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Posts Tagged ‘Neil Mercer’

PTSD and war

Before we plunge further in from where we got to last time, I need to look briefly at what is known about the impact of war trauma on those affected by killing other human beings. This will help clarify just how disabling the effects of Ian’s experiences were likely to be on someone who was already undoubtedly very vulnerable.

There was an in-depth look at this in a television documentary in the wake of the Falklands War. The programme adduced a wealth of evidence that most human beings have a powerful and deep-seated aversion to killing other people. Approximately 98% of us are to varying degrees averse. For example, there were soldiers in the days of muzzle-loading muskets, who died with their muskets in their hands, the barrel full of undischarged ammunition balls. They had faked reloading without firing, so reluctant were they to risk killing anyone. Others, using rifles, were known to aim to miss or to wound slightly rather than to kill.

There are two outliers, representing about 1% in each case, who have no such inhibitions. One such exception is, not surprisingly, the psychopath. The other exception, which is very surprising, is an otherwise morally and emotionally normal individual who has no compunction about killing.

Psychologists, to their shame, devised training methods, using probable battle scenarios, that made rapid and automatic shooting to kill seem easy and unproblematic. These scenarios were practiced repeatedly until the lethal reaction was instinctive. What no one predicted was how traumatic many soldiers found it, to be confronted in battle with the consequence of their training: a dead soldier they had killed without a moment’s thought. As with Ian, the post-traumatic reactions were often devastating, with guilt and horror as key components of flashbacks and nightmares. In his case the signs of trauma were the unrelenting voices, a waking nightmare in effect.

Some of the horror of this is captured in Keith Douglas’s poem of the Second World War, How to Kill.

keyesdouglas

Keith Douglas

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

This is an equally disturbing but different kind of trauma from the kind captured in Wilfred Owen’s poems, such as Dulce et Decorum Est.

The intense guilt Ian harboured about his army experiences was too hard to bear and he had buried it. However, his subsequent guilt over throwing his alcoholic partner out of the house because her drinking was consuming his income from three jobs and he couldn’t cope any longer, reactivated the earlier even more intense guilt, because he thought she might die on the street, meaning that he might in a sense have killed her.

During the first period of therapy he felt that he was dealing only with his guilt about her, and that this was the main problem in terms of his voices. This was hard enough. Only later did he come to realise, by the impact of an anniversary effect I’ll come to in the next post, that the far darker army experiences, that he hadn’t yet dealt with, lay still active in this respect underneath.

What use is religious practice here?

There is much evidence that faith and religion are beneficial to mental (and physical) health. They reduce amongst other difficulties: depression, anxiety, suicide, & psychosis. The protectors they provide include: greater meaning and purpose, higher self-esteem, social support, less loneliness and more hope. (Harold Koenig at al. in Religion and Health’ Chapter 15)

My focus now will be on two aspects: reflection and consultation. Buddhism offers the most obvious example of powerful reflective processes. There is also a wealth of information that suggests most strongly that the process of collaborative conversation (Andersen and Swim), of consultation in the Bahá’í sense (see John Kolstoe), of inquiry (see Senge), of interthinking, can achieve remarkable results: Neil Mercer talks of the crucial function of language and says:

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

It is the special combination of both these processes that is unique to the Bahá’í Faith as far as I am aware, though variations of each alone can be found in other either religious or educational/therapeutic contexts.

After I qualified and became a member of the Bahá’í community, fully integrating my understanding and practice of these processes into my clinical repertoire took a couple of years. I came to feel the benefits of that were considerable.

These weren’t the only factors I tried to accommodate. The hardest to digest was the belief that the mind is not dependent upon the brain. I have dealt with that in detail elsewhere.

