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Posts Tagged ‘drowning’

Reflection is the key to containment, which is in turn a key to transcending the crocodile within. I have already started to republish a sequence of posts that goes far more deeply into this from a clinical point of view to supplement what will be a short-hand version here for practical use.

There are two other factors closely related to Reflection that need to be added into the mix. They are so close I am treating them as basically one integrated capacity, so they are only one R in the diagram above. These are Relatedness and Relativity(see the parallel sequence of posts on mind-work for more detail).

Reflection, as you will be aware is also a core quality of the Bahá’í spiritual process closely linked to detachment, and has been discussed at length in other posts on this site, as has consultation which can be fairly described as a process of group reflection, which only gets a brief mention in this post.

Reflection, relativity and relatedness as discussed here are the antidotes to the three forces of suppression I outlined in the previous post – drowning, dogmatism and disowning, which are common when we function in survival mode. Together they also help create the antidote to acting out, or disinhibition, the unhelpful opposite of suppression.

Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity are the core of what I have called elsewhere the mind-work process, the means by which we achieve creative control of our own inner processes.

I’ve outlined a typical trigger situation on this blog before.

Jack was really cheesed off. He was sitting in his favourite cafe, with a gleaming cafetière of his much-loved Ethiopian coffee nestling up against a tempting piece of Courgette cake, with his mood completely spoiled by the problem on his mind. It was his damn brother again. Why did Sam think he had a right to get bailed out of his self-inflicted difficulties simply for the asking?

He could hear the email that he had printed out rustling in his pocket as he leant forward to press down the plunger on the cafetière. If only he hadn’t read it yet. Still, he was always hopeful that a good coffee would improve his mood. He watched the stream of steaming coffee mingle with the milk in the white cup.

The first sip helped, though the second pouring would be better now the cup was warm.

His gut reaction to Sam’s request for help troubled him. His brother knew he didn’t drink. He tried to remember the last time he had tasted alcohol. He thought it was the half pint of bitter after his last game of squash. Somehow once he had started meditating, alcohol lost its appeal completely. It mucked your head up anyway so you couldn’t meditate properly, and in any case booze had stopped tasting as good.

But even after all the meditation he had done, he was sitting in the cafe feeling stressed.

Sam had asked for a ‘loan.‘ His tobacconist shop was losing money. He ‘just’ needed £20,000 to tide him over while he closed the tobacconist’s down and opened an off-licence in the next street.

They’re not easy to deal with, especially when those triggering our reactions are familyor close friends, as is almost bound to happen sometimes.

Reflection

Let’s take reflection first.

Reflection is the capacity to separate consciousness from its contents (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. We become capable of changing our relationship with them and altering their meanings for us. Just as a mirror is not what it reflects we are not what we think, feel and plan but the capacity to do all those things. Knowing this and being able to act on it frees us up: we are no longer prisoners of our reactions, assumptions, models and maps. We are no longer chained to our crocodile.

It would help Jack to calm down, enjoy his coffee and cake and at the same time look at his feelings from the outside rather than from underneath.

The principal focus of reflection in mind-work is often upon our models of reality and upon the experiences which give rise to them and to which they give rise in return. The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict, reduces our levels of anxiety and irritation, and opens us up to new experiences: the adaptation and change that this makes possible enhances the potential usefulness of our models and their connected experiences. It is the antithesis of drowning, where we are engulfed in our experiences and sink beneath them, and of acting out where we unleash our feelings only to regret the unconsidered consequences. It facilitated by processes such as those described in Psychosynthesis (see the exercise below which is adapted from their Disidentification Exercise) and by the practice of Mindfulness.

 

Our personal history comes into the mix as well, as Jack’s experience illustrates:

It had been four years since he had heard anything at all from Sam, and, now he had heard, it was because Sam wanted something. And something his younger brother should have known Jack wouldn’t want to give. He skipped to the end of the explanation.

‘Hope you feel able to lob me the £20,000. I’ll pay you back, you know that. It’s not like when you paid my fees at uni. I knew that was given to me ‘cos you knew how important my education was.’

