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Posts Tagged ‘Michel de Montaigne’

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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Edmundson

Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The first part came out yesterday.

Yesterday I gave a brief account of Mark Edmundson’s disillusioned dissection of our culture based mainly on his introduction. I promised to follow this up with a sampling of two other issues he takes up in his Quixotic attack on the windmills of materialism: the demolition work of Shakespeare and of Freud.

Shakespeare:

Edmundson warned me in his introduction of what I would find when we come to Shakespeare (page 10-11):

What is true is that Shakespeare helps change our sense of human life and human promise through an almost complete rejection of ideals. Like his contemporary, Cervantes, Shakespeare has only contempt for the heroic ideal. . . . . .

Shakespeare, as Arnold Hauser argues, is a poet of the dawning bourgeois age, who has little use for chivalry and the culture of heroic honour.

This was not a problem: the militarily heroic holds few attractions for me. However, as I discovered later Shakespeare, according to Edmundson, is not just attacking heroism, though that is a main target: he is (page 140) writing for

. . . . a class that has little use for deep religion, the religion of compassion. . . . . . And he writes for a class with no real use for high thought – though Shakespeare is from time to time tempted by the ideal of contemplation.’

He then analyses in detail plays including Titus Andronicus, Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Troilus & Cressida that ruthlessly deconstruct the hero.

ShapiroInterestingly, it is not just Cervantes who influenced Shakespeare away from ideals. Montaigne, it is possible to argue, as James Shapiro does in 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, was also an influence on Shakespeare (page 332), as perhaps he was on Freud as we will see, and an influence particularly relevant to Hamlet:

He had surely looked into Montaigne by the time he wrote Hamlet – intuitions of critics stretching back to the 1830s on this question should be trusted – but he didn’t need to paraphrase him or pillage essays for his ideas. . . . . . . There was more than enough scepticism and uncertainty to go round in England in the final years of Elizabeth’s reign . . .

What is more important, perhaps, is the influence of Montaigne on the development of the soliloquy (page 333):

Redefining the relationship between speaker and audience, the essay also suggested to Shakespeare an intimacy between speaker and hearer that no other form, not even the sonnet, offered – except, perhaps, the soliloquy.

This may help explain why the one exception, which Edmundson detects to the reductive pattern he has identified, is Hamlet.

One of the reasons for this may be, as Shapiro suggests (ibid.), that:

Probably more than any other character in literature, Hamlet needs to talk; but there is nobody in whom he can confide.

Perhaps this is why Edmundson can find in him (page 174) ‘the free play of intellect’ he values so much. Hamlet can ‘think in quest of the Truth.’ And a truth that holds for everyone across time, not just pragmatically for the specific situation in some particular play.

It may therefore be no coincidence that this is my favourite play.

Edmundson argues that we feel that Shakespeare does not advocate any specific value system because the ones that live in his plays (page 12) ‘simply echo the anti-idealist values of his current audience and of the current world almost perfectly and, so, are nearly invisible.’

In the end, however, I do not accept his contention that Shakespeare does not value compassion, whatever we argue his audience might think and no matter that we can find evidence from his life that he fell short of that ideal in person. For instance, as a grain hoarder himself, his real life position on the 1607 food riots was rather different from the empathy for the rioters that comes across in Coriolanus.[1]

How, though, can the man that wrote,

The sense of death is most in apprehension;
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

(Measure for Measure Act 3, Scene 1, lines 76-79)

and

. . . . the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,
And there, all smother’d up, in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to creep forth again . . .

(Venus & Adonis lines 1033-36)

not understand and value compassion? And I am not equating this with the uncanny empathy that allows him to enter the shadowy mind of an Iago or an Edgar.

NuttallSo, at this point, I am more or less convinced that he despised the heroic. I can accept that he might not have been strong on contemplation, though I do need to think more on that one. AD Nuttall would apparently not agree, given that he has written a whole book on Shakespeare, the Thinker and clearly feels that his truths are valid across time (page 22):

Shakespeare’s response is, precisely, intelligent rather than a mere cultural reflex. He thinks fundamentally, and this makes him a natural time traveller.

Even so, he may not be a million miles apart from Edmundson, as he also acknowledges that (page 12) ‘we do not know what Shakespeare thought about any major question, in the sense that we have no settled judgements of which we can be sure.’

I absolutely disagree though that he did not value compassion, while I do accept that, as a dramatist, he could have gone a long way to creating his vast range of convincing characters with high levels of cognitive empathy alone.

I am left, though, with a slightly uneasy feeling. Maybe there’s more to Edmundson’s case than I am happy to accept. This nagging doubt goes back as far as my reading of Anne Glynn-Jones’s book, Holding Up a Mirror: how civilisations declineI am always a touch sceptical about confident claims to explain how complex entities such as civilisations operate, even though I keep getting drawn to reading them, as my posts on Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilisation testify. Glynn-Jones builds a case against Shakespeare on the basis of Pitirim Sorokin‘s social cycle theory. I would have found it easy to dismiss her case had I not felt that elements of Sorokin’s model made a great deal of sense to me as a Bahá’í.

The core of what she feels relates to Sorokin’s concept of the sensate society. He classified societies according to their ‘cultural mentality’, which can be ‘ideational’ (reality is spiritual), ‘sensate’ (reality is material), or ‘idealistic’ (a synthesis of the two). The relevance of those categories to the current issues is obvious.

She feels the Shakespeare is a dramatist of a sensate society. She quotes many examples of where Shakespeare can clearly be argued to be pandering to the basest sensation-seeking instincts of his audience. She quotes Tolstoy (pages 264-65):

Shakespeare exemplifies the view ‘that no definite religious view of life was necessary for works of art in general, and especially for drama; that for the purpose of the drama the representation of human passions and characters was quite sufficient. . . . . .

And he concludes, ‘The fundamental inner cause of Shakespeare’s fame is . . . . that his dramas . . . . corresponded to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time.’

Because I felt that to be a distorted misreading of Shakespeare’s audience as a whole and a very selective reading of his work in its entirety, I dismissed this view of Shakespeare completely at the time, though I could also see what she meant.

