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Last time

I am getting close to the main road at this point.

‘Can I stick my oar in quickly here for a sec?’

‘Of course,’ Fred replies.

‘Do you remember what that system of continuous conscious breathing was called?’ I ask.

Another silence. I break it this time.

‘Rebirthing.’

‘But the baby’s been born already and is buried now.’

‘Yes, but in a chamber of my heart. How like a womb might that feel. Perhaps I can leave you to ponder on that just now. I’ve got to pick up some shopping on my way home. I can’t deal with that and focus on this as well.’

This is met with a chorus of agreement.

* * * *

The following morning Alan phones to ask me to meet him at the cemetery. He wants to check out their tearoom for the wake. I was hoping to have time to think about what my parliament of selves is wrestling with, and maybe tune in to their conversation again, but know that my first responsibility is to support him in his grief.

The parking is free at the cemetery so we agree to meet up there in half an hour.

The sting in the tail of winter has not struck as yet. The sun is shining on the graves among the grass as I drive up. Alan is already there waiting for me as I clamber out of my car.

‘How goes?’ I ask knowing exactly what his answer will be.

‘Don’t ask.’

We head off to the tearoom in the converted chapel. The long narrow path between the jumble of graves, with headstones straining to stay upright, leads to a door with a sign telling us the door is closed and to go round the other side.

We step through the main door at the back into a small anteroom leading to the cafe area. The high ceiling, white walls and leaded windows create a light and peaceful atmosphere enriched rather than dispelled by the faint echoes bouncing off the stone of the walls.

Alan is clearly impressed.

‘Jane would’ve loved this.’

‘I’m glad. D’you fancy a coffee while you ponder on this as a venue?’

‘Good idea.’ He goes off to sit at a table in the far corner. I go to the deserted counter at the opposite end. Within seconds a bundle of energy in a green apron bustles in.

‘Hi. I’m Ellen. What would you like?’

‘One Americano and a large cappuccino, please.’

‘Coming right up. Isn’t it a beautiful day? So much sunlight.’

‘Dead right it is. This is a beautiful place you’ve got here.’

‘Thank you. Chocolate on your cappuccino?’

‘How could I drink it without?’

She grins and says, ‘Please take a seat and I’ll bring them over.’

Alan is lost in thought. I sit down.

‘Do you mind if I just pop out while she’s making the coffees? I need to take a look at my mum’s grave. It’s just by the path we came in on.’

No, of course not.’

Within seconds, Ellen comes with the coffees.

‘Thanks, Ellen. My friend’s just popped out to look at a family grave.’

She nods and turns to go.

‘Just a quick word,’ I add. ‘He’s just lost his wife and is thinking of using your cafe for the wake after the burial here.’

‘No problem,’ she says. ‘Just come and chat to me before you leave.’

As I stir the chocolate into my coffee, the sound of voices begins to ring inside my head again.

‘We’ve been thinking about this rebirthing idea. How d’you reckon it would work?’ Pancake tries to hide her sceptical tone behind a veil of simulated sympathy.

‘I’m not absolutely sure,’ I admit, ‘but it might be worth my trying the continuous breathing till the tears come flooding up again if they do, and then persist for much longer than I’ve ever done before, to see where it leads.’

‘That makes a kind of sense.’ Mires was always likely to be the first one on board with this idea. Even if it doesn’t work this is the kind of experiment he is always keen to try.

Indie is nodding as Humfreezes speaks. ‘If that’s what you want we’ll give it a go, but I’m not convinced. I know it’s a form of meditation but it’s not the kind I see as the most effective.’

Pancake scowls but doesn’t actively disagree. Wordless is speechless.

‘So as soon as I can get some time alone, we’ll give it a go then?’ I check out.

‘It looks like it’ Mires confirms.

The cafe door opens again and Alan comes back and sits down.

‘I still miss her.’

I nod sympathetically.

His coffee is almost cold. He gulps it down quickly.

‘D’you like this place? Will it do?’ I ask.

‘I think so. Just Jane’s kind of spot. Let’s see what they have to say.’

It doesn’t take long for him to agree the details with Ellen at the counter. I can’t resist slipping in a question.

‘When was the chapel converted?’

‘Just three years back we finished it, my husband and I.’

‘You’ve done a really good job. What made you take this on?’

‘Well, I was a florist for 25 years, and then my daughter died in a road accident.’

‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’

‘My husband and I wanted something to give our lives meaning after that. He’s a builder.’

‘You mean he did the whole conversion?’

‘Basically, yes.’

‘I take my hat off to you both! That’s amazing.’