‘Like hell it was a gift,’ Jack spluttered in his head. ‘I told you right from the start I wanted it back.’ He was aware he was grimacing to himself and tried to compose his face. The woman at the next table was giving him a strange look. He made himself calm down by counting ten breaths very slowly.

It would have been tolerable if Sam had made good use of his time at university. Their parents were both dead by then, and had never been rich enough to leave them anything in any case. They’d had to fend for themselves. Jack felt he had always taken that challenge more seriously than Sam. Instead of studying hard, Sam had spent more time in the pub than in the library and just scraped a third in modern languages. To add insult to injury he then got a job in a pub kitchen and trained to be a chef.

With reflection we can gain critical distance from an imprisoning assumption, which underpins many of our model and the conclusions we have come to in the light of experience, and traps us to the crocodile: we no longer believe that brain noise is real, that a particular emotion or set of emotions defines us.

There is an insidious trap here that holds many of us captive. It’s the fear of being a hypocrite. If I am angry with you, surely it would be more honest to tell you so in no uncertain terms rather than go mealy-mouthed?

This hinges on what aspect of our being we feel we should be true to.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapyhas a useful insight here (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – pages 218-19):

Marrying because of love is considered quite reasonable in our culture, and love is dominantly thought to be a feeling, not a kind of choice. The feelings of love are extremely unpredictable. We speak of love as if it were an accident; we say that we fall into and fall out of this emotional state, for example. It should not then be a surprise when we fall into and fall out of marriages in much the same way. . . . Consider how much easier it is to keep a marriage vow if marriage is based on a choice to marry and love is considered to be a choice to value the other and hold the other as special.

They illustrate their point with a telling example:

Suppose, for example, that a man marries a woman ‘because she is beautiful.’ If his spouse then has a horribly disfiguring accident, that implies that the reason for marriage has left. Even if the man does not want to react that way, he may have a hard time dealing with what his logical mind feeds him, inasmuch as the original action was based on, linked to, explained by, and justified by this reason and the reason has now changed. This kind of thing happens all the time when people marry and later find that they no longer have the same feelings of love towards their spouses.

Marriage is a commitment and a choice, they argue, rather in the same way as Scott Peck, in A Road Less Travelled (page 119) contended that ‘Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional. The person who truly loves does so because of a decision to love. This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is present.’

It seems there are other parts of the self that do not reduce simply to the ego and its crocodile and honouring them at the expense of our feelings may be necessary. These include commitment and values (more of that in the final post).

So, are you a hypocrite for sticking with a relationship when the feeling we call ‘love’ has gone?

An easier example for us all to agree with, I suspect, relates to fear. Just because we are afraid of crowds, should we never go out? It should be obvious to everyone that making ourselves go out is not hypocrisy but courage. We are enacting a value that will enable us to grow stronger. With containment we don’t have to pretend we are not afraid, either. We can feel fear and still go out, and become less afraid as a result

Sadness may be less clear cut. There are times when we need to allow ourselves to feel sad, and respect that feeling by being alone or just seeing family and close friends. But to allow our sadness to take over our lives so we never socialise again would be clearly unwise. This is a other situation where we have to have the courage to rise above our pain and go out into the world again and rebuild our lives.

In my view the same is true of anger. I agree we should not pretend to ourselves we are not angry, but we do not have to express it automatically. We need to check out the reason for our anger. For example, if we are feeling furious with John because of what Fred did to us earlier, or because we are stressed by our work, or impatient with lack of sleep, how would we be honest to attack him? Our feeling is not his fault. We would be acting out the proverb and kicking the cat instead of dealing with our real problem.

Reflection and the consequent containment gives us the chance to unpack the feeling more clearly and decide what would be the best thing to do – get more sleep, sort out the work problem or focus on what to do about Fred?

And even in the case of Fred, it may not be all that clear what we should do. Perhaps Fred is under pressure himself and lost control for a moment over his tongue or his actions, letting his crocodile loose. Perhaps he needs understanding more than confrontation right now.

Sometimes, as well, we get angry with people who do something that reminds us of what we hate about ourselves.