I agree he side-steps directly addressing religion but feel this is because it would have been too dangerous – and almost certainly unprofitable of course as well. That does not prove that he did not have a transcendent sense of the value of all life, and I believe he was deeply aware of its interconnectedness.

I accept that he loathed the heroic. He was definitely no philosopher. But a deeply felt compassion, rather than a mercantile value system, is what for me has ensured that he lives on, and continues to attract audiences across the world. It’s just that he does not explicitly teach compassion: he demonstrates it, though, in almost every word that he writes.

And so the pendulum swings on. Enough of that for now.

Freud:

In his introduction Edmundson states (page 12) that ‘Freud takes the enmity with ideals implicit in Shakespeare’s work and renders it explicit.’ He argues (page 14) that ‘Freud stands in the tradition of Montaigne, affirming the belief that the life of sceptical, humane detachment is the best of possible lives.’

Freud, Edmundson claims, takes this to an altogether different level (page 165):

One of the main functions of Shakespeare’s great inheritor, Freud, is to redescribe the ideals of compassion and courage and the exercise of imagination as pathologies and forms of delusion. . . . . Freud makes the middle-class people who live by half measures feel much better, allowing them to understand that the virtues that intimidated them are forms of sickness and that normality – clear-eyed and stable – is the true achievement. What a reversal!

I have read almost no Freud in the original, so strong has been my distaste for his views[2] as they have reached me through secondary sources, many of them his admirers. However, I am aware that it is possible to share my suspicion of his value without seeing him as exactly the kind of reductionist Edmundson identifies.

WebsterTake Richard Webster for example in his book Why Freud Was Wrong, in its way as brilliant as Edmundson’s. In his introduction he outlines his case against Freud. After explaining his sense that psychoanalysis is to be valued, if at all, not because it is truly scientific and valid, but because it enshrines imagination, something which has been side-lined by modernist reductionism, he makes a second telling point (page 9):

There is another reason why the vitality of the psychoanalytic tradition should not be taken as confirmation of the validity of Freud’s theories. This is because a great deal of it is owed not to any intellectual factor but to Freud’s own remarkable and charismatic personality and to the heroic myth, which he spun around himself during his own lifetime.

This is intriguing in the light of Edmundson’s case that Freud was a debunker of the heroic, but is not incompatible with it. In fact, it suggests that Freud failed to analyse himself dispassionately.

Webster takes this a step further (ibid.):

Freud himself consciously identified with Moses, and the prophetic and messianic dimensions of his character have been noted again and again even by those who have written sympathetically about psychoanalysis.

So, not just a hero, then, but a quasi-religious figure in his own eyes. Even more intriguing. Webster even goes on to claim that Freud (page 10) ‘went on to use the aura and authority of scientific rationalism in order to create around himself a church whose doctrines sought to subvert the very rationalism they invoked.’

His final point on this thread is hugely ironic in the light of Edmundson’s claims that Freud demolished the cult of the heroic ideal (page 11):

If Freud has not been seen in this light it is perhaps because the very success which he has enjoyed by casting himself in the role of intellectual liberator has brought with it the kind of idealisations and projections to which all messiahs are subject.

Towards the end of his book, Webster draws another conclusion about where this has helped to take us, which resonates with my recent explorations of Shelley, and with Edmundson’s rants against the aridity of much current lyric poetry in Poetry Slam. He argues for redressing the current bias against imagination and states that (page 504-05):

. . . . [u]ntil we have done this it seems likely that we will remain in thrall to the dissociated intellectual culture which we inhabit today, where an austere and politically influential scientific and technological culture, devoid of human sympathy and understanding, exists side by side with a weak literary and artistic culture which, because it has unconsciously internalised the image of its own superfluity, is prepared both to the stand back from the political process and to concede to the natural sciences the exclusive right to explore reality systematically and to pronounce authoritatively upon it.

Returning in more detail to Edmundson’s attack upon Freud, he defines the main focus of psychoanalysis as being on one ideal in particular (page 232):

History (and Shakespeare) have dealt with the myth of courage; history (and the Enlightenment) have dealt with the myth of faith. Love is Freud’s primary antagonist among human ideals, and he attacks it from every plausible direction.

In terms of love’s great exemplars, including Jesus and the Buddha, Freud argues (page 237) that they are ‘asking too much of human beings.’

How can we love our fellow men? Freud asks. Our fellow men, in general, have at best a mild contempt for us; at worst, they nurse murderous rage. . . . . There is only Self. Soul is an illusion.

I have dealt already on this blog with Matthieu Ricard’s utterly convincing refutation of such debasing cynicism in his book Altruism, which demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt, and on the basis of a huge amount of systematically gathered data, that we are innately capable of developing high levels of altruism, fairness and compassion. My last sequence of posts revisited his brilliant book from a different angle.

Edmundson goes on to quote Karl Kraus (page 243): ‘Psychoanalysis… is the disease of which it purports to be the cure.’ He goes on to explain what he believes this means. Having listed various ways human beings can rescue themselves from meaninglessness, such as love, creativity, compassion, courage or idealistic thought, he rounds his cannon upon Freud’s benighted cul-de-sac (page 244):

… all these activities are out of the bounds. Embracing them, for Freud, causes only trouble.

It is possible that to deny human beings these primary satisfactions makes them sick. It causes a disease, it does not cure it. If you live life without courage, compassion, the true exercise of intellect and creation through love, then you will not feel very well. You may even get quite ill.

before he delivers the coup-de-grace:

Then, when the banishment of ideals has made you ill, Freud can show you, through psychoanalysis and through the ethical program of his thought, how to feel a little better than you do. Psychoanalysis helps the culture of Self create a disease. And this disease psychoanalysis will happily help cure.

He feels the legacy of this, for psychotherapy as a whole, is deeply damaging (page 245):

Therapy can have many values, but they will never be idealistic. All therapies are about learning to live with half a loaf.

He is probably selling psychotherapies such as Psychosynthesis short when he uses that dubious word ‘all.’ But his point is valid for mainstream approaches. Spirituality and idealism are seen by them as suspect.

I hope this all too brief helicopter review inspires you to buy the book and read it, and I hope you then enjoy it as much as I have. Life is a lot richer than our materialistic gurus would have us believe, thank goodness.