The easiest was the notion that not only is the spiritual core of all religions essentially the same, but also humanity is in essence one: we are all part of the human family and all interconnected, not just at a material level but at a spiritual one as well. This is relevant here. This concept of unity not only serves to dispel any residual sense we might have that someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia is somehow a different kind of being from us, but it also clarified that being inwardly divided, as many of us are, is not only a betrayal of our own essential inner oneness but an obstacle to our connecting with others, not just as a therapist but in any relationship. Similarly a community that is at odds with itself with find it hard to connect with everyone on a harmonious basis. I will be returning to that point.

My shorthand description of reflection is to say that it involves separating consciousness from its contents. Consultation, in similarly brisk terms, is the dispassionate comparison of notes, with the emphasis here on the word ‘dispassionate.’

Reflection

In discussing the nature and power of reflection I usually start with Peter Koestenbaum’s book, New Image of the Person: Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy.

Reflection, he says (page 99): ‘. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.’ I will look more closely at exactly what this might mean in a moment. Before we move on from his take on the matter, what he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49): ‘The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.’

I am quoting this upfront so that, if you find what I’m going to say from a faith perspective hard to accept, this might help.

In earlier posts I have discussed how psychosis is a very rigid and inflexible state of mind. I believe it is simply at the end of a continuum along which we all are placed. We all to some degree at times overvalue our beliefs, our perceptions, our simulation of reality. This can bring about a degree of attachment to them that makes us inflexible and highly resistant to contradictory evidence or different perspectives. This does not create a huge problem if our take on reality is not also destructive or frightening or both.

Fixity in the face of often extremely unpleasant phenomena causes an unacceptable and virtually inescapable amount of distress to the sufferer and of anxiety in his friends and family. The distress is what brings the sufferer to the attention of the psychiatric services. Psychiatry then applies the label schizophrenia. This label, in my view, mixes up the content of the experiences with the person’s relationship to those experiences in what can be a most unhelpful way.

Just as it is important to separate our perceptions (voices, visions and other internally generated experiences in other sensory modalities) from our understanding (beliefs, models, assumptions, meaning systems etc), it is crucial also to separate out, from the nature of these experiences in themselves, this loss of perspective and flexibility which I am calling fixity.

I have examined elsewhere on this blog the various ways that this fixity can be dispelled. Here I plan to focus simply on reflection. This is not because they are irrelevant. One, which I term disowning, by which I meant discounting or suppressing uncomfortable contents of consciousness such as pain, grief or guilt, was something Ian described in in the process of our shared reflections: he saw himself as increasingly ‘recognising’ his feelings rather than ‘repressing’ them.

My focus though will be on how reflection enables us to contain unpleasant material in consciousness, giving us time to think about and explore it, prior to integrating it.

Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, in the Kitáb-i-Íqán (Book of Certitude) quoted a hadith from the Islamic tradition: ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to 70 years’ pious worship.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

His son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, explored this in a talk he gave at a Friends’ Meeting House in London in 1913. He spoke of reflection, meditation and contemplation as virtually equivalent concepts. He went on to explain their power (Paris Talks – pages 174-176):

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. . . .

Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . .

The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these. . . .

What he says for me maps onto Koestenbaum but in more directly spiritual terms. It explains why reflection, also connected with meditation and contemplation, is so powerful from a Bahá’í point of view.

The mirror analogy along with Bahá’u’lláh’s various references to the human heart as a mirror, led me to ask: what are the possible similarities between consciousness and a mirror?

Basically, a mirror is NOT what is reflected in it. In the same way, consciousness is not its contents. We are not what we think, feel, sense, plan, intend, remember, imagine and so on. This is also known as Disidentification in Psychosynthesis. In Jessica Davidson’s very brief summary, the affirmation exercise this form of therapy uses reads like this:

I have a body and sensations, but I am not my body and sensations. I have feelings and emotions, but I am not my feelings and emotions. I have a mind and thoughts, but I am not my mind and thoughts. I am I, a centre of Pure Awareness and Power.