‘We’re so glad we did it. It cost us a lot of time and money but it’s been worth it. I have never enjoyed any job so much as this one.’

‘And it’s helping people as well.’

‘Yes. That’s part of the reward of it all.’

Alan was beginning to look a bit restless.

‘We’ll come back soon and discuss the details when we’re clearer about how many are coming,’ he cut across.

‘Of course,’ Ellen smiled and shook his hand and mine.

I’m not sure about Alan, but I left carrying with me a feeling of warmth and admiration for this lady. Even moments of grief can bring encounters with inspiration.

* * * *

My wife has gone to Birmingham for the day with her friend, to do some shopping and see a film.

This is the best chance I’ll get for quite some time to try and exhume or rebirth my buried self. I’m quite anxious about it though. In the past when I have used this method of continuous breathing there has always been someone else there who was familiar with the process. This time I’ll be on my own except for the parliament of selves inside my head.

They’d never forgive me if I back out now. We have all agreed to use this time for this purpose.

I decide I’ll be more comfortable in my pyjamas and dressing gown, lying on the bed rather than on the floor. My wife won’t be back till after 11 in the evening, so we’ve got more than 12 hours. It should be more than long enough.

I change and lie down before trying to get in touch. It takes a few minutes before I hear anything. Maybe they are just as nervous as I am.

It’s Indie who speaks first.

‘Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?’

‘As sure as I’ll ever be.’

‘Can you manage this by yourself, d’you think?’ Mires asks, wearing his therapist’s hat.

‘I’ll have to. There’s no other way. I don’t feel comfortable now going to another therapist. I know how the process works and there’s no real risk involved.’

‘Suppose you discover something really horrific?’ he insists.

‘I think, if there had been any really terrible skeletons in my cupboard I’d have had some hints from my parents. My mum wasn’t one to leave a scary tale untold.’

‘OK. If you’re sure . . .’ he concedes.

‘Let’s get on with it.’

‘And let’s hope this sees the last of all this mumbo-jumbo,’ Wordless hisses through gritted teeth.

It’s a good job we don’t have to have everyone on board for this to work, unlike with the séance.

As usual the first half hour or more is uneventful. I steer my customary careful course between hypo- and hyperventilating. There is the usual slight buzzing in the head and occasional tingling, when I overdo the breathing a bit. I am possibly biasing the process slightly by scanning my chest for the beating of my heart as I’ve half-convinced myself that this is where it will all be happening.

Then something strange and unexpected begins to happen. I’m not getting any well of tears. I seem to be floating. I’m not sure whether it’s on water or through the air. It’s a very odd sensation. A little bit scary, in fact. It’s getting slightly harder to keep breathing. It’s as though I may be under water or high in the air. More likely the latter as I can get some air into my lungs. I’m not choking in water.

‘What’s going on?’ Indie shouts, sounding quite worried.

I find I can’t even think to explain. I can just about keep breathing.

I feel as though I am picking up speed. I open my eyes briefly and see the bedroom is the same as always. It’s just my body feeling as though I’m being propelled along. I close my eyes again and keep breathing. I’m not sure whether it’s some kind of near death or near birth experience. If anything it feels like a bit of both. Am I flying or in danger of drowning? The roaring that is starting in my ears could be either.

It’s then I remember my situation in Much Wenlock. I was trembling, and as I breathed the trembling just went on and on. It was only when the therapist said I needed to let go and accept whatever it was that was struggling into consciousness that things changed dramatically and immediately. Am I in the same kind of situation again? Do I need simply to let go and stop puzzling over this experience?

‘Yes, let go! Let go!’ It’s Indie again. ‘That’s what I had to do when you all called me. If I hadn’t let go I’d still be shut away, locked in my distrust and isolation. Let go!’

With a quick prayer, as I did last time, I let go. The only way I can describe what happens next is to say that it seems as though I have just burst my head through the surface of a lake or risen above the mist and clouds into brilliant sunshine, except that I don’t see it – I just feel that this is how it is. It is even more intense than the dream I had in my teens of floating on my back supported by the clouds below that were carrying me along. It is freedom. It is beauty. I am truly alive at last. I burst into tears of joy this time, not grief.

Then came the thought. ‘You have left the tomb of your parents’ grief at last.’[1]

To be honest, I’m not quite sure whether the thought said womb or tomb. It felt like both in a way. Whichever it is, it feels like being reborn.

‘You’ve done it,’ screams Indie.

‘Well done,’ shouts Mires and Humfreeze together.

‘I’m not sure what happened there but it seemed to go all right,’ chipped in the more hesitant Pancake.