Footnote:

[1] This side of Shakespeare was revealed in research done by Dr Jayne Archer, a lecturer in medieval and renaissance literature at Aberystwyth University.

[2] I am aware, from January’s Guardian article by , of the recent study which goes some way toward rehabilitating psychoanalysis as a treatment for depression.

He writes:

. . . . . [R]esearchers at London’s Tavistock clinic published results in October from the first rigorous NHS study of long-term psychoanalysis as a treatment for chronic depression. For the most severely depressed, it concluded, 18 months of analysis worked far better – and with much longer-lasting effects – than “treatment as usual” on the NHS, which included some CBT. Two years after the various treatments ended, 44% of analysis patients no longer met the criteria for major depression, compared to one-tenth of the others. Around the same time, the Swedish press reported a finding from government auditors there: that a multimillion pound scheme to reorient mental healthcare towards CBT had proved completely ineffective in meeting its goals.

So I need to clarify, perhaps, that it is Freud’s quasi-mythical beliefs such as the Oedipus Complex that repelled me as being too absurd to qualify as a universal truth. Other aspects of his thinking, taken over and used by other schools of therapy, have their place, such an projection and denial, as well as the acknowledgement that for some people it can be imperative that they understand their inscape deeply before they can move on, and that this can take years. Even so these are not universally applicable components of an effective therapy at all times. There is no one size fits all panacea – not psychoanalysis, not CBT.

I don’t think Burkeman would disagree with that as he concludes ‘. . . . . many scholars have been drawn to what has become known as the “dodo-bird verdict”: the idea, supported by some studies, that the specific kind of therapy makes little difference. (The name comes from the Dodo’s pronouncement in Alice in Wonderland: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”) What seems to matter much more is the presence of a compassionate, dedicated therapist, and a patient committed to change; if one therapy is better than all others for all or even most problems, it has yet to be discovered.’

Stuck in memory from my first degree in psychology, there was an interesting piece of meta-analysis from 1979 that pulled together all the studies of the efficacy of psychotherapy that had included an advance measure of how credible clients found the therapy they were undertaking. When all other variables were controlled for, the strongest predictor of effectiveness was how much the client believed the therapy would work. Unfortunately I have not been able to track that down recently.

And for me, if it has no place for a spiritual dimension, such as can be found in Jungian analysis and Psychosynthesis, there is still a major defect in the approach.

 

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Gaude and Garrigos

Writer Laurent Gaude (l) and Amnesty’s Genevieve Garrigos launched the “stop torture” campaign in Paris

‘. . . it is to put a very high value on your surmises to roast a man alive for them.’

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592):  On the Lame (trans. M.A. Screech – Penguin Classics)

The spectre of torture as effective and desirable is back in the news again. I feel it worthwhile again to republish a pair of blog posts from two years ago, the first today, the second tomorrow. The book I refer to in the posts – Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy – conclusively demonstrates, at least to my mind, that no form of torture will ever be effective no matter how acceptable we manage to persuade ourselves it is. 

Amnesty International Survey Findings

On the 13th May the BBC News website posted a disturbing report of Amnesty International findings. They stated:

Nearly 30% of people in the UK believe torture can be justified, according to a survey by Amnesty International.

Amnesty said it had not expected the “alarming” result:”

. . . . At 29%, the belief that torture is sometimes necessary to protect the public was more prevalent in the UK than in Russia, Brazil or Argentina.

The survey involved 21,000 people in 21 countries as part of a global “Stop Torture” campaign. The UK results were based on a survey of 1,000 people aged over 18.

It is bad enough that on the basis of that statistic alone we come out worse than countries we label as less scrupulous than we are about human rights. Other figures give no comfort to those who would like to feel we are none the less well ahead of the field, surveying the torture scene from a secure and elevated position on firmly moral high ground. The report goes on:

. . . while the majority of those surveyed (56%) strongly disagreed that torture could be justified to protect the public, 44% ruled out prohibiting torture altogether.

The research suggested that 79 countries have carried out torture so far this year, with 27 different methods reported. The techniques range from electric shocks, beatings, rape, mock executions and stress positions to sleep deprivation.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said the findings suggested that:

People have bought into the idea that their personal safety can be enhanced in some way through the use of torture. That is simply untrue.

There is a wealth of evidence to support her contention here, evidence which, it would seem, has fallen well below too many people’s radar.

The Main Moral Objection

Before I tackle that aspect of the matter, I need first to mention the ends-means problem.

Mixed Dictators v5Regardless of whether torture is or is not effective at enhancing our safety, there is a moral argument for saying that to defend a liberal democracy by the use of torture and any other degrading and dehumanising treatment of the supposed ‘enemy,’ is to betray the very foundations and core values of our society.

We can take the point even further and apply it to any society. Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, is very clear that the sense that our values, no matter what they are, are so important that any means of propagating and defending them are by definition justified, has killed more people than any other human tendency. Do we really want to join that infamous band of proponents of this view? Do we want to sit enthroned beside Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and their zealous followers in that hall of infamy? I for one absolutely do not.

The Efficacy of Torture

Even if I did though, I would do well to look at the evidence for the efficacy of torture.

There is one excellent place to begin such a search: Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy.

Before I plunge into an exploration of Rejali’s position, I need to fess up to the fact that I bought his book six years ago when I retired and have not had the stomach to read all its nearly 600 pages. I have dipped into it enough to know how thorough and rigorous it is. I simply cannot dwell on such harrowing details as he adduces for any length of time without a truly compelling reason. I had the same problem reading Chang and Halliday’s book on Mao – I stopped reading about halfway through.

Perhaps because I grew up in the shadow of World War II and had nightmares in childhood to match, perhaps because I was twice admitted for surgery before I started school, perhaps because my parents were grieving for my recently dead sister, perhaps because I’ve read a lot about these issues over my life time, I feel that I now understand enough about physical and emotional pain as well as powerlessness in a frightening situation, without having to read anything that does not credibly promise to tell me something on this subject that I did not already know.

What I have done though, because I did not know the answer to this question, was read Rejali’s Chapter 21 which is titled ‘Does Torture Work?’