Less controversially for most people I suspect, I would prefer to affirm that I have sensations, but these change from moment to moment so I cannot be my sensations. I am the capacity to sense. And so on with feelings, thoughts, plans, memories and imaginings, including our ideas about ourselves and what or who we are. Assagioli’s final affirmation was, as I remember, ‘I am a centre of pure consciousness and will.’

Reflection enables us to find meaning in what we are tempted to call ‘madness.’ It gives us the freedom to examine it even if only in our own minds. Psychosis is almost always meaningfully rooted in a client’s experience.

How might reflection help us find meaning?

Reflection helps counteract the fixity of attachment to the contents of consciousness that characterises what is called the ‘psychotic’ experience. The crucial stepping back relates not just to the experiences themselves, such as visions and voices, but to the explanations the sufferer has created for the experiences, which then cease to be delusional.

What Ian thought was just schizophrenia had meaning. Understanding and integrating that meaning released him from his voices. To understand his psychotic experiences he had to neither suppress them nor surrender to them: he had to contain them so he could examine them.

Recognising that they were simply the contents of his consciousness enabled him to step back, experience and think about them. They no longer had power over him.

I will sharing some of his thoughts on this in the final post.

Consultation

But there is one step further we can go.

When Ian loosened his identification with his experiences, he was able not just to think about them, he could also compare notes with others about what they might mean: he could consult in a Bahá’í sense of that undervalued word.

The Bahá’í International Community, which represents the Faith at the United Nations, quotes Bahá’u’lláh on consultation (The Prosperity of Humankind Section III): ‘In all things it is necessary to consult. The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.’

What might He mean by that. Paul Lample in his excellent book Revelation and Social Reality puts forward his view: (page 199):

Consultation is the method of Bahá’í discourse that allows decisions to be made from the bottom up and enacted, to the extent possible, through rational, dispassionate, and just means, while minimising personal machinations, argumentation, or self-interested manipulation.’

Key words and phrases here are: ‘from the bottom up’ which I take to mean not imposed in some condescending fashion by those who feel superior; ‘dispassionate’ meaning objective and detached (something I’ll come back to in more detail in the next and last post); and ‘minimising . . . manipulation,’ so no ulterior motives or advantage seeking creep in.

Later he adds further illumination (page 215):

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context.’

The key concept here is the ‘collective investigation of reality.’ This means that all parties involved in consultation are comparing notes, sharing perspectives, without undue attachment to their own point of view and not in an attempt to win an argument but with a sincere striving to understand reality better.

Just as the client needs to reflect, so does the ‘therapist.’ It is a two way street. And the therapist needs to model what she wants the client to learn: reflection. If she does not consultation is not possible. She must be as detached from her conclusions as she wants the client to be. If both client and therapist can reflect together as equals they are genuinely consulting. They can achieve a higher level of understanding, a better simulation of reality, together, than they ever could alone.

We are now ready to explore the impact of these processes on Ian and to examine some other important factors and considerations. More of that next time.

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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

. . . . . every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever…

(`Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, section 137, page 157)

I closed the last post on the following points.

Through processes of reflection, which I have explored at length on this blog, we as individuals can step back from our default patterns of belief, thought and behaviour, including our unreflecting susceptibility to persuasion, and change them radically for the better. But first of course we first have to realise that something is badly wrong and that we need to change.

Through processes of consultation resolutely applied, again something I have explored on this blog, we can as groups, communities, nations, continents and beyond, reflect upon and modify our default patterns of belief, thought and behaviour, and change them radically for the better. Collectively recognising that something is badly wrong and that we need to change is even more difficult for collectives than it is for individuals.

In terms of altering patterns of behaviour that impact adversely on the climate, this is clearly a serious issue.  To clarify exactly how this works I need to take a slight diversion.

