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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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Grave & Courtyard v2

I went to the DeathCafe by car this time. A musician friend of mine had expressed an interest in attending, so he popped into our place for soup, then we drove together to the Courtyard. He seemed as fascinated by death as I am, a rare meeting of minds.

We dropped the car in a side road to save parking expenses. As we walked back to the venue we spotted another frequenter of the Death Cafe, someone previously connected with mental health as I was. We headed together straight for the bar to get our drinks, and amazingly there was yet another member of the group waiting at the bar for her giant sized mocha. As we chatted I noticed the facilitator from the local hospice passing behind us to check out the room. It was going to be another big meeting again.

The man in the hat turned up next. We exchanged greetings. We left him at the bar once we got our drinks and headed to the ground floor meeting room. It was the one we all liked best. It is easily accessible and you don’t get the full blast of the theatre performances coming through the wall.

As always it’s impossible to summarise all the topics we covered in two hours of energised discussion, spiced with humour and laced with sadness.

What I remember most, perhaps understandably, is that I was not the only one to be coming to terms with a body no longer responding energetically to the demands of the mind. There was at least one other person there with the same issue. We kicked that topic around for a while before the focus moved on to other things.

Inevitably, I suppose, we came back at one point to the big question: what happens when we die? Do we circle back through the loop of reincarnation, do we pass on to a journey through the next world, or do we simply black out.

In Gustave Doré’s illustrations for the fourth circle of Dante’s hell, the weights are huge money bags. (For source of image see link.)

Some weren’t sure but worked on a variation of Pascal’s wager. As Wikipedia explains: ‘Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).’ A strong prompt for a pause of thought, even if with me you don’t share a belief in the medieval concept of hell so grimly portrayed in Dante’s Inferno. Some in the group had decided that it was just a happier place to be, to assume that there was a life beyond death, even though they couldn’t prove it.

Others, including my friend and I, were pretty clear we believed there was something after death, and it was a source of comfort and even joy, one of us quoting the words of Bahá’u’lláh in support of this:

O SON OF THE SUPREME!
I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?

Yes, we would grieve at the loss of a relative or friend, because they were no longer with us, but this pain would be tempered by the knowledge (yes, we used that word) they were in a better place.

At least one person doubted there was anything beyond death while another, who had a strong sense at times of having been here before, has placed her money on coming back again and again.

I didn’t have the chance to share my own thoughts in detail on that one. Though the Bahá’í Faith teaches that we do not come back, there are examples not easily dismissed of evidence that points in the direction of some kind of knowledge of a previous life. I’ve dealt with most of that in detail in previous posts. One thing I’ve recently read in Fontana’s excellent book on the after life suggests that returning spirits say that some people ask to come back and some are sent back. Given the rigour with which he examines evidence, I feel I need to give this idea due weight. It needs an explanation of some kind. The evidence needs taking seriously: though we may explain it in different ways, it should not be ignored.

As part of that discussion, the problem with how to deal with the pain of grief came up. Many of us had noticed that some seem broken by grief and never really recover, while others pick themselves up and, when the intense pain of the first period of grief is over, begin to engage in activities that lead to a more positive life. The idea put forward by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) was briefly explored: there is pain, which is inescapable, and suffering, which is the avoidable layer that we add to pain by our own take on it.

I couldn’t resist plugging my own panacea for pain and other uncomfortable experiences: reflection. I won’t bang on about it here at any length as I’ve explored it over and over on this blog already, except to say that developing the ability to step back from the contents of our consciousness, whether that be intrusive and negative thoughts or strong feelings of pain, enables us to contain them, rather than repress them or be their victim. Containment allow us to explore them safely and decide how to deal with them constructively.

As we walked back to the car together my friend said, with no prompting from me,’That was great. I really enjoyed it.’

The next meeting of the Hereford Death Cafe is on Wednesday 18th October at 18.00. See you there maybe?

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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Beech hedge

As I noted briefly on this blog, I’ve been reading back through the notes I took from Peter Koestenbaum’s book The New Image of the Person. That reminded me of this poem which I couldn’t resist republishing.

Letter to a dear Friend in Winter

I wanted to see now
Without then between. How
Impossible! Yet hope haunts me.
The colours of regret stain you
And everything. O for the white
Light of outdoors,
Not church colours!
At times, pain forced me into flight
Towards desolate pleasures, through
Bars, packs of shuffling days: each lie
Weakened my hold on any vow.

Now I scribble a lot
Searching for what is not.
The sunrise of autumn hedgerows
Warned me about this mud and stone
Sky. Beech leaves cling like memories –
Dry, brittle, dust-
Coloured. I must
Make sense of what all sense denies.
Cells, nerves, too feeble on their own
To decipher what the snail shows,
Or the corpse whose wheels of mind rot.