‘Why is he always repeating himself?’ we think. ‘It really gets on my nerves.’ And yet if we gave ourselves time to think about it or checked this out with others, we might discover this is something we do a lot as well and secretly wish we didn’t.

If we tell Fred of why we’re angry, and he says, ‘But you do that all that time’, if we have not reflected in this way he will simply make us more furious, and expressing our anger ‘honestly’ will have achieved nothing positive and done more damage, while underneath it all is an invisible and unacknowledged hypocrisy of our own.

Or it might be that what Fred did reminds us of how our father or our brother used to hurt us in the past.

In either case, if we can raise our concern calmly and dispassionately (easier said than done, mind you) we could learn more and maybe change for the better as a result.

This involves shifting from blaming him, such as when we say ‘Why can’t you remember what you’ve said for once? You really irritate me!’ to taking responsibility for the feeling we have by saying, ‘I hope you don’t mind my letting you know this, but when I experience you as repeating something that you have already said, I get very irritated.’

This leaves the door open for investigating together exactly what’s going on. Does he really repeat himself a lot, or is that just our impression? Even if he does repeat himself, is my reaction to it out of proportion because of some past experiences of my own? And last of all, do I do the same thing without realising it, and am I attacking him for something I don’t like about myself?

Relativity

In combination with its sister quality, relativity, reflection becomes a powerful tool indeed. The antidote to chronic dogmatism is relativity. Being dogmatic seals us off from new evidence which makes it hard to change our minds even when we are wrong.

It is not surprising that Reflection and Relativity are interconnected. By placing our models and assumptions mentally in brackets or inverted commas, which is a necessary first step towards reflecting upon them, we inevitably acknowledge, at least implicitly, that we have no monopoly on the truth, that we understand and experience the world at best imperfectly from a particular viewpoint or perspective which is only relatively true. This is not the same as saying there is no truth out there and any viewpoint is as good as any other. We refine the usefulness and accuracy of our simulations of reality partly at least through a process of comparing notes with others in consultation.

There are, of course, not just inner obstacles to relativity: there are cultural ones also. I have explored these at more length on this blog, so I will only deal with them briefly here, as the present focus is on what we can do as individuals to learn to contain our inner crocodile more effectively.

When there is a prevailing, narrow and passionate ideology at work, the crocodile is unleashed as soon as someone behaves in a way that transgresses a treasured boundary and places them in forbidden territory. We rescind their shared humanity and thus deprive them of their right to protection. This legitimises the anger and disgust of the crocodile inside and it therefore need no longer be contained. In fact, we may well feel it should not be contain. Acting out our basest instincts becomes a virtue.

Relatedness

We also need to know what Relatedness is. Relatedness, in this context, is the capacity to consciously acknowledge and relate to what we are experiencing. It is the antidote to disowning. It makes us sufficiently accessible to relationships with people and things to learn to accommodate to as well as assimilate experiences, to make appropriate adjustments to our selves or to our circumstances. If we disown parts of experience we become a prey to it. Anything we disown controls us while eluding our influence to change it in any way. What we are open to we can affect even though it may also affect us directly in its turn.

All these capacities combine to help us to contain what might otherwise be too scary and/or disturbing to contemplate. What we cannot contain, we find it almost impossible to reflect on and process. Containment therefore plays a central role in handling difficult emotions and loosens the grip of the crocodile’s jaws.

As previously explained, in our culture we are all too prone to either repression (convincing ourselves we’re not experiencing something when we are), drowning (being swamped by a tsunami of emotion) or acting out (expressing whatever we are currently experiencing and ignoring the consequences until it is too late). Containment is a more creative way to respond, a key to change and also a way beyond dogmatism.

An inability to contain experiences of a disturbing nature accounts for much substance abuse, self-harm and dependency on mind-altering subscription drugs. It’s also fair to add that containment is often not possible to sustain outside a set of supportive relationships. It can feel too scary, too risky. If we cannot trust anyone, and perhaps least of all ourselves, we cannot contain what frightens us or threatens to overwhelm us. So perhaps without trust there is too little containment.

