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Posts Tagged ‘ego’

. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317)

This, then, is what a theory of everything has to explain: not only the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms and their development by evolution to greater and greater functional complexity; not only the consciousness of some of those organisms and its central role in their lives; but also the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value.

(Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmospage 85)

Now I come to the question of transcendence.

Transcending the crocodile does not depend upon accepting the existence of a soul, though that’s where this post will be going in the end.

Even if we only consider the brain and see the sense of self as its product, with no ‘true’ or ‘real’ self beyond that, we have ground to stand on which will enable us to shake off the shackles of the crocodile and avoid the swamp it lives in.

I’ve recently been reading Julian Baggini’s book How the World Thinks. His discussion of the No-Self issue addresses this point succinctly and may help me avoid rehashing arguments used elsewhere on this blog. He explores the Buddhist concept of anattā, which denies the reality of the ātman or self (page 178):

There is no ātman that has physical form, sensations, thoughts, perceptions of consciousness. Rather, what we think of as the individual person is merely an assemblage of these things.

He adds an important qualification (page 179):

If anattā seems more radical a view than it is, that is in large part because its usual translation is ‘no-self.’ But all it really means is no ātman: no eternal, immaterial, indivisible self. This is very different from denying there is any kind of self at all.

That Buddhism then encourages the effortful practice of meditative techniques to free us from the prison of this illusion of self clearly indicates that the no-self doctrine is not incompatible with the idea that we can escape the crocodile inside.

So, whether or not we have an immortal soul or self that is not a by-product of the brain, we can use techniques such as reflection or disidentification to rise above the tangle of thoughts, feelings, plans and perspectives with which we weave our convincing patterns on the loom of consciousness.

If I am relying on reason alone there is no way I can prove that the mind is independent of the brain anymore than someone else can prove conclusively it isn’t. Agnosticism is the only position available to reason alone. Many people are content to leave it at that. They may even happily look at the evidence marshaled for soul or no soul and keep their options open. I did that myself for a number of years.

Some of us though prefer in the end to make a choice. We’d rather decide there is or is not a soul, a God and/or an after-life. Either way that’s an act of faith.

I decided, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog, to believe we have a soul. I now feel this is the simplest explanation for all the data marshalled by psychologist David Fontana in his rigorous exploration of the evidence, Is There an Afterlife? For those interested in exploring further a more accessible book is Surviving Death by journalist Leslie Kean. Powerful individual testimony also comes from Eben Alexander in his account of his own experience as a sceptical neurosurgeon, Proof of Heaven.

If you prefer not to believe in a soul, the vast body of hard evidence still demands some kind of credible explanation, because trying to write it all off as flawed or fake won’t work. The evidence is in many cases more rigourous than that ‘proving’ the efficacy of the tablets we take when we have a problem with our health.

Anyway, I have come to think it’s easier to accept that our consciousness is not just an emergent property of our brain. If you’d like to stick with it we’ll see where it takes us on this issue.

Mind-Brain Independence

A quote from the middle of Emily Kelly’s chapter in Irreducible Mind on Frederick Myers’s approach (page 76) seems a good place to start from, because the last sentence cuts to the core of the challenge constituted by his position and the evidence that mainstream ‘scientists’ ignore:

This notion of something within us being conscious, even though it is not accessible to our ordinary awareness, is an exceedingly difficult one for most of us to accept, since it is so at variance with our usual assumption that the self of which we are aware comprises the totality of what we are as conscious mental beings. Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind Myers’s new and enlarged conception of consciousness if one is to understand his theory of human personality as something far more extensive than our waking self.

The mind-brain data throws up a tough problem, though. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though (page 73):

The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.

Others are of course now following where he marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon (page 177):

It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?

The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, as we will see – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. Whereas we now can draw upon all the complexities of Quantum Theory to help us define exactly what might be going on behind the screen of consciousness, and Lommel certainly does that, Myers had no such advantage. Nonetheless, he creates a rich and subtle picture of what consciousness might be comprised. He starts with the most basic levels (Kelly – page 73):

. . . . our normal waking consciousness (called by Myers the supraliminal consciousness) reflects simply those relatively few psychological elements and processes that have been selected from that more extensive consciousness (called by Myers the Subliminal Self) in adaptation to the demands of our present environment: and . . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self.

This problem is illustrated by Myers’s very helpful original analogy, and it shows just how far he was prepared to go in taking into account disciplines that others would have felt were beyond the pale (page 78):

Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.

Where does this take us?

Given the mirror used to illustrate the power of reflection, a reasonable description of the effects of sticking with the ego and its crocodile can be found in these words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Promulgation of Universal Peace– page 244):

What is the dust which obscures the mirror? It is attachment to the world, avarice, envy, love of luxury and comfort, haughtiness and self-desire; this is the dust which prevents reflection of the rays of the Sun of Reality in the mirror. The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God.

To find a close correspondence to the idea of disdentification in the words of an 18thCentury thinker felt like a further confirmation of its validity. Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quotes Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):

The conviction which every man has of his identity . . . needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it.… I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment…; But that Self or I, to which they belong, is permanent…

This contradicts my quasi-namesake David Hume’s perception of the situation as quoted by Braggini (pages 185-86):

What you observe are particular thoughts, perceptions and sensations. ‘I never catch myself, distinct from such perception,’ wrote Hume, assuming he was not peculiar.

I noted in the margin at this point, ‘’That’s not my experience.’

So, as good a place as any to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (page 83):

These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.

Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supernormal experiences is strong enough to warrant serious consideration (page 87):

Supernormal processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.

He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91):

The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.

He is arguing that the science of psychology needs to investigate these phenomena. I am not suggesting that, as individuals, we need to have had any such experiences if we are to make use of this model of the mind successfully. I personally have not had any. However, my belief that there is a higher self strongly motivates me to work at transcending the influence of my ego and its crocodile, and I suspect that subliminal promptings towards constructive action in complex and difficult circumstances often come from that direction.

This brings us into the territory explored by Roberto Assagioli in the psychotherapeutic approach called Psychosynthesis, with its use of concepts such as the Higher Self, for which I am using the term True Self.

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

A crucial component in implementing the Psychosynthesis model, in addition to finding it credible, is will power.

Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, contends that we are being raised by a higher force ‘into order, harmony and beauty,’ and this force is ‘uniting all beings . . . . with each other through links of love’ (Psychosynthesis: page 31). He explores what we might do to assist that process, and what he says resonates with Schwartz’s idea that persistent willed action changes brain structure. He writes (The Act of Will: page 57):

Repetition of actions intensifies the urge to further reiteration and renders their execution easier and better, until they come to be performed unconsciously.