Three deadly Ds

At both levels, the individual and the community, this is where three interrelated deadly Ds kick in: denial, discounting and dissociation. I see these as usefully encapsulated for present purposes in the term ‘disowning,’ borrowed from Spinelli’s book on existential therapy. (There is also a fourth possibility – dissonance reduction – which is more complex so I’ll park that for now. I’ve discussed this in part before in the context of slave owning where the founding fathers of America resolved the dissonance between the principles they espoused of equality and their ownership of slaves by persuading themselves that Afro-Americans were not quite fully human – a convenient and profitable hypocrisy. I’m not sure whether it operates in terms of climate change.)

As Ernesto Spinelli explains it in his book Demystifying Therapy (pages 291-92) we have what he terms ‘sedimented’ perceptions of ‘being,’ of what we are and of what the world is like. A simple way of expressing that is to say that they tend to become fossilised. When a ‘novel, potentially meaning-extending experience’ comes along it is ‘disowned’ so that ‘the sedimented perspective’ can be upheld. Experience is ‘rejected or denied.’ He links this in other places to ‘dissociation’ in the sense of a radical splitting off of experience from current awareness (page 160) as well as here to denial.

‘Discounting’ is a term I’ve borrowed from Transactional Analysis and it means ignoring information relevant to the solution of a problem.

All of these terms seem to apply at different times and in different ways both to our individual and collective ways of dealing with unpalatable truths such a climate change, and death with its related problem of whether there is an afterlife or not.

When we disown aspects of our experience, they do not necessarily cease to influence what we feel, think and do. The disowned aspect of experience generally retains a strong influence over us while evading our influence in return. We dance to a tune we have made ourselves powerless to alter. The ‘return of the repressed,’ Freud called it.

We may sometimes disown experiences that would otherwise engulf us. We can disown conclusions experiences are forcing us to make when these conclusions conflict with deeply cherished beliefs we already hold. Disowned experiences, such as strong feelings of distrust implanted from childhood and of whose roots we remain blind, can be the breeding ground of other problems such as the defensive way we relate to others. Buried guilt for past actions, for instance, can bleed into a negative self-image that corrodes all our efforts to succeed in life.

By definition disowning is anything but obvious to the person who is doing the disowning.

Emma had rows with her husband and he beat her at times. She claimed to feel nothing as a result. She had provoked it, she felt. She was therefore responsible. There was nothing to feel. Shopping in town after one of these rows, she became convinced that a group of people in the shopping precinct were laughing at her and were part of a conspiracy against her. With her judgement already affected by tormenting voices, she was barely able to contain her feelings of anger and leave the vicinity before she physically attacked them. She was extremely distressed by the experience in town, in stark contrast to her indifference to the beating she had received at the hands of her husband. What she had disowned about her husband in her home appeared to be leaking destructively in a distorted shape onto the people in town.

What we have disowned is inaccessible to reflection: to that extent how much we can reflect depends upon the degree of our relatedness to our total experience. Without the capacity to own and reflect we frequently remain the helpless victim of our own inner life.

Reflection

Reflection is the capacity to separate consciousness from its contents (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. We become capable of changing our relationship with them and altering their meanings for us. We may have been trapped in a mindset. Through using and acquiring the power of reflection, we do not then replace one “fixation” with another: we are provisional and somewhat tentative in our new commitments which remain fluid in their turn. Just as a mirror is not what it reflects we are not what we think, feel and plan but the capacity to do all those things. Knowing this and being able to act on it frees us up: we are no longer prisoners of our assumptions, models and maps.

The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict and opens us up to new experiences: the adaptation and change that this makes possible enhances the potential usefulness of our models and their connected experiences. It enables us to contain in consciousness for further inspection what we were before too scared or repelled to hold in mind or too carried away to resist acting out.

Once this flexibility is created, then conversation, the next step up the social ladder, becomes possible.

Increasing our Leverage

Once conversation is possible two powerful tools, implied in all that has been said above, become available.

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

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

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

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

By combining reflection, which makes us detached enough from our own views to think carefully about the perspectives of others, and consultation, which enables us to lift our models of reality to a higher level of accuracy and create better solutions to the problems we find, we avoid the mutually reinforcing traps of tunnel vision and groupthink.

