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Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Kahneman’

Coronavirus Structure (for source of image, see link)

Although, as mentioned in the previous post, the desirability of us all accepting responsibility for the welfare of every human being, as the Universal House of Justice urges on us, seems obvious enough in theory, unfortunately it proves to be easier said than done. Blind spots, as Ziya Tong explains, are one problem:[1]

To see the world clearly, we must first become aware of the veil; we must recognize our blind spots. The way we’ve come to perceive reality is so deeply ingrained, so socially and inter-generationally rooted, that we’ve lost sight of the manner in which we think. This is important, because what we think creates reality.

Our biases are one such impediment. Jennifer Eberhardt in her book Biased quotes Lippman’s interesting definition of stereotypes as ‘impressions that reflect subjective perceptions but stand in for objective reality.’[2] To create a stereotype, the important link here is between harbouring an impression and mistaking it for truth. Not surprisingly stereotypes can blind us ‘to information that [doesn’t] conform to what [we] already believe.’[3] This ‘confirmation bias is a mechanism that allows inaccurate beliefs to spread and persist.’ It is also not surprising to know[4] that ‘studies confirm that biased parents tend to produce children who are biased as well.’

This problem is so intractable partly because, as Tom Oliver explains in The Self Delusion[5], ‘the moral compass of humans hasn’t evolved to intuitively respond to harmful impacts on such global and long timescales. While in the last few hundred years our transport and trade networks have expanded to encompass the entire earth, our sense of moral responsibility hasn’t kept pace.’

Our primate brains have not evolved to cope with long time scales, vast distances and complex situations, an obstacle to our achieving collectively the necessary level of understanding to motivate us to effective action. Ken Whitehead expresses it better than I can:

This pattern reveals a fundamental characteristic of how our brains work; we tend to focus on the short term, and have little thought of the long-term consequences of our actions. The early hunters devised ever more efficient ways of killing the existing inhabitants of the new lands they occupied. There was no thought of long-term consequences. Why should there be? The supply of prey animals was believed to be inexhaustible. Yet one day they were all gone!

The problems we face in today’s world suggest that little has changed in the last fifty thousand years. In his 2004 book “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright describes human beings in today’s world as running 21st century software on fifty thousand-year old hardware. Our brains have evolved to react to short-term crises, such as an attack by a hungry lion. The more subtle cognitive abilities which would allow us to assess and respond appropriately to longer term threats are much less developed within the human brain. As a result we are very good at responding quickly to an emergency, but we are hopelessly inept, both as individuals and as a society, when it comes to taking effective action to head off threats which are perceived as being distant.

The compass of our compassion therefore tends to be similarly constricted.

It takes great effort to transcend these limitations as Kahneman has explained in detail in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. His contention, on the basis of hard evidence and a lifetime’s exploration of the issue, is that we have two ways of thinking. The first, System One, is our default mode. It operates too glibly and too fast, as against more effortfully and more slowly, which makes the understanding of complex situations almost impossible. He writes:[6] ‘associative memory, the core of System 1, continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what is going on in our world at any instant.’ It[7] ‘operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.’ System 1 is no good for long term problems or situations that are unfamiliar and inconsistent. It can lead to impulses and impressions that may be compelling but are also dangerously misleading. His conclusion about its limitations is:[8] ‘System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. . . . . it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off.’

That doesn’t bode well, but there is an alternative.

He describes System 2 as one that[9] ‘allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.’ He adds[10] ‘The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away.’

As if that was not enough to confuse us there is also the invisibility factor, as Ziya Tong explains:[11]

Our food comes to us from places we do not see; our energy is produced in ways we don’t understand; and our waste disappears without us having to give it a thought. … humans are no longer in touch with the basics of their own system survival.

We cannot, though, use this as an excuse for carrying on as we are. The system we have created is seriously at fault:[12]

The system . . . is our life support system. . . . The irony is that our survival is merely incidental to the goal of the system: ownership.

We cannot see the system because it exists in our blind spots. . . Today, if we fail to see our connection to the natural world, it’s because most of our products look nothing like it . . . Nature has been transformed into a product. . . . As a consequence, the economy grows, but nature dies.… None of us could have guessed that in the end we will need to pull the plug on our own life-support system, and if we don’t, it will destroy us.

It is clear now beyond all argument that our close connections are with nature, not just with our fellow human beings, and nature can bite back lethally in many ways.

Not just Tom Oliver, but many other writers also, see a deeper identification with our planet as a powerful source of the necessary insight and motivation. Jeremy Rifkin is one such, whose seminal book The Empathic Civilisation I have blogged about at length some years ago. He wrote along these lines:[13]

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

This perspective is the least we should aspire to acquire and internalize as the basis for concerted action. Failure to do so will have drastic and destructive consequences within decades if not sooner. Because I am also writing from a religious and spiritual perspective as well, I question whether even that motivation will be sufficient to persuade enough of us to make the massive and necessary sacrifices and invest the huge and imperative effort to bring about a reversal of our self-destructive patterns in time.Humanity Is Our Business (1/7)Humanity Is Our Business (1/7)Humanity Is Our Business (1/7)Humanity Is Our Business (1/7)2

I suspect we will need the kind of faith in a supreme power that will convince us that, even if cannot do as much by ourselves, we can with the help of the invisible and powerful Great Being, who watches as we struggle to survive, but who, because of the nature of the worlds he has created, can only help us when we begin to help ourselves. The Bahá’í Faith offers a model, not just in terms of the underlying principles such as the oneness of humanity, but also in terms of the organisational patterns that are required. Below are a few links to previous posts that deal with this aspect of the matter.

The Bahá’í Model: 

1. Humanity Is Our Business (1/7): The Overall Vision

2. Humanity Is Our Business (2/7): The vision of Civilisation-Building

3. Humanity Is Our Business (3/7): Capacity Building (a)

4. Humanity Is Our Business (4/7): Capacity Building (b)

5. Humanity Is Our Business (5/7): Devotional Meetings 

6. Humanity Is Our Business (6/7): The Plight of Children

7. Humanity Is Our Business (7/7): What can we do for our children?

References 

[1]. Ziya Tong The Reality Bubble  – page 339
[2]. Biased – page 32.
[3]. Biased – page 33.
[4]. Biased – page 39.
[5]. The Self Delusion – page 210.
[6] Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 282.
[7] Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 340.
[8]. Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow  – Kindle Reference 433.
[9]. Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 340.
[10]. Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 375.
[11]. The Reality Bubble – page 192.
[12]. The Reality Bubble – page 341-32.
[13]. The Empathic Civilisation – page 154.

