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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Koestenbaum’

Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

(Bahá’u’lláhThe Seven Valleys‘: pages 21-22 which ends with a hadith or tradition about a saying of Muhammad.)

Revisiting ‘The Marriage of Self and Soul‘ triggered me into thinking there would be some value in republishing this sequence from 2009. The first three posts appeared consecutively: the last two will come out next Tuesday and Wednesday.

Is the soul a smoke and mirrors job?

There is, in some scientistic quarters where materialism is dogmatic rather than enquiring, a prevailing distrust of any statements of a mystical nature. This scepticism routinely crosses over into suspicions of insanity even when the source of the mystical statement would, on closer investigation, be found to demonstrate a strong, balanced and exemplary character without any other sign of delusion. In fact, in the real world as against in the fantasies of reductionists, mystics are almost invariably very practical people, something that gives their mystical pronouncements added credibility in my view.

Ever since the so-called Enlightenment, our culture has been increasingly losing the ability to discriminate between madness  (seen as meaningless because hallucinatory and delusional, though for reasons I argue elsewhere not necessarily meaningless even so) and mysticism, which is not hallucinatory or delusional in any acceptable sense of those words. I would earnestly request anyone harbouring such a sceptical tendency as I describe, to suspend their habit of disbelief for a few moments for reasons that will become clear as this exploration advances.

Before you read beyond them I would like you ponder on which of the following passages was written by a philosopher and which by a religious person.

Meditation, the first man says:

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

The second man states of meditation that it:

. . . frees man from [his] animal nature [and] discerns the reality of things.

Even though I tried to equalise the style you probably got it right. The first statement comes from Peter Koestenbaum (The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy page 99) and the second from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Paris Talks: page 175).

I think you will agree though that they are more complementary than in conflict.

What each goes on to say is even more intriguing. Koestenbaum ends by saying:

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . .  the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words are:

[Meditation] puts man in touch with God.

A Plan in The Mind's Mirror

A Plan in The Mind’s Mirror

The terms meditation, reflection and contemplation are used almost synonymously in many passages. In discussing what he terms reflection within the existentialist tradition, Koestenbaum speaks of it as ‘separating consciousness from its contents.’  It can be also termed disidentification when it involves separating our consciousness from our ideas of ourselves and leads into the deepest levels of our being.

So, it is not just mystics that find our ability to reflect remarkable. Existentialism, which is not known for a fairytale take on experience, gives it tremendous weight as does the Bahá’í approach. This is not a trivial issue. Both schools of thought, and many therapeutic approaches, see reflection in this strong sense as a key pathway to personal transformation, self-transcendence and the enhancement of society.

The Importance of Experience

We will postpone for a moment whether this entails an acceptance of other things such as the reality of the soul. What it does mean is that this capacity we have is subject to the test of experience by all of us. And when we try it out we may find it leads us in unexpected directions that call into question some of our most cherished assumptions. It will inevitably do so because it separates us at least for a moment from those assumptions, cuts across our identification with them, and enables us to look at them afresh. This is why we need to be prepared to suspend our disbelief long enough to put these ideas to an empirical test.

Our culture embraces its own narrow idea of empiricism. By this it generally means only controlled experimentation and excludes

A Feeling in The Mind's Mirror

A Feeling in The Mind’s Mirror

personal exploration through experience. There are many things in this world that we can only discover by doing not by reading, talking or thinking about them. Nor can we understand them by a method of scientific exploration that turns people into objects rather than subjects. In ‘objective’ mode, we become like a colour-blind neuropsychologist who knows everything about the way the brain processes colour but can never know what colour is like when we see it (I have adapted this comparison from David J. Chalmers: page 103).

Experiencing our ‘self’, in the fullest and deepest sense of that chameleon word, in order to discover who we really are, is one of those things.

So, I have a challenge for us all. I am suggesting that between now and the next post we all try the following experiment. We need to find a quiet space to do the following exercise at least once a day: it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. It is based on ideas from Psychosynthesis, psychology, Existentialism and the Bahá’í tradition. It is worth persisting with even if it feels somewhat artificial at first. Not to even try is pre-empting the possibility of an experience that could expand our minds. It works best if we approach it with open-minded curiosity as a personal experiment, not as a holy grail or a superstitious ritual.

Separating the Mirror from its Reflections

Sit comfortably and at first simply read the following suggestions several times. When you feel ready, close your eyes, breath slowly and gently, and in your mind repeat the suggestions to yourself at least three times. Put your own ideas into the round brackets if you wish.