Even if we come to accept that most of us are trapped in our simulations, created by early experience and powerful influences in the present, reflecting as an individual and consulting as a community are harder to do than we would like to think and need courage and perseverance in equal measure, courage to risk this shift in processing in the first place and perseverance if we are to learn how to master the skills in each case.

I’ll be exploring that more deeply next time.

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3rd 'I'

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

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, pages 168-9)

When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing the week before last, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This second sequence is about the need to draw on deeper powers than instinct or intellect: this is the second part of the fifth post.

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

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

Combining Reflection with Consultation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bhubaneswar-header

For source of image see link

Mutually Reinforcing Processes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WI_SustainableDev2013

For source of image see link

Detachment as the Key Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(From Section IIThe Prosperity of Humankind)

Increasing our Leverage

Where does all this leave us?

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

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

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

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

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

Where does all this leave Jack?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Skyblind v4

In 1995 I apparently gave a long talk to some meeting or other, after which the content of my talk was published by the BPS Psychotherapy Section. I have no memory whatsoever of giving any talk but I do remember writing the article. It seems worth publishing on this blog, with some updates in terms of the experience with Ian, a much shorter version of the original article as it complements with useful background the Approach to Psychosis sequence I republished some time back: I’ve also tried to reduce the psychobabble, though maybe not enough for everyone’s taste!  I’ve in addition included references to later research that sheds further light on, for example, neuroplasticity, emotion focused therapy, and the relationship between trauma and psychotic experiences. This is the last of five instalments.

We began this sequence of posts with a bit of theory. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t end it the same way.

Thinking thro CulturesRelativism

So, now for a discussion of the relevance to this work of relativism.

I see some value in Shweder’s description of relativism, in his mind-opening book Thinking Through Cultures and operate from within that frame of reference when I am engaged in collaborative conversation: `Relativists are committed to the view that alien idea systems, though fundamentally different from our own, display an internal coherency that can be understood but cannot be judged (page 114).’

As a result, I seek to know as much as I can about the context of another person’s thinking in order to make it intelligible, and I have generally found that sufficient information leads to coherence: other people remain unintelligible usually because I know too little about their frames of reference. As a result I too contend that individuals `can look at the “same” world and yet arrive at different understandings” (page 120). As a result I seek to `provide [a]. . charitable rendition of the ideas of others, placing those ideas in a framework that makes it easier to credit [them], not with confusion, error, or ignorance, but rather with an alternative vision of the possibilities of . . . life’ (page 121). I find this approach hard to live up to but can see no better one to use for these purposes.

Shweder provides further useful hints: `. . . since speakers always mean and convey more than they say, meaning is revealed by making explicit the relationship between the said and the unsaid’ (page 186).

He goes on (page 197):

In drawing inferences from what was said to what was unsaid, participants need to be informed, and in fact become informed, about things that were never mentioned,’

and (page 198):

. . . to construct the meaning of discourse in a communicative array, as either a participant or an observer, involves referring the explicit content of speech (what was said) to two indexed levels, the context and all the relevant prior background knowledge needed to make sense of what was said’ .

What is said (page 218) is not `isomorphic’ with `what is meant.’

I find I have to work very hard at eliciting all the necessary background information that would make an initially incomprehensible statement intelligible. Many people I work with leave me to fill in far more about their background and assumptions than I can possibly do. Perhaps they fear to say too much or perhaps they assume too much: perhaps both. The account of the work I did with Ian illustrates the truth of this I think: with hindsight I can see ways in which we might have done a better job of helping him transcend his problems: but then hindsight is always 20:20.

Trauma and Psychosis

All too often I am unable to fill in the missing pieces at all. Whenever I have managed to do so I have been struck by the link between earlier mental pain and the experience of voices. Sometimes when the person has not themself been able to provide the link the family has done so. I did not yet know what to make of those people whose lives and selves have been laid waste by demons and who yet fail to provide through their own story or the stories of their families any apparently traumatising situations.

