Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

This follows on rather neatly from my previous post.

Read Full Post »

It was a bit of a hassle organising our visit to a National Trust site for the first time since before lockdown. My wife and I tried to find a pre-booking slot at Berrington Hall, the nearest location, for the Saturday or Sunday. All slots were fully booked. We had more success trying for the next mid-week slot: Wednesday at 13.30 was ours for the taking.

My calendar dutifully informed me on the day that the roads were clear and it would take 24 minutes to get to Berrington Hall. The temperature outside was 28 degrees before we set off. Even allowing the car doors to remain open for a good ten minutes before daring to sit down inside, the seats felt scorchingly hot through the seat of my shorts.

We set off with the aircon blasting away and eventually cooled down. The ordinary entrance gate to the hall was closed, so we had go in through the lane that was usually the exit, not our first strange reversal of the norm in these Corona days.

As we approached the car park, the lady with a clipboard greeted us from under a shelter.

I wound the window down and asked, ‘Do you need to see our tickets?’

‘No, just tell me your name,’ she shouted back, carefully keeping her distance.

I did, and we were waved in with no further ceremony.

We parked the car under the shade of a tall hedge thinking that would keep it cool for our return.

We decided to have our walk first, then come back for nibbles and drinks if we could find cool shelter nearby. As we left, we passed a group of elderly ladies sitting under the shade of a young tree, enjoying tea and cakes.

‘Enjoying your tea under a tree?’ I couldn’t resist rhyming loudly in their direction.

They grinned back.

Even though the day was sweltering we enjoyed our walk once we got to the woodland near the pond.

When, after emerging from the shade of the woods, we were unable to cope with walking anymore in the heat, we made a detour back to the car park via a coffee and ice cream hatch near the stables. Zarin opted for an ice-cream and I risked a coffee despite the heat.

We arrived back at the car park after an hour or so away, to see the car baking in full sunlight. We both groaned aloud.

Fortunately the ladies had left the shade of the tree, so we took some cake and water out of the car with a sheet to sit on, and headed back to snap up its protection from the sun.

After my cake and coffee, with my head feeling more alert than usual from the caffeine hit I usually avoid these days, I tucked into the book I’d brought, as Zarin read through her yoga manual.

It was David Fontana’s Psychology, Religion and Spirituality.

I was already more than halfway through my re-reading of it. I’d bought it in 2005 and the occasional highlight indicated I had read at least parts of it before, but nothing had stuck in my mind in spite of the complimentary comment I’d scribbled in the flyleaf.

I’d enjoyed the book so far but nothing had prepared me for the pages I was about to read.

His references to Assagioli began to suggest I might be entering important territory, dealing as they did (page 163) with the personal self and the higher self and the concept of disidentification, all of which had strongly influenced me (see link).

Things calmed down again for a few pages until the topic of consciousness came up.

First of all Fontana reminded me of the Jungian model of consciousness (page 175), one that I had internalised many decades ago: it consists of four levels – normal waking consciousness, the preconscious, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious.

I won’t dwell on those or explain them further. I was just pleased to find myself on the home ground of my earlier days, but it was hardly a world changing insight.

It was when he began to refer to Ken Wilber’s The Spectrum of Consciousness that light bulbs started flashing. I have had that text on my shelves since October 2000 but have never bothered to read it. Apparently, according to Fontana (page 177) Wilber highly praises the Advaita Vedanta ‘developmental model of consciousness.’ And he quotes it at length.

There are six major levels, from the material (the most basic) through several levels to the ratiocinative level, the last one before the two highest levels kick in if you have worked hard enough or been very fortunate. It’s the last two levels that most engaged my attention.

The causal level (5) is where ‘consciousness can experience pure contentless awareness, or pure consciousness in and of itself.’ Level 6 is the Brahmanic level. Where ‘consciousness is aware of reality as a unified field of energy in which the material world, the individual, and the source of all phenomena, Brahman or the Absolute, are in essence identical with each other.’

In one way I was a bit surprised that I was getting so excited as levels of consciousness was not exactly a new and undiscovered topic for me (see links). When I paused to reflect though, I realised why these concepts were more alive for me now than they had been before.

One very recent poem, and particularly the experience that triggered, it have a bearing on this. I had been sitting in the garden at home with a cup of coffee and my notebook. To begin with I was just staring at the sky, as I thought. Then four lines of poetry came straight to mind, with appropriate scansion and full rhymes.

That poem broke abruptly through my cloud of thoughts like a shaft of sunlight. Since I wrote down those lines I have only changed five words, to help the potential reader understand better what I think my unconscious was trying to tell me. This is the amended version. It is rare for me not make many radical changes in a number of lines of the first draft of a poem: in fact that has only happened a handful of times at most in all the years I’ve been writing poetry.

Before I read the description of level 5, I felt the poem was simply providing me with a metaphor to capture the same point about consciousness as the mirror metaphor, namely that consciousness is not the same as its contents, just as a mirror is not what is reflected in it. I thought the poem’s insight was particularly helpful in this respect, as before I wrote it I had never thought to distinguish between clouds and the sky, just as, in a way, until I encountered Vipassana meditation[1], Assagioli’s disidentification and Koestenbaum’s reflection, I had been content to continue confusing my mind with what it was thinking, feeling, imagining, remembering and so on.