At the beginning of this chapter he asks eight key questions of which four concern us here (page 447):

  1. Can interrogators separate deceptive from accurate information when it is given to them?
  2. How accurately do cooperative prisoners remember information after torture?
  3. Does this investigative method yield better results than others normally at an army’s disposal?
  4. If not, does this investigative method yield better results under conditions of constrained time?

interrogation_room_by_cold_levian1

A. How well do interrogators spot the truth?

I already had a sense where this might be going from recently reading Adrian Raine’s excellent book – The Anatomy of Violence – where he writes about whether we can tell when children are lying (page 171):

. . . . Can’t we tell if a four-year-old is lying? Actually, we cannot. Accuracy levels are at 40 percent at this age, 47 percent at age five, and 43 percent at age six. Parents, you think you know what your kids get up to, but actually you don’t even have a clue with your own toddler.’

I was already wondering what hope a torturer might have with someone he barely knows.

Rejali begins his examination of this by looking first at the supposedly best trained and most effective interrogators – the police. Many police throughout the world are trained using a manual originally formulated by Inbau and Reid in the early forties: it has been updated regularly since. The evidence he quotes is not encouraging (Torture & Democracy – page 464):

‘. . . . police investigators and others with the relevant on-the-job experience perform only slightly better than chance, if at all.’

Aldert Vrij has attempted to tease out the reality of this more closely. He moved from the laboratory to the front-line.

Police detecting abilities improved (an accuracy rate of about 65% to detect truths and lies), but remained “far from perfect, and errors in truth-lie detection were frequently made.”

He couldn’t use a control group in this instance because the material was too sensitive. However, one comparative finding is disturbing (page 464-65):

. . . those police who follow the Inbau and Reid method were actually worse at detecting deception. “The more police followed their advice, the worse they were in their ability to distinguish between truth and lies.”

The evidence suggests (page 465) that ‘torturers have far less training or experience in interrogation than police . . . so the prospect that they will be better at spotting deception is not good.’ For obvious reasons publically available, controlled, fine-grained studies of torturers are hard to come by. The anecdotal evidence suggests that Rejali’s supposition is correct. In fact, they do not even seem reliably to know when they are being told the truth after someone has broken under torture, as Sheila Cassidy attests after electrotorture in Chile (ibid):

After several days, she broke down and revealed the names of the nuns and priests who had sheltered her. The devout interrogators could not believe her and continued torturing her for days afterward.

This is reminiscent of the last torture session in the film The Railwayman where we see the incredulity of the torturer confronted with a truth that has been extorted which does not fit his world view.

And so?

If this were the only complication torture had to cope with there might be some hope of resurrecting its reputation with a sceptic whose objections are pragmatic rather than principled.  There are however other equally discrediting ones to consider in the next post.

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Gaude and Garrigos

Writer Laurent Gaude (l) and Amnesty’s Genevieve Garrigos launched the “stop torture” campaign in Paris

‘. . . it is to put a very high value on your surmises to roast a man alive for them.’

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592):  On the Lame (trans. M.A. Screech – Penguin Classics)

I felt it worthwhile republishing a pair of blog posts from two years ago after reading, in last Wednesday’s Guardian, about a flawed piece of research suggesting that support for torture is widespread in the States. The book I refer to in the posts – Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy – conclusively demonstrates, at least to my mind, that no form of torture will ever be effective no matter how acceptable we manage to persuade ourselves it is. 

Amnesty International Survey Findings

On the 13th May the BBC News website posted a disturbing report of Amnesty International findings. They stated:

Nearly 30% of people in the UK believe torture can be justified, according to a survey by Amnesty International.

Amnesty said it had not expected the “alarming” result:”

. . . . At 29%, the belief that torture is sometimes necessary to protect the public was more prevalent in the UK than in Russia, Brazil or Argentina.

The survey involved 21,000 people in 21 countries as part of a global “Stop Torture” campaign. The UK results were based on a survey of 1,000 people aged over 18.

It is bad enough that on the basis of that statistic alone we come out worse than countries we label as less scrupulous than we are about human rights. Other figures give no comfort to those who would like to feel we are none the less well ahead of the field, surveying the torture scene from a secure and elevated position on firmly moral high ground. The report goes on:

. . . while the majority of those surveyed (56%) strongly disagreed that torture could be justified to protect the public, 44% ruled out prohibiting torture altogether.

The research suggested that 79 countries have carried out torture so far this year, with 27 different methods reported. The techniques range from electric shocks, beatings, rape, mock executions and stress positions to sleep deprivation.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said the findings suggested that:

People have bought into the idea that their personal safety can be enhanced in some way through the use of torture. That is simply untrue.

There is a wealth of evidence to support her contention here, evidence which, it would seem, has fallen well below too many people’s radar.

The Main Moral Objection

Before I tackle that aspect of the matter, I need first to mention the ends-means problem.

Mixed Dictators v5Regardless of whether torture is or is not effective at enhancing our safety, there is a moral argument for saying that to defend a liberal democracy by the use of torture and any other degrading and dehumanising treatment of the supposed ‘enemy,’ is to betray the very foundations and core values of our society.

We can take the point even further and apply it to any society. Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, is very clear that the sense that our values, no matter what they are, are so important that any means of propagating and defending them are by definition justified, has killed more people than any other human tendency. Do we really want to join that infamous band of proponents of this view? Do we want to sit enthroned beside Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and their zealous followers in that hall of infamy? I for one absolutely do not.

The Efficacy of Torture

Even if I did though, I would do well to look at the evidence for the efficacy of torture.

There is one excellent place to begin such a search: Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy.

Before I plunge into an exploration of Rejali’s position, I need to fess up to the fact that I bought his book six years ago when I retired and have not had the stomach to read all its nearly 600 pages. I have dipped into it enough to know how thorough and rigorous it is. I simply cannot dwell on such harrowing details as he adduces for any length of time without a truly compelling reason. I had the same problem reading Chang and Halliday’s book on Mao – I stopped reading about halfway through.