At the time I was doing the work I have described in this sequence I had only the evidence of one article in the Schizophrenia Bulletin to suggest that trauma and psychosis were in anyway strongly linked (see Benjamin, No 1  in the reference list below). A lot more work on this has been done since.

For example an article in Schizophrenia Bulletin of 29 March 2012 (Reference 2)  Varese et al write, after examining 36 studies:

This review finds that childhood adversity and trauma substantially increases the risk of psychosis . . . . Furthermore, our findings suggest that if the adversities we examined as risk factors were entirely removed from the population (with the assumption that the pattern of the other risk factors remained unchanged), and assuming causality, the number of people with psychosis would be reduced by 33%. The association between child-hood adversity and psychosis held for the occurrence of psychotic symptoms in the general population, as well as for the development of psychotic disorder in prospective studies; the association remained significant when studies were included that corrected for possible demographic and clinical confounders. The analyses focusing on the effect of specific traumas revealed that, with the exception of parental death (although this association became significant after the exclusion of a potential outlier), all types of adversity were related to an increased risk of psychosis, indicating that exposure to adverse experiences in general increases psychosis risk, regardless of the exact nature of the exposure. This meta-analysis found no evidence that any specific type of trauma is a stronger predictor of psychosis than any other.

Mind & BrainBrain-Mind-Meaning Relationships

Even though it is something I have dealt with earlier on this blog, I cannot resist another foray into the heartland of reductionists, but for a slightly different reason from my usual one: the mind-brain relationship. Dennett, in his materialist thesis Consciousness Explained, proposes an interesting model which excludes the `soul’ (which Shweder, much to my satisfaction, includes – page 256). None the less, within his argument he summarises a position with which I find myself in almost complete agreement (page 218-219): he asks how do behaviour programmes `of millions of neural connection-strengths get installed on the brain’s computer?’

Brains, he claims, require a form of `training’, which includes the `repetitive self-stimulation’ of inner speech. The `successful installation’ of these programmes `is determined by myriad microsettings in the plasticity of the brain, which means that its functionally important features are very likely to be invisible to neuroanatomical scrutiny in spite of the extreme salience of its effects.’ He adds (page 221): `We install an organised partially pretested set of habits of mind . . . in our brains in the course of early childhood development.’

I feel that, though difficult, the modification of these `habits of mind’ can be accomplished by adults with consequent changes to the `microsettings’. One means for accomplishing such changes is collaborative conversation.

Another term that has been used is interthinking (see Mercer). Mercer feels this process can achieve remarkable results. He talks of the crucial function of language and says:

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

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

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

My sense is that collaborative conversation, and the interthinking it promotes, can change the wiring of the brain.

There is clear evidence that individuals can do this, working with a therapist.

For example, in The Mind & the Brain, Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley draw on Schwartz’s work with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who had agreed to combine the therapy with regular brain scans. This work showed (page 90) that “self-directed therapy had dramatically and significantly altered brain function.”

His model involves four stages for learning to manage obsessions and compulsions (pages 79-91). He speaks of ‘the importance of identifying as clearly and quickly as possible the onset of an OCD symptom.’ At that point it is important to ‘Relabel’ it: this means recognising that the symptom is not you but your OCD.

The next step is ‘Reattribution.’ This goes slightly further than Relabelling: ‘the patient then attributes [the symptom] to aberrant messages generated by a brain disease and thus fortifies the awareness that it is not his true “self.”’ Furthermore:

Accentuating Relabelling by Reattributing the condition to a rogue neurological circuit deepens patients’ cognitive insight into the true nature of their symptoms, which in turn strengthens their belief that the thoughts and urges of OCD are separate from their will and their self.

Mindfulness booksThis amplifies mindfulness which ‘puts mental space between the will and the unwanted urges that would otherwise overpower the will.’