Suddenly though I was lifted to a different level of understanding for which my poem and the triggering experience had prepared me. I saw an immediate connection between the phrase ‘pure contentless awareness’ and my description of a ‘blue’ and ‘unchanging sky.’ ‘Blue’ is obviously the equivalent of ‘pure.’

However, the fact that the sky is not changed by the clouds that cross it, they simply hide it from us, had eluded me, just as the fact that consciousness is not changed by the thoughts and feelings that pass over or through it had also evaded my mind’s grasp. I had not only allowed my thought and feelings to hide the purity of consciousness from me but I had at some level not truly grasped that they had no effect on the ground of my consciousness at all.

Such is the power of metaphor for me.

This all goes further, though, and relates to level six also.

In another earlier poem, about whose triggering experience I now found myself forcefully reminded, I had described another experience of clouds and sky:

The key section reads:

When I was a child, delirious
they said, I floated lonely on a
cloud, bathed in sunlight. I’m serious.
Was it real? That I’ll never know for
sure. I didn’t see eternity
that day, but an OBE is far
from impossible. The clear beauty
of the blue expanse of sky, vivid,
serene, stays with me still. I could see
the sunlight streaming down, and tried
to turn and see the disc itself, but
failed.

Here I was above the concealing cloud of thought and feeling. I was as close to the sky in all its vivid purity as I could get. I obviously had not reached level 6: I could see the sunlight but not its source, the sun itself. When I recovered from the illness whose fever delivered me this gift, all the adults around me dismissed it as delirium, and I accepted that explanation, but the vivid memory of the experience has never left me. We didn’t understand in those days that factors that impair aspects of brain functioning can open the doors to different levels of experience that are ordinarily inaccessible.

I am beginning to suspect, or even to sense, that I had been steered into an unwise dismissal of something more like a peak experience, though not quite an epiphany, with important implications for my understanding of reality.

Ever since I can remember I have been on a quest for deeper understanding and still am, and am also haunted by a painful sense of having lost something infinitely precious. I think I may at last be getting closer to a convincing explanation for both those factors. The poem I am about to post next time, which was written after this post, is a kind of declaration of intent. Not quite the same as taking effective action though, I suspect.

Footnote:

[1]. As an article on the Buddhist Review website explains, ‘The meditator is trained to notice more and more of his own flowing life experience.’

 

Read Full Post »

An Ecological Self

I ended the previous post with the following points from Tom Oliver’s book, The Self Delusion.

I am less convinced by his next line of argument based on the ideas of Arne Naess, a Norwegian ecologist, [1]who ‘suggested that to solve environmental problems, our conception of self-identity needs to expand from an ‘egoic self’ to an ‘ecological self’ that encompasses all of the earth’s living systems.’

It’s not the idea in itself that I find implausible as a necessary condition of effective change: my problem is that I don’t find it a sufficient condition as both Naess and Oliver seem to do.

Oliver quotes Naess’ reasoning:[2]

While one is working only within a narrow concept of the self, he argues, environmentally responsible behaviour always relies on altruism, which is too inconsistent to reverse the wide-scale environmental degradation driven by the collective human endeavour. Instead, enlargement of self-identity to an ‘ecological self,’ integrating all those organisms we are impacting, can result in environmental behaviour as a form of self-interest – care for the natural world beyond our immediate bodies becomes an act of love.

On that basis Oliver supports the conclusions expressed in Psychology as if the Whole World Mattered:[3] ‘if the self is extended to include the natural world, behaviour leading to destruction of this world will be experienced as self-destruction.’

I have dealt with related issues at length elsewhere on this blog so I will summarise my unease with this position briefly.

First of all, there is Jeremy Rifkin in his masterpiece, The Empathic Civilisation. His concept of potential human progress maps closely onto Oliver’s:[4]

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal in. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

Altruism

Next comes Matthieu Ricard’s excellent book, Altruism, which is quite clear that altruism is a stable trait, to be distinguished from compassion, which is more of a transient state of mind. Even though I agreed with his position, I was not convinced by the conclusion he reached on that basis. Yes, as he contends, we must move[5] from ‘community engagement to global responsibility.’ To do this it is necessary ‘to realise that all things are interdependent, and to assimilate that world view in such a way that it influences our every action.’ He sees altruism as the key to this transition.

In this long and enthralling book, Ricard has used reason brilliantly to advocate altruism as the solution to our personal and global problems. He would be the first to agree though, I hope, that a conviction in the value of altruism is not going to be sufficient to motivate enough people to rise to the level of sacrifice required for long enough to achieve the necessary effect, and it is highly improbable that enough people would be capable of meditating with the necessary level of intensity for sufficiently long to turn their transient states of compassion into the enduring trait of altruism.

Similarly, simply identifying with the natural world at a purely material level is more likely to disempower us with despair before the enormity of the challenges which our destruction of the planet has presented us with, than empower us to sustain effective effort for long enough and at a high enough level to save ourselves and our planetary home from terminal devastation.

This raises the question, ‘do we not also need a sense of something that transcends not just our sense of self, but also transcends this planet and the life that depends upon it, to give us the strength, confidence, wisdom and perseverance to commit to action long enough to be effective?’