I have thoughts but I am not my thoughts. My thoughts change from moment to moment. Just now I was thinking of (money): right now I am thinking of (these words): soon my mind will be preoccupied with (my next meal). So I cannot be my thoughts. I am my capacity to think, the well spring of all my thoughts.

I have feelings, but I am not my feelings. My feelings change from moment to moment. One minute I’m feeling (angry), perhaps; the next moment I’m feeling (sad). So, I cannot be my feelings. I am my capacity to feel from which all other feelings grow.

I have plans, but I am not my plans. My plans change from moment to moment. One minute I plan to be (rich), perhaps; the next moment I plan to be a (poet). So, I cannot be my plans. I am my capacity to will from which all my plans grow.

I am a mirror of pure capacities. I am a mirror created to reflect the highest possible reality. I will do all in my power to cleanse this mirror and turn it towards the highest imaginable realities.

(This exercise is an adaptation of the Disidentification Exercise originally described in `Psychosynthesis’ by Roberto Assagioli: see earlier link.)

Next time we will take a long look at the implications of this. We will look at what the distinction between a mirror and what it reflects suggests about us. In the meantime, happy mirroring!

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At the end of the previous post we left this question hanging in the air: how do we remove the obstacles that block our way down this fruitful and creative path called consultation? Can we only consult if we are completely detached? If not, which seems likely, shouldn’t we bother because it’s all too difficult? Is this becoming one of those counsels of despair, which can seem so characteristic of the spiritual life?

Perhaps, though, as we will now begin to explore, detachment is more of a process than an end-state at least in this life and it’s therefore always possible to inch a bit closer. As the saying goes, ‘strive for perfection and be content with progress.’

Blocks

Peter Koestenbaum in his book ‘New Image of the Person: the Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy’ states that:[1]

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

By reflection, amongst other things, he means unhooking ourselves from our ideas.

An example he gives from the clinical context illustrates what he means:

. . . to resist in psychotherapy means to deny the possibility of dissociating consciousness from its object at one particular point . . . To overcome the resistance means success in expanding the field of consciousness and therewith to accrue increased flexibility . . .

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? In therapy it is the feeling of trust and safety we develop towards the therapist that helps us begin to let go of maladaptive world views, self-concepts and opinions. If not in therapy, what else might make us feel safe enough to let go?

Amongst the prerequisites listed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for those who take counsel together is ‘detachment from all save God.’[2] In the Tablets written after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas Bahá’u’lláh explains what it takes to be detached:[3]

The essence of detachment is for man to turn his face towards the courts of the Lord, to enter His Presence, behold His Countenance, and stand witness before Him.

It’s fairly clear that such an awareness will entail a great deal of work on practising the presence of God. If we can maintain such a sense of His 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 opinions.  It feels like a lifetime’s work to get to this point though.

Those who find it hard to believe in a God of any kind might be tempted to conclude that this means that consultation is not for them, and those who do believe in God may believe the bar is set too high.

I am not at all sure that any of that is true.

Not only do I resonate to the words of McGilchrist when he writes:[4] ‘no argument for, or against, the existence of God can possibly succeed.… whatever we choose to call it, there is almost certainly more here then we have words for, or can expect ever to understand using reason alone.’

In addition, my own experience of trying to master the art of reflection, in this sense of dissociating consciousness from its contents and becoming increasingly grounded in deeper levels of our being than our Western culture usually teaches us how to access, convinces me that we can all learn to be less anxiously concerned to prove that we are right. Instead, we can feel secure enough in the emptiness of letting go of our self-image and the prejudices that go with it, to truly listen to the very different perspectives that surround us, share our own sense of reality with humility and thereby find a way for all of us to enhance our understanding, lifting it to a more creative level.

Breaking Free from the Blocks

Koestenbaum catches the reality of this when he writes:[5] ‘The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’ Reflection, he says:[6] ‘. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.’ This links back to an unexpected core idea he had already presented:[7] ‘The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.’

We are therefore not so far away from the words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha when He states,[8] ‘It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá continues:[9] ‘This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.’

It must say something important when such divergent traditions of thought converge on this one point. Why would we then deny that deep inside us is a source of wisdom it is well worth tapping?

So, by reflection He seems to mean something closely related to meditation.

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.

Maybe now would be a good time to focus on how the two processes of meditation and consultation might work together. They may be mutually reinforcing: they may even effectively be the same thing!

Do Consultation and Meditation Reinforce Each Other?

The wine of renunciation must needs be quaffed, the lofty heights of detachment must needs be attained, and the meditation referred to in the words “One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship must needs be observed, . . .’