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In this sequence, triggered by Carrette and King’s Selling Spirituality, I have looked at how Neoliberals ‘offer – no, demand – a religious faith in the infallibility of the unregulated market.’[1] I have examined the claim that this is assisted by the commandeering of a deracinated spirituality to act as a kind of tranquilliser to damp down any feelings of discontent with the capitalist system. I also took into account how our individualised society relies on psychological approaches, in contrast to more socially oriented cultures, and accepts a perspective on our situation that suggests we have no effective alternative, as capitalism is the best option.

This all combines to reduce the potential for forms of collective resistance.

We need now to look at how a combination of two reciprocally reinforcing factors makes resistance even less likely than even Carrette and King’s model would predict. We need to do this before we look at possible alternatives. I’ll start with complexity, and a related factor, before going on to look at coherence in the next post.

Complexity

Putting the problem at its simplest ‘Economists model people as knowing exactly how the economy works, whereas we would argue that they themselves do not have the full picture.‘[2]

There is fascinating evidence in support of the idea that even the economic experts don’t have much of a clue.

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman, in his excellent analysis of our flawed decision-making abilities in general, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, turns his attention to what goes on in the process of financial speculation.

Tracking individuals, he finds, does not confirm their sense that they know what they are doing:

Many individual investors lose consistently by trading, an achievement that a dart-throwing chimp could not match.[3]

In Chapter 24, after reviewing the evidence he concludes:

. . . . . financial officers of large corporations had no clue about the short-term future of the stock market; the correlation between their estimates and the true value was slightly less than zero! When they said the market would go down, it was slightly more likely than not that it would go up. These findings are not surprising. The truly bad news is that the CFOs did not appear to know that their forecasts were worthless.[4]

There were exceptions to this general trend in that ‘the most active traders had the poorest results, while the investors who traded the least earned the highest’[5]  and  ‘men acted on their useless ideas significantly more often than women, and that as a result women achieved better investment results than men.’[6]

This is not a very flattering state of affairs for the economic pundits:

There is general agreement among researchers that nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not—and few of them do—are playing a game of chance. The subjective experience of traders is that they are making sensible educated guesses in a situation of great uncertainty. In highly efficient markets, however, educated guesses are no more accurate than blind guesses.[7]

Kahneman’s own research confirms this view. He was invited to investigate the figures of a firm to whom he had been invited to speak. He was given access to a ‘spreadsheet summarizing the investment outcomes of some twenty-five anonymous wealth advisers, for each of eight consecutive years.’[8]

He took the first basic step in this assessment of skill:

It was a simple matter to rank the advisers by their performance in each year and to determine whether there were persistent differences in skill among them.[9]

The rank ordering allowed for the calculation of how well each person’s rank held up over the whole time period studied. The more consistent people were the stronger the correlations would be between each year’s figures.  He created 28 correlation coefficients, one for each pair of years.

Then came the surprise:

I knew the theory and was prepared to find weak evidence of persistence of skill. Still, I was surprised to find that the average of the 28 correlations was 0.01. In other words, zero.[10]

Which meant, in effect, that ‘[t]he results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.’ ‘The illusion of skill’[11] is a deeply embedded one in this area, but it is also deeply misplaced. What we learn from carefully analyzed data is that:

. . . . people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.[12]

I will return in a later section to another aspect of this problem from Kahneman’s point of view. At this point I need to focus on what others have to say on his main point about the global economic complexity in which this unpredictability has its roots.

In The Econocracy the authors make their position plain: ‘many of the [global community’s] most important facets are not necessarily intuitive are easily observable. . . .’[13] and that ‘the economic knowledge that forms the basis of [the economists’] claim to expertise is often inadequate.’[14]

Wilhelm Streeck points out what makes this complexity even more difficult to fathom:

[There remained] little if any space for collective action, . . .  because it was hard for most people in financial markets to understand their own interests and identify their exploiter. . . . The prosperity, relative and absolute, of millions of citizens depends on decisions of central bank executives, international organisations, and councils of ministers of all sorts, acting in an arcane space removed from every day experience and impenetrable to outsiders, dealing with issues so complex that even insiders often cannot be sure what they have to do and are in fact doing.[15]

There are, however, ways we could enhance our chances of decoding some of the mystery if the will was there. The next section explores some of the removable obstacles impeding our progress in this respect.

Tunnel Vision

Let’s pick up the threads of this with Kahneman’s analysis of decision-making in complex social, political and economic situations again. He uses a key expression that needs more examination (my emphasis):

In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals—distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on—are any better than journalists or attentive readers of The New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations.[16]

He feels that two important lessons need to be learned from all this:

The first lesson is that errors of prediction are inevitable because the world is unpredictable. The second is that high subjective confidence is not to be trusted as an indicator of accuracy (low confidence could be more informative).[17]

He concludes that ‘stock pickers and political scientists who make long-term forecasts operate in a zero-validity environment. Their failures reflect the basic unpredictability of the events that they try to forecast.’[18]

This sounds like confirmation of John Donne’s dictum: ‘Doubt wisely.’

How can what other writers say help us unpack the dangers of hyperspecialisation and suggest potential partial remedies?

The Econocracy is a good place to start. They explain that ‘economics students only learn one particular type of economics and . . . they are taught to accept this type of economics in an uncritical manner.’[19] Moreover, they teach ‘this perspective as if it is economics’ which ‘allows economists to see their discipline as a complete system.’[20] They conclude that ‘this amounts to nothing less than indoctrination into the neoclassical way of thinking about the economy.’[21]

So, hyperspecialisation paves the way to patterns of teaching which amount to indoctrination, in their view. They go on to clarify that economists differ in one critical respect from other academic disciplines:

. . . a considerable majority from all the social sciences, from history to psychology, agreed with the statement [that ‘in general, interdisciplinary knowledge is better than knowledge obtained by single discipline’], illustrating that economists are unique in their belief that their discipline has all the answers.[22]

They lack what the authors term ‘pluralism.’ They suffer from a kind of tunnel vision

It seems a no-brainer, then, to realise that, if a system is highly complex, it’s going to take more than one perspective to grasp its patterns with any hope of predicting developments and controlling consequences.

The remedy The Econocracy proposes rings bells for me from a Bahá’í perspective at least. They write:

. . . many of the [global community’s] most important facets are not necessarily intuitive are easily observable. . . . Our vision is of a world in which economic experts recognize that their knowledge of a complex economy is limited and that economic issues are the proper subject of collective democratic debate. The role of experts is to inform citizens of their choices rather than to make those choices for them.[23]

They unpack some implications of this much later in their book:

The kinds of skills and qualities needed by citizens in a broad democracy to function effectively are learned, not innate, and must be practiced to be mastered. They include listening, compromise, the ability to critically evaluate verbal and numerical argument, and developing independent judgement. They can only come through practical experience of being involved in participatory democratic institutions. In this sense, moving towards a system of broad democracy is a process of learning by doing.

