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Posts Tagged ‘Existentialism’

Had the life and growth of the child in the womb been confined to that condition, then the existence of the child in the womb would have proved utterly abortive and unintelligible; as would the life of this world, were its deeds, actions and their results not to appear in the world to come.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í World Faith: page 393)

This is the last of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014 and 2015. It seems doubly appropriate to publish them yet again, both because they follow on naturally from the recently republished posts on the currency of suffering and because Emma’s recent comments on my blog reminded me yet again of the value of his perspective. 

In the previous two posts, I have been looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD) most particularly for what it has to say about suffering.

Both TPD and a rich and interesting approach to psychotherapy – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – owe much to existentialism. Mendaglio acknowledges his debt in the last chapter of the book he edited on this subject (page 251):

However, there is a great deal of similarity between existential psychology and the theory of positive disintegration. Both emphasise similar key concepts such as values, autonomy, authenticity, and existential emotions such as anxiety and depression. A more fundamental similarity is seen in the philosophical underpinnings of TPD, which is in large measure existentialism.

In spite of my own immense debt to existentialist thinking, only rivalled by my debts to Buddhism and to the Bahá’í Faith, I have certain reservations about Dabrowski’s take on the degree of choice we are able to exercise.

Crucial Caveats

His take on suffering is truly inspiring. Care needs to be taken though that we do not adopt this view in a way that assumes that those who are crushed by their sufferings are somehow to blame.

It is true that his model presupposes that each of us will probably meet a challenging choice point sometime in our lives, where we can either cling to the familiar comfortable half-truths that have failed us or strive to rise about them to higher levels of understanding. It is also true that he feels that many of us are capable of choosing the second option, if we only would.

However, not everyone is so lucky. I include here a brief summary of the life history of Ian – the man whose interview I have quoted extensively in the first three posts on An Approach to Psychosis.

His history shows very clearly that he could only make the second choice at times and then meet the pain and work through it to alleviate his tormenting voices. At other times the voices were preferable to experiencing the guilt and he chose what we might call madness rather than lucidity. Given the horrors he had faced it was clear that he should not be thought a failure. I would probably have done the same had I gone through what he had experienced in his life, from his earliest days.

Dabrowski seems to feel that our capacity to choose is genetically determined. Mendaglio explains (page 250):

Dabrowski . . . . postulated the existence of a third factor of development, representing a powerful autonomous inner force which is rooted in the biological endowment of individuals.

It seems to me that it would have taken a truly exceptional individual to make the choice to experience Ian’s level of pain in order to progress. If that does not seem quite convincing, there is another case history I would like to share very briefly.

Among the sequence of posts related to mental health there is a poem called ‘Voices.’ The woman upon whose experiences that poem is based, was brutally abused by her father, sexually, and by her mother, physically, from her earliest years through her mid-teens.

She came to us to work on her father’s abuse. We developed a safe way of working which involved starting with 15 minutes exploring how things had been since we last met. Then we moved on to 15-20 minutes of carefully calibrated work on the abuse. Then the last half hour of the session was spent helping her regain her ordinary state after mind after the work on her early experiences had intensified her hallucinations.

After almost a year of this work things seemed to be going well. Then came the unexpected. She found herself in a building that closely resembled the building strongly connected with the worst episode of abuse she had experienced at the hands of her father. Just being there was more than she could cope with. She became retraumatised in a way we none of us could have anticipated or prevented. The next time we met she could not stop sobbing.

We discussed what she might do. There were two main options.

She could, if she wished, continue on her current low levels of medication and move into a social services hostel where she would be well supported while we continued our work together, or she could be admitted onto the ward and given higher levels of medication in order to tranquillise her out of all awareness of her pain.

She chose the second option and I could not blame her in any way for doing so. It would be a betrayal of the word’s meaning to suppose she had any real choice at that point but to remain psychotic while the medication kicked in rather than deal with the toxic emotions in which she felt herself to be drowning.

It is when I consider these kinds of situation at my current level of understanding of his theory, that I feel it could leave the door open to destructive attitudes.

He believes, if I have understood him correctly, that some people’s genetic endowment is so robust they will ultimately choose the harder option regardless of the environment in which they grew up. Most of us are in the middle and with an environment that is not too extreme we will do quite well. The endowment of some is so poor, he seems to be saying, that it requires an optimal environment if they are to choose to grow even in a modest way.

This approach, if I have got it right, has two problems. The first, which is less central to the theme of this post, is that it is perhaps unduly deterministic because of the power that is given to inherited ‘endowment’ to determine the life course of any individual. The second problem is more relevant to current considerations in this post, though related to the first point. By placing such a determining role upon heredity, the force of the environment may be unduly discounted.

I am not claiming that he attaches no importance to environment. In fact, education for example is much emphasised in his work and he is clearly aware that limited societies will be limiting most people’s development – and he would include the greedy materialism of Western cultures in that equation. I’m not sure where he would place the impact of natural disasters in his scheme of things.

He may though be minimising the crushing impact of such experiences as the two people I worked with had undergone, in the second case throughout almost all her formative years. Could a strong genetic endowment have endured such hardship and come through significantly less damaged? If you feel so, you may end up not so much thinking ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I!’ but more ‘They broke because they were weak.’ Empathy, which Dobrawski values so much, would be impaired because we can start to define people as essentially different from us, not quite part of the same superior species.

More Complexities

This is a truly complex area to consider though, and I will have to restrict myself at this point to a very brief examination of one approach to it which does justice to that complexity.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his description of the various components of our character, suggests that what we inherit is a source of either strength or weakness (Some Answered Questions: page 213):

The variety of inherited qualities comes from strength and weakness of constitution—that is to say, when the two parents are weak, the children will be weak; if they are strong, the children will be robust. . . . . . For example, you see that children born from a weak and feeble father and mother will naturally have a feeble constitution and weak nerves; they will be afflicted and will have neither patience, nor endurance, nor resolution, nor perseverance, and will be hasty; for the children inherit the weakness and debility of their parents.

However, this is not quite the end of the matter. He does not conclude from this that moral qualities, good or bad, stem directly from the inherited temperament of an individual (pages 214-215):

But this is not so, for capacity is of two kinds: natural capacity and acquired capacity. The first, which is the creation of God, is purely good—in the creation of God there is no evil; but the acquired capacity has become the cause of the appearance of evil. For example, God has created all men in such a manner and has given them such a constitution and such capacities that they are benefited by sugar and honey and harmed and destroyed by poison. This nature and constitution is innate, and God has given it equally to all mankind. But man begins little by little to accustom himself to poison by taking a small quantity each day, and gradually increasing it, until he reaches such a point that he cannot live without a gram of opium every day. The natural capacities are thus completely perverted. Observe how much the natural capacity and constitution can be changed, until by different habits and training they become entirely perverted. One does not criticize vicious people because of their innate capacities and nature, but rather for their acquired capacities and nature.