Some Possible Remedies

In spite of these caveats I resonate strongly to much that Oliver says.

There is an inescapable interaction between our level of understanding of our interconnections and that of the systems of which we form a part:[6]

: . . . if we fail as individuals to appreciate our interdependent relationship with nature, we cannot expect our economic system to take into account such interconnections and protect the natural world.

In the end, if we do not change as individuals there will be no change, as the World Wildlife Fund Living Planet 2016 report clearly articulates:[7]

They conclude that mental models of the world – reflecting the beliefs, values and assumptions that we personally hold – influence the design of system structures, the guidelines and incentives that govern behaviours and, ultimately, the individual events that make up the flow of daily life. The leverage points that can lead to genuine lasting change, therefore, are at the level of these underlying mental models – we first need to change ourselves to change the world.

Is there anything we can do to lift our consciousness to a higher level? Not surprisingly, he mentions the modern favourite:[8]

Long-term mindfulness practice can lead to an overall increase in activity in the areas of the default mode related to self focus.

Both Goleman and Davidson in their book on meditation and Matthieu Ricard in his book on altruism testify to our ability to consolidate transient states of compassion into lasting traits of character by thousands of hours of meditation. It is unlikely that most of us will ever commit to that kind of sustained effort. Oliver looks then at some possible less demanding approaches:[9]

Rather than sitting on our own, we might find that working with others –social learning – can help. Some methods might be familiar to us already, such as green gyms where people work together outside and engage in nature.

Also on offer is the opportunity to dress up as animals or plants:

Outlandish as this may seem, this kind of perspective-taking has been shown to be effective in changing mindsets and genuinely increases environmental concern. . . .  The feelings of empathy induced by this perspective-taking increase the overlap between our self-identity and nature.

Failing either of those we can resort to an alternative approach:[10]

Treating our self-identity like a habit means techniques that help reduce the frequency of bad habits can be effective in preventing this drifting into unhelpful mental state. For example, ‘implementation intentions’ are rules that people plan out ahead for how they will act in a situation when they normally enact bad behaviours.

What this means in practice is rather like the Spot it, Stop it and Swap it mnemonic I explored some time ago after reading Schwartz’s four step method in The Mind and the Brain. I won’t rehash all that just now: for those who are interested the relevant post is at this link.

It will probably be quite challenging to use this kind of method on your sense of who your are. This is where another important skill kicks in: reflection. Reflection is something I have explored at length on this blog both from an existential and a Bahá’í perspective. In part it involves developing the ability to withdraw our identifications with whatever dominant patterns invade our minds, whether thoughts, feelings, memories, worries or even self-concepts to which we have become attached.

Elsewhere, I have discussed the value of reflection. I have drawn on writers such as Koestenbaum who describes how reflection is a process of separating consciousness from its contents. I have used the analogy of the mirror to illustrate what this might mean. What is reflected in the mirror is not the mirror. In the same way what we are thinking, feeling and planning may not be the essence of our consciousness, simply the ‘objects’ that are reflected in it.

Interestingly in the same post I also refer back to a previous post that explores the idea of gardening the heart. To my surprise, Oliver resorts to the identical metaphor to make his point as well:[11]

I think of this as analogous to gardening. We are so used in the modern world to rushing around trying to achieve things by sheer strength of will, yet gardening is about creating the right conditions and then being patient and letting nature take the lead. So too, by making time for meditation and contemplation, by balancing our rest, work and exercise, by eating well, we best prepare the soil for our own mental transformation.

All this just before he flags up another issue that comes up in the Bahá’í Writings – the impact of language. Bahá’u’lláh describes the constricting effect of words and language as follows:[12]

The dwellers of the kingdom of names have busied themselves with the gay livery of the world, forgetful that every man that hath eyes to perceive and ears to hear cannot but readily recognize how evanescent are its colours.

Oliver emphasises how central language is to all of us:[13]

For humans, language is our water and as the writer James Caroll said: ‘we swim in language, think in language, we live in language.’

And how much influence it has on how we behave:[14]

Exposure to materialistic messages causes people to adopt materialistic and self-interested values themselves.

It’s clearly never going to be an easy battle to win, the fight to release ourselves from ‘the prison of self’[15] Oliver describes as ‘the self delusion.’

If we do not manage to do so, then we are in deep trouble:

. . . if we cannot shed the self delusion and act with appropriate concern for others and the world around us, then we will face and ecological and climate catastrophe . . .

Final Thoughts

A problem with the challenges we currently face, including the climate crisis and the current pandemic, is that while they demand greater collaboration across divides, they may serve instead to intensify those divides:[16]

From historical studies, cultures have been shown to become tighter in the face of environmental shocks – they become more collective and cooperative internally but develop greater hostility to out-groups.

We can already see where this default pattern is leading us:[17]

 . . . Rich countries build barriers to keep migrants and refugees from poorer countries out.… Rich countries are causing global climate and ecological catastrophe and then building walls to prevent millions of people moving out of inhospitable conditions. In the face of malnutrition and deaths that are ultimately caused by the actions of richer countries, the only way to make such news palatable will be to devalue and dehumanise the people outside the fortress walls –for a start, referring to them as ‘migrants’ or ‘criminals’ rather than ‘refugees’ or simply ‘people.’ . . . News media will explain that it is the failure of their governments causing these problems, even though governing under such inhospitable environmental conditions will be a near impossible task.