. . . . . We have spent considerable time and energy thinking about the pedagogy we use for public education activities because we are aware that embedding critical reflection and pluralism at their core is not easy.[24]

Why do Bahá’í bells ring?

In terms of The Econocracy’s point about ‘participatory democratic institutions’, bells ring because a core discipline of the Bahá’í Faith is consultation. The Prosperity of Humankind contains a succinct statement of its purpose which also conveys a great deal about its methods and assumptions: `the adversarial method, . . [is]. . fundamentally harmful to [the] purpose [of consultation]: [which] 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.’ It is basically a process of non-adversarial decision-making which assumes that: (a) no one person can formulate anywhere near an adequate representation of the truth, (b) groups of people, if they pool their perspectives in a collaborative fashion, formulate increasingly accurate but never fool-proof approximations to the truth, and (c) today’s formulation, no matter how useful, may be out-of-date by tomorrow.

Secondly, because Selling Spirituality emphasizes the importance of having a moral compass based in true spirituality to counterbalance purely material considerations, the Bahá’í case for much the same kind of balance immediately springs to mind. A Bahá’í statement on social action addresses this issue:

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialized. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided. . . . Together, these two sources of knowledge tap roots of motivation in individuals and communities, so essential in breaking free from the shelter of passivity, and enable them to uncover the traps of consumerism.

At present too many of us in so-called ‘developed’ societies, by which I mean ‘industrialised,’ are caught in the ‘traps of consumerism,’ the trancelike mind-set of the markets, convinced they’ll find riches and fulfilment there. We are convinced there is no way out.

Streeck describes this and to a degree subscribes to it:

The problem is, while we see [capitalism] disintegrating before our eyes, we see no successor approaching. . . . There is also the absence of a vision of a practically possible progressive future, of a renewed industrial or new post-industrial society developing further and at the same time replacing the capitalist society today. Not just capital and its running dogs but also their various oppositions lack a capacity to act collectively.[25]

Which brings us back to the other problem, hinted at by the Bahá’í quote above. There is another key capacity that is lacking: coherence. We have to have some sense of how this can be remedied if there is to be any hope of constructive change.

Footnotes

[1] McChesney (1999) quoted in Selling Spirituality – Page 169
[2] The Econocracy – Page 98.
[3] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3843.
[4] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 4738.
[5] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3856.
[6] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3857.
[7] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3877.
[8] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3882.
[9] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3884.
[10] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3887.
[11] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3899.
[12] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3958.
[13] The Econocracy  – page 26.
[14] The Econocracy  – page 27.
[15] Streeck – page 20.
[16] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3963.
[17] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3982.
[18] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 4347.
[19] The Econocracy  – page 37.
[20] The Econocracy  – page 40.
[21] The Econocracy  – page 54.
[22] The Econocracy  – page 115.
[23] The Econocracy  – page 26.
[24] The Econocracy  – pages 152-56.
[25] Streeck – page 35-36.

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[The beloved of God] should conduct themselves in such manner that the earth upon which they tread may never be allowed to address to them such words as these: “I am to be preferred above you. For witness, how patient I am in bearing the burden which the husbandman layeth upon me. I am the instrument that continually imparteth unto all beings the blessings with which He Who is the Source of all grace hath entrusted me. Notwithstanding the honour conferred upon me, and the unnumbered evidences of my wealth—a wealth that supplieth the needs of all creation—behold the measure of my humility, witness with what absolute submissiveness I allow myself to be trodden beneath the feet of men…”

Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (V)

Scientific scholarship, even though it is a practice built by humans, meshes poorly with the adaptive strategies that make human civilisation possible.

Keith Kahn-Harris Denial: The Unspeakable Truth – page 96:

Blinkers

I’m not going to rehearse all the evidence in support of the idea that humanity is basically responsible for global warming. What I want to focus on is the problem of why it is not fully and widely enough recognised to trigger the required action. Nicholas Stern was very aware of this aspect of the issue and offered one possible explanation in his 2009 publication, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet (page 3):to

Climate change is a problem which arises from a buildup of greenhouse gases over time and the effects come through with long lags of several decades. If the world waits before taking the problems seriously, until Bangladesh, the Netherlands and Florida are underwater, it will be too late to back ourselves out of a huge hole. A special challenge of making policy here is that we are fast approaching a crisis which requires decision and action now, but we cannot yet directly experience the real magnitude of the dangers we are causing.

Before I plunge in, to anyone reading this who is significantly younger than I am, I feel I must begin with an apology for the probability that my generation will be bequeathing you a wrecked planet when we die. To those of a similar age who also deferred reacting in good time and to those who continue to deny the reality of our legacy, I write more in sorrow than in anger, as I try to explain our delay and/or our denial.

Invisibility

Invisibility is indeed an important factor and has been touched on from various angles by subsequent thinkers. For example, Naomi Klein does so in This Changes Everything page 168): 

[Facile dismissal] is our relationship to much that we cannot easily see and it is a big part of what makes carbon pollution such a stubborn problem: we can’t see it, so we don’t really believe it exists. Ours is a culture of disavowal…’

Invisibility to the general public can take other subtler forms.

Keith Kahn-Harris (pages 96-97 in Denial: The Unspeakable Truth) quotes Gorman & Gorman Denying to the Grave page 13: ‘We are actually afraid of complexity . .’ 

He expands on this later quoting (page 140) from another source  (E A Jane and C Fleming Modern Conspiracy: the importance of being paranoid – pages 53-54): 

We live in an age in which the vast bulk of knowledge can only be accessed in mediated forms which rely on the testimony of various specialists. Contemporary approaches to epistemology, however, remain anchored in the intellectual ideals of the Enlightenment. These demand first-hand inquiry, independent thinking, and a scepticism about information passed down by authorities and experts. As such, we may find ourselves attempting to use an epistemological schema radically unsuited to a world whose staggering material complexity involves an unprecedented degree of specialisation and knowledge mediation.

So the priority we have been taught to value as lay-thinkers, on knowing at first hand, conflicts with the highly specialist nature of the complex evidence in support of climate change. Our complex brains have helped us build a complex civilisation with complex consequences which our short term primate habits of thought can’t even get close to understanding. It’s all too opaque for us to fully understand, so we back off in our bafflement, tempted to dismiss the whole idea as a fantasy.

I accept that all those factors play a part in the all-too-prevalent climate-change scepticism that hampers our attempts to take remedial action in time.

