Posts Tagged ‘death’

Given the recent post taking another look at psychosis and trauma, it seemed worthwhile republishing this sequence.

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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Given my recent sequence redressing the balance of my Leaps of Faith sequence ended with a mystical theme, it seemed appropriate to republish some poems with a similar focus.

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I didn’t think I would ever have cause to republish something as rapidly as I am doing with this one in the light of recent events. This problem simply will not go away anytime soon, it seems. 

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 its 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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Limitless Willpower

This is mainly of interest to me because of my previous exploration of Baumeister’s model. I republished a post recently containing a partial explanation of his perspective.

As he and Tierney have analysed in detail, our ability to restrain ourselves can tire just like a muscle, and our grip on our instincts is loosened. They wrote in February 2012’s edition of The Psychologist:

. . . . self-control is like a muscle that gets tired. People may start the day fresh and rested, but as they exert self-control over the course of the day, their powers may diminish. Many researchers have observed that self-control tends to break down late in the day, especially if it has been a demanding or stressful day. . . .

A series of experiments confirmed that willpower is tied to glucose (Gailliot et al., 2007). After people exert self-control, even on artificial lab tasks, their blood glucose levels drop. Low levels of blood glucose predict poor performance on tests of self- control.

However, as the brain learns with practice to use the higher centres to hold back our instinctive reactions, we can get better at it, self-restraint develops more stamina, can hold on longer, and our fangs and claws may therefore more rarely rip into impetuous action.

Robson recapitulates the main point[1] explaining that, based on his findings, ‘Baumeister saw our willpower as a mental muscle that tires with time’ and that there is[2] ‘an apparent correlation between people’s glucose levels in the effects of ego depletion.’ He repeats the idea that ‘self-control and mental focus can become stronger with practice, like a muscle.’

He is able to take it a bit further, though, and question whether this is the complete picture:[3]

Somehow, the brain was learning how to expand its reserves and cope with depletion.

. . . Yet some recent studies have questioned where their ego depletion is really as inevitable as we once thought. Baumeister’s theory, it seems, was missing something essential: the power of belief to control the brains resources.

He quotes the surprising finding[4] that ‘simply being told that we may find an exercise to be energising, rather than fatiguing, can reduce the sense of depletion, so that participants are more persistent and focused…’ In fact[5] the results seem to show that the consequences of ego depletion are real – but only if you believe in it.’

Even more surprisingly:[6] ‘those who had been exposed to the idea that concentration can build with effort . . . actually performed better if they had taken the so-called depleting task then if they hadn’t exerted themselves’ before they went on to do a particularly demanding one. What’s more ‘these findings have since been replicated many times – with evidence of significant long-term effects.’

Moreover,[7] ‘people with the non-limited view of their willpower were more diligent in acts of self-care.’

Robson attempt to close in on a final explanation of why will power might grow with practice:[8]

If you see your resources as limited… the brain [reduces) its energy usage, a physiological consequence of your expectations… If you think you have unlimited resources, however, the internal accountant is much less of a miser, and it releases whatever supplies you need, since it no longer fears running out.

If true, this might explain why willpower grows with practice…

Also[9] ‘[o]ne study . . . found that . . . the belief in a helping hand from some supernatural power can replenish your reserves,’ as can superstitions and rituals[10] ‘even if people are fully aware that there is no rational reason why they should work.’

This idea echoes the evidence that a placebo can work even if the recipient knows that it is not really an active chemical they are imbibing. Mind has more power over matter than we generally believe.

Now for the last idea to explore.

The Super-Agers

As I grew up I began to pay particular attention to an interesting contrast within my family, particularly on my mother’s side.

There was my uncle Harold, the eldest child of his birth family, for example.

When he was fourteen years old and not very long after my mother was born, his father, Richard, had an accident which sprained his ankle. Nobody thought that was much of a problem at first and he carried on working as best he could. It didn’t get any better. His doctor said it was nothing serious but he ought to rest it for a while, which he did. Even when he rested it still got worse. The pain got so bad that he could not bear the leg to be touched.

Eventually Richard went to another doctor who explained that the situation was serious. The sprain had turned gangrenous and an amputation was necessary. They cut off his leg to save his life.

I am not sure whether he was able to return to work after that. In any case, the final and most disastrous blow soon after was when he fell on the ice of a children’s slide in winter and damaged his hip. After that he could not walk at all easily or well and therefore definitely could not work. There was no longer a wage coming in.

Harold had to leave school and give up his piano classes, at which he was doing very well, and go to work to earn some money to help the family who were now struggling very hard. Their savings were too little to manage on. They had had to pay so much to the doctors (there was no Health Service or Social Security in those days). My Aunt Ann, the second eldest in the family, also had to go to work. My mother would have been about three. Aunt Ann wondered whether the anxiety of this period had affected my mother and contributed to her constant worry, shyness and timidity.

When I came into the world, my mother was still haunted by grief for her daughter, Mary, who had died four years earlier, in 1939, seven months before the start of the war. She had always, I think, been a very dependent person but this trauma made her dependency upon my father and upon my brother and me more intense than it otherwise would have been, I think. She rarely went out of the house alone, and hardly at all after my father died.

My uncle Harold could not have been more different. After his wife died quite early in his marriage, he regularly took the bus out of Stockport into the hills nearby and walked for miles well into his old age. He also developed as a pub pianist, which might have compensated to some small degree for the prospect of a career as a concert pianist having been snatched away from him at 14.