Our habits and choices have a crucial part to play. Due weight though has also to be given to the power of upbringing and the environment (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 95, pp. 124–25):

It is not, however, permissible to strike a child, or vilify him, for the child’s character will be totally perverted if he be subjected to blows or verbal abuse.

This theme is taken up most powerfully by the central body of the Bahá’í Faith ((Universal House of Justice: April 2000):

In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate. Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially. Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty. This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere. The social dislocation of children in our time is a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition–it cuts across them all. It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are employed as soldiers, exploited as labourers, sold into virtual slavery, forced into prostitution, made the objects of pornography, abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention. Many such horrors are inflicted by the parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

This position allows for the fact that we need to take responsibility for our own development while at the same time acknowledging that we may be too damaged by the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous’ upbringing to do so to any great extent without a huge amount of help from other people. And most of us are the other people who need to exert ourselves to protect all children and nurture every damaged adult who crosses our path to the very best of our ability. Maybe Dabrowski is also saying this, but I haven’t read it yet. Even so his thought-provoking message is well worth studying.

In the end though, as the quote at the beginning of this post suggests, any consideration of suffering that fails to include a reality beyond the material leaves us appalled at what would seem the pointless horror of the pain humanity endures not only from nature but also from its own hands. I may have to come back to this topic yet again. (I did in fact return to a deeper consideration of Dabrowski’s model in a sequence of posts focused on Jenny Wade’s theory of human consciousness: see embedded links.)

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Dream GameAs I hinted at the end of the previous post, I don’t think the Transactional Analysis model goes far enough. It helps us develop a reasonable sense of part of the mind’s layout, but it lacks any contour lines to give us a real feeling of its depth.

One of the problems with TA is that it privileges the intellect – our head to use the everyday expression. In a way it has the same weakness as Kahneman’s model, discussed in detail elsewhere. Yes, we can clearly see the importance of distancing ourselves from our gut reactions, which Kahneman in my view mistakenly terms intuition. But, we have only our head to rely on in both these models. I don’t deny that this is far better at making wise decisions than our guts, particularly when complex situations are involved.

The TA psychotherapist who led the group I was in recognised that this emphasis on intellect was a weakness which is why she also drew on Gestalt therapy techniques and dream work in her approach. In fact, when I started to write this sequence of posts I had forgotten that and it was only as I thumbed through a journal I wrote at the time that I saw references to both techniques.

Even with the inclusion of both those methods, and I have given a vivid example in another post of how I used them to powerful effect many years later, TA still did not go far enough, as we will now see.

Star-diagramAn Encounter with Psychosynthesis

There are models that suggest we can and should go one step further at least. We need to be as suspicious about all our thoughts not just some of them. All our thinking is infected or at least influenced by ideas we have never questioned. We need to step back from our thoughts in their entirety just as I had been trying to step outside the prison of my conditioned reactions. Even positive thoughts may not be reliable.

While I was studying for my psychology degree at Birkbeck, I lived in Hendon, not far from the Psychosynthesis Institute. I’m not sure whether that’s what triggered my interest in that particular form of therapy. It may not have been, given the similarity between certain aspects of Psychosynthesis and TA, namely the exploration of subpersonalities. Jean Hardy, in her book on Psychosynthesis – A Psychology with a Soul – explains that (page 38) ‘the concept of subpersonality is a means of approaching… hidden and often seemingly forbidden areas.’

That may have been what drew me to Psychosynthesis, but it was not the main idea I derived from my reading about it.

In the end what captured my attention was the psychosynthesis idea of disidentification. That it presupposes a transcendent dimension including a Higher Self, with which we can get in touch, might have been expected to put me off, given my agnosticism at the time, but it did not seem to. This approach also emphasises the importance of values, which we need to connect with in order to guide our use of will power (yes, Assagioli believes that discredited faculty does exist), but I don’t think that’s what hooked me at the time either.

Assagioli explains (Psychosynthesis – page 22):

We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves.

Hardy quotes Assagioli on this issue (page 24):

. . . . the ‘man in the street’ and even many well-educated people do not take the trouble to observe themselves and to discriminate; they drift on the surface of the mind-stream and identify themselves with its successive waves, with the changing contents of their consciousness.

Psychosynthesis places great emphasis on practising disidentification exercises (see image below for an adapted example) so that we can learn how to step back from the contents of our consciousness and operate more calmly and wisely from a more grounded sense of ourselves. This of course immediately appealed to me, given that I was operating in a bit of a cauldron at work and needed to learn how to maintain my composure and presence of mind under pressure.

disidentification-exercise

Existential Psychotherapy

However, this was not the end of his influence. Assagioli himself, in the opening pages of Psychosynthesis, prompted me also to look at Existential Psychotherapy. At first I was only really aware of the importance this approach attached to meaning and choice: the perspective changing insight from existentialism came much later as I will explain in the next post. At this point in the development of my thinking I could see the importance of both meaning and choice, but somehow the existential approach to meaning seemed to ring a bit hollow.

Ernesto Spinelli’s valuable exploration of existential therapy – Demystifying Therapy – contains a passage that highlights what was the problem for me (page 294):

. . . . we are confronted with the meaningless of it all. The meaninglessness refers to the idea that nothing – not you, nor I, nor any ‘thing’ – has intrinsic or independent or static meaning. If things are ‘meaningful,’ then they are so only because they have been interpreted as being so. . . . . . Each of us, if we follow this line of argument, does not inhabit an independently ‘meaningful’ world – rather, we, as a species, as cultures, and as individuals in relation to one another, shape or create the various expressions of meaningfulness that we experience and believe in.

This sounds rather like Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian, in Carlos Castaneda’s series of books: in explaining the way of the warrior, he argued that the best we can do is achieve a kind of ‘controlled folly’ by investing meaning in the meaningless.

A warrior must know first that his acts are useless, and yet, he must proceed as if he didn’t know it. In other words, a warrior must know he is unimportant, but act as if he is important.

A Moment of Choice

I was struggling to discover where I stood on this for the whole time I was earning my BSc degree. Does life have a meaning or doesn’t it?