‘What happened exactly?’ I ask in a state of mild bewilderment. Right now I can interact with them in the usual way and my sense of floating or flying has completely disappeared.

‘At first you seemed to disappear into the chamber of your heart, which became translucent, and then you blended into the infant we had buried, I think. We lost sight of you completely,’ Mires explains quietly. ‘What happened next is a bit confusing. The chamber seemed to dissolve completely and the child – it’s a toddler now – tottered out into a brilliant light and you were suddenly back on the bed in full sight. All very weird.’

‘Where’s the toddler now?’ I’m anxious about whether he’s all right.

Pancake chips in. ‘Indie has taken him to a quiet place to calm him down. He – at least we think it’s a he but are not completely sure – is excited and upset at the same time. He’s fine though. He’ll live!’

We all fall silent for a few moments.

‘So, what do you reckon happened and why?’ I’m really keen to get some clarity on all this.

‘Well, I hate to say this but it looks as though Fred might have been right after all.’ Humfreeze pulls a sour face to hide his smile.

‘How d’you mean?’

‘It looks like when you were in the womb you were floating in a pool of pain in a way. I don’t literally mean the amniotic fluid. What I’m trying to say is that while you were enveloped in the fluid in the womb, the signals you were getting from your mother were all about loss, pain and grief. It was almost intolerable. We know your body can’t remember all this in detail, though the emotional centre of your brain will have recorded the intensity of this without knowing where it came from. Your soul might have been able to remember it, but none of us can tune into that dimension. When you were born you could not leave it behind. You have carried it with you ever since, till now at least. The fact that your brain held onto the pain and grief with no idea of the circumstances that generated it means that your whole life has been clouded at times, maybe most of the time, by a mist of loss and pain.’

Mires nods as Humfreeze speaks.

I lie there stunned and yet relieved. It makes a kind of sense. I know intuitively that there is still a long way to go before my toddler self can mature to the point of joining with the rest of us as we work at creating a single sense of a unified self that can perhaps become capable, if not of tuning directly into spiritual reality, at least of developing a clearer sense than ever before of the direction that this transcendent reality requires me to take for the rest of my remaining days.

‘Yea, verily,’ Pancake chants, having overheard my every thought. ‘Let’s hope there’ll be more action then and a lot less rumination.’

‘There she goes again,’ Wordless says, breaking his silence at last. ‘It’s not going to be easy making space for my poetry and her treadmill.’

Yes, I think to myself, we’ve got a really long way to go still.

I find myself wondering whether this will help me be of more use to Alan in his grief. Only time will tell.

Footnote:

[1]. It’s possibly worth mentioning that I wrote this episode before reading Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, particularly pages 228-233, which describe one man’s intense spiritual and healing experiences under the influence of a carefully controlled dose of psilocybin. The parallels were slightly uncanny.

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Head of Man with Red Eyes (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

The nurse ushers us into a side room.

‘As soon as we know anything, we’ll come and tell you,’ she whispers. ‘Please make some coffee if you want.’

She closes the door quietly behind her. There is a kettle, two stainless steel containers, one with instant coffee and the other with tea bags by the looks. There are no cups in sight.

In the far corner a woman sits by her handbag, head bowed, looking at the screen of her phone. All the time she’s with us, she doesn’t scan it with her fingers.

Alan and I sit down opposite a painting of blue irises. He is too stunned to speak much. I sit quietly beside him. We wait for someone to come and tell us what is happening.

A woman with an apron comes in gently. She checks the cupboard.

‘You don’t have any cups. I’ll go and get some.’ She smiles at us and leaves.

Alan and I smile faintly at each other. His eyes are red with weeping.

The door opens again.

‘I’ve brought some cups for you. The milk’s in the fridge below,’ she explains, opening its door before she goes again.

We sit there and do nothing.

In the silence I become faintly aware of a movement at the back of my mind. I try not to take any notice. My job is to watch out for Alan, not disappear into my own inscape.

The movement becomes more insistent. It feels as though someone is standing right behind my eyes.

‘We have another self to exhume.’

I recognise the voice straightaway as Indie’s. This is a bit of a shock, to say the least. It’s a good 18 months since I heard anything from my parliament of selves.

‘What d’you mean, exhume?’ I telegraph silently.

‘We buried him in a chamber of your heart when we were all very small.’

The door opens. Indie vanishes from my mind. A doctor and two nurses come in. One of the nurses talks quietly to the woman with the phone and she leaves looking slightly upset.

The three of them sit down opposite us.

‘I’m Mr McGrave, Senior Cardiologist. There’s no easy way for us to tell you this, Mr White.’

Alan moves uneasily in his seat and makes a slight choking noise.

