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Posts Tagged ‘Karen Wilson’

3rd 'I'

Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.’

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, pages 168-9)

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 second part of the fifth post.

It has taken me much longer than usual to reach the end of the journey undertaken by this series of posts. Jack has been swinging from the pendulum of his dilemma more than long enough to see him killed or cured. Some of you were probably wondering whether this would still be a work in progress in 2014.

Anyhow, for those of you who are still with me, this is going to be the journey’s end – whether it results in lovers meeting or Jack making his mind up, we will have to see. Frankly, at this point, I’m not quite sure myself.

Combining Reflection with Consultation

I ended the previous post after examining the process of reflection as an individual experience and preparing myself to consider whether reflection might be possible in some way for a group of people.

Reflection, as an inner process of consulting with our deepest essence, seems to require silence. Reflecting with others demands words, either spoken or written. How are we to reconcile that apparent contradiction?

Well, there is the model of a Quaker meeting where silence, as a group experience, is punctuated by the occasional utterance, when the spirit moves someone to speak. Given that the focus of this sequence of posts has been on decision making, it would not make sense to advocate that model for this purpose, whatever its value might be when harnessed to other aims.

The faith I follow has at the heart if its community and family life a spiritual process which Bahá’ís call ‘consultation.’ It’s important not to confuse this with the common meanings of this word in our society as a whole, for example when we speak of a ‘consultation document’ where all that happens is the canvassing of views prior to some agency deciding on a line of action.

Crucial to factor in is the point that consultation in a Bahá’í sense is rooted in the same detachment that underlies the kind of effective reflection we looked at before.

Amongst the prerequisites listed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for those who take counsel together is ‘detachment from all save God.’

For those who follow a theistic religious path, while this may prove difficult to do, at least they have decided on what compass and map to use to give them a sense of where to look for God. It’s not so easy for those without such a belief to see the relevance of this advice for them. However, I do believe it is relevant.

We are all capable over sufficient time and with sufficient sincere and dedicated thought to develop an idea of what for us is the highest good, something greater than our own limited values and projects, which are all too often self-interest in disguise. For example, there are those who see the earth in the form of Gaia perhaps, or humanity as an idea transcending arbitrary divisions derived from race, nation, religion or ideology, as the highest good to nurture for which they would be prepared to sacrifice a great deal, maybe everything. Having a credible self-transcending Good to hold in mind in place of a god we can’t believe in, helps us all, theists and atheists alike, let go of our unhelpful attachments in service of the greater good, whether that process takes shape within inner meditation or takes place as part of outward consultation.

bhubaneswar-header

For source of image see link

Mutually Reinforcing Processes

The purpose is to emphasize the statement that consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion . . .

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 72)

We need to remember what we learned last time about meditation before looking more closely at how the two processes work together. They may be mutually reinforcing: they may even effectively be the same thing!

Meditation, for an individual, seems to be equivalent to consultation for the group. It serves the same purposes and requires and creates the same personal qualities. We want to draw closer to the truth which demands and reinforces detachment. Both meditation and consultation grow from and result in unity, either within the individual or within the group, and in detachment, which may in any case be one and the same process and end-state. Bahá’u’lláh speaks of ‘the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment’ as though they are deeply interconnected if not identical.

When we suspend our assumptions in reflection, separating consciousness from its contents, we receive intimations of a higher and more accurate kind. This sounds remarkably similar to the understanding achieved in consultation. It seems possible, at least in principle, to use meditation to improve our consultation skills and consultation perhaps to practise and refine our meditation. It also raises the question whether consultation, at least in the West, would benefit from more silence.

It’s fairly clear that a reliable awareness of the remedial and active presence in our mind of the Highest Good we are capable of apprehending will entail a great deal of practice, whether we call it God or not. If we can maintain such a sense of this Presence then it is extremely unlikely that we would be inclined pig-headedly to bludgeon our friends, family, colleagues and neighbours into submission with our own opinions when that so clearly interferes with wiser states of mind and spaces for decision making.

There are ways, it needs to be said, in which we can become so over-identified with our limited understanding of that Good, that we are prepared to torture and kill other people in our attempts to bring that understanding into reality. That is the kind of idealism that Jonathan Haidt has pilloried as the trigger for more murders than any individual psychopath could perpetrate in several life times. I am talking here, though, of our ability to generate an idea of the good that widens what Robert Wright calls the ‘expansion of the moral imagination’ or what we could term ‘our compass of compassion’ rather than the narrowing of it in a way that creates a tyrant and torturer.

It may feel like a lifetime’s work to get to the point where we have grasped such an idea and have truly become capable of holding its essence in mind most of the time.

We also have to remain mindful, though we often forget, that investigating the truth is a goal whose pursuit does not guarantee that we will always find it. What we can do though is be resolute in developing increasing levels of humility about the value of our opinions, so that the consensus becomes richer and an ever closer approximation to the particular truth under investigation. Developing that kind of humility in such an opinionated world is easier said than done. Processes of disidentification described in the previous post, if we have practised them in a disciplined way will clearly help us step back from our opinions once we have shared them, and help us listen more objectively to the views of others even when they differ widely from our own.

WI_SustainableDev2013

For source of image see link

Detachment as the Key Process

Is this becoming one of those counsels of despair which can seem so characteristic of the spiritual life? Can we only consult if we are completely detached? If not shouldn’t we bother?

Perhaps though detachment is more of a process than an end-state at least in this life.