Perhaps because I grew up in the shadow of World War II and had nightmares in childhood to match, perhaps because I was twice admitted for surgery before I started school, perhaps because my parents were grieving for my recently dead sister, perhaps because I’ve read a lot about these issues over my life time, I feel that I now understand enough about physical and emotional pain as well as powerlessness in a frightening situation, without having to read anything that does not credibly promise to tell me something on this subject that I did not already know.

What I have done though, because I did not know the answer to this question, was read Rejali’s Chapter 21 which is titled ‘Does Torture Work?’

At the beginning of this chapter he asks eight key questions of which four concern us here (page 447):

  1. Can interrogators separate deceptive from accurate information when it is given to them?
  2. How accurately do cooperative prisoners remember information after torture?
  3. Does this investigative method yield better results than others normally at an army’s disposal?
  4. If not, does this investigative method yield better results under conditions of constrained time?

interrogation_room_by_cold_levian1

A. How well do interrogators spot the truth?

I already had a sense where this might be going from recently reading Adrian Raine’s excellent book – The Anatomy of Violence – where he writes about whether we can tell when children are lying (page 171):

. . . . Can’t we tell if a four-year-old is lying? Actually, we cannot. Accuracy levels are at 40 percent at this age, 47 percent at age five, and 43 percent at age six. Parents, you think you know what your kids get up to, but actually you don’t even have a clue with your own toddler.’

I was already wondering what hope a torturer might have with someone he barely knows.

Rejali begins his examination of this by looking first at the supposedly best trained and most effective interrogators – the police. Many police throughout the world are trained using a manual originally formulated by Inbau and Reid in the early forties: it has been updated regularly since. The evidence he quotes is not encouraging (Torture & Democracy – page 464):

‘. . . . police investigators and others with the relevant on-the-job experience perform only slightly better than chance, if at all.’

Aldert Vrij has attempted to tease out the reality of this more closely. He moved from the laboratory to the front-line.

Police detecting abilities improved (an accuracy rate of about 65% to detect truths and lies), but remained “far from perfect, and errors in truth-lie detection were frequently made.”

He couldn’t use a control group in this instance because the material was too sensitive. However, one comparative finding is disturbing (page 464-65):

. . . those police who follow the Inbau and Reid method were actually worse at detecting deception. “The more police followed their advice, the worse they were in their ability to distinguish between truth and lies.”

The evidence suggests (page 465) that ‘torturers have far less training or experience in interrogation than police . . . so the prospect that they will be better at spotting deception is not good.’ For obvious reasons publically available, controlled, fine-grained studies of torturers are hard to come by. The anecdotal evidence suggests that Rejali’s supposition is correct. In fact, they do not even seem reliably to know when they are being told the truth after someone has broken under torture, as Sheila Cassidy attests after electrotorture in Chile (ibid):

After several days, she broke down and revealed the names of the nuns and priests who had sheltered her. The devout interrogators could not believe her and continued torturing her for days afterward.

This is reminiscent of the last torture session in the film The Railwayman where we see the incredulity of the torturer confronted with a truth that has been extorted which does not fit his world view.

And so?

If this were the only complication torture had to cope with there might be some hope of resurrecting its reputation with a sceptic whose objections are pragmatic rather than principled.  There are however other equally discrediting ones to consider in the next post.

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EdmundsonLast Monday I gave a brief account of Mark Edmundson’s disillusioned dissection of our culture based mainly on his introduction. I promised to follow this up with a sampling of two other issues he takes up in his Quixotic attack on the windmills of materialism: the demolition work of Shakespeare and of Freud.

Shakespeare:

Edmundson warned me in his introduction of what I would find when we come to Shakespeare (page 10-11):

What is true is that Shakespeare helps change our sense of human life and human promise through an almost complete rejection of ideals. Like his contemporary, Cervantes, Shakespeare has only contempt for the heroic ideal. . . . . .

Shakespeare, as Arnold Hauser argues, is a poet of the dawning bourgeois age, who has little use for chivalry and the culture of heroic honour.

This was not a problem: the militarily heroic holds few attractions for me. However, as I discovered later Shakespeare, according to Edmundson, is not just attacking heroism, though that is a main target: he is (page 140) writing for

. . . . a class that has little use for deep religion, the religion of compassion. . . . . . And he writes for a class with no real use for high thought – though Shakespeare is from time to time tempted by the ideal of contemplation.’

He then analyses in detail plays including Titus Andronicus, Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Troilus & Cressida that ruthlessly deconstruct the hero.

ShapiroInterestingly, it is not just Cervantes who influenced Shakespeare away from ideals. Montaigne, it is possible to argue, as James Shapiro does in 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, was also an influence on Shakespeare (page 332), as perhaps he was on Freud as we will see, and an influence particularly relevant to Hamlet:

He had surely looked into Montaigne by the time he wrote Hamlet – intuitions of critics stretching back to the 1830s on this question should be trusted – but he didn’t need to paraphrase him or pillage essays for his ideas. . . . . . . There was more than enough scepticism and uncertainty to go round in England in the final years of Elizabeth’s reign . . .

What is more important, perhaps, is the influence of Montaigne on the development of the soliloquy (page 333):

Redefining the relationship between speaker and audience, the essay also suggested to Shakespeare an intimacy between speaker and hearer that no other form, not even the sonnet, offered – except, perhaps, the soliloquy.

This may help explain why the one exception, which Edmundson detects to the reductive pattern he has identified, is Hamlet.

One of the reasons for this may be, as Shapiro suggests (ibid.), that:

Probably more than any other character in literature, Hamlet needs to talk; but there is nobody in whom he can confide.

Perhaps this is why Edmundson can find in him (page 174) ‘the free play of intellect’ he values so much. Hamlet can ‘think in quest of the Truth.’ And a truth that holds for everyone across time, not just pragmatically for the specific situation in some particular play.

It may therefore be no coincidence that this is my favourite play.

Edmundson argues that we feel that Shakespeare does not advocate any specific value system because the ones that live in his plays (page 12) ‘simply echo the anti-idealist values of his current audience and of the current world almost perfectly and, so, are nearly invisible.’