‘When she came in her heart had stopped,’ he goes on. ‘We used every means we could to start it beating again but we couldn’t get a pulse. She wasn’t breathing on her own either. We tried several times, but scans showed major damage to one ventricle of the heart indicating that it would no longer be able to work. There were significant toxins in the blood as well.’

‘We’re so sorry to have to tell you this,’ the blond nurse adds.

Alan can no longer hold back his sobs.

‘We’ll leave you now to process this’ the bearded nurse explained. ‘We’ll come back after a while and if you wish we can take you to the room where her body is so you can see her. Would you like that?’

Alan nods.

I put my arm on Alan’s shoulder as he tries to regain his composure. He begins to calm down.

‘Would a coffee help?’ I ask.

He nods.

As I wait for the kettle to boil, I can’t stop Indie insisting I listen to her.

‘We entombed a child self,’ she says. ‘He just wouldn’t stop moaning and crying. We couldn’t comfort him. He asked us to hide him away somewhere under the ground of your heart. We agreed. It seemed kinder to smother him out of sight, but we knew he wouldn’t die. You know that, don’t you?’

‘Please can we deal with this later,’ I plead in my mind, even though I am desperate to know more. ‘Alan is my priority right now.’

‘We have to do something. Soon. We can’t leave him there any longer. He’s the only one left out in the cold now. When can we talk?’

Before I can answer the kettle boils and she disappears again.

‘You don’t take sugar, do you?’ I ask simply to break the silence.

‘You know I don’t.’

‘Yes, of course. It’s amazing how these situations can get you muddled, though.’

I pause.

‘Jane didn’t drink coffee at all, did she?’

‘Not after the blood pressure problem, no.’

‘I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, to be married all those years to someone younger than you, and suddenly to find she’s gone.’

Alan doesn’t reply.

‘Losing my mother was different. She was in her seventies, and in those days, when she died, that was a good age. We were expecting it.’

I wasn’t sure any of this was helping but didn’t feel like lapsing back into silence.

He stares at the floor.

I carry the cups across, give him his and sit down next to him with mine.

‘What happened exactly – if you can bear to tell me that is?’

He pauses for a moment.

‘It was a complete shock. She was feeling sick overnight, but I didn’t think anything of it. I thought she’d just eaten too much the evening before. It was only when she got up and was violently sick that I began to worry.’

He stops again for a moment to regain his composure.

“Please don’t carry on if it’s too hard.’

‘No, no. It’s all right. I want to tell you. She was so sick she couldn’t stand. That was when I rang for the ambulance. She was still conscious when they took her away. I really figured she’d be OK. When I got to the hospital, I rang you when I realised it was a lot worse than I thought.’

‘I’m glad you did,’ I reply, putting my hand on his shoulder.

I can’t think of anything else to say.

Before Indie can return, as I fear she might, the door opens again and the blond nurse comes back in.

‘You can see your wife now, Mr White, if that’s still OK.’

He nods and stands. I stand with him and we follow the nurse out of the door, turn right and then into a set of double doors just down the corridor on the right. Someone holds the door for us as the nurse goes in ahead to pull back a blue screen to reveal the body. This is the second body I’ve seen in the last two years, but this one is not so carefully adorned and arranged as the one in the hospice had been. One sheet, and under that a surgical gown, her body, now deserted, and no flowers.

As Alan bends down to kiss his wife on the cheek he breaks into sobs again.

I put my hand on his back and rest my gaze on what I can see of her hair, just beginning to be flecked with grey. As he stands again, stifling his sobs and holding her hand, I see her mouth. It’s open as though she is gasping for air, but she is too still for that. With my hand on his back and my eyes on her face my awareness of the room fades.

There is a conversation going on in hushed tones in the back of my mind.

‘I think we’d better wait till he’s out of this situation before we try and talk to him again.’ I recognise the deep voice and clipped vowels. It’s Mires, saying what you’d expect of a sensitive psychologist.

‘I don’t agree. It’s not fair to leave it too long. You all rescued me when I thought I was alone forever. I know how it feels to be abandoned. I don’t want to do that to someone else.’ I don’t have to hear her voice to realise that only Indie would have known what it was like to be in that predicament.

A brittle woman’s voice breaks in. ‘I’ll just go along with whatever you all feel. I’m right out of my depth in this kind of stuff.’ This is a surprise. Emma Pancake, usually the one to rush into action, doesn’t know what to do.

‘That’s one for my diary,’ flashes through my brain. Fortunately, they’re too busy talking to hear my thoughts right now.