It’s perhaps also important to add here that reflection, with its related skills of openness and relativity, constitutes a form of detachment. Detachment is what can open the door to a higher Self, which I will begin to explore next time.

If we accept that Reflectionsubsumes two other ‘R’s as well, what are the remaining three Rs in the diagram.

Relating

One is derived from relatedness and our consequent capacity to open up to others and consult with our fellow human beings in a spirit of collaboration. Relating, as I term it, is to do with our sense of connectedness to the world of people, creatures and nature by which we are surrounded and within which we are embedded. Increasing this sense of our interconnectedness also enhances a sense of proportion and creates a feeling of security which helps us keep the danger detecting, touchy and aggressive crocodile in check.

It is also essential to our becoming capable of transcending not just the crocodile within but the conflicts and tension between us as people and between us and natural world around us.

Irreducible Mind summarises the position of two early investigators of the truth of this, FWH Myers and William James (page 562):

For Myers and James . . . we are open, in some way profoundly interconnected with each other and with the entire universe, and what we consciously experience is somehow selected by our brains from a much larger field of conscious activities originating at least in part beyond the margins of everyday consciousness, and perhaps even beyond the brain itself.

Though in reality we may be connected to everything, our usual experience of connectedness is far more selective, and this can be a major problem when a fanatical over-identification with a group or an idea comes into play.

Robert Wright sees this in evolutionary terms. In his book The Evolution of God, he discusses how the expansion of the moral imagination (page 428) can ‘bring us closer to moral truth.’

His line of argument will not appeal to everyone: it’s probably too materialistic for many religious people and too sympathetic to religion for many materialists. He states:

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (pages 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

The central body of the Bahá’í Faith, the Universal House of Justice, captures what should be our goal in the following word (From the 24 May 2001 message from the Universal House of Justice to the Believers Gathered for the Events Marking the Completion of the Projects on Mount Carmel – my emphasis):

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

This is the challenge facing us in the world today, and developing the ability to contain our crocodile reactions and connect more constructively with life around us offers us all the beginnings of a path towards a better world.

The Other Rs

Then there is the last ‘R’ of the Rts and crafts. The mnemonic here is a feeble joke but covers a lot of ground, from gardening to listening to or composing symphonies. All such activities enhance our capacity to reflect and ground us more deeply in a creative and compassionate sense of reality.

To help us remember it, containment can be rephrased as restraint, not exactly the same thing but close enough to help us call it easily to mind when we need to use it.

Now I need to move on to consider the critical element of transcendence in the next and final post.

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At the end of the last post I asked whether there was no hope for improving our ability to manage our primitive reactions.

One thing that can begin to help is learning to understand how we fail to deal properly with such triggers as they occur. Some of these responses to a trigger are conscious: many are not, or we are at least not fully aware of them. Although our culture influences their exact shape, records suggest that these defective strategies for managing the crocodile inside have been with us from our earliest days.

Some of our responses to a trigger from the crocodile within are more obvious than others. We’ve all seen it or done it ourselves – the traveller who dashes onto the platform in time to see the train pulling out and completely loses their cool, launching into a high decibel rant, or you drop the Clarice Cliff vase your mother gave you onto the tiled kitchen floor and burst into tears as it breaks into pieces, swearing at yourself at the same time.

Others are more hidden. You break the vase but you pretend that you don’t care. You get a dustpan and brush and sweep up the mess, dumping it into the bin along with your feelings, with only a tightening of the lips to hint to an astute observer that you maybe a little bit miffed.

‘Sorry, mum,’ you might whisper to yourself, ‘but I never liked it much anyway.’

An even less obvious sign of crocodile fear and anger blended could be those times when we find ourselves asserting our side of an argument with an absolute sense of superior understanding and justification. It’s as if our grasp of the truth is incontestable. Nothing that anyone else can say will shake our belief in our own rectitude. This stems, I believe, from our sense that our world view is an extension of our self, and any attack on what we think is an attack on us, hence the element of fear, and it must be repelled at all costs, hence the presence of some anger.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy explains this clearly. We need a sceptical attitude towards descriptions especially in relation to descriptions of the self (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy The Guilford Press: 1999 – page 182):

. . . when a person identifies with a particular conceptualisation, alternatives to that conceptualisation can seem almost life-threatening. The . . . frame here seems to be “Me = conceptualisation” [i.e. I am exactly what I think I am] and its entailed derivative “Eliminate conceptualisation = eliminate me” [i.e. If you destroy my idea of myself you destroy me]. [Thus], we are drawn into protecting our conceptualized self as if it were our physical self.