In the end, however, I do not accept his contention that Shakespeare does not value compassion, whatever we argue his audience might think and no matter that we can find evidence from his life that he fell short of that ideal in person. For instance, as a grain hoarder himself, his real life position on the 1607 food riots was rather different from the empathy for the rioters that comes across in Coriolanus.[1]

How, though, can the man that wrote,

The sense of death is most in apprehension;
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

(Measure for Measure Act 3, Scene 1, lines 76-79)

and

. . . . the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,
And there, all smother’d up, in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to creep forth again . . .

(Venus & Adonis lines 1033-36)

not understand and value compassion? And I am not equating this with the uncanny empathy that allows him to enter the shadowy mind of an Iago or an Edgar.

NuttallSo, at this point, I am more or less convinced that he despised the heroic. I can accept that he might not have been strong on contemplation, though I do need to think more on that one. AD Nuttall would apparently not agree, given that he has written a whole book on Shakespeare, the Thinker and clearly feels that his truths are valid across time (page 22):

Shakespeare’s response is, precisely, intelligent rather than a mere cultural reflex. He thinks fundamentally, and this makes him a natural time traveller.

Even so, he may not be a million miles apart from Edmundson, as he also acknowledges that (page 12) ‘we do not know what Shakespeare thought about any major question, in the sense that we have no settled judgements of which we can be sure.’

I absolutely disagree though that he did not value compassion, while I do accept that, as a dramatist, he could have gone a long way to creating his vast range of convincing characters with high levels of cognitive empathy alone.

I am left, though, with a slightly uneasy feeling. Maybe there’s more to Edmundson’s case than I am happy to accept. This nagging doubt goes back as far as my reading of Anne Glynn-Jones’s book, Holding Up a Mirror: how civilisations declineI am always a touch sceptical about confident claims to explain how complex entities such as civilisations operate, even though I keep getting drawn to reading them, as my posts on Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilisation testify. Glynn-Jones builds a case against Shakespeare on the basis of Pitirim Sorokin‘s social cycle theory. I would have found it easy to dismiss her case had I not felt that elements of Sorokin’s model made a great deal of sense to me as a Bahá’í.

The core of what she feels relates to Sorokin’s concept of the sensate society. He classified societies according to their ‘cultural mentality’, which can be ‘ideational’ (reality is spiritual), ‘sensate’ (reality is material), or ‘idealistic’ (a synthesis of the two). The relevance of those categories to the current issues is obvious.

She feels the Shakespeare is a dramatist of a sensate society. She quotes many examples of where Shakespeare can clearly be argued to be pandering to the basest sensation-seeking instincts of his audience. She quotes Tolstoy (pages 264-65):

Shakespeare exemplifies the view ‘that no definite religious view of life was necessary for works of art in general, and especially for drama; that for the purpose of the drama the representation of human passions and characters was quite sufficient. . . . . .

And he concludes, ‘The fundamental inner cause of Shakespeare’s fame is . . . . that his dramas . . . . corresponded to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time.’

Because I felt that to be a distorted misreading of Shakespeare’s audience as a whole and a very selective reading of his work in its entirety, I dismissed this view of Shakespeare completely at the time, though I could also see what she meant.

I agree he side-steps directly addressing religion but feel this is because it would have been too dangerous – and almost certainly unprofitable of course as well. That does not prove that he did not have a transcendent sense of the value of all life, and I believe he was deeply aware of its interconnectedness.

I accept that he loathed the heroic. He was definitely no philosopher. But a deeply felt compassion, rather than a mercantile value system, is what for me has ensured that he lives on, and continues to attract audiences across the world. It’s just that he does not explicitly teach compassion: he demonstrates it, though, in almost every word that he writes.

And so the pendulum swings on. Enough of that for now.

Freud:

In his introduction Edmundson states (page 12) that ‘Freud takes the enmity with ideals implicit in Shakespeare’s work and renders it explicit.’ He argues (page 14) that ‘Freud stands in the tradition of Montaigne, affirming the belief that the life of sceptical, humane detachment is the best of possible lives.’

Freud, Edmundson claims, takes this to an altogether different level (page 165):

One of the main functions of Shakespeare’s great inheritor, Freud, is to redescribe the ideals of compassion and courage and the exercise of imagination as pathologies and forms of delusion. . . . . Freud makes the middle-class people who live by half measures feel much better, allowing them to understand that the virtues that intimidated them are forms of sickness and that normality – clear-eyed and stable – is the true achievement. What a reversal!

I have read almost no Freud in the original, so strong has been my distaste for his views[2] as they have reached me through secondary sources, many of them his admirers. However, I am aware that it is possible to share my suspicion of his value without seeing him as exactly the kind of reductionist Edmundson identifies.

WebsterTake Richard Webster for example in his book Why Freud Was Wrong, in its way as brilliant as Edmundson’s. In his introduction he outlines his case against Freud. After explaining his sense that psychoanalysis is to be valued, if at all, not because it is truly scientific and valid, but because it enshrines imagination, something which has been side-lined by modernist reductionism, he makes a second telling point (page 9):

There is another reason why the vitality of the psychoanalytic tradition should not be taken as confirmation of the validity of Freud’s theories. This is because a great deal of it is owed not to any intellectual factor but to Freud’s own remarkable and charismatic personality and to the heroic myth, which he spun around himself during his own lifetime.

This is intriguing in the light of Edmundson’s case that Freud was a debunker of the heroic, but is not incompatible with it. In fact, it suggests that Freud failed to analyse himself dispassionately.

Webster takes this a step further (ibid.):

Freud himself consciously identified with Moses, and the prophetic and messianic dimensions of his character have been noted again and again even by those who have written sympathetically about psychoanalysis.

So, not just a hero, then, but a quasi-religious figure in his own eyes. Even more intriguing. Webster even goes on to claim that Freud (page 10) ‘went on to use the aura and authority of scientific rationalism in order to create around himself a church whose doctrines sought to subvert the very rationalism they invoked.’

His final point on this thread is hugely ironic in the light of Edmundson’s claims that Freud demolished the cult of the heroic ideal (page 11):

If Freud has not been seen in this light it is perhaps because the very success which he has enjoyed by casting himself in the role of intellectual liberator has brought with it the kind of idealisations and projections to which all messiahs are subject.