(Bahá’u’lláh: The Kitáb-i-Íqán, page 238)

At first sight an equivalence between meditation and consultation, of the kind I am speculating about, seems unlikely. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Paris Talks:[10]

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things it one time – he cannot both speak and meditate.

Consultation, at least in Western Europe and the United States, is not conspicuous for its silences. Have we drawn a blank?

As we have just seen, according to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.’

Perhaps not a blank then. We are, in a sense, consulting, though with our higher Selves rather than with other people. Such inner speech seems to require an absence of outer speech, but it may nonetheless be a form of consultation. We are suspending our usual assumptions and opening ourselves up to other possibilities. He goes onto say:

The spirit of man is itself informed and strengthened during meditation; through it affairs of which man knew nothing are unfolded before his view. Through it he receives Divine inspiration, through it he receives heavenly food.

When we suspend our assumptions in this way, 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.

As we have already seen, consultation requires detachment, which is something that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá seems to be referring to when He says that meditation ‘frees man from the animal nature’ and ‘puts man in touch with God.’

One possible way of conceptualising detachment, or at least a result of it, is freedom from our animal nature as described here.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:[11]

Regarding the statement in The Hidden Words, that man must renounce his own self, the meaning is that he must renounce his inordinate desires, his selfish purposes and the promptings of his human self, and seek out the holy breathings of the spirit . . . . ..

Meditation, then, might help us achieve the detachment necessary for consultation. Consultation will almost certainly strengthen our ability to be detached because it requires learning how to exchange ideas without over-identifying with them, and thereby facilitate our meditation. They are clearly not unrelated disciplines sharing as they do this same outcome.

Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality[12] points in the same direction when he writes, ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

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 two skills are really not all that different either: they both 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 though not necessarily along with accepting a concept of God, as I explained earlier, 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 within families, towns and nations, as well as across the world as whole.

Consultation has links with justice, too complex to go into now, which add further strength to this position:[13]

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.

Paul Lample, explains further:[14]

[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. Consultation is therefore, the practical, dialogical means of continually adjusting relationships that govern power, and, thus, to strive for justice and unity.

I think that’s more than enough, hopefully, to convey what I’m getting at hear, though it probably won’t be the last time I come back to this topic. It keeps popping its head up.

References

[1]. The New Image of the Person – page 69.
[2]. Bahá’í Administration – page 21.
[3]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 155.
[4]. The Matter with Things – page 1195.
[5]. The New Image of the Person – page 73.
[6]. Op. cit. – page 99.
[7]. Op. cit. – page 49.
[8]. Paris Talks – page 174.
[9]. Op. cit. – page 175.
[10]. Paris Talks – page 174.
[11]. Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 207.
[12]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 212.
[13]. The Prosperity of Humankind – from Section II.
[14]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 215.

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One hour’s reflection is worth seventy years’ pious worship.Mirror 1

Bahá’u’lláh: quoting a hadith in the Kitáb-i-Íqán

Given the recent new posts taking another look at psychosis, it seemed worthwhile republishing this sequence from several years ago.

Three Crucial Factors

There are at least three other crucial factors in the mind-work process over and above what we have dealt with in the previous posts: Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity. They are qualities that the mind-worker must have from the start. The names for these qualities are used in an existential model of mind-work. (Reflection is also a core quality of the Bahá’í spiritual process and has been discussed at length in other posts on this site, as has consultation which can be fairly described as a process of group reflection.)

Reflection, relativity and relatedness as discussed here are the antidotes to three forces of fixity – drowning, dogmatism and disowning — which I discussed in detail in the article on The Art of Reflection (there I discussed in depth collaborative conversation, a term I borrowed at the time from Anderson and Swim) in This is Madness. The forces of fixity are common when we function in survival mode. Psychotic experiences in people who need help from Mental Health Services are very threatening. Being in survival mode is therefore very much the norm for many of them. Creating a situation that feels safe is of paramount importance. Otherwise it can be very difficult to mobilise the forces of flexibility.

Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity are the core of the mind-work process. They will need some further explanation. They are what the mind-worker models and what the client can either develop further or discover how to use. If the mind-worker lacks them the process of mind-work is likely to remain locked in unproductive disputes that tend to drive the client further into his private world. The client may or may not demonstrate them at the beginning but should increasingly do so as the mind-work progresses.  The better the mind-worker models them the more likely it is that the client will begin to use them too. These qualities are what consolidate and generalise the process of change. They ensure that the process of mind-work becomes a permanently transformative one. If the client does not develop these abilities there is likely to be no real sustainable progress.

