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Posts Tagged ‘Karen Wilson’

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

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

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

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

Why we should change our priorities.

Karen makes a compelling case, I feel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman

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

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

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

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

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Seven Illusions

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

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

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

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

Why meditation matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I need to preface this review of Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, and not just by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.

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

Another reason it has taken some time to get round to publishing this is that there are parts of the book I can’t buy into and generally I don’t review anything about which I have such significant reservations in terms of the central message. However, I am also aware that I have learnt a great deal from the book, which is rooted in her direct experience of the matters she speaks of. She says much that touches me deeply. It doesn’t seem fair not to bring such gems to people’s attention when my reservations might be my blinkers.

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

The Purpose of the Book

As I understand it the book it written to encourage us all to build our search for happiness and fulfillment on a sounder basis (Kindle Reference 70):

[This] is what you have been looking for and searching for all your life. But you were scared, and instead of looking inside you went to look outside.

Changing the direction of our gaze (111) moves us towards ‘[b]ecoming the person you`ve always wanted to be’ which, she feels would be ‘the real source of happiness and as such the real and only thing worth manifesting?’

Part of this process will involve our spotting negative thoughts (156) and ‘counteract[ing] them with positive affirmations.’ ThisBuddha Brain of course is easier said than done given the Teflon tendencies for positive thought discussed in the Buddha’s Brain book already reviewed.

The core aspect of happiness she defines as follows (248):

As we`ve seen before, happiness is the contentment with what is. It is not wishing for life to be different. It is not wanting something that we don`t have.

This is a question of choice (313):

In a nutshell, things are as they are, whether you cry or laugh because of them is your choice. Choosing happiness or unhappiness, anger or compassion, worry or trust, fear or love are our main choices in life.

We can also choose how we respond to the testing behavior of other people, with potentially constructive consequences (372):

Someone is verbally attacking you, calling you names. You can consciously choose to stay at their level and send the same back, or you can choose to send some kind words instead. You should try it once, no argument can last more than a minute if one party is sending love back at anger, negative energy cannot be sustained on love.

In speaking of the way we think about the future she revisits familiar territory reminiscent of the Twain/Montaigne problem – ‘There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened’ – but pointing out that positive as well as negative expectations can be equally pointless (396):

Guess what: ninety nine percent of your thoughts about the imaginary future will not happen. What you are so scared of happening will not happen. The house you would buy if you win the lottery will not happen. What you are doing now by thinking about the future is wasting your present.

It’s in the process of unfolding this explanation that she brings in the stumbling blocks for me – first of all, her reincarnation model.

For reasons I have explored at some length, this view of the afterlife is not one I find easy to accept. I won’t rehearse all my arguments here. I will simply state her position without further comment. She believes (308):

. . . . souls choose to incarnate on the earth for the purpose of learning, growing and helping others. They know what they need to work on, and also what they need to do to achieve their goals. So they have a pretty good idea of the life they need. Then, they plan very carefully their next incarnation, choosing their place, date, and family of birth.

She uses this model to explain certain types of evil (423):

You see, if someone wants to experience forgiveness, and needs someone to hurt her/ him, someone else needs to be the malevolent actor. How can a beautiful soul full of love and light harm anyone?

I think it best to leave the readers of this post to make up their own mind on this one.

The second stumbling block is to do with the power of positive thought to change what happens.

Her often repeated belief is that if you believe confidently enough that your needs will be met or your problems solved, they assuredly will be. A succinct statement of this kind of thinking is if, for example when you are in dire financial straits (336), ‘You trust that enough money will come to cover your needs’ then ‘it always does.’ She explains more fully later with an example from her own experience (1615):

. . . one day, when my car broke down at a time in my life when I had no fixed income, a very high rent, and when I  needed to come up with a couple of thousand dollars in two weeks, I totally panicked. My mind repeated ‘I’ll be ok’, ‘I’ll get the money’; yet my body was stressing as much as it used to. Hadn`t I learned my lessons? Of course the money came, in unexpected ways, at the right time, and exactly the amount I needed…silly me. I KNEW IT!

But for some people the money doesn’t come – and it’s too easy to say that this is because of their negative attitude.

Much as I value her authentic experiences of meditation, I am not convinced by this anecdote that this is a general truth. I think there are far too many examples in the world as a whole of widespread and persistently unremedied suffering for me to accept that kind of claim. I also find myself wondering where her mocking reference to positive fantasies about the future – ‘The house you would buy if you win the lottery will not happen’ – leaves her on the power of positive thoughts issue.

However, in spite of what I perceive as these blemishes, the book as a whole has a great deal of value to offer. Except for her reincarnation model and the power of positive thoughts issue, I have no problem with any of this, which maps onto much of the literature from which I have already learnt so much.

With one minor exception, I will from now on focus on the positives, as they far outweigh these reservations.

trigger for meditation

After this nit-picking and before pausing until the next post on this topic, I feel I need to end with a longer quote from Karen’s book to illustrate why I find it so valuable. It is the way she manages at times to fuse a compelling and vivid account of her direct experience with an explanation of some of its implications. These are the gems that make the book so well worth reading. I find such passages moving as well as inspiring and convincing – and there are many of them.

SILENCE

. . . what you want to find is silence. Silence inside your own head. Now I couldn`t imagine living again with incessant chatter in my mind. I love that silence. I love that peace. And I love the ability to gently disregard the thoughts which I don`t want. In that silence, in that space where there are no thoughts, in that absolute peace, I bathe in awareness. I bathe in being.

Now it feels as if I used to be buried behind layers and layers of incessant, illogical, and uncoordinated thoughts. But one day I finally emerged. One day I found myself deep into my own abyss. And since then I have remained at the surface, always breathing, always being. And only when I managed to come to the surface did I finally see reality as it was.

I now see the world clearly and simply, without judgment, without descriptions, without words inside my head to tell me how it is. That space in between thoughts is a special place. It is where everything is. It is where everything comes from. That place of silence is a pure magical beauty. It needs to be experienced to be understood. The mind cannot fathom just a portion of that reality.

That silence and that space cannot be understood at all by the mind or the intellect as it is a no-mind place. The only way to comprehend it is to experience it, to live it. You need to find it for yourself. You need to look within. Go inside yourself and find this beautiful sacred place. Once you find this silence, you will be overwhelmed by its music. It is a deep sense of knowing and of purpose, a feeling of finally being home.

Then you`ll never want to come back to the busyness, to the craziness, to the chaotic world of the mind where only fear reigns. The silence is what you were always looking for. That`s where YOU are. Everybody is looking for themselves, they just don`t look in the right place. You will find yourself in this silence. You will find yourself out of the mind. Really, it is so simple, so close, and so easy. Enlightenment is not something far away and complicated to reach. It has always been there, inside you, easy to grasp, just waiting for you to be ready.

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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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