And he is not just talking about the kind of physical skills we met with in Bounce. He goes on to say (page 80):

Thus we can, to a large extent, act, behave, and really be in practice as we would be if we possessed the qualities and enjoyed the positive mental states which we would like to have. More important, the use of this technique will actually change our emotional state.

This is what, in the realm of psychology, underpins the power of determination that the Universal House of Justice refers to in paragraph 5 of their 28 December 2010 message:

Calm determination will be vital as [people] strive to demonstrate how stumbling blocks can be made stepping stones for progress.

Changing ourselves in this way as individuals will ultimately change the world in which we live.

I am not arguing that transcending the crocodile is easy, nor am I saying that one particular way of achieving this will suit everyone. It is an effortful path and we each have to find our own. It is important that we do not mistake a credible looking path for the destination itself. If the path is not moving us towards our goal we must find another one. Nonetheless I am convinced the goal is within our grasp if we can believe in it enough to make the effort.

The Higher Good

There is one last important point for those of us who wish to believe in a God of some kind.

My very battered copy of this classic.

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects of man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his bookIs God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

The way forward, I believe, lies in recognising a higher and inspiring source of value that will help us lift our game in a way that can be sustained throughout our lifetime. For many of us that is God (from Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76):

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

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. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)

At the end of the previous post I indicated that the helicopter view of the lives and art of Proust and Beckett leaves us with a number of serious questions. A key one will relate to whether their take on reality is somehow skewed or biased, in a way that makes it seriously incomplete. I’ll try and tackle this now.

Cronin BeckettIs it out of balance?

Some people certainly thought so (Page 450 – Cronin):

[Arnold] Toynbee alleged that what Beckett had done was to carry ‘his despair and disgust to the ultimate limits of expression – indeed beyond them.

. . .  by continuing to live, and still more by continuing to write, the author refuted his own message and it is no use saying, in such a case, that we must not confuse the creator with the creature and so on. This book [Molloy] is a serious statement or a personal attitude or it is nothing. I am inclined to think that it is nothing.’

Toynbee was on surer artistic ground perhaps when he called for a more inclusive vision, saying that Malloy expressed ‘an attitude to life which cries out for at least some opposing one.’

He’s singing from basically the same hymn sheet as François Mauriac here, speaking Night at the Majesticabout Proust (pages 200-01 – A Night at the Majestic):

One feels that Sodom and Gomorrah are confused with the entire universe. A single saintly figure would be enough to re-establish the balance. . . . ‘God is terribly absent from Marcel Proust’s work,’ he lamented in a major assessment that he published a fortnight after Proust’s death.

Mauriac later shared a similar caveat about Beckett (page 540 – A Night at the Majestic).

Richard Davenport-Hines quotes Claudel about Proust (page 200): ‘It’s the light of God that shows the best of human nature, and not, as in Proust, the phosphorescence of decomposition’ along similar lines as Anthony Cronin quotes Tynan about Beckett (page 466):

Tynan described the sort of pessimism displayed as ‘not only the projection of personal sickness but a conclusion reached on inadequate evidence.’ He was ready to believe, he said, ‘that the world is a stifling, constricted place,’ but not if his informant was “an Egyptian mummy.’

LehrerRooted in Reductionism?

If we accept Lehrer’s depictions of Virginia Woolf and Proust, as quoted in the first post of this sequence, then the bleakness of the visions we are encountering here might have its roots in the soil of a radical reductionism.

Our ‘ever-changing impressions’ (page 172) ‘are held together by the thin veneer of identity’ and (page 176):’ the modern poet had to give up the idea of expressing the “unified soul“ simply because we didn’t have one.’  He concludes that (page 182):

The self is simply a work of art, a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of its own disunity.

If so, is there any need to adversely judge these works on the grounds of a materialistic perspective, no matter how skillfully that is depicted?

Cronin thinks not (page 482)

[At a symposium in response to criticisms from Brien, Cronin] replied that where art was concerned, one truthfully expressed vision as good as another; that this truth is seldom anything but partial except in the case of one or two very great, very inclusive artists, such as Shakespeare; but that even such a partial vision had immense value if its truth had never been encompassed before. This argument still seems to me to be central to a defence of Beckett, if defence is needed.

To get even close to explaining why I think materialistically biased accounts of human experience, even if honestly corresponding to the felt experience of the writer, are not only dispiriting but false, I have to rehash some old material. In doing so I will share other reductionist views so as not to fudge the difficulty of the issue.

Buddha BrainA Spiritual Perspective

Hanson and Mendius in The Buddha’s Brain have a fair bit to say about the nature of the self. At one level it doesn’t particularly challenge my core beliefs, even though the writers themselves do not accept the existence of anything like a soul as a source of self (page 204):

. . . now we come to perhaps the single greatest source of suffering – and therefore to what is most important to be wise about: the apparent self. . . . When you’re immersed in the flow of life rather than standing apart from it, when ego and egotism fade to the background – then you feel more peaceful and fulfilled.

What’s the problem with that? Most ethically minded people, whether theists or not, regard the ego with great suspicion. But problems then begin to creep in whose full degree of dissonance needs unpacking (page 206):

Paradoxically, the less your “I” is here, the happier you are. Or, as both Buddhist monks and inmates on death row sometimes say: “No self, no problem.”

What exactly do they mean by ‘no self’? Is that no self at all, of any kind? Well, maybe. We need to look at various other expressions they use before looking at what an atheist practitioner of Buddhist meditation thinks it means.

First of all, they explain (page 213): ‘It’s not so much that we have a self, it’s that we do self-ing.’ More than that, they feel we should (page 214): . . . try to keep remembering that who you are as a person – dynamic, intertwined with the world – is more alive, interesting, capable, and remarkable than any self.’ And most dismissively of all they describe the self as (page 215) ‘simply an arising mental pattern that’s not categorically different from or better than any other mind-object.’ That sounds familiar.

Sam Harris meditation pic v2

For source of adapted image see link

While there is a sense that they are slightly hedging their bets here, Sam Harris is not so coy about the matter. In his fascinating article – An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality– he pushes the boundaries somewhat further:

Indeed, the conventional sense of self is an illusion—and spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons. Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation.

To illustrate the moment when this can be experienced he refers to the ‘awakening’ of Ramana Maharshi(1879– 1950), ‘arguably the most widely revered Indian sage of the 20th century.’