These three capacities combine with the relationship aspects in different ways – trust, containment and authenticity – each of which contributes something special and important to the therapeutic process. They may have an order of importance which is discussed later in that without Trust it may be impossible to develop Containment and without Trust and Containment Authenticity may be impossible. Eventually the client will certainly need to acquire and evince Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity, without which he will never make his own any clarity that comes from the mind-worker.

What, in the Relationship, Makes Change Possible?

The Plane of Authenticity

Clarification and Congruence (see earlier posts) are two sides of a square mind-space, so to speak, which is completed by Reflection and Relativity, two concepts which are also related. The combination constitutes what we might call Authenticity.

Let’s take reflection first. 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 principal focus of reflection in mind-work is often upon our models of reality and upon the experiences which give rise to them and to which they give rise in return. This is especially true of “psychosis.” 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 is the antithesis of drowning where we are engulfed in our experiences and sink beneath them.

The ability to reflect, one part of our repertoire of tools for transformation, enables us to achieve our own clarification without depending upon another mind-worker. If a mind-worker does all the reflecting she is just giving people fish: if she can help someone discover how to reflect, she has taught him to fish. In combination with its sister quality, relativity, it becomes a powerful tool indeed. The antidote to chronic dogmatism, another of the forces of fixity, is relativity. Being dogmatic seals us off from new evidence which makes it hard to change our minds even when we are wrong.

It is not surprising that Reflection and Relativity are interconnected. By placing our models and assumptions mentally in brackets or inverted commas, which is a necessary first step towards reflecting upon them, we inevitably acknowledge, at least implicitly, that we have no monopoly on the truth, that we understand and experience the world at best imperfectly from a particular viewpoint or perspective which is only relatively true. This is not the same as saying there is no truth out there and any viewpoint is as good as any other. We refine the usefulness and accuracy of our simulations of reality partly at least through a process of comparing notes with others in consultation or, as I call it here, collaborative conversation.

We can, and as mind-workers we must, become almost as sceptical of our own position as we tend to be of other people’s.  Any other posture is unhelpfully dogmatic in this context. The extent to which I should then explicitly endorse the client’s position is still an issue of debate. Peter Chadwick, for instance, in his book Schizophrenia: a positive perspective, contends that it would not have been at all helpful to him to have staff endorse his beliefs in supernatural influences at the time he was experiencing extreme psychotic phenomena, even though he still holds those beliefs to be valid now that he is well: had they been endorsed by staff at the time he might have killed himself.

Authenticity matters because without it the clarity necessary for effective action and coping is unlikely to become possible. Client and mind-worker could well remain in a warm and sympathetic muddle that leads nowhere. As we will see in a moment though, without the warmth of an accepting relationship, authenticity and its resulting clarity can seem far too dangerous to risk.

Without a clear sense of uncertainty about absolute truth radical authenticity of the kind required here may prove impossible. An example from my own work serves to illustrate this well. A client was convinced the devil had a purpose for him. He was very concerned about whether I believed in the devil or not. He pressed me in almost every session for an answer. In the end, concerned to be congruent, I told him I did not. He broke off mindwork. I reflected on this afterwards. It became apparent to me that I had spoken from a position of dogmatic and unreflecting identification with my views about the devil. It would have been more authentic to acknowledge that, as a fellow human being struggling to make sense of the world, I couldn’t know for sure whether the devil existed or not. I could have shared with him, if he had pushed me further, that I had chosen to operate in my own life on the assumption that the devil did not exist. This would not, I think, have broken the relationship in a way that made further work I possible.

The Plane of Trust

Relativity shares a space with Relatedness. This term was chosen because it began with an ‘r’! Perhaps openness is a better word. Ernesto Spinelli (1st Edition: 1994) uses the expression “ownership.” Either way, along with Warmth, Encouragement (both discussed in earlier posts) and Relativity, it helps develop Trust, a crucial component that the client must eventually bring to the therapeutic process, and along with Empathy, Solidarity and Reflection it helps the client develop the ability to contain, rather than disown or act out, his inner experiences. The relation between Trust and Containment we will return to in a moment.

First of all we need to know what Relatedness is. Relatedness, in this context, is the capacity to consciously acknowledge and relate to what we are experiencing. It is the antidote to disowning, the last of the forces of fixity. It makes us sufficiently accessible to relationships with people and things to learn to accommodate to as well as assimilate experiences, to make appropriate adjustments to our selves or to our circumstances. If we disown parts of experience we become a prey to it, just as Ian was a prey to his repressed pain which turned into hostile or destructive voices. Anything we disown controls us while eluding our influence to change it in any way. What we are open to we can affect even though it may also affect us directly in its turn.