‘I agree we should wait. I need more time to think about this.’ No surprise there, then. Humfreeze, the master meditator, remains true to type.

‘I think we should go now,’ Alan cuts across.

I jerk out of my reverie.

‘Yes, of course.’

We head for the door. The nurse waiting outside steps in to close the screen again.

‘Please wait in the room again and someone will be with you shortly to explain what you need to do next,’ she explains gently.

It doesn’t take long for the tall male nurse to slide in with a small folder and hand over a booklet with all the information needed about the steps to take to prepare the funeral arrangements, get the body moved and close the dead wife’s bank account. I don’t even have to take notes for Alan who looks as though his mind is somewhere else.

When the man goes we wait a few seconds. Alan stands and puts on his coat. I walk him home mostly in silence – the hospital car park is far too expensive for us to use.

As we reach his gate, I ask ‘Will you be OK?’

‘I’ll be all right. I just need some time to myself.’

‘Ring me if you need me, otherwise we’ll meet on Wednesday to plan what you need to do next, yes?’

‘Not too early. Come round about 11.’

‘OK.’

He fumbles for his keys as he walks up the path to his door. I wait till he closes it behind him before walking slowly back to my place over the river.

As I walk along the quiet footpath towards the pedestrian bridge over the river, I hear them at it again.

‘Can you listen to us now,’ Humfreeze asks.

‘Yes, Chris, I can,’ I hear myself think.

Though we’re in for another Siberian-born Scorpion sting in the tail of winter, flecks of cherry blossom are just beginning to appear.

‘We want to set a time for another séance. That seems the best way to get the infant back. It worked well last time with Indie,’ ’ he explained, with just a faint trace of self-congratulation over his key role as medium in reconnecting with her.

‘I’m not sure about that,’ Mires interjected. ‘This situation seems slightly different. With Indie we didn’t know whether she existed or not, let alone where she was. She was like a possible ghost to us. In this case, three of us definitely remember deciding to put the baby out of its misery without actually killing it. Even Indie thinks she can remember being involved in that, which makes a kind of sense, in that it would have happened before her consciousness split off from the rest of us. I don’t think it’s a séance we need.’

As I cross the bridge and glance quickly down the river to my left, the sun comes out from behind a cloud, lighting up the surface of the water. I’m dazzled.

‘So what’s your suggestion, Fred?’ Humfreeze asks with the air of a man who knows there is no other way.

‘Breathing meditation.’

‘Are you joking or what, Fred?’ Pancake bursts in. ‘OK. I got the séance point in the end. It was a crazy long shot but it worked. What’s meditation got to do with this? Or are you just pandering to Chris’ ego and giving him a key role in a different shape?’

‘You don’t remember what Pete said about his work on his operation, do you?’

‘Yes, I do. But he did quite a bit of breathwork and the only concrete thing he ever found out was about the operation, and that’s how we ended up getting in touch with Indie. Surely, if there was anyone else accessible to heavy breathing he’d’ve found out by now.’ Pancake is clearly getting really fed up of all this flaky New Age stuff.

Mires presses the point. ‘But even if he did a lot of breathwork, did he really do enough?’

‘Why wouldn’t he have done?’ Pancake isn’t going to give in without a fight.

Mires pauses and takes a deep breath. ‘You’ll need to give me some space to explain.’ He was well aware of Pancake’s talent for interrupting.

She nods. He picks up his thread.

‘From what I’ve read the traumas we’ve experienced are stored in a kind of hierarchy in our heads – the more recent, the more accessible. As you access the ones nearer the surface, so the ones lower down become easier to reach. Often working on a difficult one exhausts us and we stop, sometimes for a while, sometimes indefinitely.’

‘Is there a shred of real evidence for that?’ Pancake’s reservoir of patience is shallow at the best of times.

‘It depends upon what you call real evidence.’ Mires is biting his tongue with difficulty. ‘There’s qualitative support for it.’

‘You mean anecdotal evidence, don’t you, Fred?’

‘Not exactly. Groups of individual cases stack up to more than an anecdote. Can I carry on now?’

She nods.

‘I think we can all agree that the hospital trauma came after whatever led to the infant howling all the time. And you all realise, from listening in to Pete’s thoughts as he writes his diary, that he knows that the well of tears he tapped into when he first did the continuous conscious breathing has never gone away. What does that suggest, d’you think?’

There is a long silence.

‘Unfinished business,’ Indie suggests.

‘Exactly, Indie. Unfinished business.’

‘But what kind of unfinished business, for heaven’s sake?’ Pancake can’t stay quiet for long.