While sitting alone in his uncle’s study, Ramana suddenly became paralyzed by a fear of death. He lay down on the floor, convinced that he would soon die, but rather than remaining terrified, he decided to locate the self that was about to disappear. He focused on the feeling of “I”—a process he later called “self inquiry”—and found it to be absent from the field of consciousness. Ramana the person didn’t die that day, but he claimed that the feeling of being a separate self never darkened his consciousness again.

Ramana described his conclusion from this by saying at one point:

The mind is a bundle of thoughts. The thoughts arise because there is the thinker. The thinker is the ego. The ego, if sought, will automatically vanish.

Though Ramana’s disciple, Poonja-Ji, had a great impact on Sam Harris, there was a teacher who made an even greater impression: ‘Another teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, had a lasting effect on me.’

What he feels he learnt from Tulku Urgyen he describes with dramatic clarity:

The genius of Tulku Urgyen was that he could point out the nature of mind with the precision and matter-of-factness of teaching a person how to thread a needle and could get an ordinary meditator like me to recognize that consciousness is intrinsically free of self. There might be some initial struggle and uncertainty, depending on the student, but once the truth of nonduality had been glimpsed, it became obvious that it was always available— and there was never any doubt about how to see it again. I came to Tulku Urgyen yearning for the experience of self-transcendence, and in a few minutes he showed me that I had no self to transcend.

He unpacks its implications in the light of subsequent practice:

This instruction was, without question, the most important thing I have ever been explicitly taught by another human being. It has given me a way to escape the usual tides of psychological suffering—fear, anger, shame—in an instant. At my level of practice, this freedom lasts only a few moments. But these moments can be repeated, and they can grow in duration. Punctuating ordinary experience in this way makes all the difference. In fact, when I pay attention, it is impossible for me to feel like a self at all: The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows. That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful. The moment I am lost in thought, however, I’m as confused as anyone else.

For Harris as an atheist one of the greatest benefits of his assisted experience, he believed, was that he did not have to accept any of the ‘baggage’ of the religion in whose context these insights and practices had been generated – he could make sense of the experience in his own way. I’m not so sure it was really as simple as that.

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to what Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows’ and ‘consciousness is intrinsically free of self.’

More of that in the final post of this sequence.

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Seven IllusionsGiven that sequences on this blog are dealing in one way or another with our need to break through to wiser levels of consciousness, it seemed worth republishing this short sequence from 2014. The reservations I shared in the first post have come to seem a familiar response of mine to texts that combine wise insights with what strikes me as fantasy. None the less the insights make books such as this one worth flagging up. This is the final post of the sequence.

I prefaced this review-sequence of posts about Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, partly by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.

Also, I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

This is the last of three parts. The first post looked at her basic intention and flagged up a couple of caveats from my point of view. The previous post focused on the importance of meditation and its challenges. This third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

Why we should change our priorities.

Karen makes a compelling case, I feel.

As the quotation from Bahá’u’lláh at the end of the previous post implies, it all comes down to a question of priorities. She makes this point strongly (750):

If you put half of the energy you put into work and making money into meditating, you may become enlightened in a year!! Your choice, your will, your life.

If Ehrenfeld is to be believed in his book Flourishing the world will be a far better place simply as a result of this, as well.

Karen is particularly telling in her use of analogies again here (1045)

In general we do not identify with our cars and believe that`s all we are. We do know it`s just a vehicle, and it`s not because the car dies that we will die with it. We know that we will move on. It is exactly the same with our body. By the way, notice that we always say ‘our’ body, like we say ‘our car’ or ‘our house’, something that we possess not something that we are.

This makes for an interesting take on death, which is borne out by the accounts of those who have survived close encounters with the scythe-bearing skeleton (1131): ‘Death is just the end of the vehicle, not the passenger.’

Then we draw close again to the No-Self issue and the movie character analogy (1255-65):

. . . . really who are you? By now you know that you are not your body, you are not your mind, and death doesn`t exist. The ‘you’ you believe in is the one which is not real. It is the one which will die when the body dies. . . . The biggest illusion is to believe that we are the car. That`s a reason why we are so scared of dying, because we know for sure that the car will die. There is no doubt about that. They all die. But we are not the car. We are not the character. And we do not die. The thing is that by identifying too much with the character, we forget who we really are.

The word ‘character’ pins down a key point. In a way there is an unintended pun here. Character can refer either to a person in a novel, play or film script, or it can be used to describe that aspect of a person that has a moral dimension. (In this context I fell over a deliberate pun which I can’t resist sharing. We are dealing with a car-actor here!)

This for me homes in on part of what freeing ourselves from character in the first sense enables us to achieve in terms of creating character in the second sense. The contrast is perhaps most easily captured by the idea of personality (from the Latin persona, meaning a theatrical mask and later the character in a play) versus character (from the Greek, originally also meaning a protagonist in a play, but moving through Aristotle’s emphasis on an ethical dimension to signify something closer to integrity). Meditation enables us to disidentify with the mask we wear, our personality, and to discover who we really are, to become our true selves, if you like.

She goes onto discuss the importance of love and of giving, and how much better it is for us than pursuing our own material advantage (1388-1397):

Our true self is not capable of hurting anyone, of killing, of damaging or stealing other people’s goods. We need to put a costume on in order to achieve that. . . . . your real self is all about giving. Giving is feeding your soul. Seeing the happiness on someone else`s face because of what you gave them, will fill your heart with much more joy than a free meal ticket.

As we have discussed on this blog, for instance in the context of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT – 1456) ‘The veryACT manual common ‘I don`t feel like it’ may only be another trick from your ego to prevent you from realizing who you are.’

ACT takes the view that if we wait until we feel like doing something, we may well never do it. Doing it will make us feel better so we need to get on with it no matter how we feel to start with. In this context, we must accept though, at the same time, that the main rewards of meditation may not come quickly (1478):

You cannot change everything in one day. It will happen progressively. The changes won`t happen faster than you can handle them. If you work on yourself, you will experience the changes as perfect gradual steps, like a beautiful flower gently blossoming.

And we should not have grandiose ideas about how what we can then do will change the world. People who have trodden the path tell a different story (1494):

They don`t talk about changing the world, they perform little or big acts of kindness every day. It may be the family guy who volunteers once a week at his local charity, the kid who shares his lunch with his friend, the lady who feeds the birds in the garden, and the activists who spend months of their life trying to stop whaling.

