But once I could see where the problem was I could bargain with the voices.

P.: Yeh. And you had to know where the problem lay, roughly . . .

I.: Yeh.

P.: . . . before you could bargain with them?

I.: And talking to you showed me where the problem was. So, I was able to deal with the voices in a positive way.

P.: Yeh. But before you had gone through this whole process there was no way you would have realised that the problems were what they turned out to be.

I.: No. I thought it was just schizophrenia.

P.: Yeh. And that was the end of it.

I.: And that was the end of it. I was schizophrenic and that was it. And I had nothing to look forward to except hospital and more medication. And I couldn’t stand the thought of that, you know? So that jumping under a train was looking very attractive. But it doesn’t look attractive now.

P.: Because life seems to have more to offer?

I.: Yeh.

I need to add here, though, to put all this fully into context, that I visited him in the hospice when he was dying of emphysema and other complications consequent upon what he knew was his self-damaging habit of heavy smoking. He was well aware of the implications of the injury to his lungs caused by the bomb blast that led to his being discharged from the army on health grounds.

I sat by his bed watching him breath in oxygen from the cylinder at his bedside. When he had taken in sufficient oxygen, I felt moved to ask him the question I had asked once before during our therapeutic relationship.

‘In the light of all you know now, were the gains you made worth the pain you had to go through?’

‘No,’ was the answer he gave. ‘They weren’t in the end.’

As he did not spell out exactly why not, I did not feel it right to press him for his reasons. Even so, his answer taught me a lot, not least how difficult it is to be sure you have obtained fully informed consent before embarking on any intervention.

I’ll leave it there until the New Year, and pause my posts until then as I did last year. I wish all my readers well over this festive season.

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PTSD and war

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

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

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

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

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

keyesdouglas

Keith Douglas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What use is religious practice here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

Reflection, he says (page 99): ‘. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.’ I will look more closely at exactly what this might mean in a moment. Before we move on from his take on the matter, what he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49): ‘The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.’

I am quoting this upfront so that, if you find what I’m going to say from a faith perspective hard to accept, this might help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How might reflection help us find meaning?

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

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

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

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

Consultation

But there is one step further we can go.

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

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

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

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

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

Later he adds further illumination (page 215):

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

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

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

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

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‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212)

One evening, towards the end of last month, I gave a talk at Birmingham University, concerning a Bahá’í perspective on making sense of mental illness as derived from my own clinical experience. Even though I had two hours at my disposal, I still had more planned than I had time to say. This was partly because some of the comments and questions sparked a lengthier diversion than I had intended. Anyway, I thought I’d publish everything I intended to say on this blog.

The quote at the top defines what processes this sequence of posts will be exploring in more depth in terms of their positive impact upon helping people find meaning in their experiences when they are struggling to cope with psychotic phenomena.

But before we home in on those we need a helicopter view of the overall context of the problems and processes we’ll be examining here.

Trauma, Transliminality and Psychosis

Previous posts on this blog have explored the possible relationship between the factors captured by this diagram. The focus though right now will be on trauma and psychosis.

Hearing voices and strange but strongly held beliefs are two key supposedly correlated signs we will be looking at today. Thought disorder and extreme withdrawal from contact with other people are also taken to be signs. I don’t propose to delve into the validity of the label all too frequently attached when more two or more of these come together in distressing form. For anyone interested, see Mary Boyle’s Schizophrenia: a scientific delusion for a clear exposition of the sceptical case against the idea these form a real syndrome.

For an understanding of the evidence for a relationship between psychotic phenomena and trauma see Longden and Read’s The Role of Social Adversity in the Etiology of Psychosis. They deal extensively with this problem (pages 7-8):

Large-scale population studies have shown that associations between adversity and psychotic experience remain significant when controlling for possible confounders, including: family history of psychosis and other mental health problems (which negates the notion that psychosis only occurs in those genetically predisposed), age, sex, ethnicity, marital status, exposure to discrimination, other psychiatric diagnoses, education level, neuroticism, and substance use. Furthermore, the association has repeatedly demonstrated a dose-response relationship; that is, the likelihood of psychosis increases relative to the extent of adversity exposure.

Transliminality refers to the permeability of the filters surrounding our consciousness, whether that be from beneath (the brain’s subconscious) or above (some kind of transcendent level). Helpful analogies that illustrate the idea of such thresholds of access are our eye/brain system’s limited perception of light’s spectrum, a receiver such as a radio that only translates into intelligible sound the frequencies it is tuned into, or a transceiver such as a computer that can access and decode appropriate data stored in a cloud site as well on its own hard drive. Accessing outside those given ranges is taken to be impossible for the manmade devices. However whether the brain can access outside its normal range is a vex question. Good sources for evidence that this might be so can be found in Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain or in Irreducible Mind by the Kellys.

Ian’s Experiences of Psychosis

There are two people who were tormented by so-called psychotic phenomena from whom I learned a great deal more than they probably learned from me about what these are and how to deal with them. The lady in the poem above is one: Ian, whom I’ll consider in a moment, was another.

The lady had asked for help to deal with her childhood experiences of extreme abuse. Unlike with Ian, I do not have her permission to go into detail. However, what I can say to illustrate the depth of her problem is that the one-hour sessions dealing with her work on the abuse had to be divided into three roughly equal parts. The first part checked up on how things were going and that she wanted to continue the painful work. The second part looked at the abuse and her intensely painful memories of it, and the third part involved calming her down sufficiently after this to dispel the powerful and reactivated visual and auditory hallucinations of her father, the abuser.

I will look later in the sequence at one other indication of the painful and powerful hold the past abuse still had over her.

I can directly use Ian’s own words to convey the kinds of experiences he was grappling with. This is an extract from the transcript of a video interview which took place in late May 1993. Obviously P is me and I is Ian.