This gives patients the chance to Refocus their attention onto ‘pleasant, familiar “good habit” kinds of behaviour.’ Keeping a diary of such activities and their successful use was also found helpful as it ‘increases a patient’s repertoire of Refocus behaviours’ and ‘also boosts confidence by highlighting achievements.’

There is one more extremely important step if this approach is to succeed more often than it fails: Revaluing. ‘Revaluing,’ he explains, ‘is a deep form of Relabelling. . . . . In the case of OCD, wise attention means quickly recognising the disturbing thoughts as senseless, as false, as errant brain signals not even worth the grey matter they rode in on, let alone worth acting on.’ One patient of his described them as ‘toxic waste from my brain.’

There is one last consideration to bear in mind. Pattern breaking in this way requires determination and persistence. As Schwartz puts it (my emphasis), ‘Done regularly, Refocusing strengthens a new automatic circuit and weakens the old, pathological one – training the brain, in effect, to replace old bad habits . . . . with healthy new ones. . . . . Just as the more one performs a compulsive behaviour, the more the urge to do it intensifies, so if a patient resists the urge and substitutes an adaptive behaviour, the [brain] changes in beneficial ways.’ He feels we are ‘literally reprogramming [our] brain.’

He concludes (page 94):

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

In case we miss the full implications of this work the authors spell them out (page 95):

The clinical and physiological results achieved with OCD support the notion that the conscious and willful mind cannot be explained solely and completely by matter, by the material substance of the brain. In other words, the arrow of causation relating brain and mind must be bidirectional. . . . And as we will see, modern quantum physics provides an empirically validated formalism. that can account for the effects of mental processes on brain function.

While OCD is not the same as the hallucinatory experiences that can, in the presence of other difficulties, lead to the label psychosis, the evidence that willed effort can change the brain surely must apply here as well. As collaborative conversation leads to deliberate and conscious behaviour change, I am sure that it will also alter the way the brain is wired.

Its efficacy depends upon the presence of various motivating or facilitating factors. It is not possible to generate an exhaustive list of these, but trust was mentioned by Ian as a key component, and, in my view, in the light of dissonance theory, the person’s involvement in collaborative conversation has to be seen by them as something they are choosing to do, not something that is forced upon them.

Some limiting factors are apparent from the backgrounds of the two examples of collaborative conversation I shared with you. For example, both people depended for their survival in the community upon a large network of professionals. Sadly, as professionals we were often pulling in different directions at the same time, were absent when we should have been present, or present when we might better have been absent, and often with well-intentioned insensitivity we encumbered our clients with our idea of help.

amygdalaFocusing on Emotion

Later work on Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT – Reference 3)) suggests ways in which that approach would have been very relevant to the difficulties experienced by the people I was working with, and would have further potentiated the efficacy of what we were doing together. Les Greenberg writes:

. . . . . the challenge of any effective psychotherapy, be it of trauma, anxiety or depression is to transform amygdala reactions so that innocuous reminders of past experience are not seen as a return of past loss, failure or trauma.

I’ve dealt with the role of the amygdala at great length elsewhere on this blog (see links for more information), so I won’t unpack it further here, except to say its main function is as an intensely powerful danger warning system.

He goes on:

Evolution however has blessed humanity with more negative basic emotions than positive ones, in order to aid survival. An important conclusion to be drawn from an evolutionary point of view is that negative emotions are often useful. Anxiety, anger, sorrows and regret are useful or they would not exist. Unpleasant feelings draw people’s attention to matters important to their well-being. However when unpleasant emotions endure even when the circumstances that evoked them have changed, or are so intense that they overwhelm, or evoke past loss or trauma they can become dysfunctional.

In Greenberg’s view insight is not enough:

Although re-appraisal or insight provides people with a new way of thinking or deeper understanding of the reasons they feel the way they do, cognitive change of this nature is unlikely to reconfigure the alarm systems of the brain, or the emotion schematic networks that have been organized from them.