As I came to the end of my degree course I had to begin considering my next step. Emotionally, I was clear. I wanted to become a psychotherapist. I wasn’t sure what kind of psychotherapist I wanted to become, but was swinging between two options: Existential Psychotherapy or Psychosynthesis.

I decided to consult with my tutor. I explained my dilemma and also added that ultimately I wanted to work in the NHS not in private practice. I was stunned by the advice I got.

She said, ‘If you go into the NHS as a psychotherapist you will have to work under the direction of a psychiatrist.’

My extreme scepticism about the medical model made this option completely unacceptable.

‘What should I do then if I want to work within the NHS?’

‘I think the best option,’ she said, ‘is to become a clinical psychologist.’

I went off in a state of frustration and shock to explore this idea. In the end I went with it, thinking that when I’d got my clinical qualification I could always do my psychotherapy training.

Spirituality

In re-examining my diaries of the period in which I was doing my Clinical Psychology training, I came to realise that my world-view was fundamentally changing in a way I had failed to remember. I thought I was still resolutely agnostic at least if not downright atheist during all this time. It seems that this was simply not the case: my reality was slightly more complicated. I find the word ‘spirit’ occurring far more often in my journals of this period than I would have expected. The reason for that seems to have been my exploration of Buddhism.

Osho-Buddha-MAJJHIM-NIKAYAI can still remember the day I stood in front of the Surrey University library shelves and took down a book on Buddhism. Memory says I did this because I’d had a heads up about how sophisticated the Buddhist model of the human mind was. This may have been the case. It may have been more complicated than that at the unconscious level, in that my aunt, by then in her late 80s, had asked me to investigate Roman Catholicism again and, refusing to see a priest, I had agreed to look at a book on the subject, pulled down from shelves in the same section of the library.

Whatever the reason, I not only read about Buddhism, I also visited the Buddhist Centre in London and attended classes on meditation. I can locate this accurately in time as I was in the first year of the course doing my child specialism placement. By the 11 January 1981 I was taking detailed notes from Alan WattsThe Way of Zen. My comment on my reading up to that point may be revealing:

That reading stemmed from my need for some moral or value focus in my life. Interesting that in 1792 the Retreat in York was founded by Tuke, a Quaker, on moral principles not knowledge, and yet achieved so much so far ahead of its time for ‘lunatics.’ And yet so much harm has been done by fanatics in the name of various moralities. Only a life-centred rather than idea-centred morality will serve. Buddhism comes closer than any I know.

A fortnight later, while reading Christmas Humphreys‘ book, my thinking has moved on:

Even being committed to the “right” side in a battle… blinds my mind to the transcendent realisation that both sides are in the last analysis one. Best to tend the wounded of both sides than fight, even for freedom!

I was already showing strong reservations about the limits of psychology and responding strongly to Buddhism:

I will continue to think about Buddhism. It’s shedding an unbelievably clear light on my problems and giving me the strength to cope with them.…. People and their welfare are more important than the sterile ideas peddled on the course, more important than any ideas at all in fact. I can at least use the experience of the course better to understand my fellow human beings and myself under stress – it won’t be wasted.

A year later I seem to have achieved a more harmonious perspective:

My life is slowly becoming simpler, more integrated, less fearful. I can see how poetry, psychotherapy and Buddhism fit together. And perhaps how they all cohere with my personal life.

More on my struggles to learn how to meditate next time and on one of the epiphanies that helped shift my perspective radically.

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3rd 'I'When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing the week before last, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This second sequence is about the need to draw on deeper powers than instinct or intellect: this is the fifth post.

The previous posts in this sequence have attempted to illustrate the problem that certain kinds of dilemma pose for Kahneman‘s model of decision-making. He explores two basic modes of human cognition, which he labels System 1, which I have short-handed as instinctive, and System 2, which I have short-handed as intellectual. He shows how drawing on the powers of System 2 enhances our decision-making very significantly. He does not seem to consider that there is anywhere else for us to go beyond that.

For my part, I have been arguing that there is evidence, such as the effectiveness of dreamwork, to support the idea of a System 3, a genuine deeply intuitive mode, which draws on right brain and possibly spiritual capacities which are both slower and more holistic than System 1, and less verbal and more visual-kinaesthetic than System 2. I used the powerful image of the heart when referring to this mode of being, and suggested that because it whispers, we cannot hear its wisdom unless the mind is quiet.

This post and the next will examine first of all how silence is key to mobilising System 3 for an individual, and then look at how interthinking/consultation works for a group, especially if its members understand how to connect with their hearts. Both contexts, to my understanding, depend upon a state of what is usually termed ‘detachment’ and a process best captured by the word ‘reflection.’

Those who prefer not to accept the idea of a transcendent spiritual reality can still make use of these concepts up to a point, as the enhancement of cognitive therapy by the addition of mindfulness compellingly testifies. Those who embrace the idea of soul or spirit can, if the evidence of Dossey is to be believed, resort to prayer as a way of further strengthening the process without justifiably being accused of irrationality. Maybe Jack, who has been ruminating on his quandary for six weeks now, could do something with this to break his ties to the pendulum of indecision from which he is suspended.

Silence participants

Participants in ‘The Big Silence

How Golden is Silence?

Some time ago I watched a series of television programmes which illustrated how important silence can be in assisting us to gain access to aspects of our being which are extremely elusive. I blogged about it and in the process included what are for me two key quotes from the Baha’i writings on this subject. The first asserts (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: page 156) that ‘The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.’

I cannot pretend to plumb the depths of this statement. I have quoted it because I feel it not only establishes the critical importance of silence but it also links silence with detachment. As we will see in a moment, even at its most basic level, one that does not necessarily challenge a materialist to believe in God or accept the reality of the soul, detachment is a state highly conducive both to accessing our deepest intuitions and to apprehending accurately what others are seeking to communicate to us. More on the second point later.

 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expands on the possibilities inherent in silence (Paris Talks page 174):

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate. It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.

I have already blogged at length about the difficulties presented by our terminology when discussing mind, soul, spirit, and so on. I will not rehearse all that again here and would request that no one reading this allow themselves to get sidetracked from the essence of what I am seeking to convey here by the fact that the translator of this passage has used the word ‘intellect’ instead of ‘mind.’

ConvergenceConvergence of Approaches

Contemplation, reflection, mindfulness and meditation are words that are often used to mean closely related states of mind and modes of thinking. This is not to say that there are no differences at all between them that could be illustrated by different schools of thought. What I am going to be focusing on, though, is their illuminating common ground.