Once I held a fledgeling
At point of death – I’d sing
Of death who’d never watched the last
Act’s surrender or victory –
A sigh was all betrayed the change –
No, not sigh – death –
But flight of breath –
Quiet sundering to unhinge
The gate of thought! When our mind’s eye
No longer detects in the vast
Dark the flame to which we cling

What has become of us?
Here is the syllabus.
Where is the teacher and the school?
At this question all our endeavour
Ends. Perhaps it’s better to ask:
‘What if the mind
Fails to find,
On the bleak shore where the dead bask,
The shelter it always yearns for,
Are we to suppose it a fool
As it scours the dark for warm places?’

I’ve no affinity
With God as Trinity
For sure, since my need for answers
Finds finespun theology wide
Of the mark. So, here I stand.
My evidence
Preserved silence
In the question of my still hand,
A small ball whose still feathers hid
Still warm flesh. Nothing reassures.
I felt the infinity

Between fledgling and meat
Silence my every thought . . . .
Until the habit of thinking
Resumed its race to run the truth
To ground. If this opportunity
Beneath the skies,
Though shared with flies
And blind with relativity,
Is not to be wasted like my youth,
From my heart’s earth love must spring
– God knows how I’ll choose to act.

Pete Hulme Text © 1982[1]


[1] This is a poem written in the year I became a Bahá’í and reflects the struggles I was having then which are explored from a different angle in Irreducible Mind (2/3).

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So, as I asked at the end of the previous post, what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

I need to repeat the caveats I voiced at the start of this sequence about their book, The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency, so that I do not come across as easily taken in. It is not easy to tread the razor’s edge between the default positions of intransigent incredulity and irremediable gullibility, but here goes.

Their book has echoes for me of Hillman’s The Soul’s Code in that it combines deep insights with what read like wild flights of fancy and carefully substantiated accounts of concrete experience with vague waves at unspecified bodies of invisible evidence. Even so, so much of it is clearly derived from careful observation and direct experience, and goes a long way towards defining what look convincingly like spiritual manifestations which are currently dismissed as mere madness. It seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

I am going to focus on what I feel are their strongest points: concrete experiences that illustrate their perspective and their brave and, in my opinion, largely successful attempts to make a clear distinction between mystic and merely disturbed experiences, not that the latter are to be dismissed as meaningless. It’s just that their meaning is to be found in life events not in the transcendent.

First I’ll deal with their account of one person’s spiritual crisis. In the last post I’ll be looking at their scheme of diagnostic distinction.

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘Glory Be to God’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

A Concrete Example

What follows is a highly condensed summary of one person’s story. A key point to hold in mind is one the Grofs made earlier in the book (page 71):

Often, individuals benefit from their encounter with the divine but have problems with the environment. In some instances, people talk to those close to them about a powerful mystical state. If their family, friends, or therapists do not understand the healing potential of these dimensions, they may not treat them as valid or may automatically become concerned about the sanity of the loved one or client. If the person who has had the experience is at all hesitant about its validity or concerned about his or her state of mind, the concern of others may exaggerate these doubts, compromising, clouding, or obscuring the richness of the original feelings and sensations.

Karen’s Story

They begin by providing some background (pages 191-92):

[S]he had a difficult childhood; her mother committed suicide when she was three, and she grew up with an alcoholic father and his second wife. Leaving home in her late teens, she lived through periods of depression and struggled periodically with compulsive eating.

Assuming that her subsequent experiences were what they seem to be, and I do, then it is clear that just because there is trauma in someone’s background does mean that the unusual experiences they report are entirely reducible to some form of post-traumatic stress response any more than they can be explained satisfactorily simply in terms of brain malfunction. Whatever is going on in the brain is just a correlate but not a cause, and previous trauma may have rendered any filter susceptible to leaks from a transcendent reality. I am restraining myself from leaping too soon to that last and much desired conclusion.

Interestingly, it’s possible that there was an organic trigger to her spiritual crisis (page 192):

. . . [F]ive days before her episode, Karen had begun taking medication for an intestinal parasite, stopping as the daily experience started. . . . . It is difficult to accurately assess its role in the onset of this event. . . . Whatever the source, her crisis contained all the elements of a true spiritual emergency. It lasted three-and-a-half weeks and completely interrupted her ordinary functioning, necessitating twenty-four-hour attention.

Her friends asked the Grofs to become involved in her care so they were able to observe the whole situation as it unfolded.

That Karen was able to avoid being admitted to psychiatric hospital was down to the support of a wide circle of friends. That this meant that she did not have to take any medication is important, according to the Grofs and other sources. Anti-pychotic medication has the effect of blocking the very processes that a successful integration of the challenging experiences requires. They describe the lay nature of her support (pages 192-93):

[B]ecause of Karen’s obvious need and the reluctance of those around her to involve her in traditional psychiatric approaches, her care was largely improvised. Most of the people who became involved were not primarily dedicated to working with spiritual emergencies.