This is very much in line with the Bahá’í model of community building, the first stage of civilisation building, which starts small but gradually influences greater numbers of people until a tipping point is reached: this will inevitably be ‘the work of centuries.’ Whether we reach the tipping point before we destroy ourselves will depend upon our choices.

She is on similar ground to ACT again when she discusses the nature of suffering (1535):

There are two types of pain: physical pain, which is as much real as our body is, and emotional pain which is as much an illusion as our mind is.

ACT clarifies that pain is what life brings: suffering is what we add to it by what our minds make of it. Karen begins to tread the same ground.

She begins by looking at emotion (1550-53):

Without emotion we just see life as it exactly is, with a clear perception and without any projections. Without emotion we just become watchers of this movie we are playing. We do not try to change it or wish for it to be different because we REALLY DON`T MIND how it is and how it will end up. Without emotion there is no suffering. . . . . . Emotional suffering is in the mind and the mind only. The pain we experience exists because there is a dichotomy between what is and what we want.

Part of the problem is the sense of separateness (1583): ‘Because we believe ourselves separated we`ve become blind to the perfection and the interconnectedness of all things.’ As some spiritual traditions explain it, because we are underneath the woven carpet of creation, as it were, we see only the knots and tangles and not the pattern.

We have to have faith in the existence of a pattern even if we cannot see it (1595-98):

True faith is not blind faith. True faith comes from knowledge. It comes from learning about life, about God and about yourself.  . . . . Connection is very important to our well being. We need to find connection with life, with people, and with nature. Connection brings us closer to oneness.

This resonates with the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Who also makes the same kind of link with deeds as Karen does at various points: ‘By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.

Here is where things get momentarily slightly confused for me. She begins by saying that (1648): ‘Emotions and feelings help us determine what is good for us, and what is not.’ However, even though the phrasing here suggests they are equivalent what she then says suggests there is a definite distinction in her mind (1652): ‘One is real, the other is an illusion. Feelings are the language of our soul, whereas emotion is the reaction of the mind. Our emotions are our reactions to the world.’

The value of the distinction is then unpacked in more detail (1654 through 1674):

. . . . feelings are our guidance, and instead of being our ‘reactions’ they are our creations. . . . . Feelings are our intuition. . . . . Anger, fear, sadness, pain, frustration, etc, are what we call bad emotions. And joy, happiness, ecstasy, pleasure, excitement, etc, are what we call good emotions. But in both cases they are just illusions.

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman

I think she is basically correct here. However, my personal view is that greater clarity comes from using feeling and emotion as equivalent, so that ‘gut feeling’ can be seen as a product of the reptilian brain and therefore not to be relied upon. Intuition, as distinct from instinct, needs to be reserved for those intimations and promptings from our spirit that can be relied upon. I have dealt with this at great length elsewhere in my discussion of Kahneman’s ideas. Karen’s terminology, though less than optimal in my view, does not distract from the power and relevance of the points she is making.

I do have serious reservations though about the way she phrases her suggestions as to how to deal with emotion (1678): ‘if you are angry, be angry totally.’

I’m not sure this is a helpful way to express what I think she might mean. I feel containment in full awareness is a better way of putting it. This allows you to steer between acting out and repression and also enables you to find the most constructive way of expressing the anger should you chose to do so. At the very least you will be able to integrate it.

In the end though, in spite of all my grumblings here and there, I feel that this is an immensely valuable book. It has helped me in my quest for a deeper experience of my own true nature, though this is still proving quite a challenge. I think the benefits of reading Karen’s powerful insights and following her personal journey far outweigh any disagreements I might have with aspects of her philosophy.

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Seven Illusions

Given that sequences on this blog are dealing in one way or another with our need to break through to wiser levels of consciousness, it seemed worth republishing this short sequence from 2014. The reservations I shared in the first post have come to seem a familiar response of mine to texts that combine wise insights with what strikes me as fantasy. None the less the insights make books such as this one worth flagging up. The final post will appear tomorrow.

I prefaced this review-sequence of posts about Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, partly by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.

Also, I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

This is the second of three parts. The previous post looked at her basic intention and flagged up a couple of caveats from my point of view. This post focuses on the importance of meditation and its challenges. The third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

Why meditation matters

Part of what relates to the importance of meditation, I’ve dealt with in a previous post, which focused on the No-Self issue so I will not revisit that here. What follows will inevitably have implications that are relevant to that issue also.

To describe our life as we perceive it, Karen uses the metaphor of a film to convey that what we experience is only a simulation and not reality. To over-identify with our character, in the Hollywood sense, is to surrender to the illusion and we can choose otherwise (429):

You have the free will of letting the Ego control you, or you can become the master and start living the movie through a totally different perspective.

She argues that (433): ‘To find yourself and to find presence, meditation is the best tool that you have.’

Even so, the task that confronts us will not be easy. Our movie role will not give up without a fight (435):

The Ego, the mind will try to prevent it, it will do anything to stop it. Of course, because the more you do it, the more IT will disappear.

She clarifies what we must do in response (437):

The challenge is to still do it under any circumstances, despite what is being said inside your head.

She shares some of her most telling insights and useful analogies here to help us see what we must do and why (531):

. . . when we are listening to the mind, we find ourselves in the past or a probable future. It is really an amazing tool, which is here to help us survive in a physical body in this three dimensional world. The problem is that we forget that it is just that, a tool, a computer. Over the years we put effort into making it strong, sharp and intelligent. Unfortunately, we overuse it and we forget to turn it off.

This is territory that Hanson and Mendius also explore from their slightly different and somewhat more academic angle. They Buddha Brainanalyse in some depth the neuropsychology of this survival tool from the perspective of brain science.

Karen is very clear about the trap that has been sprung on us by the worldly and practical success of our survival tool (535):

After a while we even forget that we are actually separate from it. This is the biggest illusion, the identification with the mind.

I might want to take issue with her terminology here, when she is discussing what she refers to as the ‘mind’ (582-89):

It is a computer, gathering, analyzing data and offering solutions. It never stops. It is restless. We made it that way. It will only exist in time, in the past or in the future, and it will always try to escape the present, because in the NOW the mind is not. . . . The main problem is that the brain takes everything the mind thinks as real. For the brain there are no differences between an actual physical danger, and your mind thinking about a fictional, imaginary danger.