This can only get worse: ‘as the global population increases further, taking an inward-looking perspective to protect the in-group will only lead to greater instability . . .’[18]

It is imperative that we find ways of transcending our primate predispositions:[19]

. . .  the natural social reaction to protect the in-group in times of adversity is a cultural adaptation that has become maladaptive in the modern world. If we want to thrive and pass on a habitable world to future generations, we must overcome both our biologically determined egoism and our culturally determined tribalism.

Oliver looks for hope in a well-recognised social pattern, which has too often been a source of distress:[20]

The writer Malcolm Gladwell outlines how trends and behaviours, such as high crime rates, spread unexpectedly rapidly through human populations. These phenomena reach a critical mass in a small subset of the population before a tipping point is reached and they spread like wildfire across the population.… Could we use such social contagion to enable the rapid evolution of a networked sense of self identity among the global human population?

. . . Is changing the mindset of nearly 8 billion humans on the planet in time to solve pressing global sustainability problems a feasible task? When we look at how quickly behaviours and attitudes spread once a tipping point is reached, I feel hopeful that such a transition could occur.

The Corona virus pandemic has certainly demonstrated that we can react with amazing speed and spare no expense when confronted with something we recognise as a major life-threatening emergency. I’ve already dealt at length with the challenges of the climate emergency. Perhaps this idea of a possible tipping point being reached in time can be added into the combination of ideas I quoted in the last post of that sequence. Arthur Dahl, whose blog post is linked to the International Environment Forum, a Bahá’í inspired organization for environment and sustainability, summarises what we need to do as follows:

Change ourselves. Addressing our demand for energy is the biggest challenge. When we use an electrical appliance, spend time inside a building, use hot water, travel anywhere in a vehicle, or buy or eat anything, we are contributing to the problem. We need to start today to make sacrifices: drive less, fly less, consume less meat, have fewer children. A plant-based diet reduces a food carbon footprint by 90%. Avoid beef with a carbon footprint three times pork and six times chicken. Tropical fruits imported by air, and cheese are other offenders. Reduce short car journeys; car-pool, bike or walk instead. But one vacation flight would wipe out the benefits of going vegetarian for a year or driving 2500 km less. In your home, replace appliances with energy-efficient models, lower the temperature of hot water, use a low-flow showerhead, do not leave appliances on standby, and dry washing outside. Smart thermostats can reduce household emissions by up to 26%. Moving to a smaller home can cut emissions by 27%. At the office, turning off lights and your workstation when leaving, and unplugging your phone charger, can cut emissions by up to 28%. Working from home in the US can mean driving 77% less.

Above all, there is a lack of political will for the biggest transformation ever. People have to demand these changes with mass movements. This may seem impossible, but we have to try. We need to convince everyone that green alternatives improve our quality of life as well as the environment.

A key issue to getting sufficient people, including those with political and economic power,  to agree that the climate crisis is an emergency.

In the end, even though I find Oliver’s book inspiring and convincing in many respects, I cannot shake off my conviction that, in addition to all the factors and approaches he adduces, if we do not have some sense of the transcendent, including that of a higher power that can reinforce our efforts if we align ourselves with it, we will find ourselves unable to rise effectively to challenges of this magnitude for a sufficient length of time to turn things round. Unlike the Covid-19 challenge, a few weeks or maybe months of concerted action will not be enough, even when we have recognised the climate crisis for what it is and begun to take some kind of effective action.

To close this post, here is a reminder of that, which I use in meditation from time to time, found in these words of Bahá’u’lláh:

Were anyone to affirm that [Nature] is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion. It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp.[21]

Footnotes

[1]. The Self Delusion – page 211.
[2]. The Self Delusion – pages 211-12.
[3]. The Self Delusion – page 213.
[4]. The Empathic Civilisation – page 154.
[5]. Altruism – page 682.
[6]. The Self Delusion – page 216.
[7]. The Self Delusion – page 218.
[8]. The Self Delusion – page 224.
[9]. The Self Delusion – pages 225-26.
[10]. The Self Delusion – page 227.
[11]. The Self Delusion — page 228.
[12]. Gleanings XCVI.
[13]. The Self Delusion – page 230.
[14]. The Self Delusion – pages 231-32.
[15]. Bahá’u’lláh Persian Hidden Words – Number 40.
[16]. The Self Delusion – page 233.
[17]. The Self Delusion – page 234.
[18]. The Self Delusion – page 235.
[19]. The Self Delusion – page 236.
[20]. The Self Delusion – page 246.
[21]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, Lawh-i-Hikmat – page 142.

Read Full Post »

Charles Tart

At the end of the last post I was emphasising that capitalism has begin to look like a religion and it depends upon a form of thought-control for its continuing hold on our minds. Is uprooted spirituality the only factor at work in that?

This is not, of course, the first time I’ve been here on this blog.

In his book Waking Up, which featured in an earlier sequence, Charles Tart uses the term ‘consensus consciousness’ to describe how our culture and life experiences shape our perceptions of the world. This effect is so strong that he goes onto describe it as a state of mind that is definitely not an enviable one:

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.[1]

Carrette and King in many ways are singing from the same hymn sheet. They quote David Loy – 2002:[2]:

. . . according to the U.N. development report from 1999, the world spent at least $435 billion the previous year for advertising… this constitutes the greatest effort in mental manipulation that humanity has ever experienced.