I’d like to step back now, and check out some other more basic thinking processes that play as great a part, in my view at least.

First off, we’re wired to find it too hard to digest a problem such as climate-change. Short-term thinking, as programmed by our primate brains, prevents us easily grasping the long-term impact of our behaviour. (For more on this see link). Keith Kahn-Harris latches on to this in part of his argument about invisibility, so we are close to the same issue here at a more basic level. He states (page 49): 

The process through which the burning of a barrel of oil results in a global rise in temperatures is not directly visible. The process through which smoking leads to cancer takes place over decades and unfolds differently between individuals.

I was a smoker at one time, as was Kahn-Harris. The immediate satisfaction of the nicotine hit, in the context of no immediate adverse effects, is all the evidence our more basic brain wiring needs to have to know for sure that it’s ok to carry on smoking. The more effortful task of investigating and digesting the evidence that it will probably kill us before our time makes no sense to our primate self. This is our default position most of the time (more on that in a moment). 

My experience in the NHS, dealing with local commissioners intensely concerned with balancing the books at the end of each financial year, illustrated for me that the same principles apply in more public sectors than my old smoking habit, which it took me six attempts at least to shake off.  Arguments in favour of preventative action, whose financial savings might take years to materialise, carried far less weight, in fact no weight at all most of the time, than the imperatives of coming in under budget in a few months  time. In such contexts we behave as though we are doctors giving a man who has broken his ankle a crutch rather than mending it with a splint, because a splint would be too expensive and he can get about well enough with the crutch.

How much worse this must obviously be with something as complex as climate change. 

Our Default Mode of Thinking

Before we leave the primate-brain problem, a few words from Daniel Kahneman will illustrate how pervasive it is. His contention in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, on the basis of hard evidence and a lifetime’s exploration of the issue, is that we have two ways of thinking. The first, System One, is our default mode. It operates too glibly and too fast, as against more effortfully and more slowly, which makes the understanding of complex situations almost impossible. He writes (Kindle Reference 282): ‘associative memory, the core of System 1, continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what is going on in our world at any instant.’ It (KR340) ‘operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.’ System 1 is no good for long term problems or situations that are unfamiliar and inconsistent. It can lead to impulses and impressions that may be compelling but are also dangerously misleading. His conclusion about its limitations is (KR433): ‘System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. . . . . it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off.’

That doesn’t bode well, but there is an alternative. 

He describes System 2 as one that (KR340) ‘allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.’ He adds (KR375) ‘The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away.’

He also contrasts it with the operation of System 1 and indicates how they can complement each other (KR423): ‘System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.’

He concludes (KR429): ‘In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.’

Kahneman regards System 2, powerful though flawed, as the best hope of good decision-making at our disposal.

The key problem here, though, seems to lie in the clause ‘when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.’ What we are seeing so far is that manmade climate change has not generated before now at least events that violate, strongly enough in enough of us, our System One models of reality. We’re therefore not prepared to invest enough effort in System Two thinking to change our position. 

Iain McGilchrist, in his searching analysis of the human mind The Master & his Emissary reaches disturbing conclusions of relevance here to the persistence of our blindly exploitative relationship with the natural world and the earth’s resources.

The conclusion he reaches, that matters most when we look at this issue, is on pages 228-229:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Personal Impact

This resistance may be changing and it is imperative that it does, as a Guardian interview with Katherine Hayhoe illustrates. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 1.5C report in October. A month later, the US federal government’s climate assessment – to which Katharine Hayhoe contributed – came out. She feels that:

These assessments are important because there is a Schrödinger’s Cat element to studying climate impacts. The act of observing affects the outcome. If people aren’t aware of what is happening, why would anyone change? Assessments like these provide us with a vision of the future if we continue on our current pathway, and by doing so they address the most widespread and dangerous myth that the largest number of us have bought into: not that the science isn’t real, but rather that climate change doesn’t matter to me personally.

Since I jumped on this bandwagon a development has come to light that illustrates the drastic effect of climate change on me personally.  A Guardian article flagged this up. It was something of a shock to a seasoned coffee drinker such as myself:

If a future of relentless fires, droughts, superstorms and rising sea levels makes you feel like you need a strong caffeinated beverage, there is some bad news: climate change is coming for the world’s coffee beans.

Greg Meenahan, the partnership director at the non-profit institute World Coffee Research, puts it this way: “Demand for coffee is expected to double by the year 2050 and, if nothing is done, more than half of the world’s suitable coffee land will be pushed into unsuitability due to climate change. Without research and development, the coffee sector will need up to 180m more bags of coffee in 2050 than we are likely to have.

I’m sure every reader will resonate sympathetically to the horror of my impending predicament. ‘What is a life without coffee worth?’ I find myself asking.

Well, a lot more than the life without any of its necessities, as promised by a future of uncontrolled global warming. Given that the evidence is building to confirm this bleak view of our future, why are we still not doing enough? 

More of that next time.

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Having done a helicopter view of my reading about what pushes us into evil action, now I must tackle Jordan Peterson’s approach to all this.

What exactly is my problem, given that so much that he says resonates with so much that I have read and come to believe? Maybe he doesn’t carry my understanding any deeper, but why do a step back from endorsing his viewpoint where it matches?

I have to say I am struggling to define this exactly. It’s more a gut feeling in some ways than a fully articulated critique.

I don’t like his rather over-confident and somewhat dogmatic style, it’s true. But it feels as though it’s something more than that. What I’m going to say is the closest I can get for now. I hope to put more effort into tackling it more carefully later, but at the moment my right-brain more poetic side is getting fed up with what it experiences as my left-brain yet again hijacking the plan to spend more time on spiritual poetry. So after this rough and ready attempt to pin down my problem with Peterson’s approach, I plan to pick up the threads of my exploration of Antonio Machado.

Concerning Peterson, I think it is largely because I have some difficulties with his fundamental premise. I’m concerned that his perspective might be like a tower of pennies standing on a bent coin at the bottom. It feels as though it could topple over at any moment. I cannot quite trust it even when he seems to be saying something I should agree with. I need to get a better grip of it.

Order and Chaos

The premise he seems to operate from at times is the dichotomy he detects between order and chaos, equating the former with masculinity and the latter with the feminine (pages 40-42):

Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the… yang of the Taoist yin-yang symbol). This is perhaps because the primary hierarchal structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals… Order, when pushed too far, when imbalanced, can also manifest itself destructively and terribly.

. . . Chaos – the unknown – is symbolically associated with feminine. This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers… As a negative force, it’s the impenetrable darkness of the cave and the accident at the side of the road.

… Elkhonon Goldberg … has proposed quite lucidly and directly that the very hemispheric structure of the cortex reflects the fundamental division between novelty (the unknown, or chaos) and routinisation (the known, order).