This conflicts with the understanding I have developed after years of reconciling psychology with Bahá’í spirituality. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá assures us that the mind is an emanation of the spirit and not a product of the brain: this fits with the idea of the brain not the mind as a transceiver, ie it both receives and generates data as the computer does. The brain therefore can be seen in this version of the model as the source of ‘static’ that interferes with our access to the mind, which is our direct link to the world of spirit. However, I don’t think this possible quibble should deter us from recognizing the value of what she then goes on to say on the back of this analogy. Her core point is none the less clear (599-600):

If the mind is only a computer, then it is there for someone to use it: you.  The mind is just a tool, but a wonderful tool. The only problem is the common mistake of identifying with that tool. . . . . You need to find yourself. You need to find where and who you are. And I will say it again: meditation is the only means through which you are going to find these answers.

This does not mean that we should devalue what she calls the mind (613-621):

First of all, it does help you take care of your body to survive in the world. . . . . Secondly, it enables us to project ourselves in time, in the past and in the future, so we can understand what went wrong and avoid the same mistakes, and we can anticipate and plan for our future. . . . . Then, the mind helps us to tap into and translate information from the spirit world, . . . . . Also, a clear, focused and pointed mind will help us achieve anything we dream of. . . . . . Last, but not least, the mind will translate into words your true being, your soul.

Also that description indicates to me that her concept of mind is closer to that of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá than her original points suggested.

Nor do I want to argue with her next main point (622):

Our essence, our soul is energy and only energy. It does not communicate with language. It communicates with impressions, feelings, and intuitions.

She then moves onto a theme close to my heart (sorry if that sounds like a joke!) and one dealt with in some detail already on this blog so I won’t dwell at length on it here (625):

We are under the impression that our head says something and our heart, our inside, is trying to say something else. Believe me, in these situations, always listen to your heart. Always.

A key point comes slightly later and, though apparently simple, is in my view of profound importance, not just in terms of schooling, which is her point at the time, but for all of us throughout our lives (677): ‘we are not taught how not to use the mind when we do not need it.’ This is something crucial which it is never too late to learn.

ThriveShe emphasises that (677) children, if properly taught, ‘would learn how to focus and use their mind to solve problems, as well as how to turn the mind off in order to not over load it and stay stress free.’ And also, I would say, to gain access to other aspects of consciousness with different powers. Layard and Clark are similarly advocating the teaching of mindfulness in schools in their book Thrive, reviewed earlier on this blog Unfortunately there is little sign yet that schooling will shift from its current reinforcement of the language-bound ruminating mind any time soon.

One of the challenges of undertaking meditation is that the rewards, in terms for example of a quietness and expansion of consciousness, cannot be experienced except as a result of meditation itself, so we have to embark on an effortful discipline motivated by faith alone. She puts it succinctly (716):

That silence and that space cannot be understood at all by the mind or the intellect as it is a no-mind place. The only way to comprehend it is to experience it, to live it. You need to find it for yourself.

Even so (722) ‘Enlightenment is not something far away and complicated to reach. It has always been there, inside you, easy to grasp, just waiting for you to be ready.’

Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, says essentially the same thing (Gleanings: CLIII):

Deprive not yourselves of the unfading and resplendent Light that shineth within the Lamp of Divine glory. Let the flame of the love of God burn brightly within your radiant hearts. . . . O My servants! My holy, My divinely ordained Revelation may be likened unto an ocean in whose depths are concealed innumerable pearls of great price, of surpassing luster. It is the duty of every seeker to bestir himself and strive to attain the shores of this ocean, so that he may, in proportion to the eagerness of his search and the efforts he hath exerted, partake of such benefits as have been pre-ordained in God’s irrevocable and hidden Tablets. . . . This most great, this fathomless and surging Ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life-vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.

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. . . . psychotic symptoms exist on a continuum even in healthy individuals (Stefanis et al., 2002). This, too, seems to be explicable if psychosis is a way to cope with existential distress – as psychosis would be quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, different from normal.

(Psychosis as Coping by Grant S Shields – page 146 in Existential Analysis 25.1: January 2014)

There is growing interest in the idea of that ‘psychotic’ crises can sometimes be part of, or related to spiritual crises, and many people feel that their crises have contributed to spiritual growth. A number of clinical psychologists have also explored the interface between psychosis and spirituality. Some believe that at least some ‘psychotic’ episodes can be transformative crises that contain the potential for personal, including spiritual, growth. Many people who believe that there is a spiritual element to their experiences find support from others with similar beliefs invaluable, for example within faith communities.

(From Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia published by the British Psychological Society – page 55)

In the last post I began to look at a paper (pages 41-49, from the British Journal of Clinical Psychology – 2012 – 51, 37-53) by Charles Heriot-Maitland, Matthew Knight and Emmanuelle Peters on the subject of what they call Out-of-the-Ordinary-Experiences or OOEs.

Where their findings became even more intriguing from my point of view was when their discussion used terminology with clear spiritual implications that are held in common across NDEs, mystical states and meditative practices. They write:

Another subjective phenomenon reported by both [clinical] and [nonclinical] participants was the sensation of ego loss, what essentially seemed to be a breakdown of the normal psychological relationships between mind-body and/or self-others.

A fear reaction was frequently reported and ‘is likely to have largely come from the unfamiliarity of [the] experience . . . . It is possible that more prolonged absorption was caused by the emotionally fulfilling roll of the OOE in a psychological problem-solving process.’

This was followed in their report by more of a spiritual nature concerning the discovery of deeper meaning:

This symbolic, deeper meaning perhaps reflects the quality of awareness that is not filtered or confined by the conceptual boundaries of ordinary day-to-day experience… If the ego breaks down, then it may be that perception of the world becomes unbounded and limitless . . . .

This, in their view, paves the way for a shift in consciousness:

Following on from the previous theme, which conveys an awareness that is free from the influences of a ‘conditioned’ conceptual framework, this theme suggests the implementation of a new conceptual framework, or a new way of looking at the world.

levels-of-consciousness v3Where their work maps onto that of Jenny Wade is in the idea that, when our old models of reality cease to work in new situations, a state of uncomfortable dissonance is created that leads to a breakthrough to new levels of understanding:

It could be that the initial psychological crisis arose in many participants due to an inadequacy of their existing conceptual framework in making sense of their emotional experience. . . . . . It may be that a new way of thinking was the necessary, adaptive ‘solution’ to the crisis; that the old conceptual framework had to be replaced by a new one for the emotional experience to become integrated.

Dabrowski's TPD diagramWade’s model maps closely onto Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration in key respects. She analyses, in a more close-grained fashion than Dabrowski, which kind of conflict and discomfort spurs us to move up from the comfort zone of our present level of consciousness to the next step up the ladder of awareness. Dabrowski, as I have explored elsewhere, correlates this most strongly with an intensity best described as suffering.