Almost every exercise in mindfulness involves a process of breaking old distracting patterns of thought and substituting a different mode of consciousness. Whether we are asking ourselves to focus on a candle flame, a raisin (as many psychologists begin by doing), a mantra or a melody, what we are doing is unhooking our consciousness from its usual flow of self-talk and imagery, and choosing instead one thing and one thing alone to concentrate all our attention upon.

It is easy to see how this step shifts us from a cacophony of distractions in the head to a state of relative quiet where the flow of our breathing or of a melody, the taste of a raisin or the glow of a candle, helps us tune out the din.

In describing these exercises I have used a key expression: ‘unhooking our consciousness.’ For me, this is an aspect of detachment. If it is not a pure state of detachment, it is certainly a step towards it. It also suggests that silencing the mind and achieving a state of detachment of some important kind are related, are mutually reinforcing.

It seems to involve stepping back from our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and plans. Psychosynthesis calls this process Disidentification (see link – Disidentification exercise). This approach to psychotherapy believes it is a path towards recognising the essence of our true nature, towards connecting with what we truly are.

In Existentialist Philosophy this process is called reflection. Reflection, in their terms, 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. We may have been trapped in a mindset. Through using and acquiring the power of reflection, we do not then replace one “fixation” with another: we are provisional and somewhat tentative in our new commitments which remain fluid in their turn. 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 assumptions, models and maps. We come to see we are consciousness not its contents.

The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict and indecision and opens us up to new experiences, different perspectives: 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. As we will see it paves the way for exchanging perspectives with other people and learning from that exchange to find transcendent positions.

1 Earth Heart aloneConnecting with our Core

That so many different systems of belief converge on this one idea suggests that it is real, implies that it is a powerful way of connecting with the deepest levels of our being.  Koestenbaum is no theist, but the image by which he chooses to summarise this insight speaks volumes.

He explains it as follows in his book ‘New Image of the Person: the Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy’, (page 73): ‘The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’ Reflection, he says (page 99): ‘. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.’ This links back to an unexpected core idea he had already presented (page 49): ‘The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.’

We are not so far away from the words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. ‘It is an axiomatic fact,’ He states, ‘that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá continues:

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

It must say something important when such divergent traditions of thought converge on this one point. Why would we then deny that deep inside us is a source of wisdom it is well worth tapping?

At the bottom of this post is a simple exercise anyone can try that takes a small step in the direction of connecting us with the ground of our being. Hopefully any experiments with this will clear the path for tackling the challenges of the next post which will deal with group processes. It could be that this would also have helped Jack find a way to transcend his dilemma, on the horns of which he has been pinioned uncomfortably for weeks now. Perhaps we’ll see.

Bahai Mantra

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One hour’s reflection is worth seventy years’ pious worship.Mirror 1

Bahá’u’lláh: quoting a hadith in the Kitáb-i-Íqán

It seems a good idea to republish this sequence from almost four years ago to complement the current new sequence on collaborative conversation. This is the fifth of six.. 

Three Crucial Factors

There are at least three other crucial factors in the mind-work process over and above what we have dealt with in the previous posts: Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity. They are qualities that the mind-worker must have from the start. The names for these qualities are used in an existential model of mind-work. (Reflection is also a core quality of the Bahá’í spiritual process 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.)

Reflection, relativity and relatedness as discussed here are the antidotes to three forces of fixity – drowning, dogmatism and disowning — which I discussed in detail in the article on The Art of Reflection (there I discussed in depth collaborative conversation, a term I borrowed at the time from Anderson and Swim) in This is Madness. The forces of fixity are common when we function in survival mode. Psychotic experiences in people who need help from Mental Health Services are very threatening. Being in survival mode is therefore very much the norm for many of them. Creating a situation that feels safe is of paramount importance. Otherwise it can be very difficult to mobilise the forces of flexibility.

Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity are the core of the mind-work process. They will need some further explanation. They are what the mind-worker models and what the client can either develop further or discover how to use. If the mind-worker lacks them the process of mind-work is likely to remain locked in unproductive disputes that tend to drive the client further into his private world. The client may or may not demonstrate them at the beginning but should increasingly do so as the mind-work progresses.  The better the mind-worker models them the more likely it is that the client will begin to use them too. These qualities are what consolidate and generalise the process of change. They ensure that the process of mind-work becomes a permanently transformative one. If the client does not develop these abilities there is likely to be no real sustainable progress.

These three capacities combine with the relationship aspects in different ways – trust, containment and authenticity – each of which contributes something special and important to the therapeutic process. They may have an order of importance which is discussed later in that without Trust it may be impossible to develop Containment and without Trust and Containment Authenticity may be impossible. Eventually the client will certainly need to acquire and evince Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity, without which he will never make his own any clarity that comes from the mind-worker.

What, in the Relationship, Makes Change Possible?

The Plane of Authenticity

Clarification and Congruence (see earlier posts) are two sides of a square mind-space, so to speak, which is completed by Reflection and Relativity, two concepts which are also related. The combination constitutes what we might call Authenticity.

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. We may have been trapped in a mindset. Through using and acquiring the power of reflection, we do not then replace one “fixation” with another: we are provisional and somewhat tentative in our new commitments which remain fluid in their turn. 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 assumptions, models and maps.

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. This is especially true of “psychosis.” The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict 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.

The ability to reflect, one part of our repertoire of tools for transformation, enables us to achieve our own clarification without depending upon another mind-worker. If a mind-worker does all the reflecting she is just giving people fish: if she can help someone discover how to reflect, she has taught him to fish. In combination with its sister quality, relativity, it becomes a powerful tool indeed. The antidote to chronic dogmatism, another of the forces of fixity, 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 or, as I call it here, collaborative conversation.

We can, and as mind-workers we must, become almost as sceptical of our own position as we tend to be of other people’s.  Any other posture is unhelpfully dogmatic in this context. The extent to which I should then explicitly endorse the client’s position is still an issue of debate. Peter Chadwick, for instance, in his book Schizophrenia: a positive perspective, contends that it would not have been at all helpful to him to have staff endorse his beliefs in supernatural influences at the time he was experiencing extreme psychotic phenomena, even though he still holds those beliefs to be valid now that he is well: had they been endorsed by staff at the time he might have killed himself.

Authenticity matters because without it the clarity necessary for effective action and coping is unlikely to become possible. Client and mind-worker could well remain in a warm and sympathetic muddle that leads nowhere. As we will see in a moment though, without the warmth of an accepting relationship, authenticity and its resulting clarity can seem far too dangerous to risk.