But it is not just advertising that hypnotises us into compliance.

Carrette and King argue that we increasingly see:

a concern with making the individual employee/consumer function as effectively as possible for the benefit of corporate organisations and the ‘global economy’. . . . Such a move allows advocates of capitalist spirituality to use the traditional language of ‘belonging’ but this time orient it towards the need for employees to align themselves with the corporate mission statements of their employers. [3]

The next shift in their argument should make me as a psychologist more uncomfortable than it does:

We argue that the discourse and institutions of psychology have played a major part in maintaining control in late capitalist societies in the West by creating a privatised and individualised conception of reality. Modern government requires a social mechanism to control populations, and psychology functions in part as the underlying philosophy of what it is to be a human for a capitalist system of social organisation.[4]

The reason why it comes as no unsettling surprise is that I have been here twice before from slightly different perspectives each time.

First of all, when I read Richard Shweder’s Thinking Through Cultures, I learnt how biased in a potentially destructive way our implicit individualism is, and how much that has influenced our preference for the ‘science’ of psychology.

The modern world, according to the Bahá’í World Centre in views expressed in a paper on Social Action (November 2012) is in the grip of a similar delusional script: the power brokers of the industrialised technically advanced Western world are convinced that their version of reality is more highly developed than that found anywhere else.

Richard Shweder’s compelling account of his re-examination of Kohlberg’s comparison of American and Hindu moral development is an interesting example of where this can lead an expert research team. Kohlberg originally concluded that Hinduism lagged far behind the far more morally sophisticated Americans.

Shweder describes his findings in his bookHis very different findings hinge upon his recognition that Westerners confidently and accurately code Western moral thinking as expressed by study subjects because they understand the implicit subtext, and they confidently and inaccurately code the moral thinking as expressed by subjects from other cultures because they haven’t a clue about the implicit subtext.

Why is this relevant here?

Mainly because the problem was rooted in the individualistic lens of the Western researchers who were unable properly to decode the implicit communal context which lay behind the responses of the Hindu subjects of their study. They were also unable to see the limitations imposed upon them by their Western perspective, which they simply assumed must be correct. Earlier in his book Shweder spells out a correlate of this bias:

Not surprisingly, in most sociocentric role-based societies… it is sociology, not psychology, that thrives as an academic discipline. In other, more individualistic cultures (for example, the United States) it is psychology that flourishes at universities and popular bookstores, while sociology has an uneasy relationship to a public that find sociological discourse to be unreal and laden with ‘jargon.’[5]

The idea of an individualistic Western lens is not just Shweder’s view. In her book Transcendence Gaia Vince expresses much the same conclusion:

Westerners, with an individualistic suite of social norms, tend to process objects and organise information into categories. In contrast, East Asians, with more collectivist norms, view themselves as part of a larger whole…[6]

Psychology would therefore seem, on the basis of evidence of this kind, to be assisting in the creation of the ‘privatised and individualised conception of reality’ Carrette and King refer to.

This is by no means the worst of it, as I discovered somewhat later.

In the introduction to their brave, thorough and well-researched book, Irreducible Mind, Kelly and Kelly capture the way that psychology came increasingly to adopt a materialistic and reductionist approach to the mind that fitted snugly into the materialistic capitalistic mind-set:

[William] James’s person-centered and synoptic approach was soon largely abandoned . . . in favour of a much narrower conception of scientific psychology. Deeply rooted in earlier 19th-century thought, this approach advocated deliberate emulation of the presuppositions and methods – and thus, it was hoped, the stunning success – of the ‘hard’ sciences especially physics. . . . Psychology was no longer to be the science of mental life, as James had defined it. Rather it was to be the science of behaviour, ‘a purely objective experimental branch of natural science’. It should ‘never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like.’ [7]:

And, sadly, in some senses nothing much has changed. Psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it?

The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.[8]

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction.

So, it is no surprise then that an individualist, materialistic psychology should suit the needs of capitalism, in the way Carrette and King suggest it does. They make basically the same point quite explicitly later in their book: ‘ . . . in the demand for a science of the self, psychology distanced itself from the trappings of a religious self and sought to offer ideas of being human on a reductionist and measurable basis.’[9]

Psychology is not itself a form of spirituality though, so how would this strengthen Carrette and King’s case for the key role of spirituality in keeping us quiet?