Trust comes first. We need to trust someone sufficiently to feel the strength flow into us from her Solidarity, to be able to know that she understands how we feel but will not therefore dump us or summon undermining and unwanted help, and to see how she feels confident enough to open up to what she feels about us and subject it to careful Reflection.  This is what gives us the opportunity to learn that we can contain our experiences and change our relationship with and understanding of them.

How do we develop Trust?

First of all, we need to feel the warmth of the mind-worker, her unwavering and unconditional valuing of us. Next, we need to sense her relativity, that she knows the incompleteness and inadequacy of her understanding and can suspend judgement and criticism indefinitely until it is really constructive to share (not impose) it. Then, we need to experience her encouragement, which unfailingly rewards our efforts to apply what we have discovered to our problems. Last but by no means least, we need to see her relatedness, her unthreatened openness to all experience, which allows us to become more aware of other dimensions of our own experience.  These things together make it possible for us to trust other people, our experience and ourselves. Without this making and sustaining change becomes almost impossible.

The Plane of Containment

This mind-space comprises empathy, solidarity (both discussed in an earlier post), relatedness and reflection. If someone is standing beside us in our struggles, giving us comfort, understanding what we are going through, and showing an open and reflective attitude to the revelations we share, it helps us to contain what might otherwise be too scary and/or disturbing to contemplate. What we cannot contain, we find it almost impossible to reflect on and process. Containment therefore plays a central role in the therapeutic process.

In our culture we are all too prone to either repression (convincing ourselves we’re not experiencing something when we are) or acting out (expressing whatever we are currently experiencing and ignoring the consequences until it is too late). Containment is the creative third way and a key to change.

An inability to contain experiences of a disturbing nature accounts for much substance abuse, self-harm and dependency on mind-altering subscription drugs. Containment is often not possible outside a set of supportive relationships of the kind I am attempting to describe.

Furthermore, if we cannot trust anyone, and perhaps least of all ourselves, we cannot contain what frightens us or threatens to overwhelm us. So perhaps without Trust there is no Containment. And without Trust and Containment, Authenticity will be impossible, I suspect. Any life-lie will seem a tempting port in the storm of life if distrust and disowning rule the mind.

In the next post I will attempt to pull this all together.

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There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

Robert Graves

I was going to attempt something tricky in the first two posts of this sequence. I planned to try and capture the strange impact of reading today a book that resonates strongly with a deeply influential book I read and took detailed notes from 40 years ago.

I’ve recently explained in the last sequence of posts partly why I revisited the notes from Koestenbaum’s The New Image of the Person in my diary of those days. This exploration should have given a sense of some important resonances as well as of Koestenbaum’s important role in my journey towards a renewed religious faith. So, given the difficulty of the present task, given that I’ve probably already said enough on that theme, and given that there is too much to say about McGilchrist in any case, I’ve decided to abandon that plan.

So, the main focus will be on The Matter with Things.

As a warning it is only fair for me to say that what I manage to convey in the next few posts is barely scratching the surface. (Incidentally, so far, at the time of writing these words, I have also only read the first volume’s 778 pages of main text plus appendices and taken a quick look at Chapter 28.) My purpose is mostly to whet your appetite so that you will be tempted to jump into the text for yourselves. What I’ll be trying to do as well, though, is to dig a bit deeper, in the later posts, into issues that are particularly close to my heart, such as the nature of so-called schizophrenia.

A Built in Bias

Carette and King, in their thought-provoking book Selling Spirituality make a claim that resonates strongly with me. In their view, neoliberal capitalism has morphed into what is effectively a religion:[1] they describe ‘corporate capitalism’ as ‘the economic theology of neoliberalism’, which is, for them, ‘the new religion of the Market’ and ‘[i]ts God is Capital and its ethics highly questionable.’

We find McGilchrist making the same charge against what is all too often presented as science, using for example a quotation from Taleb:[2]

there is among many of the public, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out, ‘a religious belief in the unconditional power of organised science, one that has replaced unconditional religious belief in organised religion.… we have managed to transfer religious belief into gullibility for whatever can masquerade as science.’

As we see, his argument is against scientism rather than genuine science, but he finds the former far too prevalent for comfort in our culture. He makes his point against misleading practitioners of science, using again a quote, this time from another source, comparing them to clergy who distort the original message of their faith’s founder:[3]

The celebrated neurologist and brain researcher Norman Geschwind saw a larger picture that disturbed him. ‘There is a widely held supposition that one’s scientific peers are honest, well informed, not swayed by prejudices, and open to imaginative adventures into the unknown.’ He calls this supposition ‘a utopian faith in scientific advance’, one that is contradicted by ‘many occurrences which demonstrate that although science has replaced religion in the minds of many educated people, the unquestioning belief in the virtues of scientists maybe as misinformed as the older faith that the clergy were always the true repository of spiritual values.’