Without a clear sense of uncertainty about absolute truth radical authenticity of the kind required here may prove impossible. An example from my own work serves to illustrate this well. A client was convinced the devil had a purpose for him. He was very concerned about whether I believed in the devil or not. He pressed me in almost every session for an answer. In the end, concerned to be congruent, I told him I did not. He broke off mindwork. I reflected on this afterwards. It became apparent to me that I had spoken from a position of dogmatic and unreflecting identification with my views about the devil. It would have been more authentic to acknowledge that, as a fellow human being struggling to make sense of the world, I couldn’t know for sure whether the devil existed or not. I could have shared with him, if he had pushed me further, that I had chosen to operate in my own life on the assumption that the devil did not exist. This would not, I think, have broken the relationship in a way that made further work I possible.

The Plane of Trust

Relativity shares a space with Relatedness. This term was chosen because it began with an ‘r’! Perhaps openness is a better word. Ernesto Spinelli (1st Edition: 1994) uses the expression “ownership.” Either way, along with Warmth, Encouragement (both discussed in earlier posts) and Relativity, it helps develop Trust, a crucial component that the client must eventually bring to the therapeutic process, and along with Empathy, Solidarity and Reflection it helps the client develop the ability to contain, rather than disown or act out, his inner experiences. The relation between Trust and Containment we will return to in a moment.

First of all we 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, the last of the forces of fixity. 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, just as Ian was a prey to his repressed pain which turned into hostile or destructive voices. 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.

Trust comes first. We need to trust someone sufficiently to feel the strength flow into us from her Solidarity, to be able to know that she understands how we feel but will not therefore dump us or summon undermining and unwanted help, and to see how she feels confident enough to open up to what she feels about us and subject it to careful Reflection.  This is what gives us the opportunity to learn that we can contain our experiences and change our relationship with and understanding of them.

How do we develop Trust?

First of all, we need to feel the warmth of the mind-worker, her unwavering and unconditional valuing of us. Next, we need to sense her relativity, that she knows the incompleteness and inadequacy of her understanding and can suspend judgement and criticism indefinitely until it is really constructive to share (not impose) it. Then, we need to experience her encouragement, which unfailingly rewards our efforts to apply what we have discovered to our problems. Last but by no means least, we need to see her relatedness, her unthreatened openness to all experience, which allows us to become more aware of other dimensions of our own experience.  These things together make it possible for us to trust other people, our experience and ourselves. Without this making and sustaining change becomes almost impossible.

The Plane of Containment

This mind-space comprises empathy, solidarity (both discussed in an earlier post), relatedness and reflection. If someone is standing beside us in our struggles, giving us comfort, understanding what we are going through, and showing an open and reflective attitude to the revelations we share, it helps 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 the therapeutic process.

In our culture we are all too prone to either repression (convincing ourselves we’re not experiencing something when we are) or acting out (expressing whatever we are currently experiencing and ignoring the consequences until it is too late). Containment is the creative third way and a key to change.

An inability to contain experiences of a disturbing nature accounts for much substance abuse, self-harm and dependency on mind-altering subscription drugs. Containment is often not possible outside a set of supportive relationships of the kind I am attempting to describe.

Furthermore, 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 no Containment. And without Trust and Containment, Authenticity will be impossible, I suspect. Any life-lie will seem a tempting port in the storm of life if distrust and disowning rule the mind.

In the next post I will attempt to pull this all together.

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Had the life and growth of the child in the womb been confined to that condition, then the existence of the child in the womb would have proved utterly abortive and unintelligible; as would the life of this world, were its deeds, actions and their results not to appear in the world to come.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í World Faith: page 393)

I have embarked on a sequence of new posts which examines a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme.

This is the last of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014. I don’t usually republish things so quickly but their relevance to the idea of levels of consciousness made it seem a good idea.

In the previous two posts, I have been looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD) most particularly for what it has to say about suffering.

Both TPD and a rich and interesting approach to psychotherapy – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – owe much to existentialism. Mendaglio acknowledges his debt in the last chapter of the book he edited on this subject (page 251):

However, there is a great deal of similarity between existential psychology and the theory of positive disintegration. Both emphasise similar key concepts such as values, autonomy, authenticity, and existential emotions such as anxiety and depression. A more fundamental similarity is seen in the philosophical underpinnings of TPD, which is in large measure existentialism.

In spite of my own immense debt to existentialist thinking, only rivalled by my debts to Buddhism and to the Bahá’í Faith, I have certain reservations about Dabrowski’s take on the degree of choice we are able to exercise.

Crucial Caveats

His take on suffering is truly inspiring. Care needs to be taken though that we do not adopt this view in a way that assumes that those who are crushed by their sufferings are somehow to blame.

It is true that his model presupposes that each of us will probably meet a challenging choice point sometime in our lives, where we can either cling to the familiar comfortable half-truths that have failed us or strive to rise about them to higher levels of understanding. It is also true that he feels that many of us are capable of choosing the second option, if we only would.

However, not everyone is so lucky. I include here a brief summary of the life history of Ian – the man whose interview I have quoted extensively in the first three posts on An Approach to Psychosis.

His history shows very clearly that he could only make the second choice at times and then meet the pain and work through it to alleviate his tormenting voices. At other times the voices were preferable to experiencing the guilt and he chose what we might call madness rather than lucidity. Given the horrors he had faced it was clear that he should not be thought a failure. I would probably have done the same had I gone through what he had experienced in his life, from his earliest days.

Dabrowski seems to feel that our capacity to choose is genetically determined. Mendaglio explains (page 250):

Dabrowski . . . . postulated the existence of a third factor of development, representing a powerful autonomous inner force which is rooted in the biological endowment of individuals.

It seems to me that it would have taken a truly exceptional individual to make the choice to experience Ian’s level of pain in order to progress. If that does not seem quite convincing, there is another case history I would like to share very briefly.

Among the sequence of posts related to mental health there is a poem called ‘Voices.’ The woman upon whose experiences that poem is based, was brutally abused by her father, sexually, and by her mother, physically, from her earliest years through her mid-teens.

She came to us to work on her father’s abuse. We developed a safe way of working which involved starting with 15 minutes exploring how things had been since we last met. Then we moved on to 15-20 minutes of carefully calibrated work on the abuse. Then the last half hour of the session was spent helping her regain her ordinary state after mind after the work on her early experiences had intensified her hallucinations.

After almost a year of this work things seemed to be going well. Then came the unexpected. She found herself in a building that closely resembled the building strongly connected with the worst episode of abuse she had experienced at the hands of her father. Just being there was more than she could cope with. She became retraumatised in a way we none of us could have anticipated or prevented. The next time we met she could not stop sobbing.

We discussed what she might do. There were two main options.