When spirituality is psychologised, as it has been, for example, with mindfulness training, it can act as a powerful tool for stifling protest and ensuring conformity. The analogy they keep referring to in their book captures this potential exactly. They describe it, at one point, as ‘the new cultural Prozac,’ which brings ‘transitory feelings of ecstatic happiness and thoughts of self-affirmation’ without ‘addressing sufficiently the underlying problem of social isolation and injustice.’[10]At another, they write, ‘Capitalist spirituality is the psychological sedative for a culture that is in the process of rejecting the values of community and social justice.’[11]

They believe that, in addition to this, the misleading redefinitions of reality entailed in this process are the equivalent of what George Orwell, in his classic novel 1984, terms ‘thought-control.’ They claim ‘privatised spiritualities operate as a form of thought-control that supports the ideology of late capitalism.’[12]

This explains away any unpleasant feelings as resulting from deficiencies in the individual, so that:

What is never raised is the possibility that the ‘difficult life’ is itself a result of the modern psychological understanding of the self in Western consumer societies. . . . [Popular classics of spirituality] are palliative for the ills of a consumer society, rather than addressing the underlying social problems that create the need for such works in the first place.[13]

As a result:

. . . employees can be made to feel a sense of corporate community and allegiance to the company.… ‘spirituality’ provides the all-important ‘feel-good’ factor that is so important for improving worker efficiency and loyalty. . . Thus, while claiming to be ‘alternative’…, the goal is to align the employee’s ‘personal mission’ with that of the organisation for which they work.[14]

In the end, expressing the idea very strongly indeed, the authors feel that ‘Mass control and collectivism are not just features of fascist and communist societies. Rather they are reconfigured and hidden behind the capitalist doctrines of free choice.’[15]The result is that we are all locked into a toxic materio-competitive worldview:

With the emergence of capitalist spirituality the freedom of the individual to express their inner nature through ‘spirituality’ becomes subordinated to the demands of corporate business culture… [16]

Next time I will be looking in more detail at what makes it possible to see capitalism as a religion, and also later exploring how important it is to factor in other influences than disconnected spirituality to explain our paralysis in the face of capitalism’s deficiencies. It will be some time yet before I consider other more positive alternatives such as the Bahá’í perspective, the Doughnut model and Ehrenfeld’s ideas of flourishing.

Footnotes

[1] Tart – page 95.
[2] Page 160. Unless otherwise stated all references are from Selling Spirituality.
[3] Page 20.
[4] Page 26.
[5] Shweder – page 169.
[6] Gaia – page 146.
[7] Kelly and Kelly – pages xvii-xviii.
[8] Kelly and Kelly – page xx.
[9] Page 66.
[10] Page 77.
[11] Page 83.
[12] Page 68.
[13] Page 56.
[14] Pages 134-35.
[15] Page 57.
[16] Page 45.

Read Full Post »

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is often called the father of modern mindfulness. Photograph: Sarah Lee

Friday’s Guardian published an insightful article by Ronald Purser on the limitations of mindfulness practice as it is currently being marketed. Below is a short extract: for the full article, see link.

It is sold as a force that can help us cope with the ravages of capitalism, but with its inward focus, mindful meditation may be the enemy of activism.

. . . what exactly is this magic panacea? In 2014, Time magazine put a youthful blonde woman on its cover, blissing out above the words: “The Mindful Revolution.” The accompanying feature described a signature scene from the standardised course teaching MBSR: eating a raisin very slowly. “The ability to focus for a few minutes on a single raisin isn’t silly if the skills it requires are the keys to surviving and succeeding in the 21st century,” the author explained.

But anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary – it just helps people cope. In fact, it could also be making things worse. Instead of encouraging radical action, mindfulness says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live. And yet mindfulness zealots believe that paying closer attention to the present moment without passing judgment has the revolutionary power to transform the whole world. It’s magical thinking on steroids.

There are certainly worthy dimensions to mindfulness practice. Tuning out mental rumination does help reduce stress, as well as chronic anxiety and many other maladies. Becoming more aware of automatic reactions can make people calmer and potentially kinder. Most of the promoters of mindfulness are nice, and having personally met many of them, including the leaders of the movement, I have no doubt that their hearts are in the right place. But that isn’t the issue here. The problem is the product they’re selling, and how it’s been packaged. Mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.

. . . .

The fundamental message of the mindfulness movement is that the underlying cause of dissatisfaction and distress is in our heads. By failing to pay attention to what actually happens in each moment, we get lost in regrets about the past and fears for the future, which make us unhappy. Kabat-Zinn, who is often labelled the father of modern mindfulness, calls this a “thinking disease”. Learning to focus turns down the volume on circular thought, so Kabat-Zinn’s diagnosis is that our “entire society is suffering from attention deficit disorder – big time”. Other sources of cultural malaise are not discussed. The only mention of the word “capitalist” in Kabat-Zinn’s book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness occurs in an anecdote about a stressed investor who says: “We all suffer a kind of ADD.”

Read Full Post »

After my somewhat heated encounter with my parliament of selves I had hoped that they’d stay out of my dreams for that night at least and give me time to think. Fat chance.

It felt as though I hadn’t been asleep long, though it was way past halfway through the night. For some reason I found myself walking along Edgar Street towards the Courtyard Theatre. I think I was expecting to join a meeting of the Death Café. I went to the counter as usual to get my decaf cappuccino. I sensed something was not quite right when I bumped into Ian. He had died recently but was standing there ordering his usual hot chocolate.

‘We’re not in the usual place,’ he said. ‘We’re up near the Arts and Crafts bit.’

‘Let’s hope they don’t have a rock band next door like last time we were in there.’ I didn’t feel it would be quite right to ask him how he was.

As he picked up his chocolate, he said, ‘You go on ahead. There’s someone over there I need to talk to,’ gesturing towards a woman in the far corner holding a scythe.