I feel we need to be cautious here as an ill-informed scepticism about science could further undermine the credibility of the research into the climate emergency and the effectiveness of vaccines. But I do accept that his basic point is correct. As is the case throughout this carefully researched exposition, he draws on a wide range of experts to support his position.

What we seem to be dealing with here is a modern tendency for too many people to replace what seem to them discredited religions with even more suspect substitutes.

McGilchrist focused, in his earlier book The Master & his Emissary, on what he felt was the key contributor to this tendency to deify reductionisms of various kinds and discount anything else as too flakey to be worthy of consideration.

Basically, as I have explored elsewhere, the conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is on:[4]

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

This approach has been so successful that the temptation to make a religion out of it, especially when it brings such obvious material benefits, can be irresistible and when the heavy price is hidden from the purblind eye through which we end up looking upon the world and what we have ‘achieved.’

In The Matter with Things he digs more deeply into the nature and costs of this destructive, even toxic bias.

What Price Materialism?

Not surprisingly, a key point that resonates with me strongly concerns our materialistic culture’s tendency to reduce consciousness to a side effect of the brain’s complexity, or even, as he says, deny its existence altogether:[5] ‘there are philosophers who deny the very existence of consciousness.’ I’ve fulminated at length on this elsewhere on this blog so I will resist the temptation to rehearse it all at length again here.

The key points most relevant here are these.

As explained in Irreducible Mind, 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?[6]

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.

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. Edward Kelly argues for a different approach in his introduction, believing as the co-authors demonstrate in this massive tome that there is a wealth of evidence to undermine this a priori belief:[7]

First and perhaps foremost is an attitude of humility in relation to the present state of scientific knowledge. . . . Second, we emphasise that science consists at bottom of certain attitudes and procedures, rather than any fixed set of beliefs. The most basic attitude is that facts have primacy over theories and that belief should therefore always remain modifiable in response to the empirical data.

I almost winced when I read Emily Kelly’s pointed explanation of how psychology had traded in the mind to buy itself a place among the sciences:[8]

Scientists instrumental in the development of 19th-century psychology thus in general had chosen to conceptualise science primarily not as a method with which to confront basic questions posed by contradictory aspects of human experience, but as a doctrine to which psychology, if it is to be a science, must conform.

In the end, after immersing myself in Irreducible Mind, I came to feel that I had been robbed as my training in psychology had steered me away from the work of thinkers such as FWH Myers as though they had the some kind of plague.

What is worth mentioning now though is that my sense that this materialistic perspective is virtually unquestioned by the scientific community could be slightly flawed, due to the way the pressures of the system make dissent extremely costly. As McGilchrist points out:[9]

A recent article… made the point that research into consciousness is hampered by blind adherence to an unproven dogma that consciousness must arise only from material causes,

and beyond that:

I can tell you that many scientists say in private that they believe in purpose in nature – with no necessary implication of a designer God – but cannot say so in public for fear of losing their job. Purpose in nature is not the same as Intelligent Design, but Intelligent Design is of course anathema to mainstream science.

(While he clarifies here that he is not sold on the idea of a ‘designer God,’ much of the final chapter of his book is devoted to explaining his exact perspective on the nature of God, and it is certainly not reductive.)

To support his point he quotes a dramatic example of the dangers for a scientist of openly advocating such apparent heresies as ‘Intelligent Design’:[10]

Take the case of the distinguished palaeontologist Dr Günter Bechly. Until 2016 he was Curator for Amber and Fossil insects in the Department of palaeontology at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, a highly prestigious post. . . . He made the mistake, during the Darwin celebrations, of thinking that he really ought to read the pro-design books that he had put up to be dismissed. When he did, he found to his surprise that they had been misrepresented. They were much more sophisticated then he had been led to believe.… he was a foolish enough – or brave enough – to express open support for Intelligent Design: ‘I did not change my views in spite of being a scientist but because of it, based on a careful and critical evaluation of empirical data and rational arguments, following the evidence wherever it leads,’ Bechly says. He was immediately forced to leave his post . .

He adds ‘in a properly functioning scientific establishment, the expression of such views should at least be entertained, if not welcomed, and certainly not silenced,’ pointing out that ‘[t]he neo-Darwinists, it would seem, are less enthusiastic about doing [real] science.’