Towards the end of his book, Webster draws another conclusion about where this has helped to take us, which resonates with my recent explorations of Shelley, and with Edmundson’s rants against the aridity of much current lyric poetry in Poetry Slam. He argues for redressing the current bias against imagination and states that (page 504-05):

. . . . [u]ntil we have done this it seems likely that we will remain in thrall to the dissociated intellectual culture which we inhabit today, where an austere and politically influential scientific and technological culture, devoid of human sympathy and understanding, exists side by side with a weak literary and artistic culture which, because it has unconsciously internalised the image of its own superfluity, is prepared both to the stand back from the political process and to concede to the natural sciences the exclusive right to explore reality systematically and to pronounce authoritatively upon it.

Returning in more detail to Edmundson’s attack upon Freud, he defines the main focus of psychoanalysis as being on one ideal in particular (page 232):

History (and Shakespeare) have dealt with the myth of courage; history (and the Enlightenment) have dealt with the myth of faith. Love is Freud’s primary antagonist among human ideals, and he attacks it from every plausible direction.

In terms of love’s great exemplars, including Jesus and the Buddha, Freud argues (page 237) that they are ‘asking too much of human beings.’

How can we love our fellow men? Freud asks. Our fellow men, in general, have at best a mild contempt for us; at worst, they nurse murderous rage. . . . . There is only Self. Soul is an illusion.

I have dealt already on this blog with Matthieu Ricard’s utterly convincing refutation of such debasing cynicism in his book Altruism, which demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt, and on the basis of a huge amount of systematically gathered data, that we are innately capable of developing high levels of altruism, fairness and compassion. My last sequence of posts revisited his brilliant book from a different angle.

Edmundson goes on to quote Karl Kraus (page 243): ‘Psychoanalysis… is the disease of which it purports to be the cure.’ He goes on to explain what he believes this means. Having listed various ways human beings can rescue themselves from meaninglessness, such as love, creativity, compassion, courage or idealistic thought, he rounds his cannon upon Freud’s benighted cul-de-sac (page 244):

… all these activities are out of the bounds. Embracing them, for Freud, causes only trouble.

It is possible that to deny human beings these primary satisfactions makes them sick. It causes a disease, it does not cure it. If you live life without courage, compassion, the true exercise of intellect and creation through love, then you will not feel very well. You may even get quite ill.

before he delivers the coup-de-grace:

Then, when the banishment of ideals has made you ill, Freud can show you, through psychoanalysis and through the ethical program of his thought, how to feel a little better than you do. Psychoanalysis helps the culture of Self create a disease. And this disease psychoanalysis will happily help cure.

He feels the legacy of this, for psychotherapy as a whole, is deeply damaging (page 245):

Therapy can have many values, but they will never be idealistic. All therapies are about learning to live with half a loaf.

He is probably selling psychotherapies such as Psychosynthesis short when he uses that dubious word ‘all.’ But his point is valid for mainstream approaches. Spirituality and idealism are seen by them as suspect.

I hope this all too brief helicopter review inspires you to buy the book and read it, and I hope you then enjoy it as much as I have. Life is a lot richer than our materialistic gurus would have us believe, thank goodness.

Footnote:

[1] This side of Shakespeare was revealed in research done by Dr Jayne Archer, a lecturer in medieval and renaissance literature at Aberystwyth University.

[2] I am aware, from January’s Guardian article by , of the recent study which goes some way toward rehabilitating psychoanalysis as a treatment for depression.

He writes:

. . . . . [R]esearchers at London’s Tavistock clinic published results in October from the first rigorous NHS study of long-term psychoanalysis as a treatment for chronic depression. For the most severely depressed, it concluded, 18 months of analysis worked far better – and with much longer-lasting effects – than “treatment as usual” on the NHS, which included some CBT. Two years after the various treatments ended, 44% of analysis patients no longer met the criteria for major depression, compared to one-tenth of the others. Around the same time, the Swedish press reported a finding from government auditors there: that a multimillion pound scheme to reorient mental healthcare towards CBT had proved completely ineffective in meeting its goals.

So I need to clarify, perhaps, that it is Freud’s quasi-mythical beliefs such as the Oedipus Complex that repelled me as being too absurd to qualify as a universal truth. Other aspects of his thinking, taken over and used by other schools of therapy, have their place, such an projection and denial, as well as the acknowledgement that for some people it can be imperative that they understand their inscape deeply before they can move on, and that this can take years. Even so these are not universally applicable components of an effective therapy at all times. There is no one size fits all panacea – not psychoanalysis, not CBT.

I don’t think Burkeman would disagree with that as he concludes ‘. . . . . many scholars have been drawn to what has become known as the “dodo-bird verdict”: the idea, supported by some studies, that the specific kind of therapy makes little difference. (The name comes from the Dodo’s pronouncement in Alice in Wonderland: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”) What seems to matter much more is the presence of a compassionate, dedicated therapist, and a patient committed to change; if one therapy is better than all others for all or even most problems, it has yet to be discovered.’

Stuck in memory from my first degree in psychology, there was an interesting piece of meta-analysis from 1979 that pulled together all the studies of the efficacy of psychotherapy that had included an advance measure of how credible clients found the therapy they were undertaking. When all other variables were controlled for, the strongest predictor of effectiveness was how much the client believed the therapy would work. Unfortunately I have not been able to track that down recently.

And for me, if it has no place for a spiritual dimension, such as can be found in Jungian analysis and Psychosynthesis, there is still a major defect in the approach.

 

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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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nirvana-buddha

Still in pursuit of my publicly declared goal (why didn’t I just keep quiet?) of deepening my understanding of interconnectedness, at least in part by reading about and practising mindfulness, I discovered a gem of a book – The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain. It pulls together psychology evidence to shed light on the way that Buddhist processes achieve their efficacy.

I may have been subliminally steered towards the book after moving onto Williams and Penman’s Befriending meditation (page 195), which warmly reminded me of my early days of meditating. I learnt how to follow the breath at the Buddhist Centre in Eccleston Square, London, in the early 80s. At the end of each meditation, as I read at the time, you finished by bowing and wishing that the fruits of your meditation be of benefit to all living beings – a very similar process.