She could, if she wished, continue on her current low levels of medication and move into a social services hostel where she would be well supported while we continued our work together, or she could be admitted onto the ward and given higher levels of medication in order to tranquillise her out of all awareness of her pain.

She chose the second option and I could not blame her in any way for doing so. It would be a betrayal of the word’s meaning to suppose she had any real choice at that point but to remain psychotic while the medication kicked in rather than deal with the toxic emotions in which she felt herself to be drowning.

It is when I consider these kinds of situation at my current level of understanding of his theory, that I feel it could leave the door open to destructive attitudes.

He believes, if I have understood him correctly, that some people’s genetic endowment is so robust they will ultimately choose the harder option regardless of the environment in which they grew up. Most of us are in the middle and with an environment that is not too extreme we will do quite well. The endowment of some is so poor, he seems to be saying, that it requires an optimal environment if they are to choose to grow even in a modest way.

This approach, if I have got it right, has two problems. The first, which is less central to the theme of this post, is that it is perhaps unduly deterministic because of the power that is given to inherited ‘endowment’ to determine the life course of any individual. The second problem is more relevant to current considerations in this post, though related to the first point. By placing such a determining role upon heredity, the force of the environment may be unduly discounted.

I am not claiming that he attaches no importance to environment. In fact, education for example is much emphasised in his work and he is clearly aware that limited societies will be limiting most people’s development – and he would include the greedy materialism of Western cultures in that equation. I’m not sure where he would place the impact of natural disasters in his scheme of things.

He may though be minimising the crushing impact of such experiences as the two people I worked with had undergone, in the second case throughout almost all her formative years. Could a strong genetic endowment have endured such hardship and come through significantly less damaged? If you feel so, you may end up not so much thinking ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I!’ but more ‘They broke because they were weak.’ Empathy, which Dobrawski values so much, would be impaired because we can start to define people as essentially different from us, not quite part of the same superior species.

More Complexities

This is a truly complex area to consider though, and I will have to restrict myself at this point to a very brief examination of one approach to it which does justice to that complexity.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his description of the various components of our character, suggests that what we inherit is a source of either strength or weakness (Some Answered Questions: page 213):

The variety of inherited qualities comes from strength and weakness of constitution—that is to say, when the two parents are weak, the children will be weak; if they are strong, the children will be robust. . . . . . For example, you see that children born from a weak and feeble father and mother will naturally have a feeble constitution and weak nerves; they will be afflicted and will have neither patience, nor endurance, nor resolution, nor perseverance, and will be hasty; for the children inherit the weakness and debility of their parents.

However, this is not quite the end of the matter. He does not conclude from this that moral qualities, good or bad, stem directly from the inherited temperament of an individual (pages 214-215):

But this is not so, for capacity is of two kinds: natural capacity and acquired capacity. The first, which is the creation of God, is purely good—in the creation of God there is no evil; but the acquired capacity has become the cause of the appearance of evil. For example, God has created all men in such a manner and has given them such a constitution and such capacities that they are benefited by sugar and honey and harmed and destroyed by poison. This nature and constitution is innate, and God has given it equally to all mankind. But man begins little by little to accustom himself to poison by taking a small quantity each day, and gradually increasing it, until he reaches such a point that he cannot live without a gram of opium every day. The natural capacities are thus completely perverted. Observe how much the natural capacity and constitution can be changed, until by different habits and training they become entirely perverted. One does not criticize vicious people because of their innate capacities and nature, but rather for their acquired capacities and nature.

Our habits and choices have a crucial part to play. Due weight though has also to be given to the power of upbringing and the environment (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 95, pp. 124–25):

It is not, however, permissible to strike a child, or vilify him, for the child’s character will be totally perverted if he be subjected to blows or verbal abuse.

This theme is taken up most powerfully by the central body of the Bahá’í Faith ((Universal House of Justice: April 2000):

In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate. Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially. Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty. This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere. The social dislocation of children in our time is a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition–it cuts across them all. It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are employed as soldiers, exploited as labourers, sold into virtual slavery, forced into prostitution, made the objects of pornography, abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention. Many such horrors are inflicted by the parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

This position allows for the fact that we need to take responsibility for our own development while at the same time acknowledging that we may be too damaged by the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous’ upbringing to do so to any great extent without a huge amount of help from other people. And most of us are the other people who need to exert ourselves to protect all children and nurture every damaged adult who crosses our path to the very best of our ability. Maybe Dabrowski is also saying this, but I haven’t read it yet. Even so his thought-provoking message is well worth studying.

In the end though, as the quote at the beginning of this post suggests, any consideration of suffering that fails to include a reality beyond the material leaves us appalled at what would seem the pointless horror of the pain humanity endures not only from nature but also from its own hands. I may have to come back to this topic yet again. (I did in fact return to a deeper consideration of Dabrowski’s model in a sequence of posts focused on Jenny Wade’s theory of human consciousness: see embedded links.)

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The sequence of posts reviewing Karen Wilson’s book on the power of meditation seemed to make this a good time to republish some related posts of my own from the past. As the last review post was dealing with the need to change our priorities, I felt that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy had something useful to say about that. Below is the second of four posts, two of which will come out this week and two next. In order to fully understand the power and range of ACT‘s ideas, which are pulled together from a number of traditions, it helps to look at what other thinkers have shared. I feel this seeming digression is needed if some of the fog around their language is to lift. We have met Koestenbaum, the existential philosopher, in the context of reflection, and his ideas also relate to translating values into higher realities in the personal world, an issue close to the heart of ACT. Much of what they borrowed from existentialism can be found in his book, far more clearly expressed. When I lived in London more than twenty years ago, at least once a month, sometimes more often, I  would set out from my house in Hendon and either turn left, heading for the library nearby on foot, or step into my car and drive down the North Circular to Hendon Way, then onto the Finchley Road to the library at Swiss Cottage. Upstairs there they housed a wealth of books on philosophy and psychology.  I borrowed his book, The New Image of the Person from Swiss Cottage library in early September 1982. It is the only book of that period in my life from which I have kept such hugely detailed notes. I finished my encounter with it in October the same year, shortly before I became aware I was a Bahá’í. It had a huge impact on me as a person and as a therapist. Maybe I shall blog about that some day. For now one small quote will do. He writes:

. . . the retreat of consciousness from lower identifications enables it to realise (understand and bring into being) increasingly higher levels of being.