So, basically:[11]

As the left hemisphere mode of construing the world predominates however, things become unbalanced. Science is reconceived as a fundamentalist movement: prone to self-righteousness, closed to unfamiliar ideas, defensive, complacent, open to corruption and risking a lifeless failure of imagination.

and, as he mentioned somewhat earlier,[12] ‘[a] further questionable assumption is that there is nothing purposive about cosmos.’

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

His critique doesn’t stop there and is based on firm foundations.

There is too much reliance on the reductive metaphor of the machine (page 433): ‘We now live in a world in which everything, including the human brain, is considered to be understandable in the same way… that we understand a pop-up toaster,’ in spite of the shift in perspective in physics:[13]

As the biologists try to account for mind in purely material terms, physicists have increasingly been inclined to account for matter by appealing to mind.

(There’ll be more later on the positive power of metaphor.)

He goes on to argue that[14]  ‘avoiding teleology results in vacuity.’ There is a purpose to life in all its forms. However,[15] ‘[a] purpose here is not a plan. It is a tendency inseparable from — woven into, as it were, the fabric of — a life, which leaves all the detail, and even the final outcome, undetermined.’

Unlike in the past, the current approach is impoverished and ultimately misleading:[16]

It is salutary to remember that much great science of the past was done by people who were broad-ranging thinkers, often working alone, and often outside the walls of any academic institution.

. . . My worry is that even the descriptions of human behaviour which neurology, psychiatry and psychology depend are becoming further and further from any experience of human being, and as a result further and further from the purview of an intelligent non-specialist reader.

Our most prevalent model of the world, at least in the West, is seriously impaired. As Jonas Salk expressed it,[17] ’At one time we had wisdom, but little knowledge. Now we have a great deal of knowledge, but do we have enough wisdom to deal with that knowledge?’

Is there a way of bucking this unremitting trend? McGilchrist is convinced there is:[18]

.. . it is one of the messages of this book that imagination is not an impediment, but, on the contrary, a necessity for true knowledge of the world, for true understanding, and for that neglected goal of human life, wisdom.

Which leads me into my next areas of interest: art and intuition. More of that next time.

References:

[1]. Selling Spirituality – page 178.
[2]. The Matter with Things – page 418.
[3]. Op. cit. – page 535.
[4]. The Master & his Emissary – pages 228-229.
[5]. The Matter with Things – page 419.
[6]. Irreducible Mind – page xx.
[7]. Op. cit. – page xxii.
[8]. Op. cit. – page 59.
[9]. The Matter with Things – page 537.
[10]. Op. cit. – pages 538-39.
[11]. Op. cit. – page 542.
[12]. Op. cit. – page 421.
[13]. Op. cit. – page 447.
[14]. Op. cit. – page 477.
[15]. Op. cit. – page 478.
[16]. Op. cit. – page 506.
[17]. Op. cit. – page 50.
[18]. Op. cit. – page 549.

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As I explained in the first post, in Leaps of Faith, my original account of my decision to try and follow the Bahá’í path, there were at least three things I failed to do justice to:

  1. I gave an insufficiently balanced picture of the Catholic Faith – yes, it was fair to say that aspects of Catholicism played a part in feeding my scepticism which was rooted in my hospital experience (more of that in a moment), but members of that faith also later played a part in eroding that scepticism at a critical moment in my life’s trajectory: I’ll be focusing more on that in this post.
  2. my acknowledgement of the importance of Buddhism fell short of giving a full measure of my debt – that’s for the second post; and
  3. even my much stronger depiction of the role in my path towards belief of Peter Koestenbaum’s The New Image of the Person didn’t really do him justice especially now I have looked again at his anticipation of some key points in Iain McGilchrist’s model – more of that at last.

I explored my experience of Buddhism last time. Now it’s time to move onto Koestenbaum

In Leaps of Faith I wrote:

In the summer of 1982 a few months before my encounter with Robert Scrutton’s book, came my last prolonged exploration of an alternative to religion and spirituality. I read a brilliant book on existentialism by Peter Koestenbaum: The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. It had been published in 1978.

The Nature of Reflection

My main, in fact only focus there is on his account of reflection.

Koestenbaum explains:[1]

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation: given my experience with Buddhist meditation this was clearly going to gain my attention.

Reflection, he says:[2]

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing:[3]

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

I didn’t see at the time exactly where that would lead me, nor did I include in my Leaps of Faith account how much more PK says on this kind of issue.

Digging Deeper

It was on 3 September 1982 that I borrowed what I refer to as ‘a number of fascinating books from the Swiss Cottage library.’ The ‘most rewarding and exciting’ one was on the theory and practice of ‘clinical philosophy’ by Peter Koestenbaum. I’ve no idea what the others were.