He argues for a deeper process of emotional re-education:

Emotion coaching is aimed at enhancing emotion- focused coping by helping people become aware of, accept and make sense of their emotional experience. Coaching is defined in general as involving a mutually accountable relationship in which both client (trainee) and therapist (coach) collaborate actively in the creation of an educational experience for the client who is an active participant in the process. Emotion coaching entails a highly collaborative relationship involving both acceptance and change . . . . . The goals of emotion coaching are acceptance, utilization and transformation of emotional experience. This involves awareness and deepening of experience, processing of emotion as well as the generation of alternative emotional responses. In emotion coaching a safe, empathic and validating relationship is offered throughout to promote acceptance of emotional experience. An accepting, empathic relational environment provides safety leading to greater openness and provides people with the new interpersonal experience of emotional soothing and support that over time becomes internalized . . . . . In this type of relational environment people sort out their feelings, develop self-empathy and gain access to alternate resilient responses based on their internal resources. Emotion coaching is a collaborative effort to help clients use their emotions intelligently to solve problems in living by accepting emotion rather than avoiding it, utilizing both the information and response tendency information provided by it, and transforming it when it is maladaptive.

Looking back I can see how we were attempting to achieve this but were not fully aware that we were doing so. Also I was unaware of the existence of this model at the time. It was not registering on the therapeutic radar.

This is perhaps why Ian on reflection, as I mention in a previous post, did not feel the gain was worth the pain. That left me feeling uneasy, in the aftermath, about the use of the approach and alerted me to the need to forewarn people of the difficulties they might encounter, so that consent to continue would be better informed than in Ian’s case.

On balance, though, I strongly suspect that even in those early days the approach did bring significant benefits. Hopefully you would agree.

References:

1. Benjamin, Lorna (1989) Is chronicity a function of the relationship between the person and the auditory hallucination? Schizophrenia Bulletin. She observed that a high proportion of people in her study had experienced a trauma of some kind prior to the appearance of their voices.

2. Filippo Varese et al (2012) Childhood Adversities Increase the Risk of Psychosis: A Meta-analysis of Patient-Control, Prospective- and Cross-sectional Cohort Studies,  Schizophrenia Bulletin.

3. Les Greenberg (2004) Emotion–focused Therapy, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.

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3rd 'I'

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

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, pages 168-9)

The sequence of posts reviewing Karen Wilson’s book on the power of meditation seemed to make this a good time to republish some related posts of my own from the recent past. I’ve spreading them over a couple of weeks as flooding the screen with them one after another might have been just too over-whelming. The first post started with a concrete example of a typical dilemma to ease us in: the next post looked at Kahneman’s model in some detail. Two posts sought to plug what I regard as the serious gaps in his system by looking at dreamwork. Now we’ve been looking at increasingly spiritual aspects, and are almost at the end of our journey.

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

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

Combining Reflection with Consultation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bhubaneswar-header

For source of image see link

Mutually Reinforcing Processes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WI_SustainableDev2013

For source of image see link

Detachment as the Key Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(From Section IIThe Prosperity of Humankind)

Increasing our Leverage

Where does all this leave us?

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

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

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

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

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

Where does all this leave Jack?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

3rd 'I'

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

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, pages 168-9)

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

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

Combining Reflection with Consultation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bhubaneswar-header

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Mutually Reinforcing Processes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Detachment as the Key Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(From Section IIThe Prosperity of Humankind)

Increasing our Leverage

Where does all this leave us?

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

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

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

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

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

Where does all this leave Jack?

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

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

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

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

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

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

My next sequence of posts will explore this neglected aspect of the picture, and will include attempts to tease out how Charles Tart‘s three brain model derived from Gurdjieff, Kahneman’s two brain model and the idea in the Bahá’í Writings of an ‘understanding heart‘ might shed light on one another.

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