‘Well, I’m really sticking my neck out here, but Jung gave a lecture at the Tavistock Clinic in 1935, and spoke about a young girl whose condition had baffled him[1] until, as he put it, “I realised afterwards, she had never been born entirely.” We know that Pete’s mum was pregnant in wartime and that her daughter had died just before the start of the war. This was a seriously traumatic time. One shock was not really processed before a series of other shocks followed. Bombing raids were probably just a part of it. She gave birth before the war was over. What sort of start in life was that? What sort of birth process was it, do we think? A calm and reassuring separation from the womb or an alarming ejection into a frightening world?’

‘And how is all this going to help me write poetry?’ Wordless finds his voice at last. ‘It’s all up your street, Fred. I can see that plainly enough. Polysyllabic psychobabble! But some of us have got better fish to fry.’

Humfreeze just glares at him a moment before picking up the thread again. The meditation angle is enough to keep him on board.

‘Bill’s off message as usual, but I can see where you are coming from, Fred,’ He says almost sympathetically. ‘How does that help, though, even if it’s true? And what’s it got to do with breathing? I can see how the breathing would work in recovering memories of chloroform in a five year old, but I’m not sure about that with a new born baby.’

I am getting close to the main road at this point.

‘Can I stick my oar in quickly here for a sec?’

‘Of course,’ Fred replies.

‘Do you remember what that system of continuous conscious breathing was called?’ I ask.

Another silence. I break it this time.

‘Rebirthing.’

‘But the baby’s been born already and is buried now.’

‘Yes, but in a chamber of my heart. How like a womb might that feel. Perhaps I can leave you to ponder on that just now. I’ve got to pick up some shopping on my way home. I can’t deal with that and focus on this as well.’

This is met with a chorus of agreement.

(More of this next time)

Footnote:

[1] This is mentioned among other places in Samuel Beckett: the last modernist by Anthony Cronin (page 221) and Samuel Beckett: crossroads and borderlines by ‪Marius Buning, Matthijs Engelberts and Sjef Houppermans (page 129).

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I left the analysis of the source of evil actions with Haidt’s idea of the ‘hive switch,’ which took Zimbardo’s understanding a step further in terms of group influences.

Being part of a whole has dangers when it comes to the out-group, even when the groups have been randomly created by experimenters, such as was the case with Zimbardo, and also with others who introduced no power differential.

Labelling, Denigration, Dehumanising and Genocide

When in-groups and out-groups exist in the real world the price paid by the out-group can be even higher. For instance, certain kinds of language are particularly toxic. One example of this is the denigrating labels one group of people can use against another. Referring to others as ‘rats,’ ‘cockroaches’ or ‘a swarm’ are typical examples of this abuse. This denigrating terminology usually triggers the deep-seated disgust response in the group who uses it and places the people of whom the words are used in a non-human category: once this manoeuvre is performed the usual restraints of conscience that prevent one human being from degrading, raping, torturing or even murdering another human being are suspended and the newly classified non-human being can be maimed and slain with a clear conscience.

This point is succinctly made by Hauser in his book Moral Minds (page 199)[10]:

Disgust wins the award as the single most irresponsible emotion, a feeling that has led to extreme in-group/out-group divisions followed by inhumane treatment. Disgust’s trick is simple: Declare those you don’t like to be vermin or parasites, and it is easy to think of them as disgusting, deserving of exclusion, dismissal, and annihilation. All horrific cases of human abuse entail this kind of transformation . . . .

This same process can be seen in a slightly difference form as John Fitzgerald Medina explains in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology. He unpacks how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, and about how the Nazis derived part of their inspiration from this. The Nazis, as well as highly esteemed figures in American history, justified their self-serving actions by invoking the notion that Africans and Native Americans were inherently inferior, an ideology of racism that persists in America and to some extent in Europe to this day, potential seeds of future denigration and genocide if we do not find effective means of transforming our collective consciousness. The diverse reactions, some of them very negative, towards the current influx of refugees suggests we might still have a long way to go before we are cleansed of racism and would never again be tempted towards ethnic cleansing of some kind at some point if we thought it served our purposes effectively enough.

Ricard in his book on altruism also deals in some detail with how certain social and psychological factors can distance us from the humanity of others and lead to extremes of cruelty and mass killings (cf especially Chapter 30 – Dehumanising the Other) even though there is a deep-seated natural revulsion against killing our own kind (Chapter 29). While it is hard to predict in any given situation what proportion of a population will actively participate in a pogrom, if we can convince ourselves the other is not human our reluctance to kill can be overcome with horrific consequences. This remains true to this day and we would be wise not to forget it. A recent BBC radio programme featured a scholar who had investigated in depth the thinking of groups such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda. He pointed out that the division, made in the minds of followers of these two terrorist organisations, between believers and unbelievers (kafirs) was absolute. They are two separate kinds of being, and therefore only the believer is fully human and deserving of compassion.