The next point the paper makes is crucial:

[T]he fact that, apart from existential questioning, there has been no notable difference up to this point in the OOEs of [clinical] and [non-clinical] groups implies that this problem-solving process is neither pathological nor indicative of clinical psychosis.

The real issue lies somewhere else altogether. They explain in a particularly important passage:

More of the [nonclinical] participants received validating/accepting responses from others, and more of the [clinical] group received invalidating responses, as these quotes illustrate:

‘[I] relayed this experience to psychiatrists in the [hospital] and was sent for EEG tests, was told that I was hallucinating – this guy just didn’t listen to, just obviously haven’t heard anything really that I’d said . . .’

‘Somebody came up to me and said “well, you know, we really need to hear from you. That’s a very powerful message to people, and they need to hear that message.” And that did matter to me.’

For the individual who is, perhaps, already slightly hesitant about how best to incorporate their experience into their social worlds, the difference between these two social interactions could be immense.

All non-clinical participants demonstrated some prior understanding or interest in their OOEs, which are generally described as ‘life-enhancing.’ Furthermore, ‘These life-enhancing qualities, which were reported by the majority of participants, add further support to the psychological problem-solving hypothesis. Not only did the OOEs provide many participants with relief from emotional suffering, but they also added a dimension that enriched other life domains. . . . . The medical (illness) explanation clearly presented barriers to similar reflections in the clinical population . . .’

The blame for why some people’s experiences are eventually experienced as dark, negative and ultimately inescapable seems to lie with the negative approach adopted by others, especially the medical profession:

More [non-clinical] than [clinical] participants viewed their experience as a temporary stage or process. . . . . . [I]f the causes and subjective nature of OOEs are no different between [non-clinical] and [clinical] groups, then it seems misleading for professionals to inform one group that their OOEs signal ‘the end,’ [ie they are stuck with them] while the other group continue with their (enhanced) lives.’

dancing-past-the-darkThis has echoes for me of how the reaction of others determines how the experiencer responds to distressing NDEs, which also has an impact on their future mental well-being. Nancy Evans Bush writes (Dancing Past the Dark: Kindle reference 2502-05):

Experiencers have told many sad stories of going to a professional for help in understanding their NDE, only to find themselves caught up in the medical model, pathologized by a diagnostic label and the NDE dismissed as meaningless. . . . . . . People have also told of being dismissed by their rabbi or pastor as well, for in a secular society much awareness of deep spiritual process is lost or distorted, even within religious institutions themselves.

Stephanie Beards and Helen Fisher, in a 2014 paper (Social Psychiatry Psychiatric Epidemiology 49: 1541–1544), shed further light on the dynamics of this. They write (page 1542):

It has been proposed that negative core schemas [ingrained patterns of thought or behaviour that affect experience] are formed early in life and may result from adverse experiences in childhood. If an individual experiences further trauma later in life, these schemas could become (re)activated, leading to emotional changes which may not only cause the development of psychotic experiences, but alter the appraisal of these anomalous occurrences, further increasing distress, and preventing a benign explanation from being concluded.

Even so, such experiences do not need to cast a shadow over the rest of a person’s life. The experiences themselves, as the current British Journal of Clinical Psychology study demonstrates, are not significantly different between the two groups, nor are the potential explanations they develop. Nearly all participants gave some acknowledgement of the link between psychotic and spiritual experience.

Because the OOEs of all participants seemed, at some level, to fulfil a psychological purpose, they were interpreted as being a part of an adaptive psychological problem-solving process, which frequently involved the breakdown of conceptual ego boundaries, and the formation of a new conceptual outlook.

However, regarding group differences (my emphases), they write:

[T]here was a sense that [non-clinical] participants were better able to incorporate their OOEs into their personal and social world. This was partly due to more [non-clinical] participants having prior conceptual knowledge of, and in some cases, open attitudes towards, there OOEs; however, the more prominent reason seem to be that more [non-clinical] participants received validation and acceptance from others.

The saddest point of all perhaps is this:

It would seem that the more OOEs are associated with clinical psychosis, the less chance people have of recognising their desirability, transiency, and psychological benefits, and the more chance they have of detrimental clinical consequences.

They draw some very strong conclusions from this:

An important clinical implication is that psychotic experiences should be normalised, and people with psychosis should be helped to re-connect the meaning of their OOEs with the genuine emotional and existential concerns that preceded them. . . . . . However, the current findings suggest that the argument for normalisation goes far deeper than just its clinical usefulness; they imply that a more ‘radical normalisation’ approach is needed, when normalising OOEs becomes an intrinsic formulation and treatment principle.

During my decluttering, I also came across a number of journals which describe current approaches to creating psychological descriptions of a patient’s problems, known as formulations in psychobabble. Nowhere, for any patient group, did I find reference to any kind of spiritual dimension, though the word ‘cultural’ was thrown in from time to time, and might have concealed an entrance through which such considerations could possibly have infiltrated the consultation process.

When it comes to psychosis, where the default first-line treatment is medication rather than therapy (or meditation), there is an additional problem:

Unlike antipsychotic drugs, which can suppress the emotional expression, this approach [of accepting the validity of the emotions underlying the OOEs] would validate and encourage the emotional expression, whilst working on building a more helpful conceptualisation or narrative about the emotional concerns.’

The authors do not regard their paper as definitive. They are all to aware of its possible limitations, shown, for example, by their reference to methodological caveats concerning small sample size and possible confounding variables not having been picked up at screening and thereafter controlled for.

I do not think those caveats constitute reasons for ignoring or minimising the significance of their findings, but rather they should be a motivating factor for the generation of further work on this issue. In the meantime, even in advance of further findings, we should be spurred to introduce into the clinical setting a far greater sensitivity to the emotional and spiritual meaning of such experiences.

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Seven Illusions

I prefaced this review-sequence of posts about Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, partly by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.

Also, I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

This is the last of three parts. The first post looked at her basic intention and flagged up a couple of caveats from my point of view. The previous post focused on the importance of meditation and its challenges. This third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

Why we should change our priorities.

Karen makes a compelling case, I feel.

As the quotation from Bahá’u’lláh at the end of the previous post implies, it all comes down to a question of priorities. She makes this point strongly (750):

If you put half of the energy you put into work and making money into meditating, you may become enlightened in a year!! Your choice, your will, your life.