For a start I feel there may well be two misattributions or confusions here, even before we dig more deeply: yin-yang and masculine-feminine.

Richard Wilhelm, in his introduction to the I-Ching (lxvi), tackles the issue of linking yin/yang with feminine/masculine, he writes:

To the disappointment of such discoverers it must be said that there is nothing to indicate this in the original meaning of the words yin and yang. In its primary meaning yin is “the cloudy,” “the overcast,” and yang means actually “banners waving in the sun,” that is, something “shone upon,” or bright… Thence the two expressions were carried over into the Book of Changes and applied to the two alternating primal states of being. It should be pointed out, however, that the terms yin and yang do not occur in this derived sense either in the actual text of the book or in the oldest commentaries. In the Commentary on the Decision the terms used for the opposites are “the firm” and “the yielding,” not yang and yin.

Wilhelm goes on to say that ‘change is conceived of partly as the continuous transformation of the one force into the other and partly as a cycle of complexes of phenomenon, in themselves connected, such as day and night, summer and winter.’ It is all subject to the universal law of tao.

As long as we disconnect the link Peterson implies between the left-brain and masculinity and the right-brain and femininity, I’m happy to accept the idea that the former deals with the known and the latter with the unknown. Iain McGilchrist sees this as one of the characteristic distinctions between the two hemispheres (The Master & his Emissary – page 40): ‘… in almost every case what is new must first be present in the right hemisphere. … The left hemisphere deals with what it knows.’

I don’t propose to dwell at any length on the way Peterson ignores the evidence that there have been matriarchal societies. I will accept that we have currently inherited a long tradition, going back millennia, of pragmatically successful and enduring cultures that are male dominated. I also accept that over all he does see some positives in chaos, such as creativity, and a downside to order, in terms of resistance to necessary change and overcontrol.

On Ditching Dichotomies

What bothers me most of all is what appears sometimes to be his investment in the reality of this dichotomy and his understanding of its nature. I’m with McGilchrist when he writes in his introduction (page 11): ‘It has been said that the world is divided into two types of people, those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. I am with the second group.’

Peterson doesn’t seem to see it that way. Plausibly, but I think mistakenly, he writes (page 43 – my emphasis):

We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them.

I need to quote also from Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief to capture his full sense though:

Unprotected exposure to unexplored territory produces fear. The individual is protected from such fear as a consequence of “ritual imitation of the Great Father” – as a consequence of the adoption of group identity, which restricts the meaning of things, and confers predictability on social interactions. When identification with the group is made absolute, however – when everything has to be controlled, when the unknown is no longer allowed to exist – the creative exploratory process that updates the group can no longer manifest itself. This “restriction of adaptive capacity” dramatically increases the probability of social aggression and chaos.

In 12 Rules for Life he expands on this (page 38 – my emphasis):

Chaos and order are two of the most fundamental elements of lived experience – two of the most basic subdivisions Being itself. But they’re not things, or objects, and they’re not experienced as such. Things or objects are part of the objective world. They’re inanimate; spiritless. They’re dead. This is not true of chaos and order. Those are perceived, experienced and understood… as personalities . . .

Because 12 Rules for Life is written in a somewhat unsystematic way, with different chapters dealing with different rules rather than having a progressive and consistent analysis of his overall view in some logical fashion, it’s hard to be sure I’ve really grasped his core point correctly yet. Because my other half, as I have said, wants to get back to Machado, I’m reluctant to tackle his much longer book Maps of Meaning even so.

Why does his approach trouble me? It’s partly because he looks as though he has assumed that we only apply the word chaos in a deeply negative sense to what we don’t know. This makes two mistakes, it seems to me.

I’ll make my definition of his first mistake concretely.

Chaos is not inevitably the death at the side of the road, any more than Order is sweetness and light. Order was also the organized slaughter of the Holocaust, just as chaos can lead to new insights and new beginnings. While he seems to acknowledge this possibility in some places the dogmatic certainty of his language in other places seems to ignore it. Both the known (order/the firm) and the unknown (chaos/the yielding) can lead to the negation we call death, of which we are understandably terrified, but they are intrinsically neither negation nor death in themselves.

Now for my sense of a second mistake on his part, which I realise may be simply nitpicking but I can’t shake it off as it feels important to me.

Even more of a problem for me is that I am not convinced that we perceive order and chaos as two distinct categories. I think we can just as easily see them as at opposite ends of the same dimension, and many of us do.

Moreover, I am not convinced either that they are coterminous with the known and the unknown, something that I will be coming back to in more detail in the final post. What we know or do not know, as he realises, is to do with a subjective dimension, and the familiarity of what we know can lead some of us to feel comfortable and safe, whereas the unfamiliarity of what we do not know makes many of us afraid. There are many people for whom the converse is also true: order is suffocating and to be avoided at all costs, and chaos is exciting and to welcomed whenever possible. These subjective states will occur in ways that map onto chaos or order when we have correctly identified those objective conditions. However an order that we do not recognize as such because it is unfamiliar will frighten us, just as a chaos that we fail to see as such might leave us feeling safe. Things are possibly more complicated than his model seems to allow for.

Two examples of one aspect of that will help here, I think.

The incipient chaos that climate change is brewing went for a long time completely unrecognised. Similarly the native inhabitants of a volcanic region can sense the impending chaos of an eruption to which incomers are completely blind. Some people still refuse to accept the reality of climate change in the defensive manoeuvre we call denial: that is not quite the same thing as being completely oblivious to impending or actual chaos.

Again I think that later in the book he clearly acknowledges this aspect when he writes (page 266):

Imagine a loyal and honest wife suddenly confronted by evidence of her husband’s infidelity… One day she sees him in a downtown cafe with another woman, interacting with her in a manner difficult to rationalise and ignore. The limitations and inaccuracy of her former perceptions become immediately and painfully obvious.

Her theory of her husband collapses. However, the spread-out nature of his argument across so many different rules, discussed in so many different chapters, makes it hard to grasp his overall perspective coherently: you have to pick up on and blend complementary aspects of his argument divided across so many pages.

When I have visited China I have encountered a parallel but not identical problem in that culture – where we experience order as chaos: a simple example is the traffic in the big cities. Those who live there seem able to detect an order and predictability that allow them to know when and how to cross the road which is invisible to me when I am standing on the corner of the junction of two dual carriageways and am clearly expected to cross diagonally. I see chaos in-between me and the opposite corner of the junction: the locals calmly navigate across to the other side. I am sure that on a larger scale an immigrant struggles to make sense of a new culture as a whole, and it takes some considerable time before the pattern underlying what looks like chaotic nonsense begins to emerge. Order is experienced as chaos. This point he does not seem so aware of.