Mohsin Hamid makes a telling point on this issue in a recent Guardian article. His focus is on how the idea of the purity of the in-group is used to justify discrimination and even atrocities against the out-group. He started with a discussion of Pakistan, which translated means ‘The Land of the Pure,’ but rapidly expanded the scope of his analysis:

Pakistan is not unique. Rather, it is at the forefront of a global trend. All around the world, governments and would-be governments appear overwhelmed by complexity [Could he mean perceived chaos?] and are blindly unleashing the power of fission, championing quests for the pure. In India a politics of Hindu purity is wrenching open deep and bloody fissures in a diverse society. In Myanmar a politics of Buddhist purity is massacring and expelling the Rohingya. In the United States a politics of white purity is marching in white hoods and red baseball caps, demonising Muslims and Hispanic people, killing and brutalising black people, jeering at intellectuals, and spitting in the face of climate science.

The Toxic Effects of Inequality

However, there are other setting conditions for this kind of behavior, which relate to other Teachings of the Faith in a way that illustrates the beautiful coherence and interdependence of the various aspects of the whole of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation. Take economic inequality. The Faith emphasises the importance of reducing such inequity, as well as eliminating prejudice of any kind, no matter what it’s origin. This would of course be important simply to alleviate the effects of the resulting extreme poverty on the disadvantaged such as greater health problems and a shorter life. However, inequality also has implications for the issue of denigrating language and persecution.

The matter is, in truth, quite complex. Chua pursues a possibility, which links a minority’s economic dominance with a savage backlash from the deprived majority. Of course Chua is not claiming that extremes of wealth justify the extermination of the wealthy by the impoverished, nor is she arguing that such extremes are the only motive for genocide. She is, though, saying that extreme inequality is an important but previously discounted factor that has to be added into the mix. Even the conferring of power to the previously disadvantaged does not dispel its toxic consequences.

The inequality obviously needs to be eliminated, while somehow ensuring that it is not by eliminating a group of people! This seems to be far easier said than done.

Wilkinson and Pickett (I came very close then to typing Wilson Picket – not a name that will mean much to the under fifties), in their analysis of inequality in The Spirit Level, cover a huge amount of ground in a thorough and well-balanced treatment of the topic.

To compact their case into the density of a singularity, they produce evidence to substantiate their claim that inequality underlies many of the problems in society that we insist on picking off one by one: these include violence and a widespread distrust that corrodes community life.

This is in their view largely because, the greater the degree of inequality, the more stressful life becomes for everyone, rich and poor alike. Increased stress brings numerous other problems in its wake, not least in terms of health. The tensions in the pecking order that inequality brings are at the heart of the social stresses involved, and social stresses, they argue, are the most damaging forms of stress both for individual health and social cohesion.

They look at a number of possible objections to their thesis and find good reasons, in their view, for dismissing them. For example, they find evidence to suggest that the direction of causation is from inequality to the problem, not from some other variable such as an English speaking culture. Portugal, a very different culture, is at the negative end of the problem spectrum along with the U.S. and the U.K. and shares inequality as the most plausible potential explanation. Scandinavian society along with Japan, also very different, is at the positive end of the problem spectrum and shares high levels of equality along with Norway, Sweden and the rest as the most plausible potential explanation.

Our Attitude to Death

There is another perspective to add into the mix here to give a more complete picture of my thinking so far. An extreme inability to come to terms with death – and its children, trauma, pain and suffering – creates what Solomon et al call ‘cracks in [our] shields’ (The Worm at the Core – page 185 passim). This in turn, as they unpack, brings all kinds of destruction in its wake.

They do seem to rubbish religion at times, which doesn’t appeal to me, but – and it’s an important ‘but’ – they accurately capture an essential problem. They may see faith as a false fix, as in a way everything is in their eyes, but they pin down exactly one thing that needs fixing, almost above all else perhaps, and demonstrate that how we choose to fix it can lead to dire or delightful consequences.

We have ‘clumsy modes of dealing with terror,’ they quote Yalom as stating (page 190). Unless we establish a firm enough foundation of meaning and a strong enough platform of self to stand upon, death, or rather our fear of death, will always unground us, pathologise our minds – narcissism, anxiety, depression, psychosis, OCD, anorexia (and maybe psychopathy; I’ll have to ponder more on that) are according to them at least partially rooted in a failure of meaning and selfhood in the face of death.