P. Could I ask you to describe at first how things were, say, a year ago before there was ever any question of our meeting and when things were not too good for you?

I.: Well, I’d got the voices nearly all the time. They used to wake me up at night, you know?

P.: Yeh. And can you say what kind of things they used to say, just as an example?

I.: `Get out of bed, you lazy bastard. Get up and wake up. Come flying with us. Go and jump in front of a train,’ you know?

P.: Right. And they were saying this to you constantly, were they?

I.: Constantly, yeh.

P.: Were they constant in the day?

I.: Yeh.

P.: Were they very loud?

I.: Yeh. They got loud when I was ill, you know, they got loud.

P.: Right. So, say last May, or last Spring, May, June, July, is this how it was with the voices . . .

I.: Yeh. They were pretty bad. They were loud, you know? They were right down in my ears. And – er – I was seeing things as well. I was seeing what I call the – the `Boss’, you know? He only come at night, yeh.

P.: Right. Where did you think these voices came from?

I.: The spirit world.

P.: So you thought they were ghosts of some kind, or . . .

I.: I thought they were spirits, come from the spirit world for me, you know? And that they wanted me to go with them. I didn’t think that I was going to hurt myself by killing myself, you see? But something inside me just wouldn’t let me do it, you know?

P.: Yeh. You held back?

I.: I think it was because I was afraid of hurting myself.

P.: Right. Because you did say at the time that unless you actually did it instantly it wouldn’t really count, would it?

I.: No.

P.: Right. So it was very important to you that you didn’t end up injured or in a worse state.

I.: Yeh. It was important not to get injured. It had to be a certain thing, you know? And the Express train looked the part.

P.: Right.

In an earlier exchange that month on audiotape, in response to my question as to whether his ‘experiences . . . were shutting [him] out from the world and shutting [him] out from the future,’ he replied, ‘Yeh. I was living in a dream world, you know.’ He also described it in the same interview as ‘brainwashing.’ He said:

They were so loud that I couldn’t hold a conversation, you know. And I couldn’t listen to the radio. They just blocked everything out. And I couldn’t think because they just sidetracked me, you know, saying the same thing over and over and over.

In an interview in September of the following year, he clarified further by saying that he no longer did what the voices told him to do, as he had in the beginning. He knew now they were not spirits but the products of his own head. Even so it was still hard work to keep them at bay.

In working with people experiencing psychotic phenomena, I found it important to distinguish the experience, with which I never sought to argue, from the explanation, which could be modified in helpful ways, for instance here in terms of the power of the voices. It is possible that this will lead, as in Ian’s case, to a recognition that the voices come from inside the person’s own head. This though is neither necessary nor inevitable. It is sufficient that a more benign explanation of the voices is arrived at that gives them far less power and, if possible, reduces any malignity.

Ian’s Life

For those interested in the full back ground to his psychotic experiences and how far back in his life traumatic events and situations began helping to shape his sensibility I have included at the end here a brief summary, which I helped him write, of his life up to the point I worked with him.  

By the time I was 14 months old my mother was dying of tuberculosis and I was failing to thrive. I was abandoned by my dad. My aunt rescued me and took me to live with her. She applied to the courts to adopt me. My dad, at the 11th hour, began to contest this. The proceedings dragged on until I’d started school. My situation with my aunt was not secure until I was six years old.

When I was seven my grandfather died suddenly. I was extremely close to him.  The pain of that still haunts me.

When I was nine I was walking to school through a farmyard, when I saw the farmer hanging in his barn. Shortly after that, the voices started, but they were nice and friendly, and kept me company as I walked the hills near home.

I went down the mines as soon as I left school. I wasn’t happy with that and joined the army. Within the first couple of years a bullying sergeant major triggered a psychotic episode. The voices turned nasty. I heard the voice of the sergeant major mocking and insulting me all the time. I faked my way out the army hospital by denying I was hearing voices any longer.

The army didn’t know what to do with me. As they reckoned people with schizophrenia were antisocial, they decided a solitary job within the army would be the best thing for me. They came up with what they felt was the ideal solution: they’d train me to be a sniper. You spend long periods alone and when anyone comes along to disturb you, you kill them – a great idea in their view. There’d be none of that stressful social contact!

At least two incidents in which I was involved in the army left me with strong feelings of guilt. The pain of the deaths I caused, I know now,underlay the later experiences of psychosis.

I was discharged from the army after I was seriously injured walking towards a bomb. I did this deliberately. It was part of a pattern. From time to time I felt I didn’t deserve to live so I put myself in danger. If I lived I felt I was meant to live and maybe I deserved to do so. When the feeling built up again, as it kept on doing even in civvy street because the guilt about the deaths never left me, I’d play the same kind of Russian Roulette.

Once out of the army I used to do this by lying down on a railway line in the early hours of the morning. If no train came within a certain period of time, I reckoned I deserved to continue living.

After leaving the army my marriage broke up and I ended up living with someone with a serious drink problem. I held down three jobs, working all hours, in order to make ends meet and finance her habit. Eventually, I got completely exhausted and depressed. I couldn’t cope any longer and threw her out.

That didn’t finish it though. I was so convinced that she would die on the streets, I felt like I’d killed her. I became tortured by guilt. I shut himself away in my room with my dog. I survived on frozen chips for six weeks, until my boss became so concerned he got the police to break in. They found me completely psychotic, they say. I think I was determined to die this way. They sectioned me. That began an eight year history of sections, medications, with long and frequent admissions, until I felt that life had nothing to offer me.

At the end of this eight year period our work together began. At the end of the first phase, the May 1993 video interview took place.

We are now at a point to move onto examining how far we were able to help Ian make sense of his psychotic experiences in terms of his life history. More of that next time.

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