To help people step back from such identifications they liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board (ibid. – page 192):

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.

How do we fail to deal with the crocodile?

What are these 4Ds and how do they work?

The acting out of anger on the railway platform is the result of a level of disinhibition, an inability to contain or control the flood of feeling, so it spills out against the world around us, creating a drama that usually impacts unpleasantly on others. Or, perhaps more accurately we willingly throw it at people and things.

It is a close relative of the feeling of drowning in sadness and distress that can be quite overwhelming, such as after breaking a precious object or relationship. We tend to subside into a heap, and, although it is perfectly obvious to everyone around us that something is the matter, we are not deliberately trying to discharge the feeling by throwing over others. It is important to make a distinction here between drowning and emotional blackmail. The latter is a deliberate attempt to manipulate someone else into meeting your demands by showing them how ‘hurt’ you are. People fake illness for the same purpose. The portrait below was triggered after Lowry had looked in the mirror during an exhausting and stressful period of his life, when he was the sole carer of his demanding and by this time bed-bound mother, who had decades of experience in using her apparent illnesses to exact compliance to her every whim from those closest to her.

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

When we pretend to ourselves we’re not feeling anything we’re in denial, to use the Freudian term: disowning is the existential word for it, and discounting is a variant Transactional Analysis uses quite frequently. They all amount to much the same thing. We try to convince ourselves it’s not there, and sometimes we succeed. Unfortunately attempting to bury it in this way does not prevent its leaking out in other ways to our own and others’ detriment.

Dogmatism concerns the doggedness with which we stick to our opinions and assert them no matter how obtuse or wrong-headed they might be.

In almost every case the cause of all this discontent, whether we act it out, bury it, turn it into an argument or are overwhelmed by it, lies in our inability to unhook ourselves from the brain noise generated by our crocodile inside. We think it’s all we are at that moment in time. In essence, we think it’s who are.

This means that if we have no doubt that our anger justifies any kind of action on our part we will attack without scruple, and may face severe consequences. What else could we do?

If we have doubts about the correctness of hitting someone in the face for stepping in front of us in the queue, we may swallow our anger and pretend that we don’t care, which may pre-empt the possibility of our making a legitimate protest. What other way do we have of resolving the clash between our feeling and our scruples?

If fear or sadness completely overwhelms us, we may convince ourselves we are weak and useless, and miss a whole host of opportunities to improve our lives. That’s inevitable, isn’t it?

What choice have we got?

Our culture makes us all too prone to repression (convincing ourselves we’re not experiencing something when we are), acting out (expressing whatever we are currently experiencing and ignoring the consequences until it is too late), or feeling overwhelmed (caving in under what feels like a tsunami of distress). Any of these can feed into a pattern of dogmatic assertion.

We don’t hear or see much about a more creative way of responding, which is a key to positive change. This other way I’ll call containment.

This means that we can hold an unpleasant feeling in mind without hitting someone, hurting ourselves, pretending it’s not there or arguing a point with undue stubbornness. What’s more we can do this long enough and often enough to think about, reflect on and inspect the feeling from various angles and work out the most constructive response to it. We can do this by realising the feeling is not all that we are, it is not who we really are, it is simply a transient state of mind or underlying influence generated by one archaic aspect of our brain, the inner crocodile, immensely useful to us in times of real danger when we lived in caves but only occasionally of real value now. Nowadays it causes more problems between us and is seldom needed to protect us from tigers, even in India – we’ve exterminated a lot of those dangerous animals outside but left the most dangerous one inside untouched.

So how do we learn to contain and ultimately correct our corrosive reactions? More of this next time.

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