Whatever it was that primed me, as soon as I saw this book on the shelf I had to buy it, and I’m glad I did.

Mind and Brain

The avowed aim of Hanson and Mendius’s book (page 10) is to explore ‘the relationship between the mind and brain, especially regarding conscious experience.’ They feel that this question is as important as what caused the big bang or what the unified theory integrating quantum mechanics and general relativity will look like. I’m inclined to agree with them, but then I’m biased.

They begin by clarifying the exact nature of their debt to Buddhism, which does not extend as far as accepting the existence of a transcendental realm as part of their model (page 11):

. . . with a deep bow to the transcendental, we will stay within the frame of Western science and see what modern neuropsychology, informed by contemplative practice, offers in the way of effective methods for experiencing greater happiness, love and wisdom.

Their loss, sadly, but what they do manage to achieve is well worth reading, as it explores accessibly but in reasonable detail what happens in the brain that accounts for the powerful effects of meditation.

In this post I don’t plan to mention every example of that as there are other issues I wish to focus on. However, it is worth sharing their summary to give the flavour of what they do in this respect (page 16):

It’s impossible to change the past or the present: you can only accept all that as it is. But you can tend to the causes of a better future. Most of the ways you do this are small and humble. To use examples from later in this book, you could take a very full inhalation in a tense meeting to force a long exhalation, thus activating the calming parasympathetic nervous system. (PNS). Or, when remembering an upsetting experience, recall the feeling of being with someone who loves you – which will gradually infuse the upsetting memory with a positive feeling. Or, to steady the mind, deliberately prolonging feelings of happiness as this will increase levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which will help your attention stay focused.

The Negativity Bias

Buddha BrainWhat I want to focus on now are one or two of the valuable insights they convey as they go along. The first, concerning our evolutionary heritage, helps to clarify why meditation is both so valuable and yet so difficult for most of us. I will also deal with their treatment of a pet theme of mine later.

The first of these insights is derived from our evolutionary history (page 26):

. . . . to motivate animals, including ourselves, to follow [survival] strategies and pass on their genes, neural networks evolved to create pain and distress under certain conditions: when separations break down, stability is shaken, opportunities disappoint, and threats loom.

They explain slightly later not only why this was so but one of its most unwelcome correlates (pages 40-41):

. . . it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival. . . . . The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information. . . . . Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.

The consequences of this are not by any means simply confined to life threatening situations for us modern human beings (ibid):

. . . . In relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one (Gottman 1995).

Also this bias towards negativity determines the scenarios with which our imagination mesmerises us constantly (pages 44-45):

[Mini movies run in our heads] and . . . . keep us stuck by their simplistic view of the past and by their defining out of existence real possibilities for the future, such as new ways to reach out to others or dream big dreams. Their beliefs are the bars of an invisible cage, trapping you in a life that’s smaller than the one you could actually have.

Effectively they are asserting the same insight as is attributed to Montaigne and Mark Twain: ‘There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened.’

They describe a kind of three-legged stool upon which we can sit to remain grounded, but doing so is by no means easy as it entails going against the flow of our evolutionary heritage (page 46 – my italics pick out the legs of the stool):

Virtue restrains emotional reactions that worked well on the Serengeti, mindfulness decreases external vigilance, and wisdom cuts through beliefs that once helped us survive. It goes against the evolutionary template to undo the causes of suffering, to feel one with all things, to flow with the changing moment, and to remain unmoved by pleasant and unpleasant like.

The effects of this negative bias upon memory are particularly debilitating (page 68):

. . . even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, the pile of negative implicit memories naturally grows faster. Then the background feeling that what it feels like to be you can become undeservedly glum and pessimistic.

We need to make a conscious and sustained effort to cut against the grain of that bias – shades of Schwartz et al again here from earlier posts on this blog (page 73-75:

To gradually replace negative implicit memories with positive ones, just make the positive aspects of your experience prominent and relatively intense in the foreground of your awareness while simultaneously placing the negative material in the background. . . . . Given the negativity bias of the brain, it takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones.

The Wolf of Love

wolf of love

For the source of this image see link

Readers of this blog will know that I have explored the importance of our widening our compass of compassion if the problems currently confronting humanity are to have any hope of being resolved. It will therefore come as no surprise to them that one of the strong appeals of this book is precisely because of the emphasis the authors place on this very point, but in their own very telling fashion (page 122):

I heard a story once about a Native American elder who was asked how she had become so wise, so happy, and so respected. She answered: “In my heart, there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.”

They spell out the implications (page 131):

The wolf of love sees a vast horizon, with all beings included in the circle of “us.” That circle shrinks down for the wolf of hate, so that only the nation, or tribe, or friends and family – or, in the extreme, only the individual self – is held as “us,” surrounded by threatening masses of “them.”

And the drastic consequences (page 132):

As soon as you place anyone outside of the circle of “us,” the mind/brain automatically begins to devalue that person and justify poor treatment of him.

And then the music to my ears, in terms of my immediate aims of the moment. They assert (page 169):

…[that] everything is connected to everything else, that “us” is the whole wide world – that, in a deep sense, the entire planet is your home and the people on it are your extended family.

Their concept of self, which they move on to discuss, is worthy of consideration also, but I’ll keep that for a separate post probably next week.

What about their practice?

I’ve only really tried one of their exercises but it has proved interesting.

I recorded a guided meditation concerning how to become aware of awareness in itself based on the suggestions below.

Buddha Meds 01

Buddha Meds 02

The very first time I used it, and only to test it rather than seriously, I ended up with tingles down the spine every time I heard my recorded self speak of focusing on being aware of awareness itself. And, even though I still find it hard to achieve that kind of consciousness with any consistency, there is still the same kind of energy circulating when I use this exercise at those same points, so something is happening.

I am hoping to use it for a while on a daily basis to see if I can stabilise my connection with this kind of consciousness. It will be a major breakthrough if I can.

If all their other exercises in this book prove equally fruitful, I could be drawing on it for a long time, even though it refuses to be drawn into a deeper consideration of the transcendent.

Just to close on something else important, what I have already found really useful is their page (184) of suggestions to help me hold mindfulness more effectively in mind.

Mindful Eye v2

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