If Ehrenfeld is to be believed in his book Flourishing the world will be a far better place simply as a result of this, as well.

Karen is particularly telling in her use of analogies again here (1045)

In general we do not identify with our cars and believe that`s all we are. We do know it`s just a vehicle, and it`s not because the car dies that we will die with it. We know that we will move on. It is exactly the same with our body. By the way, notice that we always say ‘our’ body, like we say ‘our car’ or ‘our house’, something that we possess not something that we are.

This makes for an interesting take on death, which is borne out by the accounts of those who have survived close encounters with the scythe-bearing skeleton (1131): ‘Death is just the end of the vehicle, not the passenger.’

Then we draw close again to the No-Self issue and the movie character analogy (1255-65):

. . . . really who are you? By now you know that you are not your body, you are not your mind, and death doesn`t exist. The ‘you’ you believe in is the one which is not real. It is the one which will die when the body dies. . . . The biggest illusion is to believe that we are the car. That`s a reason why we are so scared of dying, because we know for sure that the car will die. There is no doubt about that. They all die. But we are not the car. We are not the character. And we do not die. The thing is that by identifying too much with the character, we forget who we really are.

The word ‘character’ pins down a key point. In a way there is an unintended pun here. Character can refer either to a person in a novel, play or film script, or it can be used to describe that aspect of a person that has a moral dimension. (In this context I fell over a deliberate pun which I can’t resist sharing. We are dealing with a car-actor here!)

This for me homes in on part of what freeing ourselves from character in the first sense enables us to achieve in terms of creating character in the second sense. The contrast is perhaps most easily captured by the idea of personality (from the Latin persona, meaning a theatrical mask and later the character in a play) versus character (from the Greek, originally also meaning a protagonist in a play, but moving through Aristotle’s emphasis on an ethical dimension to signify something closer to integrity). Meditation enables us to disidentify with the mask we wear, our personality, and to discover who we really are, to become our true selves, if you like.

She goes onto discuss the importance of love and of giving, and how much better it is for us than pursuing our own material advantage (1388-1397):

Our true self is not capable of hurting anyone, of killing, of damaging or stealing other people’s goods. We need to put a costume on in order to achieve that. . . . . your real self is all about giving. Giving is feeding your soul. Seeing the happiness on someone else`s face because of what you gave them, will fill your heart with much more joy than a free meal ticket.

As we have discussed on this blog, for instance in the context of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT – 1456) ‘The veryACT manual common ‘I don`t feel like it’ may only be another trick from your ego to prevent you from realizing who you are.’

ACT takes the view that if we wait until we feel like doing something, we may well never do it. Doing it will make us feel better so we need to get on with it no matter how we feel to start with. In this context, we must accept though, at the same time, that the main rewards of meditation may not come quickly (1478):

You cannot change everything in one day. It will happen progressively. The changes won`t happen faster than you can handle them. If you work on yourself, you will experience the changes as perfect gradual steps, like a beautiful flower gently blossoming.

And we should not have grandiose ideas about how what we can then do will change the world. People who have trodden the path tell a different story (1494):

They don`t talk about changing the world, they perform little or big acts of kindness every day. It may be the family guy who volunteers once a week at his local charity, the kid who shares his lunch with his friend, the lady who feeds the birds in the garden, and the activists who spend months of their life trying to stop whaling.

This is very much in line with the Bahá’í model of community building, the first stage of civilisation building, which starts small but gradually influences greater numbers of people until a tipping point is reached: this will inevitably be ‘the work of centuries.’ Whether we reach the tipping point before we destroy ourselves will depend upon our choices.

She is on similar ground to ACT again when she discusses the nature of suffering (1535):

There are two types of pain: physical pain, which is as much real as our body is, and emotional pain which is as much an illusion as our mind is.

ACT clarifies that pain is what life brings: suffering is what we add to it by what our minds make of it. Karen begins to tread the same ground.

She begins by looking at emotion (1550-53):

Without emotion we just see life as it exactly is, with a clear perception and without any projections. Without emotion we just become watchers of this movie we are playing. We do not try to change it or wish for it to be different because we REALLY DON`T MIND how it is and how it will end up. Without emotion there is no suffering. . . . . . Emotional suffering is in the mind and the mind only. The pain we experience exists because there is a dichotomy between what is and what we want.

Part of the problem is the sense of separateness (1583): ‘Because we believe ourselves separated we`ve become blind to the perfection and the interconnectedness of all things.’ As some spiritual traditions explain it, because we are underneath the woven carpet of creation, as it were, we see only the knots and tangles and not the pattern.

We have to have faith in the existence of a pattern even if we cannot see it (1595-98):

True faith is not blind faith. True faith comes from knowledge. It comes from learning about life, about God and about yourself.  . . . . Connection is very important to our well being. We need to find connection with life, with people, and with nature. Connection brings us closer to oneness.

This resonates with the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Who also makes the same kind of link with deeds as Karen does at various points: ‘By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.

Here is where things get momentarily slightly confused for me. She begins by saying that (1648): ‘Emotions and feelings help us determine what is good for us, and what is not.’ However, even though the phrasing here suggests they are equivalent what she then says suggests there is a definite distinction in her mind (1652): ‘One is real, the other is an illusion. Feelings are the language of our soul, whereas emotion is the reaction of the mind. Our emotions are our reactions to the world.’

The value of the distinction is then unpacked in more detail (1654 through 1674):

. . . . feelings are our guidance, and instead of being our ‘reactions’ they are our creations. . . . . Feelings are our intuition. . . . . Anger, fear, sadness, pain, frustration, etc, are what we call bad emotions. And joy, happiness, ecstasy, pleasure, excitement, etc, are what we call good emotions. But in both cases they are just illusions.

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman

I think she is basically correct here. However, my personal view is that greater clarity comes from using feeling and emotion as equivalent, so that ‘gut feeling’ can be seen as a product of the reptilian brain and therefore not to be relied upon. Intuition, as distinct from instinct, needs to be reserved for those intimations and promptings from our spirit that can be relied upon. I have dealt with this at great length elsewhere in my discussion of Kahneman’s ideas. Karen’s terminology, though less than optimal in my view, does not distract from the power and relevance of the points she is making.

I do have serious reservations though about the way she phrases her suggestions as to how to deal with emotion (1678): ‘if you are angry, be angry totally.’

I’m not sure this is a helpful way to express what I think she might mean. I feel containment in full awareness is a better way of putting it. This allows you to steer between acting out and repression and also enables you to find the most constructive way of expressing the anger should you chose to do so. At the very least you will be able to integrate it.