Solomon et al insist on saying ‘self-esteem’ albeit in a healthy rather than an unhealthy sense: I wish they didn’t.

I prefer selfhood. For now I’ll shorthand it by quoting a dictionary definition: ‘a complete sense of self.’ A complete sense of self, for me, has to go far beyond anything that makes me more important than anyone or anything else, as Robert Wright powerfully explains, and has to recognise how whatever I am is connected in some way to the universe as a whole and to all forms of life within it. When I damage you or them, I damage me.

They bring various kinds of evidence into the mix, usually studies showing, for example, that exposure to death stimuli results in higher levels of intolerance for those who are ‘different’ in some way, or in greater use of alcohol or tobacco.

In their summary of ‘psychological disorders as terror mismanagement’ (page 190) the kind of evidence Solomon et al adduce includes a significant link at times between death-anxiety and psychosis (page 191):

One study of 205 hospitalised schizophrenic man found that 80 patients were overtly preoccupied with death, and that death fears coincided with the onset of the schizophrenic symptoms or with times when the symptoms were magnified.

They argue that ‘[s]ubject to bouts of overwhelming terror, schizophrenics construct imaginary worlds – which are as real to them as this book is to you – to counteract the dread.’

In spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I have to admit they are making an important point.

They argue that all of us tend to create destructive solutions to the existential problem of death. This comes in two main forms: meaning systems/world views and self-esteem.

Let’s take world views as an example of their case (page 131):

It is deeply disturbing to have one’s fundamental beliefs called into question. Take our meanings and purposes away, characterise them as juvenile, useless, or evil, and all we have left are the vulnerable physical creatures that we are. Because cultural conceptions of reality keep a lid on mortal dread, acknowledging the legitimacy of beliefs contrary to our own unleashes the very terror those beliefs serve to quell. So we must parry the threat by derogating and dehumanising those with alternative views of life

The same kind of process applies if our self-esteem, as they term it, is threatened.

Because their book is focused on proving the nature of the problem they don’t say much about the solutions. They make a strong case that death denial is ultimately destructive leading to problems ranging from mindless consumerism through mental health problems to outright fanaticism. They spend less time contending that a constructive acceptance of death and its integration into a viable pattern of life bears the fruits of a common sense of humanity and a desire for positive purpose. Destructive terror-reducing purposes can be avoided. They share my liking for the existential therapy model, but don’t go far enough beyond that for me.

I think that just about covers the main influences on my thinking, apart from Bahá’í sources, which I will come back to later. Now to return to a consideration of Peterson’s perspective in the next post.

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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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For more information about the music and for the source of the picture of the sculpture see link.

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As a regular attender at our local Death Cafe in Hereford I found the following Guardian article an irresistible read. It puts my interest in the subject into an intriguing but not entirely flattering context. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link. Another article of similar interest – It was an incredibly enriching day – can be found at the following link.

Death is hot right now, and upbeat gatherings in cemeteries are just a small part of the trend. One of the chief desires of our time is to turn everything we touch into a reflection of who we are, how we live and how we want others to view us – and death is no exception. Once merely the inevitable, death has become a new bourgeois rite of passage that, much like weddings or births, must now be minutely planned and personalised. Not since the Victorian era’s fetishisation of death, with its all-black attire, elaborate mourning jewellery and seances, has death been so appealingly packaged. Every death must be in some way special and on-trend. Finally, the hipster can die as he lived. . .

For people . . .  more worried about the terrifying prospect of dying alone, there are now solutions (or at least partial ones). You can hire a death doula, a trained professional who will assist at the end of life in the same catch-all manner that birth doulas are there during labour. You can request a home funeral, in which your friends and family pay their respects to your corpse in the comfort of your living room, with every detail as carefully planned as a wedding. And before that day arrives, you can discuss the facts of death with like-minded souls at a Death Cafe, a meeting of the global movement started by Jon Underwood in 2011 (who died last summer of acute promyelocytic leukaemia) as a way for people to gather and reflect on mortality.

One of the people pioneering this new way of approaching death is Caitlin Doughty, a young, Los Angeles-based mortician who looks like a lost member of the Addams Family. She has written a bestselling memoir, hosts a YouTube series called Ask a Mortician and has founded a “death acceptance collective” called The Order of the Good Death, whose youthful members promote positive approaches to mortality.

“It’s OK to be openly interested in death practices,” Doughty told me while driving through LA one afternoon last autumn. “It makes you an engaged human who cares about all aspects of life. Ghettoising it as an interest particular to goths, weirdos or people obsessed with murder creates a dearth of honest conversation about death in the western world.”

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