The notes form part of the journal I kept in those days. Jottings about the day’s events are mixed with long quotes from whatever book I was reading at the time. Revisiting the journal entries around these quotes from Koestenbaum’s book gave me at least one mild surprise. Half my notes from his book are in a rust red notebook that ends in September 1982. I started a new notebook on 3rd October stating:

I think I am at the beginning of a very long climb upwards. . . . . Perhaps the best thing I can do is read that book on clinical philosophy for some hints about how to give a banal life some meaning.

It had become clear, in some work I did with a Jungian therapist, that I had a bit of a problem with commitment. We discussed this and concluded that my epitaph would read: ‘He died with his options open.’ The issues were clarified but remained unresolved until,I think, the ideas in Koestenbaum’s book helped me move beyond that problem and also gave me a strong steer towards an acceptance of the Bahá’í Faith when I finally read a book about it in late November that same year. It could go some way to explaining my extreme excitement when I came across the identical ideas nearly 25 years later in the ACT book without at that time having any awareness of the link the journal supplied. I thought I’d read the book much earlier than 1982. This indicates to me how powerfully the application of what I read to the way I live lifts my life sometimes to higher levels. Reading can have the opposite effect, of course, and my early taste for escapist fiction may have seriously arrested my development well into my twenties. In previous posts I have dealt with two issues that relate to what I am about to explore. The first concerns the proven power of the mind, when deliberately focused, to change the brain. The second concerns the power that reflection has for individuals and consultation for groups to unhook us from unhelpful habits of thinking, feeling, behaviour and self-image. Much of that thinking underpins the ideas this post explores but it would be impossible to rehearse them all over again. ACT manualIn an earlier post on motivation I looked at certain basic ideas in the ACT approach that might begin to help us enact our values more effectively and over sufficiently long periods to make a real difference to our world. An unusually clear statement of their position comes on page 238 of their 1999 book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy:

Applying willingness to support action consistent with chosen values is a central goal of act.

They also explain that ‘willingness is not wanting. It is an act of choice.’ They use the example of a marriage to illustrate exactly what they mean. Their explanation repays careful reading and re-reading (pages 218-219).

Marriage is a commitment, yet half of all marriages end in divorce. How could this be? In part it occurs because people do not know how to make commitments. They try to make them on the basis of judgements, decisions, and reasons, not choices. In so doing they put their commitments greatly at risk. 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. . . . . 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. 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. But feelings of love are extremely unpredictable. . . . . [W]e say that we fall into and fall out of this emotional state . . . It should not then be a surprise when we fall into and fall out of marriages in much the same way. If the client can learn to make choices in these areas, things work differently. Consider how much easier it is to keep a marriage vow if marriage is based on a choice to marry and if love is considered to be a choice to value the other and hold the other special.

The photograph is of their very useful manual of practical suggestions about how to implement their therapy. This idea of commitment may go some way towards helping us understand more fully what the Universal  House of Justice is requiring of us when they ask (Turning Point page 164) for a ‘[c]ommitment to [the] revolutionising principle’ of accepting ‘responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ These concepts and practices, so close to those of Koestenbaum, gel with similar ideas in many other thinkers I have been exposed to, both at the time and later. It is worth quoting from some other writers to demonstrate how important this group of ideas is and how prevalent they are. They help clarify the core point.

Psychosynthesis Star Diagram, formulated by Ro...

Aspects of Consciousness in Psychosynthesis

Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, is one person who shares a similar perspective. His view is 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.

And this determination will need to be collectively sustained over generations because building a new world is

. . . an enterprise of infinite complexity and scale, one that will demand centuries of exertion by humanity to bring to fruition. There are no shortcuts, no formulas. Only as effort is made to draw on insights from His Revelation, to tap into the accumulating knowledge of the human race, to apply His teachings intelligently to the life of humanity, and to consult on the questions that arise will the necessary learning occur and capacity be developed.

(Universal House of Justice: 21 April 2010 – para 25)

As an intriguing note to end this post on, it is interesting to see that even from well beyond the edge of widely accepted thought, where you might expect to find a laissez faire laid-back do-your-own-thing approach extolled, this kind of discipline is sometimes recommended. Jim Leonardand Phil Laut wrote in their book on Rebirthing (page 224):

Discipline means staying with your plan and integrating the cross-current desire. Discipline is the virtue that is cultivated with repetition and is one of the greatest privileges of being a free human being. Indeed it is impossible to be free without it. Some people think that freedom means freedom to satisfy their desires, but that is just slavery to desires. Real freedom means being able to choose where you are going with your life and then going there. Discipline means knowing what your goal is and then doing what it takes to action it.

Of course, there is a catch to that last point.  What goals you set, and whether they will be ultimately self-serving or altruistic, depend upon the values you have. And that brings us back to ACT once more and the way it is helping me understand many of the implications of the complex and demanding message of the Universal House of Justice. Because each point the authors make is so rich in possibilities we will only be able to focus on one or two key issues in their approach in this sequence of posts. If I ever get round to doing a review of Koestenbaum’s book there will be an opportunity to unravel more.

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butterfly

. . . [T]he civilisation that beckons humanity will not be attained through the efforts of the Bahá’í community alone.  Numerous groups and organisations, animated by the spirit of world solidarity that is an indirect manifestation of Bahá’u’lláh’s conception of the principle of the oneness of humankind, will contribute to the civilisation destined to emerge out of the welter and chaos of present-day society.

(Universal House of Justice: 21 April 2010 – para 26)

The sequence of posts reviewing Karen Wilson’s book on the power of meditation seemed to make this a good time to republish some related posts of my own from the past. As the last review post was dealing with the need to change our priorities, I felt that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy had something useful to say about that. Below is the first of four posts, two of which will come out this week and two next.

It must have been a couple of years before I retired. We were interviewing for people to take up the post of Clinical Psychologist in a Community Mental Health Service. I specialised in the rehabilitation and recovery of people with severe and enduring mental health problems but was also Head of the Psychology Service at the time and therefore part of this interview panel.

She was, I think, the last candidate of the afternoon – small, dark-haired and softly spoken. We were sitting in an upstairs room flooded with honey-coloured sunlight and uncomfortably warm as a result. I was beginning to wilt. In fact, I had probably wilted and was just hoping nobody had noticed.

She was about to say something that would wake me up in more senses than one.

We went through the usual polite formalities. We weren’t sure whether she would be suitable for so generic a post as she also had chosen, some time previously, to specialise, as it happened in my own area of expertise – rehabilitation and recovery. I asked her some formulaic question about her orientation, sleepily convinced in advance that I would have heard it all before. She’d only been specialised for three years or so after all. She mentioned ACT in the course of a long answer about something else.