When he was in his eighties the story goes that he had tried to carry two one-hundredweight sacks of coal, one under each arm, back to his house one winter. He succeeded, only to find his legs swelling up soon afterwards. He was diagnosed as having a heart condition, and died not long after.

Aunt Ann’s reaction to her husband, my Uncle Joe’s death was illuminating in its stark contrast to my mother’s. She mourned for a year or so then travelled widely and took an active interest in the life around her. She sometimes responded to the suction of my mother’s incompleteness by rushing down to our house in an unsustainable rescue attempt, which suggested that she may have played that role to some degree in their original family scenario. Basically, though, she accepted that she still had a meaningful life to lead and got on with it with admirable courage and creativity. She lived well into her nineties, though affected at the very end by arteriosclerotic dementia. My mother died at 71 after 10 years of remaining in grief, rarely leaving the house and seemingly just waiting to die. She moved in with my brother in her final days but by then it was too late to change.

All three shared a similar genetic makeup and had experienced the same family trauma though at different points in their development. They had all lived through the First World War – Uncle Joe had been shot in the arm and never recovered full use of his hand, but Uncle Harold and my father emerged more or less physically unscathed. They all endured the Great Depression of 1929-1932, and the Second World War, during which my father served in the Civil Defence.

I’m pretty sure that Robson provides at least a partial explanation of this huge difference in life expectancy despite the relative similarity of their backgrounds. He explains that[11] ‘[t]hrough multiple pathways, your expectations set the speed of your cells’ biological clocks, determining everything from trivial aches and pains to your risk of heart disease, dementia and death.’

Becca Levy’s study followed this up[12] with 1,100 participants, who had turned 50 by 1 July 1975, using an attitudes to ageing questionnaire.

Based on their scores,[13] the participants were divided into two groups: ‘those with a positive perception of their own ageing, and those with a negative perception of ageing’, and she ‘examined the risk of mortality in each case.’

She found:

. . . the average person with a more positive attitude to ageing lived on for 22.6 years after the study commenced, while the average person with poorer perceptions of ageing survived for just 15 years – a difference of around 7.5 years.

Levy attributed it to the societally sanctioned denigration of the aged.

Robson emphasises a key point here:[14]

So much has been said about purely biological risk factors that can accelerate the progression of disease as we get older. Yet, according to this research, our own thoughts are equally, if not more, potent. High blood cholesterol levels, for example are thought to reduce the average life expectancy by up to four years – much less then the seven-and-a-half year reduction caused by taking a dim view of our future health.

There seem to be three pathways to elevated decline, according to Levy’s stereotype embodiment theory. The psychological path[15] involves older people losing confidence in their mental abilities. The second path relates to behavioural and motivational factors[16] that lead, for example, to walking more slowly if you are expecting a ‘steep decline.’ Then last of all there is ‘the psychosomatic route to becoming the stereotype we fear.’

Our expectations of frailty can amplify the body’s aches and pains, or increase feelings like nausea and dizziness – a nocebo response that could contribute do the general perception of ‘feeling unwell’ that many old people report.

Also stress plays its part:[17]

. . . if you consider yourself to be weaker, dimmer and more vulnerable, as a result of your age, you would be more likely to see a difficulty as a negative threat rather than a positive challenge – resulting in the more damaging stress responses that could wreak havoc on the body over time.

This theory would predict[18] that ‘people with negative expectations  of ageing should have shorter telomeres – and they do . . . People with more positive attitudes have a slower epigenetic clock.’

Subliminal priming with words such as ‘wise’, ‘spry’ and ‘creative’ can help:[19]

Amazingly, [the] benefits – gained from implicit messaging – even surpassed the results of a physical exercise regimen that encouraged gentle activity three times a week for six months.

And lastly we find the elephant in the room bluntly stated:[20]

It is a sad irony that our medical care has been able to increase life expectancy . . . and yet – due to other social changes – we have come to view those resilient long-livers as a nuisance rather than people to be cherished and respected.

. . . as a society we need to go much further and tackle ageism just as we do racism, homophobia and other kinds of prejudice.

So, all in all, reading this book was a fruitful exploration of another area of research which goes a long way to confirm what I suspect we all know deep down, that our minds play a major role in determining the quality of our lives, perhaps most especially our physical health. I gave it five stars out of five once I reached the end.

I’m just playing my bit part as usual in trying to get this message out to a wider and hopefully wiser audience!


[1]. The Expectation Effect – page 164.
[2]. Op. cit. – page 165.
[3]. Op. cit. – page 166.
[4]. Op. cit. – pages 166-67.
[5]. Op. cit. – page 168.
[6]. Op. cit. – page 169.
[7]. Op. cit. – page 170.
[8]. Op. cit. – page 171.
[9]. Op. cit. – page 177.
[10]. Op. cit. – page 178.
[11]. Op. cit. – page 205.
[12]. Op. cit. – page 207.
[13]. Op. cit. – page 208.
[14]. Op. cit. – page 210.
[15]. Op. cit. – page 212.
[16]. Op. cit. – page 213.
[17]. Op. cit. – page 214.
[18]. Op. cit. – page 215.
[19]. Op. cit. – page 220.
[20]. Op. cit. – page 223.

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Given that my post next Monday plans to deal with the ageing process and expectation, it seems worth republishing some poems over the next few days that touch on that theme. 

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The first of two posts on the subject of sub-personalities was published last Monday, so it seems worth continuing to republish more of the Parliament of Selves sequence.

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.


‘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.


[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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