When we stare into the complex chaos of the economic and political system some of us believe we can read it accurately, even when this is impossible, as Kahneman has demonstrated. He investigated where the border falls between what we can and what we cannot predict (Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 4339-4347):

If subjective confidence is not to be trusted, how can we evaluate the probable validity of an intuitive judgment? When do judgments reflect true expertise? When do they display an illusion of validity? The answer comes from the two basic conditions for acquiring a skill:

1. an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable

2. an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice. . . . .

Physicians, nurses, athletes, and firefighters . . . face complex but fundamentally orderly situations. The accurate intuitions . . .  described are due to highly valid cues that the expert . . .  has learned to use. . . In contrast, stock pickers and political scientists who make long-term forecasts operate in a zero-validity environment. Their failures reflect the basic unpredictability of the events that they try to forecast.

In this context it is interesting to note that many civilisations have chosen to found themselves in danger zones such as near volcanoes and close to shifting tectonic plates that trigger earthquakes. The reason for that, apparently, is the soil fertility near volcanoes and the useful or valuable metals and minerals more readily available in earthquake zones.

This illustrates that chaos can be productive, so productive in fact that it sometimes compensates for the risk of trading with it. I think it is a mistake though to completely conflate the disruption of chaos with either creativity or death. It has the potential for either, but is simply a profound disruption of an existing order or a complete absence of obvious order, making it feel unpredictable and potentially dangerous, though sometimes worth plunging into at the risk of death as the rewards could make it worthwhile.

A pause for breath now. In any case my left-brain is getting pretty fed up of finding words to express my right-brain’s perspective. More on this next time.

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Dali – ‘The Persistence of Memory’ – for source of picture see link

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé, ¡bendita ilusión!,
que una colmena tenía
dentro de mi corazón;
y los doradas abejas
iban fabricando en él,
con las armaguras viejas,
blanca cera y dulce miel.

(Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hive at work
deep down in my heart.
within were the golden bees
straining out the bitter past
to make sweet-tasting honey,
and white honeycomb.)

(From Antonio Machado Selected Poems translated by Alan Trueblood: page 90-91)

The Implications of Integration

So far this sequence has been a rather extensive treatment of the basic aspects of dreamwork as one example of how we can gain access to another system of thinking than the two Kahneman seems to feel are all that is available to us.

The point reached – the integration of and balance between extremes – hopefully has signalled how useful even this one approach could be to helping us, for example, get past a pendulum dilemma, where we swing between two apparently incompatible courses of action in response to a challenge, where we are deeply conflicted in some way. There is a theme that Jung deals with, but which is already present in Myers’s thought, that is relevant here. To quote Ellen Kelly in the Kellys’ monumental book Irreducible Mind  (page 64):

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

Jung believed that when we are caught in the vice-like grip of this kind of conflict, we have to find the ‘transcendent’ position that lifts us above the paralysis induced by two apparently irreconcilable opposites to which we feel compelled to respond in some way. Stephen Flynn makes an important point in his discussion of Jung’s concept:

Jung mentions one vital aspect of Transcendent Function, as ‘active imagination’ whereby the apparent haphazard frightening images from the unconscious are integral to the healing process.

This obviously relates to my figure from the freezer and anything else of the same nature. He then quotes Jung himself about any related conflict (The structure and Dynamics of the Psyche 1960 – page 88):

The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living, third thing – not a logical stillbirth in accordance with the principle tertium non datur but a movement out of the suspension between opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation ….  the shifting to and fro of argument and affects represent the transcendent function of opposites.

There are other paths towards this kind of transcendence and discussion of them inevitably includes a consideration of the undoubtedly spiritual. I have deliberately avoided confronting that aspect of the matter so far, as even the more mundane powers of the dream seem magical to me, and draw on the right brain or what we often short-hand as the heart, something not reducible to either System 1 or System 2, in my view.

I can now explore some of these implications partly in the light of an important dream I once experienced. As a preparation for the way the first of these will edge closer to a sense of the way that dreams can be seen as a borderland between ordinary and transcendent consciousness, and even at the risk of making this long post unbearably longer, I think it’s worth sharing the experience of a Visiting Professor of Transpersonal Psychology which he quotes in relation to his investigations of paranormal phenomena. David Fontana describes it towards the end of his book, Is There an Afterlife? (page 425):

[Psycho-spiritual traditions teach that] astral and energy bodies hover just above the sleeping physical body each night . . . . I once had an interesting experience that could be connected with this belief in some way. For many nights I have been waking briefly in the middle of the night with a clear awareness of a presence standing on the left side of my bed. I had no idea of the identity of this presence, and it seemed to vanish each time just as I became fully conscious. Every time this happened, I fell asleep again almost at once. There was nothing frightening about the seeming presence, but I was interested to find an explanation for it. One night when I awoke with a strong sense of it, I received simultaneously the clear impression that to find the answer I must think back to what had been happening just before I awoke, rather as one rewinds a film. I did so – many things seem possible in the moment of waking from sleep – and immediately became aware, to my utter astonishment, that the “presence” was in fact myself, in the moment of reuniting with the physical body. . . . Whether or not [the experience] supports the notion that consciousness leaves the body each night during sleep I cannot say. But I know that the experience happened, I know it was not a dream, and I know that, having had the curious insight into what might have caused the presence, the experience never happened again . . .

I mentioned earlier Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 models of decision-making before looking at some length at dreamwork as one possible way of going deeper.

How deep can dreamwork take us?

I want to draw on my own experience for this again. Mainly this is because I know what I dreamt and I know what I learnt from it. The evidence in that respect is as solid as it gets for me. It therefore interposes fewer filters between anyone who reads this and the raw experience it relates to. The drawback is that I have never had a dream that was stunningly prophetic or profoundly mystical, so the example I am going to give might seem a bit run of the mill. However, because I found an apparently simple dream profoundly enlightening, I thought it was worth sharing.

A rag rug

My Dream

I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.

I worked on this dream using the methods described in the previous two posts. Various elements were profoundly meaningful, such as the rug made by my aunt, not least because of what she represented to me. For a sense of that those of you who are interested could read the poem The Maiden Aunt (see below). I want, for present purposes, to focus on what for me has become the core of the dream’s meaning, a meaning which is still evolving even though this dream is now more than 15 years old – still in adolescence really so there’s probably more to come.

There were two kinds of clue to this core meaning: one derived from word play and the other from role play.

Word Play

I’ll take the word play first as it’s easier to explain. The ‘chewing gum’ element of the dream can be dealt with quickly. It related to various ways I was stuck and perhaps still am!