What were her experiences like during this period of what they call ‘spiritual emergency’?

Their description covers several pages (page 194-196). This is a very brief selection of some of the main aspects. To Karen her vision seemed clearer. She also ‘heard women’s voices telling her that she was entering a benign and important experience. . . .’ Observers noted that ‘heat radiated throughout Karen’s body and it was noted that ‘she saw visions of fire and fields of red, at times feeling herself consumed by flames. . . .’

What is also particularly interesting is her re-experience of previous life crises: ‘[S]he struggled through the physical and emotional pain of her own biological birth and repeatedly relived the delivery of her daughter,’ as well as confronting ‘death many times and in many forms, and her preoccupation with dying caused her sitters to become concerned about the possibility of a suicide attempt.’ She was too well protected for that to be a serious risk.

In the last post I will be linking a therapeutic technique the Grofs advocate, Holotropic Breathwork, with some of my own experiences. This makes their description of how this technique can uncover repressed memories of traumatic experiences all the more credible to me. More of that later. That Karen should have been triggered into such regressions is not therefore surprising to me.

By way of supporting her through this, ‘telling her that it was possible to experience death symbolically without actually dying physically, her sitters asked her to keep her eyes closed and encouraged her to fully experience the sequences of dying inwardly and to express the difficult emotions involved.’ It is significant for their model that encouragement and support in facing what we might otherwise be tempted to flee from helps. ‘She complied, and in a short time she moved past the intense confrontation with death to other experiences. . . .’

Given my interest in the relationship between apparently disturbed mental states and creativity, it was noteworthy that ‘[f]or several days, Karen tapped directly into a powerful stream of creativity, expressing many of her experiences in the form of songs. It was amazing to witness: after an inner theme would surface into awareness, she would either make up a song about it or recall one from memory, lustily singing herself through that phase of her process.’

They describe her during this period as ‘extremely psychic, highly sensitive, and acutely attuned to the world around her.’ For example she was ‘able to “see through” everyone around her, often anticipating their comments and actions.’

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘The Glory of the Lord’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

 

Things began to take a more positive turn (page 196):

After about two weeks, some of the difficult, painful states started to subside and Karen receive increasingly benevolent, light-filled experiences and felt more and more connected with a divine source.

Perhaps I need to clarify that I am not attempting to adduce this as evidence of the reality of the spiritual world. People like David Fontana and Leslie Kean have collated such evidence far better than I ever could, and sorted out the wheat from the chaff with honesty and discernment.

What I am hoping to do is use this as a demonstration that sometimes at least what could be written off as meaningless and irrational brain noise might not only be significantly related to early experiences in life, as the trauma work suggests, but also to a spiritual dimension whose reality our culture usually denies with the result that the experiences are pathologised. The outcome in this case strongly suggests that pathologising them needlessly prolongs them and blocks life-enhancing changes that would otherwise have resulted.

They go onto describe the end of the episode and its aftermath (ibid.):

. . . . As Karen began to come through her experience, she became less and less absorbed by her in the world and more interested in her daughter and the other people around her. She began to eat and sleep more regularly and was increasingly able to care for some of her daily needs. . . .

Rather as was the case with Fontana and his poltergeist investigation, as the vividness of the experiences receded, doubts beganset in (ibid.:)

As she became increasingly in touch with ordinary reality, Karen’s mind started to analyse her experiences, and she began to feel for the first time that she had been involved in a negative process. The only logical way of explaining these events to herself was that something had gone wrong, that perhaps she had truly lost her mind. Self-doubt is a common stage in spiritual emergencies, appearing when people begin to surface from the dramatic manifestations . . .

She was not blind to the positives in the end (page 197):

Two years later, when we discussed her experience with her, Karen said that she has mixed feelings about the episode. She is able to appreciate many aspects of what happened to her. She says that she has learnt a great deal of value about herself and her capacities, feeling that through her crisis she gained wisdom that she can tap any time. Karen has visited realms within herself that she previously had no idea were there, has felt enormous creativity flow through her, and has survived the previously frightening experiences of birth, death, and madness. Her depressions have disappeared, as well as her tendency toward compulsive overeating.

But her doubts persisted, and may have been to some extent fuelled by her family and friends’ reactions and the lack of informed support (page 198):

On the other hand, Karen also has some criticisms. Even though she could not have resisted the powerful states during her episode, she feels that she was unprepared for the hard, painful work involved. In spite of the fact that she received a great deal of assistance during the three weeks, she feels that she was not yet ready to venture forth into the daily world when she was required to do so by the exhaustion of the resources of those around her. Since that time, she has lacked contact with people with whom to further process her experiences. She considers herself somewhat “different” for having had the episode (an opinion also indirectly expressed by her family and some of her friends) and has tended to downgrade it by concentrating on its negative effects.