I couldn’t get my coffee quickly enough. I dashed off upstairs, spilling it all over the free biscuit in my saucer in my haste to escape, hoping its cellophane wrapping would protect it.

On the next floor, between me and my destination, a group of skeletons in evening dress were practising the salsa, Mediterranean cruise-style. I had to creep cautiously around the wall protecting my coffee as best I could from swinging bones.

As I opened the door of the meeting room I realised I was in deep trouble. I could hear the strains of Hotel California coming from the next room. As soon as I stepped through the door, there they all were, every single member of my parliament of selves, including the toddler. There was no backing out.

‘Hi. Good to see you all,’ I lied.

‘Don’t lie,’ Mires grinned. ‘You’ve been dreading this. Anyway you’re here, and we thought this was the best place to meet. It’s where you claim you can come to have deep conversations about things that really matter, and that’s just what we all want to do isn’t it?’

‘I suppose it is,’ I grudgingly agreed.

‘There’s a chair over there for you,’ Pindance said, pointing to a place across the table from her.

As she spoke and I walked through the room to my place at the table, the words of the song next door came through the wall.

Running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!’

‘Thanks,’ I thought. ‘Just what I wanted to hear.’

But I knew that in a sense it was completely true. This was a group of people from whom I could never be free. I had to find a way of integrating our different agendas to create some kind of effective unity, a sense of common purpose.

‘Is it OK if I act as a kind of chairperson here?’ Humfreeze asked.

As he spoke I tried to calm my nerves by pouring the coffee from my saucer into my cup and rescuing the biscuit.

‘I guess so,’ was my faint response.

‘OK, then. Let’s get started. You know already that Indie wants to know how the child fits in with your plan, and that Emma values her projects and Wordless his poems beyond almost anything else. So, we probably don’t need to rehash all that, do we?’

‘No, definitely not.’

‘Right. So I’m going to ask Fred to share where he is coming from. OK, Fred?’

‘No problem.’ Fred cleared his throat to give himself time to clear his head.

‘In a way I’m a bit more anxious even than the others about where I fit in exactly.’

‘Why’s that?’ I asked. ‘We’re both trained in psychology.’

‘Well, yes, but the problem is that you’re an applied psychologist, while I’m more interested in the theory. So, your take on it will be closer to what Emma wants as an activist and is probably OK with Chris because of all this mindfulness stuff you do nowadays.’

Humfreeze grimaced but kept his mouth shut. Pancake didn’t look convinced either.

‘I get your point. I think I’ll be able to reassure you on that issue later.’

My hands shook slightly as I peeled the dripping cellophane off the biscuit. It wasn’t too damp in the end thankfully.

‘Good. I hope so. I do realise that my anxieties about my more academic approach is probably a bit the same as Chris’s need to take meditation far deeper than mindfulness as currently practised can ever go. We both share an interest in mystical states after all. But I’d better let Chris unpack all that. I think I’ve said all I need to say for now. Over to you, Chris.’

‘Thanks for that piece of clarification, Fred. I think you’re absolutely right. Meditation though for me goes even beyond transient mystical states. I’m really worried that this hearticulture idea will mean we end up being jacks of all trades and masters of none, if you see what I mean. I see different meditative practices as requiring a huge investment of time if we are to change evanescent states of mind into abiding traits, permanent dispositions to act, think and feel in creative and life-enhancing ways. Dabbling in all the bits and pieces you have stuck in that diagram, Pete, will leave us all frustrated amateurs rather than accomplished professionals. D’you get my point, Pete?’

‘Absolutely. You’re describing the sharp horns of a dilemma that has bedevilled me most of my adult life. I have too many interests to become a real expert in any. That’s why the hearticulture idea was such a breakthrough. Anyway, I’d better wait until I’m sure you’ve all said all you need to say before I try to explain.’

‘Anything that anyone else wants to throw into the mix?’ Humfreeze looked around searchingly.

Pindance, who was cradling the sleeping toddler at this point, stared hard at me across the table.

‘You know, don’t you, that I will never collude with any plan you have that doesn’t take this small child properly into account. Whether we all realise it or not, and even though he can barely speak as yet so is nowhere near as eloquent in expressing his needs as we are, our fulfilment absolutely depends upon caring properly for him so that he can thrive.’

‘Believe it or not, I agree with you completely, Emma, and I think my model does rise to that huge challenge. When you are all ready I’ll try to explain.’

‘Are we all done then?’ asked Humfreeze. After a short silence he decided they were and turned to me.

‘Over to you then. Convince us if you can.’

My heart was beating fast. The critical moment had arrived. I drained the last of my coffee.

‘I’d like to take it up from the challenge Indie left me with. My answer starts from the dream you are all familiar with, the hearth dream. I won’t go over it in detail at all, but you remember the powerful charge it has had and still has.’

They all nodded.

‘I’ll just focus on the word hearth and its implications for our present purposes. It combines heart and earth. When I was born, for the reasons we discovered in our last exploration together, part of me stayed buried in my heart, almost stillborn in a way with the force of amniotic grief, as though it was in a grave underground, in the earth. The work we did made it clear that the chamber of my heart that contained the child was more of a womb than a tomb. Even so I have an intensely strong feeling that this part of our family, as it were, has a strong affinity with the earth, even more than yours, Emma, in spite of your strong desire to campaign on environmental issues. The child’s connection is an intense emotional and intuitive bond.’