More richly significant was the image of the hearth. The fact that it was in a chimney ‘breast’ helps convey the power of the realisation that came to me. The word ‘hearth’ is comprised of several other key words: ‘ear,’ ‘hear,’ ‘earth,’ ‘art’ and most powerful of all ‘heart.’ All of these words were separately of huge significance for me though I had some sense of how they might all fit together.

For example, I had latched early onto the words of Walter Savage Landor, long before I had the dream:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved; and next to Nature, Art.
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

The art of listening had separately been extremely important to me in my work as a clinical psychologist which made finding the ‘ear’ so closely tied into this central image not entirely surprising. Also having an ear to hear the intimations of the spirit is emphasised in Bahá’í literature as being of critical importance to moral progress.

This only got me so far though. I needed some other way of decoding the full import of the dream.

Peat Digging

Role Play

If you remember, when I was explaining dreamwork, I spoke of how each dream element is part of the dreamer and we can unlock the meaning of the symbolism not only by tracking our associations with it, but also by pretending to be the element in the dream and speaking as though we were it.

The result in the case of the fuel burning in the hearth was dramatic. I had been really struggling to make sense of this part of the dream. What had a coal fire got to do with my situation, except as a memory of childhood with relatively little relevance? I decided I needed to sit right in front of the hearth of the house I was living in at the time and speak as the fuel itself.

The Fuel: I am peat. You dig me from the earth and I burn. You feed me to the flowers and they grow.

Need I go any further really with what I said? That first moment contains the key to unlocking a whole treasure chest of meanings.

On the 26th April 2003, at least five years after beginning to work on the dream, I wrote in my journal, trying to summarise some of my insights:

I’m part poet/writer, part psychologist, part educator, (both subsumed by the term mind-wright) – the words wright and writer catch one part of my essence – my tools are words by and large – mind does not quite catch the other part – soul is too grand and beyond my competence – the nearest I can get is being a wordsmith and a heartwright. The word heart helps because it includes in itself the words art and (h)ear, an essential combination of skills or qualities entailed in heartwork. It leads back to my concept of heart-to-heart resuscitation. Hearts have to connect. That it also links with my archetypal dream of the hearth, where the fire of spirit burns to give warmth to the mansion of being, makes it all the more powerful a word to use in this context. The essence of my being – peat – is to fuel this process. An additional thought: 28.04.03 – if you place Heart and Earth overlapping you get Hearth. Each is also an anagram of the other. In the Bahá’í Writings the heart is often spoken of as a garden and of having soil. Also I have prayed for God to ignite within my breast the fire of His love and Bahá’u’lláh refers to the ‘candle” of our heart. Hearth eloquently combines these notions of the heart as a garden and as a container of fire. What does this mean in practice?

I’m still trying to answer that question.

Digging Deeper

The progression up to this understanding and beyond is also intriguing.

When I first had the revelation that the fuel was a pun on my name in its shortened form, I took a narrow view of what it meant. The name my parents gave me was ‘Peter’ with all the associations of rock. When I first began to work on the idea of ‘peat,’ I felt that the dream was saying that I should draw on the essence of who I was, not the persona my upbringing had fabricated in me after the image of my silent and stoical father, hiding his undoubted love behind a wall of reserve.

Then, pushing it somewhat further, the idea of burning Pete came to mind, which suggested the idea of self-sacrifice. But increasingly, as time went on, an even deeper meaning, complementary not contradictory, began to come through: perhaps ‘peat’ was not ‘me’ but came from something outside me and far richer and much more substantial. The earth became a symbol for the realm of spirit and peat came to represent the power that could flow from that realm into my being to give me the strength, energy and wisdom to do far more, far more effectively than I could ever do by any other means.

Of course, none of this exhausts the implications of the dream. The quotation at the head of this post was one of the associations that came to mind when I was working on the dream very early on. It gives yet another level of meaning to the dream to interpret it in the light of that quotation.

I don’t expect to get to the bottom of this dream’s meanings in this life. I just think I have to keep referring back to it to see what else it can teach me. I think it is a dream about the heart that came from my heart. I feel the heart in this sense is ‘the experience of soul or spirit in consciousness,’ as a friend of mine once put it in a workshop. Heart is used in other ways, I know, in our culture, and many of these ways connect it primarily with our emotions – anger, envy, desire, what passes for love, sadness and so on. That is only one way of looking at what the heart might be. The heart is also a source of inspiration, and, while our emotions shout, the heart whispers its wisdom and we do not hear it unless our minds are quiet.

An intriguing question arose after I had re-read Machado recently.  Did I read him before I had this dream? Was there some subliminal influence from that encounter? The date I bought the book permits that possibility, but I can’t be absolutely sure. What I do know is that the following quote from Bahá’u’lláh became far more meaningful for me (Gleanings No. CLII):

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.

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De toda la memoria, solo vale
el don preclaro de evocar los sueños.

(For this alone is memory to be prized,
this signal gift of calling back old dreams.

(From Antonio Machado Selected Poems trans. By Alan Trueblood: pages 98-99)

What next?

In the last post we had reached a point in the process where the basic but all-important spade work had been done. We have the raw material. Now we must find a way of decoding the imagery to decipher what the dream might mean.

In the previous post we were looking at how we might consult with our dreams in order to discover different and more helpful ways of approaching our challenges in life, other than the two described by Daniel Kahneman as System 1 and System 2. We got part way through a description of a process, mostly derived from the work of Ann Faraday in her book The Dream Game, by which we could learn how to do this. The idea is that this represents a genuine third way of seeing, even a third kind of self through which to see. It is not the only such way but it is the focus here.

So we’re picking up the threads from where we left off – how do we decode the symbols in the dreams we have recorded.

Stage 2 – Decoding the Dream

  1. Defining the Dream Elements

This is a crucial part of the process and so easy to get wrong. It is vitally important to be completely objective in listing the elements. I had to be careful not to dismiss any that I felt were not promising or not sufficiently drenched in deep significance. Also elements, as I discovered, are not just objects and people. They are everything in the dream including actions, feelings, fragments of conversation: even my own thoughts as a dreamer need to be included.

  1. Decoding Dream Elements

There was an over-riding consideration I rapidly realised applied to all aspects of dreamwork. The most fruitful assumption to make, once I decided a dream was worth working on, was that all the dream elements were aspects of my mind at some level, even though I was neither familiar, nor likely to be comfortable with them.

There were two stages now to decoding the elements. If I had decided to work a dream then, even if some elements related to past or future events, this was unlikely to be all they meant, so I would have to work with them as seriously as any other element.

  1. Free Association

Carl Gustav Jung. For source of image see link.