In the end though, in spite of all my grumblings here and there, I feel that this is an immensely valuable book. It has helped me in my quest for a deeper experience of my own true nature, though this is still proving quite a challenge. I think the benefits of reading Karen’s powerful insights and following her personal journey far outweigh any disagreements I might have with aspects of her philosophy.

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Seven Illusions

I prefaced this review-sequence of posts about Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, partly by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.

Also, I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

This is the second of three parts. The previous post looked at her basic intention and flagged up a couple of caveats from my point of view. This post focuses on the importance of meditation and its challenges. The third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

Why meditation matters

Part of what relates to the importance of meditation, I’ve dealt with in a previous post, which focused on the No-Self issue so I will not revisit that here. What follows will inevitably have implications that are relevant to that issue also.

To describe our life as we perceive it, Karen uses the metaphor of a film to convey that what we experience is only a simulation and not reality. To over-identify with our character, in the Hollywood sense, is to surrender to the illusion and we can choose otherwise (429):

You have the free will of letting the Ego control you, or you can become the master and start living the movie through a totally different perspective.

She argues that (433): ‘To find yourself and to find presence, meditation is the best tool that you have.’

Even so, the task that confronts us will not be easy. Our movie role will not give up without a fight (435):

The Ego, the mind will try to prevent it, it will do anything to stop it. Of course, because the more you do it, the more IT will disappear.

She clarifies what we must do in response (437):

The challenge is to still do it under any circumstances, despite what is being said inside your head.

She shares some of her most telling insights and useful analogies here to help us see what we must do and why (531):

. . . when we are listening to the mind, we find ourselves in the past or a probable future. It is really an amazing tool, which is here to help us survive in a physical body in this three dimensional world. The problem is that we forget that it is just that, a tool, a computer. Over the years we put effort into making it strong, sharp and intelligent. Unfortunately, we overuse it and we forget to turn it off.

This is territory that Hanson and Mendius also explore from their slightly different and somewhat more academic angle. They Buddha Brainanalyse in some depth the neuropsychology of this survival tool from the perspective of brain science.

Karen is very clear about the trap that has been sprung on us by the worldly and practical success of our survival tool (535):

After a while we even forget that we are actually separate from it. This is the biggest illusion, the identification with the mind.

I might want to take issue with her terminology here, when she is discussing what she refers to as the ‘mind’ (582-89):

It is a computer, gathering, analyzing data and offering solutions. It never stops. It is restless. We made it that way. It will only exist in time, in the past or in the future, and it will always try to escape the present, because in the NOW the mind is not. . . . The main problem is that the brain takes everything the mind thinks as real. For the brain there are no differences between an actual physical danger, and your mind thinking about a fictional, imaginary danger.

This conflicts with the understanding I have developed after years of reconciling psychology with Bahá’í spirituality. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá assures us that the mind is an emanation of the spirit and not a product of the brain: this fits with the idea of the brain not the mind as a transceiver, ie it both receives and generates data as the computer does. The brain therefore can be seen in this version of the model as the source of ‘static’ that interferes with our access to the mind, which is our direct link to the world of spirit. However, I don’t think this possible quibble should deter us from recognizing the value of what she then goes on to say on the back of this analogy (589):

Her core point is none the less clear (599-600):

If the mind is only a computer, then it is there for someone to use it: you.  The mind is just a tool, but a wonderful tool. The only problem is the common mistake of identifying with that tool. . . . . You need to find yourself. You need to find where and who you are. And I will say it again: meditation is the only means through which you are going to find these answers.

This does not mean that we should devalue what she calls the mind (613-621):

First of all, it does help you take care of your body to survive in the world. . . . . Secondly, it enables us to project ourselves in time, in the past and in the future, so we can understand what went wrong and avoid the same mistakes, and we can anticipate and plan for our future. . . . . Then, the mind helps us to tap into and translate information from the spirit world, . . . . . Also, a clear, focused and pointed mind will help us achieve anything we dream of. . . . . . Last, but not least, the mind will translate into words your true being, your soul.

Also that description indicates to me that her concept of mind is closer to that of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá than her original points suggested.

Nor do I want to argue with her next main point (622):

Our essence, our soul is energy and only energy. It does not communicate with language. It communicates with impressions, feelings, and intuitions.

She then moves onto a theme close to my heart (sorry if that sounds like a joke!) and one dealt with in some detail already on this blog so I won’t dwell at length on it here (625):

We are under the impression that our head says something and our heart, our inside, is trying to say something else. Believe me, in these situations, always listen to your heart. Always.

A key point comes slightly later and, though apparently simple, is in my view of profound importance, not just in terms of schooling, which is her point at the time, but for all of us throughout our lives (677): ‘we are not taught how not to use the mind when we do not need it.’ This is something crucial which it is never too late to learn.

ThriveShe emphasises that (677) children, if properly taught, ‘would learn how to focus and use their mind to solve problems, as well as how to turn the mind off in order to not over load it and stay stress free.’ And also, I would say, to gain access to other aspects of consciousness with different powers. Layard and Clark are similarly advocating the teaching of mindfulness in schools in their book Thrive, reviewed earlier on this blog Unfortunately there is little sign yet that schooling will shift from its current reinforcement of the language-bound ruminating mind any time soon.

One of challenges of undertaking meditation is that the rewards, in terms for example of a quietness and expansion of consciousness, cannot be experienced except as a result of meditation itself, so we have to embark on an effortful discipline motivated by faith alone. She puts it succinctly (716):

That silence and that space cannot be understood at all by the mind or the intellect as it is a no-mind place. The only way to comprehend it is to experience it, to live it. You need to find it for yourself.

Even so (722) ‘Enlightenment is not something far away and complicated to reach. It has always been there, inside you, easy to grasp, just waiting for you to be ready.’

Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, says essentially the same thing (Gleanings: CLIII):

Deprive not yourselves of the unfading and resplendent Light that shineth within the Lamp of Divine glory. Let the flame of the love of God burn brightly within your radiant hearts. . . . O My servants! My holy, My divinely ordained Revelation may be likened unto an ocean in whose depths are concealed innumerable pearls of great price, of surpassing luster. It is the duty of every seeker to bestir himself and strive to attain the shores of this ocean, so that he may, in proportion to the eagerness of his search and the efforts he hath exerted, partake of such benefits as have been pre-ordained in God’s irrevocable and hidden Tablets. . . . This most great, this fathomless and surging Ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life-vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.

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