We need to consider the possibility that consultation is also a process that can help us become more detached. If so, it’s goal is clearly more than simply the investigation of truth. It is a spiritual discipline in itself and leads to personal as well as group transformation. It perhaps could rightly be called a Bahá’í yoga from which everyone, whether Bahá’í or not, could benefit from practising – even an accomplished meditator.

Meditation, then, might help us achieve the detachment necessary for consultation. Consultation will almost certainly strengthen our ability to be detached and thereby facilitate our meditation. They are clearly not unrelated disciplines sharing as they do this same outcome.

We also have to be open to the views of other people when we consult and to the Bahá’í Scriptures when we meditate upon them or to the promptings of our higher self when we commune with it in meditation. So these skills are clearly not all that different: they similarly enhance our understanding of reality.

In the end, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that meditation will help us consult and consulting will help us meditate. It certainly seems to me that meditation and consultation used in conjunction as the Bahá’í Faith recommends would constitute a wrecking ball of sufficient power to bring even the most obdurate of our dividing walls crashing to the ground and pave the way for greater unity within and between us. Such a degree of unity is imperative if we are to become capable of solving the problems that currently confront us.

Consultation has links with justice, too complex to go into now, which add further strength to this position:

To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

(From Section IIThe Prosperity of Humankind)

Increasing our Leverage

Where does all this leave us?

Once conversation between reflective minds is possible two powerful tools, implied in all that has been said above, can become available. First, some space will have been created between consciousness and its contents, and secondly there is a chance for more than one mind to be brought to bear upon the experiences. The space can be used for people to compare notes as equals – as two human beings, both with imperfect simulations of reality at their disposal, humbly and tentatively exchanging ideas about what is going on, with no one’s version being arbitrarily privileged from the start. There is a wealth of information that suggests most strongly that this process of collaborative conversation (Andersen and Swim), of consultation in the Bahá’í sense (see John Kolstoe), of inquiry (see Senge), of interthinking (see Mercer), can achieve remarkable results: Neil Mercer talks of the crucial function of language and says:

[I]t enables human brains to combine their intellects into a mega-brain, a problem-solving device whose power can be greater than that of its individual components. With language we are able not only to share or exchange information, but also to work together on it. We are able not only to influence the actions of other people, but also to alter their understandings. . . . . Language does not only enable us to interact, it enables us to interthink.

I’d like to slightly alter the wording of one sentence there to capture the essence of what I think I’m describing:

We are able not only to influence the actions of one another, but also to alter one another’s understandings.

I feel that the conditions that I have sought to describe in this sequence of posts go a long way towards making effective interthinking possible. Effective interthinking and meditation as a spiritual practice are closely related activities. Perhaps neither can unfold in their best and most constructive form in the absence of the other.

Where does all this leave Jack?

It’s hard to imagine that he would take easily to dream work. However he has been practising meditation. This could give him a head start in the sense that he should have an excellent platform from which to move towards more effective reflection. He might find the Disidentification exercise both attractive and useful as he moves towards finding other perspectives on his conflicted ideas.

If he were to begin to achieve some skill in stepping back to some degree even from his most cherished beliefs, he might be ready to consider approaching his brother Sam for a consultation on the question of a loan for a new business. Whether that gets him anywhere will depend not only on how well he has mastered the new skills but also on whether Sam is prepared to get on board with them to his best ability as well. If they got stuck consulting alone they might be able to move forwards in consultation with a trusted and objective third person. Mediation is a widely used model that builds on this possibility – an interesting word that looks like meditation if you’re reading too fast,

In a way we are all in the same boat. We are none of us experts in or masters of these new techniques. Even skilled practitioners of meditation may find it testing to exercise the skills they’ve learnt in a new way involving interaction with others. That’s no reason not to try of course.

So perhaps we ought to leave Jack to apply these principles as best he can and worry instead about how we can practice and make use of them ourselves.

If it helps, it might be a good idea to have a listen to Neil Mercer should you have skipped the video above. What he says both endorses the value of true consultation in the sense I have been discussing it and suggests that it probably should be taught in schools. In my view, the same is true of meditation.

I am very aware that there are some puzzling issues, particularly around the question of the ‘heart,’ that I have skated over in this sequence because of the main theme I wanted to explore, which was where and why in my view Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 model breaks down. (I am aware, though, that consultation with its dependence on language must draw on System 2 as well as upon the heart in the sense I have been exploring it.)

The theme of the heart has been explored in other posts on this blog.

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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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rag-rug-grey

Rag-rug: for source of image see link

Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge. Be ablaze as the fire, that ye may burn away the veils of heedlessness and set aglow, through the quickening energies of the love of God, the chilled and wayward heart. Be light and untrammeled as the breeze, that ye may obtain admittance into the precincts of My court, My inviolable Sanctuary.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh: CLII)

When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing last week, 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 fourth post.

Some time ago we left Jack struggling with his unsolvable dilemma:

His reading of Buddhist writings had taught him that he needed to go deeper into his mind to find wiser answers but he didn’t seem to be able to get past the blocks at the end of each pendulum swing. Anger versus pity. A good trade he disapproved of combined with Sam’s fecklessness. Don’t give him a penny. Give him a good leg up. There must be a way of getting past the stand off, transcending the conflict.

He found himself fruitlessly analysing the moral issues. What passed for compassion in his head said he should pay, for the kids’ sake. His version of wisdom said he shouldn’t because he’d be indulging Sam, he’d never learn from the consequences of his actions and it’d be throwing good money after bad. In any case it wasn’t fair as Sam hadn’t paid him back a penny of the money he owed for his education.