Anyone who is as averse to key aspects of the Freudian model of psychoanalysis as I am, don’t worry. I used to use the Jungian method of association.

With the Freudian method, as I understood it, you were meant to start with the stimulus word and associate from it in a chain. ‘Radio,’ ‘waves,’ ‘ocean,’ ‘the Gulf Stream,’ ‘the Gulf War,’ ‘Syria,’ going back to the beginning again until all associations were exhausted. You can see the problem. I usually became exhausted well before the associations were. Whenever I tried it the chain never seemed to stop until each word had at least half a page of wide ranging associations from which I could not derive any coherent meaning at all.

Jung’s method was far more congenial. You provide an association then come back to the root word for the next. ‘Radio-waves,’ ‘radio-third programme,’ ‘radio-therapy,’ ‘radio-London,’ and so on. The process generally never created more than a paragraph of associations, and there was usually some kind of coherence to the way they grouped.

There is, of course, no need to be rigid about this. There have been times when allowing a string of connected ideas to flow from the one word has proved most fruitful. It’s just that I found the chain of associations method more confusing than helpful most of the time.

Sometimes, I did not need to go beyond this stage. The meaning of the dream became sufficiently clear for me to use what I had learned and move on, especially when you have freed your mind from the Freudian shackle of assuming all dreams are wish fulfillment of some kind.

An Interrogation Room

The most dramatic example of how an association can free the conscious mind from the prison of its self-deception, came from a patient I worked with who had been diagnosed as having an ‘endogenous’ depression, i.e. one that was not explicable in terms of her life situation. She was an articulate lady who gave clear descriptions of her history, which included a basically contented childhood, and of her current feelings, which were often suicidal, though she did not understand why. One day, she spoke of a recurrent dream she had. With variations, it was of being in a room with Hitler’s SS. They wanted information from her and were preparing to torture her.  Before the torture could begin she invariably woke in terror. Following the model I used for my own dreams I asked her to give me a full description of every aspect of her situation in the dream. She described not only the people, but also the size and shape of the room and the kind of furniture that was in it.

Naturally, we focused at first on the people, but, apart from the obvious link of her having been brought up in the aftermath of World War Two, there were no links with the SS officers who were threatening her. The room did not trigger any useful insights either. We were beginning to wonder whether this was simply a childhood nightmare of the war come back to haunt her, when I asked about her associations to the furniture. We were both instantly shocked by her first answer. It was exactly the same as the furniture in the kitchen of the house in which she had grown up.

It would not be right for me to go into any detail about where this led. I imagine everyone can see that the picture she had persuaded herself was real, of a contented childhood, was very wide of the mark. That she had no vivid memory of any one traumatic incident was because there were none to remember: her whole childhood, as we then gradually came to understand it, had been a subtle form of emotional starvation and neglect successfully disguised for her at least as normal parenting.

I was utterly persuaded then, if not before, of the heart’s power to use dreams to make us wiser when we are safe and ready, and of the truth of this not, just for me, but for everyone.

In terms of my own dreamwork, if I’d missed an important issue, either by using associations to decode the dream, or the Gestalt approach below, I usually got another dream reminder pretty quickly.

Sometimes, quite often in fact, associations did not work completely enough. For instance, the figure from the freezer elicited a few fruitful associations, not least to the monster created by Dr Frankenstein, to O’Neill’s powerful exploration of despair, and to the idea of the Iceman as a personification of Death, fears about which were part of the air I breathed in childhood as a result of my parents’ unassuageable grief at the death of my sister four years before I was born. Some of my poems testify to the powerful impact of this period on my mind.  However, not even these powerful links convinced me I’d completely decoded the dream.

  1. The Gestalt Method

This method was almost always the key to unlocking a code that associations could not decipher. As Ann Faraday explains in her Chapter 8, there are also ways for asking your dreams for help with decoding very resistant dreams (page 130):

Since the main problem in understanding the dream is to discover what issue on your mind or in your heart provoked the dream, you can take a shortcut by asking your dreams for help on a certain problem of emotional significance before falling sleep. . . . . Religious people to whom prayer comes naturally may like to ask God for enlightenment on the dream. However you frame your request, it is essential to have your recording equipment ready, since failure to do so is a sure sign that you’re not serious, and the unconscious mind is not fooled.

Before resorting to that, I generally tried the Gestalt approach. This involves role playing the dream element.

Take the figure from the freezer I described in the dream in the previous post. Once I spoke as the dream element (and you can also do this for inanimate objects – we will come back to this next time) its meaning became blindingly obvious fairly quickly. It is possible, and often necessary, to dialogue with the element as well. To do this you have to allocate different places in the room for the two or more elements to the dialogue to speak from. What follows is a reconstruction of work done many years ago.

The Iceman (from a kitchen chair): Why did you lock me away in here? What had I done? I have been shut away in the dark and the cold for I don’t know how long. Why are you so afraid of me? (Silence)

Me (from my armchair): I am scared of you, it’s true. But I swear I didn’t know I had done this to you. Can you promise me you mean me no harm?

The Iceman: I don’t want to harm you. I just want to be free. To be in the light and warm. I don’t know why you were so scared of me that you had to lock me up. (Silence)

Me: I’m not sure. There must have been something about you that scared me.  Can you guess what that might be? When did I lock you away?

The Iceman: I’m not sure. I’ve grown up in here. I was shut away when I was only a child.

To cut a long story short, it became clear that the pain and rage I felt as a child, when I was placed in hospital and operated on without really understanding why, had been unbearable. It also had associations with feelings of intense cold because of the way I experienced the chloroform they used as an anaesthetic. After cutting myself off from that part of me that felt the pain, I’d fed him with every subsequent unbearable pain or intolerable rage. In this way he became bigger and bigger and ever more scary. It became harder and harder to think of integrating that part of me again into my ordinary conscious experience.

Finally, in my imagination, there was a tearful reunion. I embraced the figure that had frightened me so much, welcomed him and brought him back into the warmth of my ordinary life. A key idea in dreamwork is to embrace what you fear and thereby reintegrate it. In that way we can gradually reclaim all our energy and all our powers. Even anger has a place in a constructive life. How else are we going to know how to mobilise ourselves to respond to evil and injustice when it crosses our path. I had repressed my pain and rage. Taking them out of the cage and reintegrating them is not the same as acting them out. Our culture is not good at treading the middle way between repression and disinhibition. The middle way is to remain aware of how you are feeling but to contain it, reflect upon it (something I’ve dealt with at length elsewhere) and decide how best to deal with and if appropriate express the feelings constructively.

We have reached the point where we are almost ready to tackle the possibility that dreams can give us access to the transcendent.

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