The intent silence with which they were listening was almost scary. My throat felt really dry. I asked for some water before I could continue. I took a sip before I marched on.

‘You may feel that what I am going to say is simply a joke but it’s not. I feel that the child needs a name that belongs to the earth but connects him as deeply with me as well. I would like for us to agree to call him Peat Humus.’

The tension in the room broke into gales of laughter.

‘You can’t be serious,’ Pancake howled.

‘I am. Really I am. Think about it. He doesn’t have to mix out there in the world. He doesn’t need a birth certificate or a passport. What he needs and what we need is the most powerful reminder of his true nature and of the deep and powerful connection our hearts have to forge, not just with the transcendent realm of the spirit, but also with the earth upon which our material selves ultimately depend. Our heart is the bridge between spirit and matter and this will help us always remember that. When our hearts and the earth are consciously and closely connected we have our hearth, a symbol of our true home and safety.’

‘I think I’m beginning to see where you are coming from,’ Pindance whispered, rocking the child gently as she spoke. Wordless, the nature poet with writer’s block, couldn’t have looked more pleased.

The others didn’t seem so sure.

‘And after we name the child so, then we can go on to see how the words heart and earth can also be used to remind us of how our different aims and skills are ultimately unified. The letters of the words can be used to remind us of the arts, for your poems, Bill, and of action, for your preferred way, Emma, and of reflection, Chris, and teaching, Indie, and the head’s deep experience, Fred. I know that’s not perfect, but it’s as far as I have got at present, except to say that hearticulture, to be effective, needs to draw on all your disciplines and modus operandi. It needs to keep them all in balance though, at the same time, rather than have any one of them dominating and becoming a single area of expertise for its own sake.’

I paused at that point to check out the reception I was getting. There was a puzzled frown on all their faces and an unhappy exchange of glances between Pancake, Humfreeze, and Mires. Maybe they weren’t happy that the word for their passion in life had only its first letter. Wordless was bought off by the presence of the word art as a whole and the connection with nature in particular, and Pindance was perhaps somewhat reassured by my sense of the infant’s importance.

I pressed on regardless.

‘Hearticulture is the discipline at which I want to become as expert as I can, and that will only be possible if we all pool our preferences and skills and work towards the same end. That may be tough sometimes, because it won’t allow any of us to become the world expert poet, psychologist, meditator/mystic, activist, teacher we might dearly love to be. What it does mean though is that as a unified team we can be an expert hearticulturalist, before I die and take you all with me.’

I was relieved to see that cracked a smile on everyone’s face.

‘To be honest though that’s not why I’m doing it. The satisfaction of hearticulture will come simply from practising it however badly, and in that way learning to do it better. This is what needs to be done for its own sake, while all our other arts and skills are practised for hearticulture’s sake. All my life, I suspect, I’ve been unconsciously striving to achieve a creative fusion of all our different strands of activity, and now it seems we have achieved it. I think it will work because, for me and hopefully for all of you as well, the heart is at the core of us all and is a bridge between matter and spirit, earth and heaven. Does that make sense? Can we all pull together with this?’

There was a long silence. Faintly from the other room I could hear the words of Gerry Rafferty’s under-rated song and felt them ease my heart:

If you travel blindly, if you fall
The truth is there to set you free
And when your heart can see just one thing in this life
We’ll set out on the journey
Find a ship to take us on the way.

It seemed to go some way towards easing the angst of all the others as well.

‘I think I can begin to see how this might work,’ Wordless shared, ‘how it will stop us fighting each other over whose pet project should have priority, how it will help us recognise that everything we come across can be tested for whether it furthers this aim or not, and if it does we can all pool our skills together for the best possible result, and if it does not, we can just forget it and move on where possible.’ Strong feelings were making the usually carefully coherent Wordless hard to follow.

Not everybody was nodding as he spoke. The art, in a heart connected with nature, had got him on board at least. The rest, except perhaps for Pindance, were not so sure.

Just at this point, my wife got out of bed and woke me up. That was unfortunate but I hope it didn’t matter, because perhaps for the first time in my life it felt as though I might just have found a way to bring all my warring selves together in peace at last, and I at least had a clear and practicable sense of what I needed to do with the rest of my life and best of all, how I needed to do it.

I had come a long way from my diary entry of 17 years ago when I was struggling yet again to work out what my priorities really were, with only the metaphor of ‘carpenter of minds’ to help me, and I wrote, wondering whether underneath it all I really wanted to be a writer:

Many writers have been completely self-centred. They have, in the cliché, perfected the art but not the life. At present I think it’s fair to say I am perfecting neither the art nor the life. To paraphrase Landor:

I strove with some, I almost loved my wife,
Nature neglected, next to nature art –
Somehow lost contact with the fire of life.
It sinks but I’m not ready to depart.

Only half a joke really. I’m getting older and losing energy year by year. My poem The Quarry seems truer by the minute. If I’m not careful there’ll be no time, no energy left, and nothing done, unless being a carpenter of minds part-time face to face has been enough.

Let’s hope I have enough effective reminders in place to keep the train of this new plan on the rails and moving forwards. Only time will tell. It wouldn’t be the first time if I have mistaken a stopover for my destination.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »