Posts Tagged ‘Gestalt Therapy’

De toda la memoria, solo vale
el don preclaro de evocar los sueños.

(For this alone is memory to be prized,
this signal gift of calling back old dreams.

(From Antonio Machado Selected Poems trans. By Alan Trueblood: pages 98-99)

What next?

In the last post we had reached a point in the process where the basic but all-important spade work had been done. We have the raw material. Now we must find a way of decoding the imagery to decipher what the dream might mean.

In the previous post we were looking at how we might consult with our dreams in order to discover different and more helpful ways of approaching our challenges in life, other than the two described by Daniel Kahneman as System 1 and System 2. We got part way through a description of a process, mostly derived from the work of Ann Faraday in her book The Dream Game, by which we could learn how to do this. The idea is that this represents a genuine third way of seeing, even a third kind of self through which to see. It is not the only such way but it is the focus here.

So we’re picking up the threads from where we left off – how do we decode the symbols in the dreams we have recorded.

Stage 2 – Decoding the Dream

  1. Defining the Dream Elements

This is a crucial part of the process and so easy to get wrong. It is vitally important to be completely objective in listing the elements. I had to be careful not to dismiss any that I felt were not promising or not sufficiently drenched in deep significance. Also elements, as I discovered, are not just objects and people. They are everything in the dream including actions, feelings, fragments of conversation: even my own thoughts as a dreamer need to be included.

  1. Decoding Dream Elements

There was an over-riding consideration I rapidly realised applied to all aspects of dreamwork. The most fruitful assumption to make, once I decided a dream was worth working on, was that all the dream elements were aspects of my mind at some level, even though I was neither familiar, nor likely to be comfortable with them.

There were two stages now to decoding the elements. If I had decided to work a dream then, even if some elements related to past or future events, this was unlikely to be all they meant, so I would have to work with them as seriously as any other element.

  1. Free Association

Carl Gustav Jung. For source of image see link.

Anyone who is as averse to key aspects of the Freudian model of psychoanalysis as I am, don’t worry. I used to use the Jungian method of association.

With the Freudian method, as I understood it, you were meant to start with the stimulus word and associate from it in a chain. ‘Radio,’ ‘waves,’ ‘ocean,’ ‘the Gulf Stream,’ ‘the Gulf War,’ ‘Syria,’ going back to the beginning again until all associations were exhausted. You can see the problem. I usually became exhausted well before the associations were. Whenever I tried it the chain never seemed to stop until each word had at least half a page of wide ranging associations from which I could not derive any coherent meaning at all.

Jung’s method was far more congenial. You provide an association then come back to the root word for the next. ‘Radio-waves,’ ‘radio-third programme,’ ‘radio-therapy,’ ‘radio-London,’ and so on. The process generally never created more than a paragraph of associations, and there was usually some kind of coherence to the way they grouped.

There is, of course, no need to be rigid about this. There have been times when allowing a string of connected ideas to flow from the one word has proved most fruitful. It’s just that I found the chain of associations method more confusing than helpful most of the time.

Sometimes, I did not need to go beyond this stage. The meaning of the dream became sufficiently clear for me to use what I had learned and move on, especially when you have freed your mind from the Freudian shackle of assuming all dreams are wish fulfillment of some kind.

An Interrogation Room

The most dramatic example of how an association can free the conscious mind from the prison of its self-deception, came from a patient I worked with who had been diagnosed as having an ‘endogenous’ depression, i.e. one that was not explicable in terms of her life situation. She was an articulate lady who gave clear descriptions of her history, which included a basically contented childhood, and of her current feelings, which were often suicidal, though she did not understand why. One day, she spoke of a recurrent dream she had. With variations, it was of being in a room with Hitler’s SS. They wanted information from her and were preparing to torture her.  Before the torture could begin she invariably woke in terror. Following the model I used for my own dreams I asked her to give me a full description of every aspect of her situation in the dream. She described not only the people, but also the size and shape of the room and the kind of furniture that was in it.

Naturally, we focused at first on the people, but, apart from the obvious link of her having been brought up in the aftermath of World War Two, there were no links with the SS officers who were threatening her. The room did not trigger any useful insights either. We were beginning to wonder whether this was simply a childhood nightmare of the war come back to haunt her, when I asked about her associations to the furniture. We were both instantly shocked by her first answer. It was exactly the same as the furniture in the kitchen of the house in which she had grown up.

It would not be right for me to go into any detail about where this led. I imagine everyone can see that the picture she had persuaded herself was real, of a contented childhood, was very wide of the mark. That she had no vivid memory of any one traumatic incident was because there were none to remember: her whole childhood, as we then gradually came to understand it, had been a subtle form of emotional starvation and neglect successfully disguised for her at least as normal parenting.

I was utterly persuaded then, if not before, of the heart’s power to use dreams to make us wiser when we are safe and ready, and of the truth of this not, just for me, but for everyone.

In terms of my own dreamwork, if I’d missed an important issue, either by using associations to decode the dream, or the Gestalt approach below, I usually got another dream reminder pretty quickly.

Sometimes, quite often in fact, associations did not work completely enough. For instance, the figure from the freezer elicited a few fruitful associations, not least to the monster created by Dr Frankenstein, to O’Neill’s powerful exploration of despair, and to the idea of the Iceman as a personification of Death, fears about which were part of the air I breathed in childhood as a result of my parents’ unassuageable grief at the death of my sister four years before I was born. Some of my poems testify to the powerful impact of this period on my mind.  However, not even these powerful links convinced me I’d completely decoded the dream.

  1. The Gestalt Method

This method was almost always the key to unlocking a code that associations could not decipher. As Ann Faraday explains in her Chapter 8, there are also ways for asking your dreams for help with decoding very resistant dreams (page 130):

Since the main problem in understanding the dream is to discover what issue on your mind or in your heart provoked the dream, you can take a shortcut by asking your dreams for help on a certain problem of emotional significance before falling sleep. . . . . Religious people to whom prayer comes naturally may like to ask God for enlightenment on the dream. However you frame your request, it is essential to have your recording equipment ready, since failure to do so is a sure sign that you’re not serious, and the unconscious mind is not fooled.

Before resorting to that, I generally tried the Gestalt approach. This involves role playing the dream element.

Take the figure from the freezer I described in the dream in the previous post. Once I spoke as the dream element (and you can also do this for inanimate objects – we will come back to this next time) its meaning became blindingly obvious fairly quickly. It is possible, and often necessary, to dialogue with the element as well. To do this you have to allocate different places in the room for the two or more elements to the dialogue to speak from. What follows is a reconstruction of work done many years ago.

The Iceman (from a kitchen chair): Why did you lock me away in here? What had I done? I have been shut away in the dark and the cold for I don’t know how long. Why are you so afraid of me? (Silence)

Me (from my armchair): I am scared of you, it’s true. But I swear I didn’t know I had done this to you. Can you promise me you mean me no harm?

The Iceman: I don’t want to harm you. I just want to be free. To be in the light and warm. I don’t know why you were so scared of me that you had to lock me up. (Silence)

Me: I’m not sure. There must have been something about you that scared me.  Can you guess what that might be? When did I lock you away?

The Iceman: I’m not sure. I’ve grown up in here. I was shut away when I was only a child.

To cut a long story short, it became clear that the pain and rage I felt as a child, when I was placed in hospital and operated on without really understanding why, had been unbearable. It also had associations with feelings of intense cold because of the way I experienced the chloroform they used as an anaesthetic. After cutting myself off from that part of me that felt the pain, I’d fed him with every subsequent unbearable pain or intolerable rage. In this way he became bigger and bigger and ever more scary. It became harder and harder to think of integrating that part of me again into my ordinary conscious experience.

Finally, in my imagination, there was a tearful reunion. I embraced the figure that had frightened me so much, welcomed him and brought him back into the warmth of my ordinary life. A key idea in dreamwork is to embrace what you fear and thereby reintegrate it. In that way we can gradually reclaim all our energy and all our powers. Even anger has a place in a constructive life. How else are we going to know how to mobilise ourselves to respond to evil and injustice when it crosses our path. I had repressed my pain and rage. Taking them out of the cage and reintegrating them is not the same as acting them out. Our culture is not good at treading the middle way between repression and disinhibition. The middle way is to remain aware of how you are feeling but to contain it, reflect upon it (something I’ve dealt with at length elsewhere) and decide how best to deal with and if appropriate express the feelings constructively.

We have reached the point where we are almost ready to tackle the possibility that dreams can give us access to the transcendent.


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The previous post looked at the Grof’s account of Karen’s experience of a spiritual emergency and how it was dealt with. Now we need to look at some of the implications as well as other aspects of their approach.

The Context

I want to open this section with that part of Bahá’u’lláh’s Seven Valleys that has formed the focus of my morning meditations for the last few weeks. I have persisted so long in the hope that I will eventually understand it more fully. I believe that Shoghi Effendi, the great-grandson of Bahá’u’lláh and the one whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá appointed as His successor, was of the opinion that one needed to read at least ten books by writers who were not Bahá’ís in order to have any hope of understanding a Bahá’í text fully. I may have conveniently chosen to believe that factoid in order to justify my own bookaholic tendencies.

Setting that aside for now, what matters at the moment are the resonances between the words of Bahá’u’lláh and the topic I am exploring more deeply here.

I have touched on how materialistic assumptions about reality will dismiss as rubbish or even pathologise phenomena their paradigm excludes from possibility.

Bahá’u’lláh directly addresses this point (page 33):

God, the Exalted, hath placed these signs in men, to the end that philosophers may not deny the mysteries of the life beyond nor belittle that which hath been promised them. For some hold to reason and deny whatever the reason comprehendeth not, and yet weak minds can never grasp the matters which we have related, but only the Supreme, Divine Intelligence can comprehend them:

How can feeble reason encompass the Qur’án,
Or the spider snare a phoenix in his web?

Our deification of reason has stripped the world we believe in of God and made it difficult, even impossible, in some cases for some people, to entertain the possibility that God in some form does exist, though that would not be as some white-bearded chariot-riding figure in the sky.

This is the Grofs take on this issue (page 247):

A system of thinking that deliberately discards everything that cannot be weighed and measured does not leave any opening for the recognition of creative cosmic intelligence, spiritual realities, or such entities as transpersonal experiences or the collective unconscious. . . . . . While they are clearly incompatible with traditional Newtonian-Cartesian thinking, they are actually in basic resonance with the revolutionary developments in various disciplines of modern science that are often referred to as the new paradigm.

This world-view seriously demeans us (page 248):

Human beings are described as material objects with Newtonian properties, more specifically as highly developed animals and thinking biological machines. . .

We have taken this model or simulation as the truth (ibid.):

In addition, the above description of the nature of reality and of human beings has in the past been generally seen not for what it is – a useful model organising the observations and knowledge available at a certain time in the history of science – but as a definitive and accurate description of reality itself. From a logical point of view, this would be considered a serious confusion of the ‘map’ with the ‘territory.’

This reductionist dogmatism has serious implications for psychosis (page 249):

Since the concept of objective reality and accurate reality testing are the key factors in determining whether the individual is mentally healthy, the scientific understanding of the nature of reality is absolutely critical in this regard. Therefore, any fundamental change in the scientific world-view has to have far-reaching consequences for the definition of psychosis.

A Holographic Approach

They contend that the paradigm is shifting (ibid.:)

. . . The physical universe has come to be viewed as a unified web of paradoxical, statistically determined events in which consciousness and creative intelligence play a critical role. . . This approach has become known as holographic because some of its remarkable features can be demonstrated with use of optical holograms as conceptual tools.

Their explanation of the holographic model is clear and straightforward (page 250):

The information in holographic systems is distributed in such a way that all of it is contained and available in each of its parts. . . .

It’s implications are profound:

If the individual and the brain are not isolated entities but integral parts of a universe with holographic properties – if they are in some way microcosms of a much larger system – then it is conceivable that they can have direct and immediate access to information outside themselves.

This resonates with what Bahá’u’lláh writes in the same section of the Seven Valleys:

Likewise, reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?

Then we must labor to destroy the animal condition, till the meaning of humanity shall come to light.

It is crucial for us all as well as for those labelled psychotic that we cease to reduce the mind to a machine. The Grofs spell out the implications for psychosis when we refuse to take the more transcendent perspective (page 252):

The discoveries of the last few decades strongly suggest that the psyche is not limited to postnatal biography and to the Freudian individual unconscious and confirm the perennial truth, found in many mystical traditions, that human beings might be commensurate with all there is. Transpersonal experiences and their extraordinary potential certainly attest to this fact.

. . . In traditional psychiatry, all holotropic experiences have been interpreted as pathological phenomena, in spite of the fact that the alleged disease process has never been identified; this reflects the fact that the old paradigm did not have an adequate explanation for these experiences and was not able to account for them in any other way.

Assuming that we do accept that possibility of a spiritual reality, what follows? They spell it out:

. . . . two important and frequently asked questions are how one can diagnose spiritual emergency and how it is possible to differentiate transformational crises from spiritual emergence and from mental illness.

This is only possible up to a point (page 253):

The psychological symptoms of… organic psychoses are clearly distinguishable from functional psychoses by means of psychiatric examination and psychological tests.

. . . . When the appropriate examinations and tests have excluded the possibility that the problem we are dealing with is organic in nature, the next task is to find out whether the client fits into the category of spiritual emergency – in other words, differentiate this state from functional psychoses. There is no way of establishing absolutely clear criteria for differentiation between spiritual emergency and psychosis or mental disease, since such terms themselves lack objective scientific validity. One should not confuse categories of this kind with such precisely defined disease entities as diabetes mellitus or pernicious anaemia. Functional psychoses are not diseases in a strictly medical sense and cannot be identified with the degree of accuracy that is required in medicine when establishing a differential diagnosis.

What they say next blends nicely with the points made in my recent posts about where the dubious basis of diagnosis takes us (page 256):

Since traditional psychiatry makes no distinction between psychotic reactions and mystical states, not the only crises of spiritual opening but also uncomplicated transpersonal experiences often receive a pathological label.

This has paved the way to dealing with their approach to intervention and their criteria for distinguishing spiritual emergencies that can be helped from other states.

Holotropic Breathwork

Before we look briefly at their attempt to create criteria by which we might distinguish spiritual from purely functional phenomena I want to look at their recommended method for helping people work through inner crises. This method applies what the non-organic origin. This technique they call Holotropic Breathwork.

First they define what they mean by holotropic (page 258):

We use the term holotropic in two different ways – the therapeutic technique we have developed and for the mode of consciousness it induces. The use of the word holotropic in relation to therapy suggests that the goal is to overcome inner fragmentation as well as the sense of separation between the individual and the environment. The relationship between wholeness and healing is reflected in the English language, since both words have the same root.

They then look at its components and their effects (page 259):

The reaction to [a] combination of accelerated reading, music, and introspective focus of attention varies from person to person. After a period of about fifteen minutes to half an hour, most of the participants show strong active response. Some experience a buildup of intense emotions, such as sadness, joy, anger, fear, or sexual arousal.

They feel that this approach unlocks blocks between our awareness and the contents of the unconscious:

. . . .  It seems that the nonordinary state of consciousness induced by holotropic breathing is associated with biochemical changes in the brain that make it possible for the contents of the unconscious to surface, to be consciously experienced, and – if necessary – to be physically expressed. In our bodies and in our psyches we carry imprints of various traumatic events that we have not fully digested and assimilated psychologically. Holographic breathing makes them available, so that we can fully experience them and release the emotions that are associated with them.

As Fontana makes clear in his book Is there an Afterlife?, experience is the most compelling way to confirm the validity of a paradigm of reality, so my experience of continuous conscious breathing in the 70s and 80s gives me a strong sense that what the Grofs are saying about Holotropic Breathwork had validity. My experience in the mid-70s confirms the dramatic power of some of the possible effects: my experience in the mid-80s confirms their sense that the body stores memories to which breathwork can give access. I will not repeat these accounts in full as I have explored them elsewhere. I’ve consigned brief accounts to the footnotes.[1]

They go on to explain the possible advantages of Holotropic Breathwork over alternative therapies (pages 261-263):

The technique of Holotropic Breathwork is extremely simple in comparison with traditional forms of verbal psychotherapy, which emphasise the therapist’s understanding of the process, correct and properly timed interpretations, and work with transference . . . . It has a much less technical emphasis than many of the new experiential methods, such as Gestalt therapy, Rolfing, and bioenergetics. . . . . .

In the holotropic model, the client is seen as the real source of healing and is encouraged to realise that and to develop a sense of mastery and independence.

. . . . . In a certain sense, he or she is ultimately the only real expert because of his or her immediate access to the experiential process that provides all the clues.

Distinguishing Criteria

Below is the table they devised to differentiate between the two categories of spiritual emergence and what they term psychiatric disorder. They explain the purpose of the criteria (page 253):

The task of deciding whether we are dealing with a spiritual emergency in a particular case means in practical terms that we must assess whether the client could benefit from the strategies described in this book or should be treated in traditional ways. This is their table of criteria.

They are certainly not claiming that they have an unerring way of distinguishing between these states, nor that some of those who are placed in the ‘psychiatric’ have no aspects of spiritual emergency in the phenomena they are experiencing. Readers will also know by now that I am a strong advocate of more enlightened ways of managing any such problems than those which are implied in the term ‘traditional.’


This last post turned out to  be much longer than I planned. I hope it conveys my sense of the value of their approach and of the validity of their concept of a spiritual emergency.

My feeling that their approach is a good one derives largely from my own dramatic experience of what was an almost identical method involving breathwork. In a previous sequence I have dealt with the way the breakthrough I experienced in the 70s had lasting beneficial effects on my my life, first of all in terms of opening my mind so I was able to take advantage of other therapeutic interventions. Perhaps most importantly though in the first instance was the way that the first breakthrough loosened the grip of my previous pattern of anaesthetising myself against earlier grief and pain mostly by cigarettes, gambling and heavy social drinking, so that I could realise that I needed to undertake more mindwork.

I also find it reinforcing of my trust in the basic validity of their perspective that it has led them to draw much the same conclusions as I have about the dangers of materialism and its negative impact upon the way we deal with mental health problems

It doesn’t end my quest though for more evidence to support my sense that psychosis can and often does have a spiritual dimension. Hopefully you will be hearing more on this.


[1] Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition.  These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning.  Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

After three hours I was trembling all over. I was resisting letting go and ‘embracing’ the experience. When I eventually did the quaking literally dissolved in an instant into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time. I had always known that something like it happened. What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

The earlier experience had been more confusing, with no specific experience to explain it by.

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

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Last year I played with the idea of a community of inner selves in a sequence of posts I called My Parliament of Selves. I’ve also dealt with this idea in less personal terms.

I called into question the idea of an automatically unified and integrated self. A vast body of theory, clinical practice and research has accumulated which calls this assumption gravely into question. Split brain research and resulting theories, clinical experiences with multiple personalities and auditory hallucinations, as well as psychoanalytic theory (Freud and Jung especially) and its offspring are all useful starting points in revising a simplistic view.

For instance, Berne, the founding father of Transactional Analysis, saw us as beings organised into at least three different semi-autonomous and incompletely conscious subselves. These he called the Parent, the Adult and the Child. The extent to which these subselves are in harmonious cooperation is one of the determinants of well-being.

A model of therapy often used in coordination with Transactional Analysis is the Gestalt Therapy of Fritz Perls whose most fundamental tenet is that we are divided beings seeking to become whole. His therapy is a form of consultation between conflicting aspects of the person.

I am also aware of the literature which deals with not just dissociated multiple personalities but also mediumship.

None of that prepared me for the shock I felt on revisiting a diary entry of mine from early 2000, which recorded some dream work I had done. I was looking for some notes I took at about that time on the subject of near-death experiences. This was something altogether different.

One way of working a dream, as I have described elsewhere, is the Gestalt technique of assuming the role of a dream element, whether that be a person or a thing and speaking in its voice. In the dream the night before the entry was made I had seen myself reflected in a mirror as a woman, so, when I woke, I worked on the dream by stepping into her presence and speaking her thoughts.

The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mt Fuji (for source of image see link)

‘So you have found me at last,” she says out of her mirror. “Do you like what you see? Will you turn away from me again? My delicacy looks vulnerable and you do not trust me in your world. You do not trust me to be your guide. You think I’ll come to harm. I am not so delicate as you think. Or you fear I’ll bring you to harm. Look at my eyes – a deep deep black. I am in a way your soul. I am the unacknowledged strivings of your truest self. I am beauty. I am truth. I am life. I am love. I am your connection with the infinite. Through me you can know what lies out of your reach otherwise. I know what feeds your spirit and what does not. I am the repository of all the rich experiences you have ever known. Who do you think listens to this Chopin you are playing right now? Who responds to the views of Mount Fuji? Why do you never give me the time truly to savour those wonders? Why do you always wrench me away into the arid distractions of your daily unlife? Why when you usually write this journal do you never wait for me to have my say? Why do you fill it will the froth that floats on top of your mind? Is my path too steep for you? Do you fear your being will not bear the strain of it? Do you fear that paying attention to my concerns will make you careless of your responsibilities in the world? That is not true. Working in the world from my perspective will be richer and more telling.

‘When I look back over your day I can explain why you were so silent for so much of it. Do you remember your thoughts about suffering? All the people that you encountered [she names them but it is best I do not for reasons of confidentiality] – they all speak to the same issue. Suffering is not what we think it is. Its fire turns the clay of our imperfections to flawless china; suffering perfects the soul and enables it to rise to its highest destiny.

‘You do not believe that. I can feel the writhing of your disbelief. You revolt against the idea of bearing such sorrows and such pains in this world. You feel you could not ever do so. You want to evade such pain. That may be your good fortune – to avoid it — but it should not blind you to the purpose of suffering in others. Even those who bear it badly will see how they were blessed when they discard their body and ascend. Even if you had been able to think what I am saying you could not have shared it and what you did think was so negative and bleak there was no point in saying it. So you stayed silent and felt sad. If you have truly learned your lesson from this – which I doubt – you will not turn your back on me again. Try what this life is like – the life lived in full consciousness of me.’

The power of this took my breath away. What’s more I was stunned to realise that I had forgotten the whole encounter entirely, even though I wrote it down so fully at the time and added: ‘I would like to pledge that I will explore the world from this perspective to the best of my ability. But can I do so?’

My doubts were clearly well-founded.

There are many ways of interpreting this persona or sub-personality. Jung’s idea of the anima is perhaps the first to spring to mind. One website defines the anima as follows:

The anima is both a personal complex and an archetypal image of woman in the male psyche. It is an unconscious factor incarnated anew in every male child, and is responsible for the mechanism of projection. Initially identified with the personal mother, the anima is later experienced not only in other women but as a pervasive influence in a man’s life.

Jung did not see this as the soul in the way my sub-self forcefully asserted herself to be.

The anima is not the soul in the dogmatic sense, not an anima rationalis, which is a philosophical conception, but a natural archetype that satisfactorily sums up all the statements of the unconscious, of the primitive mind, of the history of language and religion. … It is always the a priori element in [a man’s] moods, reactions, impulses, and whatever else is spontaneous in psychic life.[“Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i, par. 57.]

And the depth and power of the spiritual insights my mirror-self articulates, especially concerning suffering, seem at odds with all that is written about the anima.

The link with suffering might be giving me a clue to where some of the passion of the persona derives from. I have explored at length how my parent’s grief over my sister’s death four years before I was born scorched my early years.

In addition, the rebukes she spits out about my not devoting time to immersing myself in deep experiences resonates with my work over the years on improving my powers of reflection (see diagram at the foot of this post for my latest perspective on this).

None of this though quite accounts for the sense of a whole personality expressing itself in this outburst – a personality to whom I have denied expression, something I have failed to integrate. I have consigned her to fulminating under the surface most of the time. The anger is searing.

It is possible that the persona was not in fact the anima at all, but rather something more akin to another concept Jung explores in his essay on the mana-personality (Collected Works, Volume 7, page 236). It is something around which the ego unconsciously revolves rather as the earth circles round the sun. He writes:

I call this centre the self.… It might equally well be called the ‘God within us.’ The beginnings of our whole psychic life seem to be inextricably rooted in this point, and all out highest and ultimate purposes seem to be striving towards it.

The Society of Friends refers to ‘that of God within us.’ Bahá’u’lláh Himself writes (AHW: 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

In The Seven Valleys He quotes ‘Alí, the Successor to Muhammad, as saying:

Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?

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.)

There is at least one fully articulated model of therapy that incorporates a sense of a higher self and seeks to help us connect with it: this is Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis, which I have explored in various places on this blog. A coloured adaptation of his basic diagram illustrates this perspective clearly enough for now.

Clearly I need to take great care before jumping to the conclusion that this passionate dream element was definitely my Higher Self summoning me to better things. Even so, I also need to think hard before yet again dismissing this experience irretrievably to an  archive shelf somewhere deep in my memory store.

Perhaps a bit of reflection would help?

There is one other theory that might conceivably apply but which has much that feels dubious about it. I will take a look at that hopefully next week. The explanation is a strange mixture of ideas that resonate with and idiosyncrasies that repel me. I want to dig a bit deeper at least in terms of the best bits.

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How Models get Muddled according to Transactional Analysis

‘A worldview is to humans as water is to fish.’

(Cultural Creatives by Ray & Anderson: page 93)

Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us. In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.

(Paul Lample: Revelation and Social Reality – page 6)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson.

The end of the previous post discussed the need for a new world view. More or less the same points are captured on page 341:

If a culture lacks a positive vision of the future, [Fred] Polak showed, its creative power begins to wither and the culture itself stagnates and eventually dies out. Negative images are even more destructive, leading to hopelessness, helpessness, . . . . [and] “endgame” behaviours, with people snatching and grabbing to secure something for themselves before everything falls apart. This behaviour brings about the very collapse they fear. . . . . . . [Cultural Creatives] say that each of us is a living system within a greater living system, connected to each other in more ways than we can fathom. If we focus on that wholeness, we can begin to imagine a culture that can heal the fragmentation and destructiveness of our time.

The book examines the context in which Cultural Creatives emerged and exactly what they represent in detail.

The Moderns, contrary to how it often seems, constitute the largest of three main groupings at 48% of the U.S. population (page 25) and dominate the media. They have great faith in the ‘technological economy’ (ibid.) and ‘accept the commercialised urban-industrialised world as the obvious right way to live’ (page 27).

On the other hand, Traditionals, who according to the authors can be found almost everywhere and have invented Fundamentalism (page 84), constitute a measly 24.5% of the U.S. population. They can persuade themselves often, and the rest of us sometimes, that they are really the top dogs as a result of their noisy and vociferous responses to all they regard as the moral shortcomings of current society.

Alongside, or rather hidden somewhere behind the spotlights wielded by members of those two highly visible groups, stand the Cultural Creatives at 28% of the U.S. population – something like 50 million people in all. Quite a crowd to be so invisible. There’s about the same number in Europe apparently.

The quickest way to get a handle on what Cultural Creatives stand for is to look at the questionnaire on the Cultural Creatives website. It’s not so much a questionnaire as a list of things that distinguish Cultural Creatives from the other two groups.

The authors’ analysis of the various sub-groups their surveys detected within the Moderns as a cultural group is intriguing as is there account of the Traditionals. However, it would expand this post into an even longer series of posts if I were to attempt to do justice to their explanation. I’m afraid I shall just be focusing for now at least on the Cultural Creatives.

The questionnaire on the authors’ website will cover the basic description of their characteristics. As a Bahá’í I can sign up to all of them, I think. They map onto our social teachings almost down to the last coordinate. The key differences are in what they leave out, but more of that later.

Cultural CreativesWhat I found most interesting about the Cultural Creatives, after I had got over the shock of how closely what they stand for mirrors my own position, is the authors’ account how they came from apparently nowhere to become such an invisible but influential force in American society. While opinions about them amongst both Moderns and Traditionals are dismissive – for example, they’re put down as ‘New Age’ by Moderns and as ‘political activists’ by the Traditionals – this misses the point. The authors quote Sarah van Gelder (page 93):

‘The New Age sterotype is that it’s all about changing ourselves internally and the world will take care of itself. The political activists’ stereotype is that we ignore our inner selves to save the world. Neither works! . . . The Cultural Creatives are about leaving that dichotomy behind and integrating the evolution of the self and the work on the whole.’

Perhaps I find all this so compelling because I lived through the same splits myself on my particular fairly undramatic variation of the road to Damascus. After I left the religion of my childhood I drifted until I became, for a time, what the international socialists I mixed with called a ‘fellow traveller.’ I explained some of this in a previous post so I won’t rehearse it all again here but disillusion set in fairly quickly because of the violence and lies that seemed an unavoidable ‘side effect’ of the socialist/communist rhetoric in practice.

Then I launched into self-exploration with gusto, dynamiting myself out of the prison of an habitual emotional deep-freeze by means of an encounter weekend followed by several months living in a commune that practised Reichian Therapy after the school of David Boadella. This was not as barmy as it might sound as we didn’t use an orgone box, though someone I knew had made one that I sat in for a whole afternoon with no discernible effects.

We just did the breathing exercises. Two factors caused me to move on.

One was that, although I had blown out the door of my dissociating cell, I had also blasted a hole right through the floor of my psyche and kept falling into the lake of tears that lay underneath without ever finding, in the commune’s approach, a psycho-Babel fish capable of translating the experience into intelligible terms. I was never helped to reach an understanding of why the lake was there or how I could have related to it differently. I just got drenched from time to time, climbed back out dripping and carried on.

The other reason was that I could see that we were so far beyond the pale of mainstream society that I would never be able to have an impact on all the things in our culture and practice that I still wanted to change. In short, there were no ways to heal my mind or my milieu from where I was standing at the time.

Dream GameI came back into the mainstream, joined a Transactional Analysis/Gestalt Therapy group, studied psychology, practised Buddhist meditation, and threw myself into Dreamwork Ann Faraday style, until, just after I’d qualified as a Clinical Psychologist, the Bahá’í Faith offered me a way of effectively integrating personal growth, social action and spiritual understanding into a sustainable way of life that offered my best hope of systematically influencing our society to heal itself.

The book Cultural Creatives teems with examples of similar trajectories to an amazing diversity of different targets that somehow in the end come to seem members of the same family.

The authors are well aware that the consciousness movement had more than a touch of self-indulgence. May be it still has.

Eat Pray Love, the book and the film, are linked to consciousness raising and have come in for their share of criticism on this basis. A Sunday Times review (there’s no point in giving a link as they charge for the privilege of reading their material on the web nowadays) of Eat Pray Love states:

Liz is the Carrie Bradshaw of spiritual enlightenment – a selfish new-age narcissist who can think only of her own needs and desires. The film is full of gross national caricatures and trite self-helpy wisdom.

An interview with Margarette Driscoll in the same newspaper (19.09.10) shows a different possibility:

The key to it all lay in connecting with something spiritual inside herself, something we seem to have lost in our secular, materialist age. ‘We feel the lack of the spirit but there’s the idea that if you have faith it’s a little foolish, that you must have shut your brain off at some point; but there must be room in our lives for a brain and a soul,’ she says . . . .

We have to decide for ourselves whether the contempt of the reviewer is all part of modernism’s automatic sneer in the face of what it regards as flaky way-out alternatives or whether it’s a well founded reaction to a genuine element of self-indulgence in the film at least.

Ray and Anderson are well aware that not every cultural creative got to where (s)he is by some kind of religious experience. They write (page 103):

Practically everyone we interviewed for this book told us that they had been involved in the new social movements and the consciousness movements that began in the 1960s and continue today.

They are not unsympathetic to the consciousness movement (page 173):

The premise of the consciousness movements was that the achievements attributed uniquely to saints, poets, and great thinkers are in fact our common inheritance.

But are aware (page 174) that the spiritual quest can be hijacked by the ego:

In the long view, the first generation of the consciousness movement was focused on what might be called personal waking up. Its questions were individual. Often painfully honest and intimate, they appeared from the outside to be astoundingly egocentric.

They quote Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (page 189):

‘[S]piritual materialism’ . . .  means . . ‘deceiving ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.’

They realise this was out of step with the true purpose of such disciplines as meditation (page 175):

The purpose of inner work, in the East, had never been only for the benefit of the individual. All that effort could not be just for yourself.  [It was] for all beings.

On balance though they feel that the consciousness movement played an honourable part in the combination of social forces that has led us to this point, where 50 million people are working quietly for radical cultural change of an essential and benign form.


They look at the other dimensions to this process, including the movements for peace, for women, for freedom and for the well being of the planet, and examine in depth how they have developed and converged over time mainly since the 60s. All I can do here is give some brief extracts to convey the flavour. They describe (page 210):

.  . . a growing worldwide political convergence: . . . the cultural arms of these movements have been growing more similar for a good twenty years. It’s the political convergence that is the latecomer. . .

Part of this is facilitated by a shift from a negative approach to a more positive one (ibid.):

The old political movement pattern that was evident in the 1960s was built around opposition and conflict, Some observers still talk about protest movements as if what defines a movement is what it’s against. . . . . Gradually, the basis of collective identity has shifted from protest to a positive agenda and a vision of the future. It took a decade or two for the antiwar movement to redefine itself as a peace movement, and for the women’s movement to outgrow blaming, even hating, men and decide what it was for. One of the pivotal influences in this change was the consciousness movements. Spirituality and psychology brought in new ways of thinking . .

This indicates the constructive role of consciousness movements in spite of the reservations about their possible self-centredness.

There are also social structures in the mainstream that are contributing, such as NGOs (page 214):

. . . each group is learning to work with others and to leverage their efforts. This makes NGOs very successful in getting public attention when there’s an outrage. At long last, the moral conscience of the world is slowly being awakened for people who are not one’s own tribe or nation.

Slowly becoming apparent is a core of common value and purpose within all these diverse trends (page 216):

The evidence of convergence is almost everywhere. . . . .[Ralph H.]Turner believes that the conviction underlying all the new movements is that “a sense of worth, of meaning in life, is a fundamental human right that must be protected by our social institutions.”

What is even more fascinating, if that is possible, is the way that these movements interconnect and overlap and the role that Cultural Creatives have in that (page 218):

Each of the five movements we examined shares from 40-80% of its support (both sympathisers and activists) in common with the others. Wherever the movements share a common population, that population contains proportionately far more Cultural Creatives than you’d expect. Cultural Creatives stand at the intersection of these movements. In effect, they provide the cultural glue that hold the movements together. . . . . .What does all this mean? Are the Cultural Creatives shaping the movements, or are the movements shaping the Cultural Creatives? It’s both.

And there is probably a shared realisation that, for each of them, (page 221):

. . . . the interconnecting concerns shaping [a] movement reach even wider, revealing once again that the problems are simply too massive for any narrow solutions to work.

This has brought us to the point at which we can attempt to look at where all this leaves us now. But that must wait for another post.

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I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.

(From The World by Henry Vaughan)

Given the unfolding story of my Parliament of Selves, republishing this sequence on consecutive days seemed a no-brainer.

In the previous post I described the experience of being dynamited into an awareness of subliminal forces operating below the lower threshold of my consciousness. Now I need to turn, in this attempt to explain why this whole issue of filters and thresholds fascinates me so much, to my experiences of higher consciousness.

I need to clarify right from the start that I am a slightly disappointed mystic manqué, so anyone hoping for stories about the higher flights of mysticism probably needs to go somewhere else to find them. However, there are aspects of my journey from the basement of my brain to something somewhat closer to the heaven of true understanding that might reward attention.


There is a 13 year gap between the closest I have ever got to a mystical experience and the breakthrough I described earlier into the cellar of my mind. Those 13 years covered a journey through further breathwork in a therapeutic community in the Lake District close to Wordsworth’s birthplace. In the end I remained stuck at the same level as I have described in the previous post – floating endlessly in the tank of tears just beneath the surface of my consciousness.

So there was then a disillusioned return to the mainstream. This was not simply the result of a frustration at my own lack of progress. I also saw that a few others who came to the commune for help, some of them seriously in need, went away in a worse state than they came after a fruitless few days in a tent at the bottom of the garden. I ended up packing my few belongings, leaving the commune and driving back to London, taking with me one of the people I felt we had failed to where he would hopefully find more effective help and friendship. I know that my having a car is evidence of an even worse attachment to the world I was affecting to despise than that of the dervish who dashed back from the mountains to the palace he had been staying at to get the begging bowl he’d left behind while the prince he had persuaded to leave his palace and come with him looked on in complete amazement, but it was at least the means by which I got someone else as well as myself out of an unpleasant and unhelpful predicament.

I was also strongly motivated by a desire to have more chance to work therapeutically with more people more effectively. I realised that this could not be done from the outside of society looking in as I had previously thought. It was better to be on the inside where most other people and many more resources were to be found.

I spent several years working in social services at a day centre. I rapidly realised that social work was not for me – too many forms to fill in and court appearances to make. Even now, I always fill in forms first of all in pencil before I commit to ink, as I always make at least one major mistake on every form, no matter how simple. As for the combination in court of drama and detail, that was always too big a stretch for me. I prefer working behind the scenes and am purblind to details.

In any case, I was far more interested in what goes on between people’s ears. So, in spite of some misgivings about the experimental side of the course, I enrolled to do a psychology degree in the evenings at Birkbeck College. I also participated in a Transactional Analysis/Gestalt Group for a year, and then began learning meditation at the same time as qualifying as a Clinical Psychologist at the University of Surrey.

While I think the meditation helped me stay grounded as I juggled a wide range of different commitments throughout that process, and while I certainly found the psychologically penetrating insights of Buddhism a humbling and effective vaccine against the hubris of scientism that infected my profession, I cannot boast of any transcendental states – just of a relative ease in maintaining a simple calm unflustered state of mind under stress and occasional access to a tingling energy which pervaded by whole being for brief periods. I still committed major blunders from time to time but I got through to the end of the qualification experience relatively unscathed, thanks in part to the ballast meditation provided to keep my mind’s boat stable in rough seas.

Shrine of the Bab

At the end of that long journey, triggered by a visit to Hendon library, a story I will share another time, I started to tread the Baha’i path. My first three hour visit to the Baha’i Centre in London induced a buzzing energetic state of mind which lasted for a fortnight and which hours of meditation would have failed to achieve for me. I read my way through a bagful of books with only about four hours sleep a night – those close to me who know my aptitude for sleep will testify to how remarkable that was.

Two years after that I married and soon after the birth of our son we all went as a family to Israel on pilgrimage in 1987. We stayed in Haifa and visited Akka.  The Baha’i Holy places are located there and this is where the experiences I want to describe took place.


I was unable to enter the Shrine of the Bab the first time I saw it. It was evening and the Shrine was closed so I had to stand some distance away, as the sun was beginning to set, and lean against an iron gate. I found myself uncontrollably sobbing. This was not the pool of tears I was so used to from my encounter group experiences. These were tears of profound relief. The best way I can describe how I felt is to say that it was like an exile coming home after many long years of believing he would never see his longed-for native land again.

This of course does not constitute conclusive evidence of any kind of mystical reality. It was an intense experience but can be explained, if you wish, without evoking other realms of reality than the material. Nonetheless, for me personally this was the beginning of a completely unexpected sequence of reactions to the whole experience of pilgrimage. I was as unprepared for the power of this sense of return as I had been for the breakthrough to my mind’s basement all those years earlier. That I had not been anticipating any such response suggests there was a break through of some kind from across a threshold. I cannot prove it was a breakthrough from above but it felt as though it was.

The following day I stood at the door of the Shrine of the Bab totally unable to cross that particular threshold. It was not until several others had entered before me, while I stood there dithering, that I could bring myself to go inside. Then, somehow, I managed to force myself to enter. Completely contrary to my expectation at the time, I felt waves of immense power pass over me and the whole air vibrate with an irresistible intensity.

I had expected a completely different experience altogether. I had expected something like a warm glow of love to envelope me. It would have fitted more with the sense I had of the Bab’s personality. Indiscussing the possible objective validity of near death experiences, Mark Fox attaches considerable importance to the fact that, in many reports, what the person experienced was very different from what his culture had led him to expect. That this was also true, though in a less specific way, of this experience prompts me to feel that there was something outside my own projections at work here, something to do with an objective out-there quality of the Bab’s spiritual reality. It was this combination of intensity and unexpectedness that leads to me feel this quite strongly. It was also a very different feeling from the one I had been engulfed by when I stood by the gate the previous evening. This would have primed me for some kind of repetition of the same thing: what actually occurred was very different.

Each Shrine that I stepped into on that pilgrimage had its own particular impact. The Shrine of the Master glowed gently with a warm acceptance, much as I had thought it would. So expectations were not contradicted here. However, the Shrine of Baha’u’llah at Bahji, on the other hand, also totally defied my expectations. Here was where I had expected the raw power, but felt instead enveloped in a loving embrace of such unconditional completeness that I sobbed uncontrollably once more.

I won’t test your patience by repeating the same line of reasoning again but for me it applies here also, and for two out of three experiences in the Shrines to go against expectation so intensely confirms for me my sense that there was something outside my own projections that was shaping that impact. I was not aware then and cannot recall now any influences from other pilgrims that might have had the effects upon my reactions that would have been necessary to go so strongly against the grain of my expectations.

I am sure you are all already aware that I have no expectation that these accounts of my experiences will necessarily persuade you to come to the same conclusions as I have on the basis of them. I have shared them as a way of beginning to explain why I am so fascinated by the borderlands of consciousness and what might lie beyond, and why I keep reading in search of evidence that might point ever more clearly towards their true significance. I tend to shy away from such personal sharing because I am all too aware that its power to shape a sense of reality does not extend beyond my skull. Still, maybe the risk was worth taking.

Shrine Entrance Bahji

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The best journey to make

is inward. It is the interior

that calls. Eliot heard it.

Wordsworth turned from the great hills

of the north to the precipice

of his own mind, and let himself

down for the poetry stranded

on the bare ledges.

(R. S. Thomas: ‘Groping’ page 328, Collected Poems)

Given the unfolding story of my Parliament of Selves, republishing this sequence on consecutive days seemed a no-brainer.

In the previous post I briefly described the circumstances that led me to risk an encounter weekend run under the auspices of People Not Psychiatry in the mid-70s. The experience illustrates my life-changing encounter with some of the powerful unconscious undercurrents of my mind – proof, if any were needed, that consciousness has a filter to screen out unwanted experiences from below and it can sometimes take extraordinary circumstances to create a leak in the filter.

A standard definition of such a group as I experienced goes something like this:

Encounter Groups were nontraditional attempts at psychotherapy that offered short-term treatment for members without serious psychiatric problems. These groups were also known as sensitivity (or sensory) awareness groups and training groups (or T-groups). Encounter groups were an outgrowth of studies conducted in 1946 at the National Training Laboratories in Connecticut by Kurt Lewin. The use of continual feedback, participation, and observation by the group encouraged the analysis and interpretation of their problems. Other methods for the group dynamics included Gestalt therapy (working with one person at a time with a primary goal of increasing awareness of oneself in the moment, also known as holistic therapy) and meditation. (Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/encounter-group#ixzz2TCE6yY76)

In the case of the group I went to, delete ‘Gestalt therapy’ and insert ‘a hybrid of Reichian Breathwork and Primal (Scream) Therapy.’ A reasonable definition of Reichian Breathwork can be found at the GoodTherapy website. They write:

Reichian Breathwork helps clients achieve a sense of peace and calm by guiding them to focus only on their breath. They release their worry and rather than thinking about planning and doing, they are instructed to go inside their own body and simply be. This is an arduous task at first, but with practice clients learn to control their breathing and still the inner and outer voices. Complete calm and stillness must be achieved in order to direct all of one’s attention on one’s breath. This practice is performed in groups, in class and studio settings, or can be performed individually. There are a number of various tools available to help people learn the art of Reichian Breathwork.

The basic idea behind Primal Therapy is explained in wikipedia as:

Janov states that neurosis is the result of suppressed pain, which is the result of trauma, usually trauma of childhood origin. According to Janov, the only way to reverse neurosis is for the neurotic to confront their trauma in a therapeutic setting. Janov contends that by confronting their trauma, the neurotic can relive the original traumatic incident and can express the emotions that occurred at that time, thereby resolving the trauma. . . . . Janov believes that there is only one source of mental illness (besides genetic defects)—imprinted pain. He argues that this unitary source of neurosis implies that there can be only one effective cure—re-experiencing.

The encounter weekend’s method fused both these two forms of therapy into one. The aim was to reconnect you with primal pain by focused breathing.

Urban Breath NYC Deal

I climbed the steep and uncarpeted stairs to the therapy room on that first Friday evening with a degree of trepidation, my footsteps echoing off the walls. I walked through the door into a converted bedroom with a spongy covering over the entire floor. Spread around the room were countless pillows. There were about fifteen of us who would spend the entire weekend till Sunday afternoon breathing hard and pounding pillows with very little sleep until a small minority of us plunged through the floor to the basement of our minds to confront whatever demons had been locked away there.

Those with anger as the dominant emotion were the ones to pound the pillows most, often shouting out their rage to the person they’d been paired with for the purpose. Others, like me, who tried pounding the pillows hunting for anger but failed to connect, and who were completely unable to put any kind of label on the emotional quarry we were pursuing, spent a lot of time lying on our backs focusing on our breathing. Friday night was a disappointment. The rabbits of our primal pain were still deep in their burrows, silent and invisible.

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

This process went on for what seemed hours. The theory was that the more deeply you went into the experience, the more likely your were to connect with its cause. Many years later I did have a successful integration of this kind with a different set of feelings (see link). That didn’t happen this first time, nor was I ever able to connect this pool of tears with any specific event or determine its meaning. When I discovered it, I realised it had always been there. Decades later it seems that it always will be, as long as I live in this body at least.

I can invent reasons for its existence (there’s a lot of material to choose from – see for example the poems about my family, my searching (which in a way still continues) and my operation: these experiences all predated my breakthrough into my mind’s basement) but I cannot safely conclude that any of them apply as none of them ever popped to the surface to be identified as the culprit during breathwork. It seems to be just as Virgil wrote ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’ (‘There are tears for [or “of”] things and mortal things touch the mind.” So, no explanation at all really.

However, the main point of this extract from my life experience is to illustrate why I know for an absolute fact that there is a whole world of unacknowledged experiences seething beneath the surface of our minds. As Gerald Manley Hopkins put it:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

Most people interested in such things will now readily accept that there is more going on underneath our awareness than we will probably ever know. I’m not sure that in the west we would give the same degree of credence to the probability that there is even more going on above it.

But a consideration of my experiences in that direction will have to wait for next time.

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. . . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. 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.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá,Section 36)

In preparation for a couple of posts later this week it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence.

A Community of Selves?

I have pondered this issue over many decades. It seems that the person who is writing this now may not be the same person who did the first draft years ago. I am not, of course, referring to my body even though it may have replaced most of its cells in that time, as cell replacement does not seem necessarily to entail self-replacement. As the brain, if not driven to new learning, tends to lose cells rather than grow new ones, the brain I’m using now may be significantly smaller than it was when I wrote the first draft, but will be otherwise the same, I should not be greatly changed as a result.

It is the person that I have my doubts about. I have had to select one of my selves to edit this post at this point, and I had to trust that the me who did so would not be too out of step with the me who originally wrote it!

That the self is vast there is no doubt. According to Bahá’u’lláh it contains the universe enfolded. Other spiritually oriented people generally share the same view. One poet, who was a Jesuit priest, wrote:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

(G.M. Hopkins, Poems Oxford Edition page 107).

R.S. Thomas, also a priest, wrote that:

Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind.

(Later Poems page 99).

But size does not of necessity entail multiplicity.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

The Great Brain Robbery

I have already gone over in detail the implications of meditation and the Third ‘I’ and the threebrain models.

That can all seem a bit dramatic – a bit like the Great Brain Robbery.

It goes something like this.

Lots of people, when they’re explaining the value of mindfulness and meditation, describe the body as our car. So, if I think I’m the driver of this car, in full control, I’m deluded. I’ve been car-jacked.

Yes, my centre of awareness is in the driving seat, hands on the wheel and feet on the pedals, but every seat in the car is taken by a presence that’s holding a gun to my head. Directly behind me is Johnny Fear, known to his friends as Mr Rabbit. On my left is Jimmy Rage, the ‘auld croc.’ Back left is Sissy Thinker, who thinks she’s the brains of the outfit.

In the worst case scenario, I can hear an occasional thud and grunt from the boot of the car where they have locked my True Self, tightly bound and gagged. What he knows but I don’t is that their guns are loaded with blanks. They’re all bluff and thunder but no lightning at all.

When Sissy Thinker has bought into an ideology that sees almost everyone except her gang as a sworn enemy and unbeliever, Jimmy Rage takes control of the car and goes on a killing spree. Either that, or Mr Rabbit grabs the wheel, slams his foot on the accelerator and makes a run for it.

As we’ve looked at those issues in enough detail already, I’ll focus now on how to understand another aspect of the complexity of our interior in less loaded terms, more to do with our cultural conditioning than our evolutionary and instinctual heritage.

The Bahá’í Perspective

To get us going, what might be the beginnings of a Bahá’í perspective on all this?

Bahá’u’lláh wrote (GleaningsCXII):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united.

There are many passages in the Bahá’í Writings that explain various ways in which each of us can experience or be subject to divisions within, to a point at which one part of us is even in conflict with another. Such conflicts have implications for our relationships with others but it is not my purpose to consider those in detail now.

The focus of this post is the community of selves within each of us. Where is the evidence that we are more than one self?

The above quotation from Bahá’u’lláh describes us as not inwardly united, which implies that we may be inwardly divided. Bahá’u’lláh also talks of the self but in ways that conflict. For example, we are enjoined to flee the self as a prison[1] on the one hand, and to turn our sight towards it, on the other, and see Bahá’u’lláh as God standing within us[2]. We clearly cannot be talking about the same self in each case. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi develop this idea in many places[3].

Furthermore ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes character as coming in three kinds – innate, inherited and acquired: there is also natural capacity and acquired capacity.[4]

There is in addition the question of divine attributes (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings XXVII):

Upon the reality of man… He hath focussed the radiance of all of His names and attributes… and made it a mirror of His own self.

This multitude of varied attributes is hard to reconcile into one concept of God let alone integrate into a single self as the unwavering centre of a unified consciousness![5]

If the Bahá’í picture suggests at least a family of selves, what does the Western world think? I shall draw for the most part on psychology in the profile that follows.

For source of image see link.

For source of image see link.

The Psychological Perspective

The layman seems typically to value consistency, which, in effect, means singleness. In psychology too the assumption has sometimes been that there really is a unity, accounting for differences and inconsistencies within the same person by variations of the trait perspective. However a vast body of theory, clinical practice and research has accumulated which calls this assumption gravely into question. Split brain research and resulting theories[6], clinical experiences with multiple personalities[7] and the auditory hallucinations of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia[8], as well as psychoanalytic theory (Freud and Jung especially) and its offspring[9] are useful starting points in getting our bearings.

For instance, Berne, the founding father of Transactional Analysis, saw us as beings organised into at least three different semi-autonomous and incompletely conscious subselves. These he called the Parent, the Adult and the Child[10]. The extent to which these subselves are in harmonious cooperation is one of the determinants of well-being.

A model of therapy often used in coordination with Transactional Analysis is the Gestalt Therapy of Fritz Perls[11] whose most fundamental tenet is that we are divided beings seeking to become whole. His therapy is a form of consultation between conflicting aspects of the person.

Split-brain research strongly suggests that the left and right halves of the brain function in distinct ways. If they become surgically or traumatically disconnected then the patient can be shown to process reality in simultaneous but conflicting ways. Radical developments in academic psychology and its research take the view that no such thing as personality in the traditional sense exists. We are constructed from our social experience. Roles and the internalised descriptions of others produce an illusion of solid selfness. However, rather as with the proverbial onion, once you take these layers away is there nothing left above and beyond these disparate and ephemeral imaginings!

Amartya Sen, in Identity and Violence, expresses his view that our multiple identities are inescapable and to be celebrated (page 172) partly at least because there is the danger of intolerant extremism once we ‘think of [our]selves only as Hindus or only as Muslims (who must unleash vengeance on “the other community”) and as absolutely nothing else: not Indians, not subcontinentals, not Asians, not members of a shared human race.’

Next time we’ll look at some implications of these possibilities.


  1. Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words (Persian) no. 40.
  2. Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words (Arabic) no. 13.
  3. See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions chapter 64, and Shoghi Effendi in Living the Life 28.
  4. See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions chapter 56.
  5. See the Long Healing Prayer for a concentrated exposure to this problem.
  6. See N. Ornstein. Multiminds: A New Way to Look at Human Behaviour. Boston: Houghton Miffin, 1986.
  7. See A. Crabtree. Multiple Man: Explorations in Possession And multiple Personality. London: Grafton Books, 1988.
  8. See L.S. Benjamin . “Is Chronicity a Function of the Relationship Between the Person and Auditory Illusion?” Schizophrenia Bulletin (1989) 15: 291-310.
  9. See E. Berne. “Games People Play”. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964; and R. Assagioli. Psychosynthesis: A Collection of Basic Writings. 3d. ed. London: Turnstone, 1975.
  10. For a full and very intelligible description, see S. Woolams and M. Brown. TA: The Total Handbook of Transactional Analysis. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1979, pp. 9-40.

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