The support had to be reduced after the three-week peak period because the support network was burning out. The Grofs felt (ibid.:)

Many of these problems could have been avoided if Karen had had consistent and knowledgeable support immediately following her crisis, perhaps in a halfway house, and follow-up help – in the form of ongoing therapy, support groups, and spiritual practice – for a more extended period of time.

It is dangerous to extrapolate too wildly but I feel that in Karen’s story there are real grounds for hope. She recovered from an apparently devastating episode of mental disturbance without drugs. She demonstrated modest but lasting mental health gains in terms of no subsequent depression or compulsive eating. There is every reason to suppose given this experience and the evidence of Dr Sami Timimi’s study, adduced by James Davies in Cracked and described in the previous post, that an outcome like this could apply far more widely across the so-called psychotic spectrum. Yes, the intervention was time intensive, but it was brief and successful. This compares with long-term interventions involving medication resulting in symptoms that continue to simmer for years or even decades, blighting the whole life of the sufferer and the lives of close family.

The Grofs then explore models of help and aftercare, which I won’t go into now as the main focus I want to take is on their ideas of how to distinguish a spiritual emergency such as Karen’s from other forms of disturbance. This is clearly an important distinction to be able to make as the approaches taken when dealing with trauma-related disturbances and spiritual crises will be somewhat different, though Karen’s case implies there might well be an overlap.

However, all the evidence that has accumulated since they wrote suggests that all such so-called psychotic episodes are better dealt with in a non-diagnostic way, which is an issue that the Grofs do not fully address, probably because at the time of their writing placing spiritual emergency on the agenda seemed a more urgent issue, given that it was and still is doubly disparaged.

Now for the difficult distinction in the next post, along with a brief description of their recommended intervention.

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Grave & Courtyard v2

Last week, I walked through soft rain at a brisk pace to get to the venue on time. I was sweating slightly as I walked to the counter to get my coffee. That’s the trouble with waterproof coats. They trap the heat as well as keeping out the rain.

As I ordered my coffee the Death Cafe facilitator indicated we’d switched rooms, but at least we had a room this week. We went upstairs together to a room tucked away in the far back corner. Apparently we’d been asked to keep our voices down a bit so the audience in the next door studio cinema weren’t disturbed in their enjoyment by any thoughts of death.

She went downstairs to direct people to the room. I stayed and sipped my coffee enjoying the silence and the opportunity to cool off a bit.

By five-past-six the room was still empty. Then, to my relief the Buddhist lady came in. By ten past no one else had arrived except the facilitator. In fact, it wasn’t until 6.30 that the fourth person arrived fresh from her yoga class.

Even so, what we lacked in numbers was made up for in intensity, depth and excitement. It was another great two hours of exploration of death-related issues from almost every possible angle. We had a Buddhist, a Bahá’í, a humanist (well, at least, that’s my label for her) and someone still searching, someone ‘on a quest’ as we put it later.

We roamed across such themes as our interconnectedness, the Buddhist and Bahá’í seeing this as something spiritual. The humanist agreed with the basic idea but not its spiritual dimension while the searcher was not completely sure.

The thorny issue of science and religion came up, and science’s dismissal of any idea of an afterlife. We pulled in references to Ken Wilber and his book  The Marriage of Sense & Soul. I’ve dealt with his powerful arguments elsewhere so I won’t dwell on him too long. For example he forcefully argues, science has invaded spirituality and the arts (page 56):

. . .[T]he I and the WE were colonised by the IT. ..  . . . Full and flush with stunning victories, empirical science became scientism,  the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers. . . . Consciousness itself, and the mind and heart and soul of humankind, could not be seen with a microscope, a telescope, a cloud chamber, a photographic plate, and so all were pronounced epiphenomenal at best, illusory at worst. . . . . Art and morals and contemplation and spirit were all demolished by the scientific bull in the china shop of consciousness. And that was the disaster of modernity. . . . it was a thoroughly flatland holism. It was not a holism that actually included all the interior realms of the I and the WE (including the eye of contemplation). . . . [I] as the reduction of all of the value spheres to monological Its perceived by the eye of the flesh that, more than anything else, constituted the disaster of modernity.

Margaret Donaldson also came into the mix with her brilliant book, Human Minds: an exploration, which addresses a closely related question (page 264 – my emphasis):

The very possibility of emotional development that is genuinely on a par with – as high as, level with – the development of reason is only seldom entertained. So long as this possibility is neglected, then if reason by itself is sensed as inadequate where else can one go but back? Thus there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous; but it has the advantage that it is altogether easier than trying to move forward into something genuinely new.

Now we have clearly seen that the cultivation of the advanced value-sensing mode [e.g. in meditation] is not of itself new. It has ancient roots. What would be new would be a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together. Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?

And that’s just a small sample of the invigorating ground we covered.

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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