He shook himself. He tried counting his breaths again. He needed to go deeper, but how?

We then embarked on an exploration of both Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 models of decision-making before looking at some length at dreamwork as one possible way of going deeper.

How deep can dreamwork take us?

I want to draw on my own experience for this again. Mainly this is because I know what I dreamt and I know what I learnt from it. The evidence in that respect is as solid as it gets for me. It therefore interposes fewer filters between anyone who reads this and the raw experience it relates to. The drawback is that I have never had a dream that was stunningly prophetic or profoundly mystical, so the example I am going to give might seem a bit run of the mill. However, because I found an apparently simple dream profoundly enlightening, I thought it was worth sharing. What kind of dream might have helped Jack we may be able to come back to later.

fire

For source of image see link

My Dream

I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.

I worked on this dream using the methods described in the previous two posts. Various elements were profoundly meaningful, such as the rug made by my aunt, not least because of what she represented to me. For a sense of that those of you who are interested could read the poem The Maiden Aunt (see below). I want, for present purposes, to focus on what for me has become the core of the dream’s meaning, a meaning which is still evolving even though this dream is now more than 15 years old – still in adolescence really so there’s probably more to come.

There were two kinds of clue to this core meaning: one derived from word play and the other from role play.

Word Play

I’ll take the word play first as it’s easier to explain. The ‘chewing gum’ element of the dream can be dealt with quickly. It related to various ways I was stuck and perhaps still am!

More richly significant was the image of the hearth. The fact that it was in a chimney ‘breast’ helps convey the power of the realisation that came to me. The word ‘hearth’ is comprised of several other key words: ‘ear,’ ‘hear,’ ‘earth,’ ‘art’ and most powerful of all ‘heart.’ All of these words were separately of huge significance for me though I had some sense of how they might all fit together.

For example, I had latched early onto the words of Walter Savage Landor, long before I had the dream:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved; and next to Nature, Art.
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

The art of listening had separately been extremely important to me in my work as a clinical psychologist which made finding the ‘ear’ so closely tied into this central image not entirely surprising. Also having an ear to hear the intimations of the spirit is emphasised in Bahá’í literature as being of critical importance to moral progress.

This only got me so far though. I needed some other way of decoding the full import of the dream.

peat-digging-in-dutch-rural-landscape

Peat Digging – for source of image see link

Role Play

If you remember, when I was explaining dreamwork, I spoke of how each dream element is part of the dreamer and we can unlock the meaning of the symbolism not only by tracking our associations with it, but also by pretending to be the element in the dream and speaking as though we were it.

The result in the case of the fuel burning in the hearth was dramatic. I had been really struggling to make sense of this part of the dream. What had a coal fire got to do with my situation, except as a memory of childhood with relatively little relevance? I decided I needed to sit right in front of the hearth of the house I was living in at the time and speak as the fuel itself.

The Fuel: I am peat. You dig me from the earth and I burn. You feed me to the flowers and they grow.

Need I go any further really with what I said? That first moment contains the key to unlocking a whole treasure chest of meanings.

On the 26th April 2003, at least five years after beginning to work on the dream, I wrote in my journal, trying to summarise some of my insights:

I’m part poet/writer, part psychologist, part educator, (both subsumed by the term mind-wright) – the words wright and writer catch one part of my essence – my tools are words by and large – mind does not quite catch the other part – soul is too grand and beyond my competence – the nearest I can get is being a wordsmith and a heartwright. The word heart helps because it includes in itself the words art and (h)ear, an essential combination of skills or qualities entailed in heartwork. It leads back to my concept of heart-to-heart resuscitation. Hearts have to connect. That it also links with my archetypal dream of the hearth, where the fire of spirit burns to give warmth to the mansion of being, makes it all the more powerful a word to use in this context. The essence of my being – peat – is to fuel this process. An additional thought: 28.04.03 – if you place Heart and Earth overlapping you get Hearth. Each is also an anagram of the other. In the Bahá’í Writings the heart is often spoken of as a garden and of having soil. Also I have prayed for God to ignite within my breast the fire of His love and Bahá’u’lláh refers to the ‘candle” of our heart. Hearth eloquently combines these notions of the heart as a garden and as a container of fire. What does this mean in practice?

I’m still trying to answer that question.

Digging Deeper

The progression up to this understanding and beyond is also intriguing.

When I first had the revelation that the fuel was a pun on my name in its shortened form, I took a narrow view of what it meant. The name my parents gave me was ‘Peter’ with all the associations of rock. When I first began to work on the idea of ‘peat,’ I felt that the dream was saying that I should draw on the essence of who I was, not the persona my upbringing had fabricated in me after the image of my silent and stoical father, hiding his undoubted love behind a wall of reserve.

Then, pushing it somewhat further, the idea of burning Pete came to mind, which suggested the idea of self-sacrifice. But increasingly, as time went on, an even deeper meaning, complementary not contradictory, began to come through: perhaps ‘peat’ was not ‘me’ but came from something outside me and far richer and much more substantial. The earth became a symbol for the realm of spirit and peat came to represent the power that could flow from that realm into my being to give me the strength, energy and wisdom to do far more, far more effectively than I could ever do by any other means.

Of course, none of this exhausts the implications of the dream. The quotation at the head of this post was one of the associations that came to mind when I was working on the dream very early on. It gives yet another level of meaning to the dream to interpret it in the light of that quotation.

I don’t expect to get to the bottom of this dream’s meanings in this life. I just think I have to keep referring back to it to see what else it can teach me. I think it is a dream about the heart that came from my heart. I feel the heart in this sense is the experience of soul or spirit in consciousness. Heart is used in other ways, I know, in our culture, and many of these ways connect it primarily with our emotions – anger, envy, desire, what passes for love, sadness and so on (I’ll be returning to that in a later sequence of posts). That is only one way of looking at what the heart might be. The heart is also a source of inspiration, and, while our emotions shout, the heart whispers its wisdom and we do not hear it unless our minds are quiet.

And that is where the approaches we will be looking at next time come into their own. We’ll have to leave Jack swinging from his pendulum of doubt for at least another week.

The Maiden Aunt

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3rd 'I'

When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing last week, 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 second part of the third post.

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 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 and we will be considering others. For now 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 Continued

d. 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.

The-Persistence-of-Memory-1931

Dali’s The Persistence of Memory – for source of picture see link

e. 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.

i. Free Association
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.

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, ie 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.

interrogation_room_by_cold_levian1

For source of image see link

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.

ii. 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.

SnowmanTake 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 we will look at in the final two posts of this whole sequence) and decide how best to deal with and if appropriate express the feelings constructively.

C. The Implications of IntegrationBerrington Buddha v3

This has been a rather extensive treatment of the basic aspects of dreamwork as one example of how we can gain access to another system of thinking than the two Kahneman seems to feel are all that is available to us.

The point reached –  the integration of and balance between extremes – hopefully has signalled how useful even this one approach could be to helping us get past a pendulum dilemma, where we swing between two apparently incompatible courses of action in response to a challenge. There is a theme that Jung deals with, but which is already present in Myers’s thought, that is relevant here. To quote Ellen Kelly in the Kellys’ monumental book Irreducible Mind  (page 64):

In keeping with his “tertium quid” approach, [Myers] believes that the challenge to science does not end but begins precisely when one comes up against two contradictory findings, positions, or theories, and that breakthroughs occur when one continues to work with conflicting data and ideas until a new picture emerges that can put conflicts and paradoxes in a new light or a larger perspective.

Jung believed that when we are caught in the vice-like grip of this kind of conflict, we have to find the ‘transcendent’ position that lifts us above the paralysis induced by two apparently irreconcilable opposites to which we feel compelled to respond in some way. Stephen Flynn makes an important point in his discussion of Jung’s concept:

Jung mentions one vital aspect of Transcendent Function, as ‘active imagination’ whereby the apparent haphazard frightening images from the unconscious are integral to the healing process.

This obviously relates to my figure from the freezer and anything else of the same nature. He then quotes Jung himself about any related conflict (The structure and Dynamics of the Psyche 1960 – page 88):

The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living, third thing – not a logical stillbirth in accordance with the principle tertium non datur but a movement out of the suspension between opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation ….  the shifting to and fro of argument and affects represent the transcendent function of opposites.

There are other paths towards this kind of transcendence and discussion of them inevitably includes a consideration of the undoubtedly spiritual. I have deliberately avoided confronting that aspect of the matter so far, as even the more mundane powers of the dream seem magical to me, and draw on the right brain or what we often short-hand as the heart, something not reducible to either System 1 or System 2, in my view.

I realise we still have not begun to explain what kind of solutions might have occurred to Jack as a result of such a process. I plan to move a bit closer to that aspect of the problem next time.

The posts next week will explore some of these implications partly in the light of an important dream I once experienced. As a preparation for the way the first of these will edge closer to a sense of the way that dreams can be seen as a borderland between ordinary and transcendent consciousness, and even at the risk of making this long post unbearably longer, I think it’s worth sharing the experience of a Visiting Professor of Transpersonal Psychology which he quotes in relation to his investigations of paranormal phenomena. David Fontana describes it towards the end of his book, Is There an Afterlife? (page 425):

[Psycho-spiritual traditions teach that] astral and energy bodies hover just above the sleeping physical body each night . . . . I once had an interesting experience that could be connected with this belief in some way. For many nights I have been waking briefly in the middle of the night with a clear awareness of a presence standing on the left side of my bed. I had no idea of the identity of this presence, and it seemed to vanish each time just as I became fully conscious. Every time this happened, I fell asleep again almost at once. There was nothing frightening about the seeming presence, but I was interested to find an explanation for it. One night when I awoke with a strong sense of it, I received simultaneously the clear impression that to find the answer I must think back to what had been happening just before I awoke, rather as one rewinds a film. I did so – many things seem possible in the moment of waking from sleep – and immediately became aware, to my utter astonishment, that the “presence” was in fact myself, in the moment of reuniting with the physical body. . . . Whether or not [the experience] supports the notion that consciousness leaves the body each night during sleep I cannot say. But I know that the experience happened, I know it was not a dream, and I know that, having had the curious insight into what might have caused the presence, the experience never happened again . . .

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3rd 'I'

When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing last week, 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 third post.

We’ve seen how Jack responded to his problem and found himself between a rock and a hard place. Instinct got him swinging between anger and pity. Logic looked a bit different, more pragmatic, but it couldn’t unhook him from the pendulum even if the extremes took slightly different names – would he be subsidising certain failure or providing support for a workable possibility of success?

What could he have done instead? How else could he have approached the problem?

I am aware that self-styled hard-headed readers may be getting ready to jump ship at this point, because they feel they are in firm contact with reality and are convinced that all the valid possibilities have already been exhausted. I’d like to request a suspension of disbelief. While there isn’t room in this post to rehearse once more all the evidence I believe exists for another dimension of consciousness, this sentence makes much of it that I have examined on this blog only a click away. All this evidence, and more that I have not yet quoted, convinces me that the approaches that I am about to describe are fully warranted by evidence out there, even when they move into transcendental territory. The only reason they haven’t found their way into most mainstream text books yet is because of the dogmatic prejudice of conventional scientism that leads researchers to believe there is no point in looking at any of these things because we already know they can’t be true.

Now, I’ll step down from my soap box and describe some of these other approaches which have their roots, wholly or in part, in this other aspect of consciousness.

A. Why Dreams?

I’m going to start with one of the easiest possibilities to explain and the most likely to be acceptable to the sceptical, up to a point at least. I am, in the first two parts of this treatment of dreams, going to keep as best I can within a framework of evidence that does not draw on the transcendent while plainly proving that we have modes of thought which cannot be reduced to Kahneman‘s  System 1 and System 2. It also provides an area of experience that every single one of us can test out for ourselves if we are prepared to give it enough time. It’s far too tempting for me to add that if you are not prepared to test this out yourself over a period of months, at least resist the temptation to assume it’s valueless.

Berrington blend v2

My main line of argument for now is that we can consult with our dreams. Dreams could offer a way for Jack to move beyond the stalemate of his pendulum swings.

What does this mean in practice?

Dreams clearly come from a different part of our beings than our usual daytime conscious thoughts. Visual elements predominate. Even verbal ones are often tinged with the surreal. The best way to conceptualise dreams for our present purposes is to see them as originating from a level of consciousness that is usually below the threshold of our awareness – subliminal in other words. None of this is incompatible with the generally accepted view of dreams as being involved in a process of consolidating memories from short-term to long-term store. This function gives them a special role in alerting us to the meaning of what is called ‘day residue.’

Once you accept the idea that dreams come from below the threshold of normal consciousness, it becomes possible to see how useful they can be in problem-solving. This is because they come at a problem from a completely different angle from Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2, and it will also become apparent that they can bridge the gap between the material and spiritual aspects of consciousness, drawing therefore in my view more easily upon the transcendental. I have chosen to start with dreams because not even the most reductionist scientist would deny we dream, even if he never remembers one.

Also, dreams highlight a key problem which permeates this whole area of human life: there is a world of difference between an experience and the interpretation of that experience. Nevertheless, it is not good science to dismiss the experience just because you don’t like the explanation that someone has pinned to it. Dreams undoubtedly exist. They are an unusual state of consciousness. What they mean and where they come from is open to interpretation. As such, therefore, they are potentially perfect illustrations of what I am hoping to convey.

At the most basic level you have the possibility that they can bring to our attention purely physical factors that were below this threshold of consciousness during the day. One such example is of the man who had a recurrent dream that a tiger had its claws in his back. After several frightening nights of this he asked his wife to check the skin there where he couldn’t see it. She found suspicious blemishes which a visit to the doctor and subsequent tests confirmed was a form of skin cancer. By paying attention to his dreams, he had been alerted in time and was cured.

One of my own experiences was less dramatic but none the less helpful for all that. I dreamt that I had been electrocuted by my turntable. When I checked the record player the following day I got a slight shock from the metal arm and, when I looked at the plug, I discovered that the earth wire was disconnected. During the previous day I had presumably had a shock from the arm but not noticed it consciously.

We have all heard of other examples where complex problems were solved by dreams (see link for more examples):

Kekulé discovered the tetravalent nature of carbon, the formation of chemical/ organic “Structure Theory”, but he did not make this breakthrough by experimentation alone. He had a dream!

B. Working with Dreams

There are reported to be cultures which, when the community has a problem, encourage everyone to seek dreams that yield a solution. Apparently this works.

There are books that explain ways in which we can all learn how to tap into this subliminal reservoir of creative thought to find a way through our problems. We can for example, before we sleep, deliberately ask for guidance in our dreams. As most of us, until we have practised it, fail to remember our dreams it is advisable to have a notepad and pencil handy by the bedside to record any dreams we are aware of when we wake during the night or as we wake in the morning. They need to be noted down right then because they fade so quickly that by the time you have got downstairs to make a cup of coffee you will have forgotten them.

Different books have different advice about how best to understand what you have dreamt. Personally, I never got much out of any material that claimed to give me standard interpretations of dream symbols. Our imagery is too personal for that to work most of the time.

I found two approaches useful, the second more than the first.

Calvin Hall recommended recording sequences of dreams and looking for the meaning in the sequence rather than in any one dream. That is probably good advice but not very practical, though I did manage to keep a detailed dream diary for about a year, recording the dreams on filing cards. In the end though I tended to just look at one of the more striking and significant dreams and ignored the rest.

Dream Game

This caused me to abandon Hall’s method. I took an immediate liking to Ann Faraday’s approach once I found her book The Dream Game in 1977. I still have my very battered copy of her book in the Penguin Edition.

There are two stages to her method. The first is uncontentious for the most part, once you accept the importance of dreams. Stage 1 focuses on how to record your dreams. Stage 2 is concerned with how to understand what they mean for us as the dreamer. We are a long way from System 1 and a fair distance from undiluted System 2 already.

Stage 1 – Catching the Dream

There are nine elements to capturing what you need to hold on to about a dream. This is a brutally simplified summary (pages 48-54):

  1. Have the means to record your dreams within easy reach at night;
  2. Date it in advance;
  3. Prime yourself to dream by suggestion or prayer;
  4. Don’t delay. Record every dream as soon as you wake;
  5. Don’t dismiss a dream as too trivial to record;
  6. Record it as fully as possible;
  7. Enthusiasts should invite the next dream before going back to sleep!
  8. Transcribe your dream the following day; and
  9. Relate the dream to the events of the day before or that period of time (this does not mean that it is only an echo of them).

Stage 2 – Decoding the Dream

Much of the rest of the book concerns how to decode the dream. Rather than simply regurgitating what she describes, which can best be experienced and understood by reading her book, I thought it would be more interesting and helpful to share the approach to dreams I came to rely on during a difficult period of transition in my own life. Much but not all of it came from her approach. At the core is the belief that dreams are not couched in some esoteric and deliberately mysterious language of symbols. We may think we don’t understand images very well, but this may simply be an easily remedied mistaken assumption (The Dream Game – page 62):

When the dreaming mind expresses itself in movie terms, cutting out all the “as ifs” and showing us literally crossing roads and bridges when we are facing major life decisions, or literally being devoured when we feel “eaten up” by something, it is using the most fundamental of all languages, shared by men and women of every age and race.

a. Transcribing the Dream

After I recorded a dream, when I was transcribing it to work on I would write it in the present tense. ‘I am sitting in my living room. The radio is on. Even so I hear the sound of movement from the kitchen through the open door. I turn and look and to my horror I see a large and shambling figure walking out of the full length fridge-freezer and turning to come towards me.’ And so on.

b. Noting the Possibly Related Event(s)

I would note at the bottom of the transcript the ‘day residue’ and any other previous or pending events that might have triggered or influenced the dream. I found that dreams are not just sensitive to what has happened the day before but also to what I am aware has recently happened or is going to happen, like a recent trip or a forthcoming job interview. Even the events of a week earlier can leave traces in a dream. It is all a question of whether their meaning is still alive in the mind in some way.

I would then spend a little time deciding whether simple implications of the ‘day residue’ probably exhausted the dream’s meaning, or whether there were other resonances. For example, the electric shock from the record player arm seemed to be the main point of the dream. It was a simple warning. I fixed the earth wire. There was nothing else to think about. However, even if my fridge had needed fixing, the figure stepping out of it was clearly not reducible to a loose wire somewhere, except possibly in my head.

c. Giving the Dream a Title

I followed the advice to do this even though it was inconsistently effective. Sometimes I was right about the key theme and caught it in the title I created. Sometimes, though, I was hopelessly off the mark. When it was close it helped: when it was wrong it could slow down the process of arriving at a true understanding of the dream.

We have reached a point in the process where the basic but all-important spade work has been done. We have the raw material. Now we must find a way of decoding the imagery to decipher what the dream might mean. That, I’m afraid, must wait till next time, as must how this all sheds light on the limitations of System 1 and System 2 as models of all we have and on how this package might help Jack stop swinging on his pendulum of indecisiveness.

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Karpmans-Drama-Triangle

For the source of the image see link

When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing last week, 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 second post.

Over the years my models for working out what to do in difficult interpersonal situations have been thoroughly tested. Even the best of them have sometimes reached breaking point. Take one of my favourites, for instance: Transactional Analysis. The grasp I have of my scripts and ego states, of the nature of the games that tempt me, and of the ways to apply to ongoing situations the Persecutor-Rescuer-Victim triangle that they borrowed from Karpman have occasionally left me in the lurch.

Even that powerful tool from existentialist thought, reflection, has sometimes proved inadequate to the task before me, and that’s even when it was fortified by prayer and meditation as well.

I haven’t wanted to go into detail about the situations that have been so testing as that would involve revealing details about other people. So I invented the story in the previous post instead.

Such dilemmas are not unique to that kind of situation or this period of history. They are typically human predicaments. Take this example from a novel of 1814. Fanny has refused to take part in the performance of a play at Mansfield Park, resisting the entreaties of almost the entire family of uncles, aunts and cousins with whom she is living, except Edmund who seems to feel as she does. She retreats to her special room to reflect (pages 116-117: Everyman Edition):

To this nest of comforts Fanny now walked down to try its influence on an agitated, doubting spirit—to see if by looking at Edmund’s [her cousin’s] profile she could catch any of his counsel, or by giving air to her geraniums she might inhale a breeze of mental strength herself. But she had more than fears of her own perseverance to remove; she had begun to feel undecided as to what she ought to do; and as she walked round the room her doubts were increasing. Was she right in refusing what was so warmly asked, so strongly wished for? what might be so essential to a scheme on which some of those to whom she owed the greatest complaisance, had set their hearts? Was it not ill-nature—selfishness—and a fear of exposing herself? . . . .  It would be so horrible to her to act [in a play], that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples, and as she looked around her, the claims of her cousins to being obliged, were strengthened by the sight of present upon present that she had received from them. The table between the windows was covered with work-boxes and netting-boxes, which had been given her at different times, principally by Tom; and she grew bewildered as to the amount of the debt which all these kind remembrances produced.

Everyone knows of the world famous ditherer of somewhere between 1599 and 1602 (I’m not quite sure of the date the writing of the play began!) and his most famous dithering moment when he couldn’t make up his mind whether to be or not to be. If I was better versed in the Classics I’m sure I would find even the most stoic among the Greeks would have had their moments of equivalent uncertainty.

So what am I trying to illustrate?

Even if you had no real idea what the story in the previous post was meant to illustrate, I’m sure you got the drift that there were at least three levels of reaction or thought, along with their possible strengths and weaknesses, that I was examining: gut feeling, logic and something deeper that the story didn’t define.

Now we come back to Kahneman and his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. I have already looked at an area of public life, dealing in stocks and shares, where his model sheds light on the consistently poor judgements that occur. I said then that I would come back to his model to see where, though powerful, for me it breaks down.

The story in the previous post was meant as a somewhat simplistic illustration of that, partly because we, like Jack, only have Jack’s point of view. But that’s something  that’s often true for all of us – we only have our own perspective to guide us. We’ll be coming back to possible ways of overcoming that problem later. Given his situation at the time of the story, gut feelings and logical thought didn’t help Jack resolve his dilemma. How does that relate to Kahneman’s model?

He describes two aspects of our thinking: System 1 and System 2.

System 1

System 1 corresponds roughly to  gut feeling or instinct, if you like. In the story, that takes the shape of Jack’s strong and immediate emotional reactions to his brother’s request for money – his frustration and anger, for example, at being asked for money to support a course of action he really dislikes. That is only one aspect of System 1’s nature.

In a way that to my mind is misleading, Kahneman uses the word ‘intuition’ as a short hand for System 1. I think instinct is a better word to use, for reasons that will become clear as these posts unfold. Instinct is the First ‘I.’

amygdala

For the source of the image see link

It’s very useful but it has considerable limitations. According to Kahneman System 1 responses are good at dealing with short term problems. They are part of our builtin survival skills, mediated by old parts of the brain such as the amygdala, which he describes (5420) as ‘the mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news.’  They are also derived from over learned skills and allow us both to free conscious attention up for other tasks as well as enabling us to respond quickly and effectively in complex but essentially predictable situations such as nurses and fire fighters have to deal with. It is the automatic system to which learned skills are handed over such as driving, sport, music and chess. That kind of complexity System 1 can be trusted to handle.

Kahneman states (282): ‘associative memory, the core of System 1, continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what is going on in our world at any instant.’ It (340) ‘operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.’

System 1 is no good for long term problems or situations that are unfamiliar and inconsistent. It can lead to impulses and impressions that may be compelling but are also dangerously misleading.

His conclusion about its limitations is (433): ‘System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. . . . . it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off. If you are shown a word on the screen in a language you know, you will read it—unless your attention is totally focused elsewhere.’

System 2

System 2 is very different. We can short hand it as ‘intellect’ and call it our Second ‘I.’ I have to agree that it immensely enhances our decision-making powers.

It is left brain in origin  – basically logical, empirical and sequential. It is better at long term thinking. It makes maps that can, though, be mistaken for reality. He describes System 2 as one that (340) ‘allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.’ He adds (375) ‘The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away.’

He also contrasts it with the operation of System 1 and indicates how they can complement each other (423): ‘System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.’

He concludes (429): ‘In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.’

In words that are reminiscent of McGilchrist in his book The Master and His Emissary Kahneman ends this part of his description by saying  (523): ‘In the unlikely event of this book being made into a film, System 2 would be a supporting character who believes herself to be the hero.’

This hint of scepticism notwithstanding it seems clear that Kahneman regards System 2, powerful though flawed, as the best hope of good decision-making at our disposal.

albert-einstein-intuition-page2397

For the source of the image see link

Is that all?

As we saw in the story, System 1 and System 2 did not provide the means of transcending the blocks that stood in the way of Jack’s making up his mind what to do. Is there anywhere else to turn? Is there something better?

And this is where it begins to be possible to question whether intuition might not lie somewhere else than System 1 and be that source of more reliable inspiration. It may be true that System 2 is doubly deluded and has in fact two hidden masters – instinct and intuition. It may be interesting to explore whether the First ‘I’ is a mechanism mainly for survival in the material world and a means of making automatic the execution of over-learned skills to free up our attention for other things, whereas intuition/inspiration, possibly the Third ‘!’, is linked to the Right Brain, as McGilchrist might argue, and far slower than instinct to float to the surface of consciousness: it is non-verbal unlike System 2, and is the means of connecting us to spiritual aspects of experience.

We will be returning to that in more detail in the next two posts over the weekend.  I hope also to describe in a later post one possible way of overcoming the problems that arise when I have only my own simulation of reality to go on.

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tobacco

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When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing last week, 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 first post.

I’ve looked at one example of where Kahneman‘s thinking works at its most powerful. I’d like to dig a bit deeper now. It’s easier to understand more fully the strengths and weaknesses of Kahneman’s model of System 1 and System 2 thinking if we start with a concrete example. So, here’s rather a long – or do I mean tall? – story from sometime in 2008 to get us going.

The young girl slid the tray onto the table and placed the plate and the cafetière side by side.

‘What’s this?’ the man asked, picking up a purple hourglass with pink sand still running through it.

‘Oh, sorry!’ she exclaimed. ‘I’m new here. I shouldn’t have brought that. It measures how long the coffee takes to brew.’

‘Ah! I didn’t know that,’ he said as he handed her the hourglass. ‘Can I have some milk instead?’

He stared blankly out of the window at the passers-by in the passageway outside as he waited for the milk. She came back in a couple of minutes and placed it on the table.

‘Sorry about that,’ she giggled.

‘That’s OK,’ he replied, unable to manage a smile.

The Plan Cafe, Cardiff

The Plan Cafe, Cardiff

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

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

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

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

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

Sam had asked for a ‘loan.‘ His tobacconist shop was losing money. He ‘just’ needed £20,000 to tide him over while he closed the tobacconist’s down and opened an off-licence in the next street. It was perfect, he said. The guy was retiring and wanted a quick sale so he could move up north to be with his daughter in time for the birth of his first grand child.  Sam had a buyer in line for his own business and was getting a reasonable price even though the new laws about smoking in public places had hit the trade badly – but the price was not quite enough to cover all the costs of the off-licence. He just needed to pay off his debts and cover the shortfall and he would be fine.

off-licence

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Jack had hated Sam’s idea of opening the tobacconist’s in the first place as he regarded smoking as second only to drink as a legal evil. And in a way he was glad it was failing. But he was being asked to help finance a move towards selling drink which he hated even more. With an inward groan he took the email out of his pocket.

‘Hi, Jack. Long time no see. Hope all is OK with you and the family. How’s Stella and the kids?

‘Just needed to touch base with you. I’ve got a slight problem right now and I could do with your help. You know I’ve had this tobacconist’s for a while now. Things have got tight since the law changed and I’m not making enough to make ends meet.’

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

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

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

It would have been tolerable if Sam had made good use of his time at university. Their parents were both dead by then, and had never been rich enough to leave them anything in any case. They’d had to fend for themselves. Jack felt he had always taken that challenge more seriously than Sam. Instead of studying hard, Sam had spent more time in the pub than in the library and just scraped a third in modern languages, To add insult to injury he then got a job in a pub kitchen and trained to be a chef. That’s probably what made the idea of opening an off-licence so appealing now. He already knew the trade from the inside to some extent, not just from the wrong side of the bar.

Jack made himself read the email to the end.

‘I don’t know whether you know but Bryony’s not working now and we’ve got Jim, Ned and the baby to provide for. I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t really need a hand desperately, and there’s no one else I can ask.’

‘Too right,’ thought Jack. ‘None of the bums he knows has two pounds to rub together.’

He stopped himself. Sam always brought out the worst in him. He remembered how close they were when Jim was born. Though Jack had been bitterly disappointed at Sam’s choice of career, he was fond of Bryony. She was bit scatty and could spend money like there was no tomorrow, but she was a good mother to the kids. She had a warm heart and a great sense of humour. He smiled to himself as he remembered her imitation, almost where he was sitting now, of Meg Ryan’s deli moment in ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ The woman across the way smiled back. He didn’t really notice.

trigger for meditation

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He wasn’t quite sure why they had drifted apart. Maybe it was partly because he had stopped drinking and taken up meditation. Sam couldn’t get his head round that, and Jack got very bored spending time with Sam and his friends once they were three sheets to the wind, which was most evenings, even after the kids were born. Bryony just put up with it and was grateful that the money he brought in was usually far more than he spent.

Jack felt caught between a rock and a hard place. Part of him was so narked with Sam for the way he seemed to use people and for the unprincipled choices he made that he just wanted to tell him to get lost. The other part thought of Bryony and the kids: it wasn’t their fault Sam was a waster. He ought to give something at least for their sake. On the other hand Stella would go through the roof if he handed Sam anywhere close to £20,000.

‘Have you gone out of your mind?’ he could hear her now. ‘You might as well start the bonfire with it!’

And the pendulum in his head went back and forth as he sipped his coffee and nibbled on his cake without really tasting either of them.

He tried to step back from his gut feelings into a higher place in his head and think about it more objectively. The problem was that his logical mind was not much better than his gut when it came to this situation. Pragmatism simply said that what mattered really was whether Sam could make a go of it in the off-licence and provide properly for his family. If he could, then supporting him would be justified and, if he couldn’t, Jack should use the leverage the loan would give him to get Sam moving in a better direction. The problem was that the information he’d found on the net about the off-licence trade suggested that it might just provide a good living in the right location and with the right approach.

Not that anything was certain when it came to setting up a business.  He’d read somewhere that two out three small businesses died within five years. On top of that, his knowledge of Sam suggested strongly that he shouldn’t be in business at all because, unless money was growing on trees, he’d never make a go of it.  Yes, maybe he really should try and steer Sam towards some form of paid work within his abilities.

But he knew where that would go.

‘I hate bloody cooking. It’s hard work for next to no money.‘

‘But you’re good at it. And you’ll get promoted pretty quick so the money will be good. You might even be able to start up somewhere like this place eventually.’

Deep down though he wondered whether he would have the heart to withhold the loan if Sam didn’t buy the plan.

big-pendulum

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His reading of Buddhist writings had taught him that he needed to go deeper into his mind to find wiser answers but he didn’t seem to be able to get past the blocks at the end of each pendulum swing. Anger versus pity. A good trade he disapproved of combined with Sam’s fecklessness. Don’t give him a penny. Give him a good leg up. There must be a way of getting past the stand off, transcending the conflict.

He found himself fruitlessly analysing the moral issues. What passed for compassion in his head said he should pay, for the kids’ sake. His version of wisdom said he shouldn’t because he’d be indulging Sam, he’d never learn from the consequences of his actions and it’d be throwing good money after bad. In any case it wasn’t fair as Sam hadn’t paid him back a penny of the money he owed for his education.

He shook himself. He tried counting his breaths again. He needed to go deeper, but how?

And that question along with many others will have to wait until tomorrow.

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