During the time we got the something else out of the way, I debated with myself whether to show my ignorance and ask her what ACT was or whether to forget about it as it was not really important, probably, from the point of view of the post currently in question. It would have been so easy to look smart and learn nothing, but something wouldn’t let me. I just had to ask.

‘What’s A.C.T. exactly?’ I enquired as casually as I could, trying to sound as though I really knew but just wanted her to explain. She didn’t look fooled for a minute.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,’ she replied helpfully. She knew what I was doing all right.

Silence.

‘Could you say a bit more about it?’ My follow up after quite a long pause triggered a flurry of foot and paper shuffling among my fellow panellists who were clearly not at all sure where this was going. They’d obviously expected a swift ‘I thought so’ kind of response, followed by some searching expert question.

She gave me a thumbnail sketch which blew me away. How could I not have heard of this before? –  a therapy that combined some of my pet obsessions – existentialism, meditation, metaphor, the nature and effects of suffering, to name but the most obvious that burst like Exocets into my brain as she explained.

She spoke very briefly on each aspect, just enough to press the button that fired the Exocet. The key point for the work we both had in common was the focus of this therapy on getting people unstuck from disabling patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour that were keeping them paralysed.

I couldn’t wait for the interview to get over and check it out on the net and find a book to buy about it. (She didn’t get the job, by the way, but I owe her a lot and she almost certainly doesn’t know that.)

ACT ManualThe book I bought was ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: an experiential approach to behaviour change’ by Hayes, Strohsahl and Wilson. I can’t give the writers a prize for clarity, and they chose to start the book in the thick of a conceptual fog which would have caused anyone less motivated than I was to slip into a coma. However, the ideas I did understand were life-changing and I read the book twice within a week, bored anyone who would listen with its wonders, and bemoaned the fact that it was too late in my career to train in this form of therapy myself. (The manual shown in the picture is a much better starting point for most people.)

Why does this book matter now when I have been retired for nearly three years?

Well, for a start it’s a gateway to some very powerful insights that help me understand my own spiritual tradition more deeply, particularly when we are contemplating the daunting task of community-, society– and civilisationbuilding to which we, as Bahá’ís, are committed in our way along with every other like-minded person on the planet in his or hers. It deals head on with the problems of how to get started and how to keep going in any long-term enactment of values. It’s both wise and practical, draws on both left-brain and right-brain processes, and shows us how we might combine ‘efficiency and love’ in the way our Bahá’í mode of operation requires us to. What it says is rooted in experience and confirms age-old insights from the East that Westerners have found it hard to see as credible. It marries ‘science and soul,’ to adapt Ken Wilber‘s phrasing. Need I go on?

One concept in the book was spot on for the people I worked with. ‘I’ll tackle this stuff when I’m feeling better,’ was a frequent justification for doing nothing. The book makes it very clear that most of the time we won’t feel better until we do something.

How do they arrive at that conclusion and how do they justify the idea that action is in itself transformative and that waiting to transform before you act is not an option?

To answer that we need to look separately at the three components of the name the authors have given to their approach: acceptance, and commitment and the acronym ‘act.’ They decode it as accept, choose and take action (page 81). If I am also going to relate what they say to the processes of community-building I have referred to I will need to save much of this for another post or three.

Hopefully by the time I tackle those posts I will have moved forward even further in my understanding of the most recent message from our central body, from which I quote below in the Commitment section. It is a complex and richly interconnected exposition of what is required of the Bahá’í community at this point. I have, in addition to my own reading and some informal discussion, spent three whole days over two weekends consulting in depth over what it implies about what we should be doing now. I need all the help I can get at unpacking its riches.

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What I will do for now is briefly describe the three central aspects, which won’t even begin to address the major questions adequately.

Acceptance:

What exactly is it that has to be accepted?

They summarise their view as follows on page 78-79:

Reflecting the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous, ACT aims to teach clients how to accept the things that cannot or need not change, and how to change the things that can be changed. Unlike this prayer, ACT provides specific guidance on how to know the difference. . . . . ACT therapists recognise that in the context of making choices and taking actions, automatic reactions will appear. The client who must avoid these reactions must also avoid change. What dignifies acceptance is that it is done in the service of valued change in the client’s external world, not in the world of private experiences.

There will be more to say about the hows, whys and wherefores of that when we look at the specifics in later posts.

Commitment:

Commitment, their model states, determines the choices we make. It is inseparable from our values (page 210):

In the area of values, . . . we must learn to value even if we don’t feel like it. We must learn to love even when we are angry, to care even when we are exasperated.

Helping people become clearer about their values is a key component of their therapeutic process. Helping people understand that the enacting of what they value is more conducive to their feeling fulfilled than the achievement of any specific goal is another: this emphasis on process is one that is becoming evermore explicit in the Bahá’í approach.

. . . . a significant advance in culture, one which we have followed with particular interest, is marked by the rise in capacity to think in terms of process. That, from the outset, the believers have been asked to be ever conscious of the broad processes that define their work is apparent from a careful reading of even the earliest communications of the Guardian related to the first national plans of the Faith. However, in a world focused increasingly on the promotion of events, or at best projects, with a mindset that derives satisfaction from the sense of expectation and excitement they generate, maintaining the level of dedication required for long-term action demands considerable effort.

(Universal House of Justice: 28 December 2010)

This leads to a willingness to accept, rather than fight or flee from, the challenging, uncomfortable and often protracted experiences that lead to enduring and significant change – an all-important skill in their view.

Action:

Even making strong commitments to action does not guarantee action (page 245). The values you have decided to commit to may not be truly yours but ones imposed from outside by society. You may be holding onto and rationalising a block that needs to be worked through.  Maybe it’s too big a step at this point and you need to practice the skills you need on something smaller. In the end, though, there has to be a willingness to overcome obstacles (page 247):

Many clients have long-standing and strongly reinforced avoidance repertoires that can be expected to reappear. . . . . . [T]he client’s job is not just to determine a direction but to reaffirm that direction when obstacles appear. . . . . [W]hen we are travelling in a particular direction, the journey can take us across difficult ground. . . . [W]e don’t walk into pain because we like pain. We walk through the pain in the service of taking a valued direction.

Spirituality:

Before we leave this lightning overview it’s perhaps worth mentioning how ACT sees spirituality (page 275):

Spirituality as a mode of intervention is highly valued in ACT. Spirituality does not necessarily imply the use of organised religion or even theistic beliefs, but rather a view of the world that recognises a transcendent quality to human experience, acknowledges the universal aspects of the human condition, and respects the client’s values and choices.

The rest will have to wait.

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