On page 18 he outlined what seemed to me a crucial idea and one towards which I had been ineffectually groping for years: ‘by eliminating or putting out of action the assumptions implicit in the experience of being an isolated ego, the experience of surrender to the world emerges, and with it arises the sense of oneness with the universe.’

This is a good illustration of by how much I sold him short. Here he is talking about a sense of oneness. I’ve noticed it enough to make a note of it. Three months later I become a member of the Bahá’í community whose central tenet is the oneness of humanity with our connectedness to the whole of creation also emphasised. Wasn’t that likely to have primed me in some way?

Then, when I am asked, admittedly many years later, to write an account of my journey towards the Bahá’í Faith I have managed to forget such an important insight. Well, I guess my recently republished sequence on memory gives a fairly clear account of why that might have happened.

Admittedly some of the gains from his writing relate more to my past experience of Buddhism than my future encounter with the Bahá’í revelation. In early September I am recording that he writes: ‘the process of facilitating self-disclosure… is the act of permitting the discovery within oneself of what one truly is.’ Psychotherapy, he argues, limits the degree to which adult choice can free us from the constraints laid down in childhood: clinical philosophy frees us from any such limits.

I go into more detail concerning my response to that:

I cannot really express how crucially important that idea is to me. It is an important message I derived from Buddhism. I need to believe what I have just copied from his book if I am going to survive sanely. I could not bear to live on unable completely to free myself from the swaddles of my infancy and early childhood. They are grim and chaffing fetters, not dramatically but inexorably laid down, which murder by slow internal bleeding, a soul ruptured in the struggle to stay free. Only the philosophical point of view allows for the soul to heal. Whether my soul is healing because I believe that, or I believe that because my soul is healing, I do not know.

My faith in the benefits of meditation remained firm:

I believe that meditation helped me to see myself more clearly and eventually change by unhooking my identification with my defensive-competitive and romance-hungry self. I ceased to be who I thought I was and became free to be someone else if I wished. . . . There is indeed no specific and unchanging ‘I’ — only a series of choices. The freedom and delight is beyond expression. I am nothing and therefore everything!

This adds strength to the sense, about which I joked at the end of the previous post, that what I seemed to be engaged in, from my perspective, was some kind of personality transplant.

The Value of Reflection

Next I begin to engage with a deeper explanation of exactly what Koestenbaum means when he talks about the value of reflection.

He explains that the process of reduction has several levels or stages:[4]

[The first is where] there is no experienced distance between consciousness and object… we call this condition of consciousness the animal consciousness.

The first stage of stepping back, presumably the beginnings of reflection, brings you to the second level,[5] ‘eidetic or abstract consciousness’, in short the ability to think.

Next we reach “individual consciousness… the basic posture we take in daily life and its full exploration is the first goal of therapy . . . At this level consciousness thinks of itself as an individual and isolated self.’

Previous material on this blog, such as the insights I drew from Tom Oliver’s The Self Delusion, as well as all the insights from spiritual traditions including the Bahá’í Faith, combine powerfully to prick the bubble of this destructive fantasy. Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced that most mainstream therapies work along the lines that he is beginning to suggest. There are exceptions in therapies such as Psychosynthesis, also discussed on this blog, but they are still not part of the mainstream, as far as I know, in any influential sense.

Given my biases now, it will be no surprise to learn that I resonate strongly and positively to his next levels: first[6] the ‘deepened level of consciousness’ which he calls ‘the intersubjective or intimate consciousness.’ He explains more fully what he means:

Two people do not feel like two individuals in one bipolar field, where each individual consciousness is an object to the other; they feel like a combined subjective core to which a world of objects is given in common.

He uses the analogy of two space modules docking:

When they finally lock into each other, a common door is opened, their space is stretched and expanded, and a larger and communal inner space is created.

I know from my own experience of therapy, particularly as therapist, there was a strong feeling of two interconnected inscapes interacting.

Iain McGilchrist has much to say on a similar point which he terms ‘betweenness.’ There is only space for a brief example here from an account of a woman with right hemisphere damage:[7]

Here are a host of interrelated points, which describe the plight of modern humanity as exemplified in the writings of modernism. Not only is there immobility, but things are fragmented, ‘presenting themselves’ in a disconnected way, each on its own: no betweenness. What’s more, there is more specifically no flow ‘between’ things: between her [the patient] and the world, where things ‘evoke’ no emotional response, where she can no longer ‘abandon’ herself to the world, a world she cannot join, and where she must remain ‘outside’.

More on that later when I delve more deeply into The Matter with Things.

This leads neatly into Koestenbuam’s next point from 40 years earlier.[8] The fourth stage he labels ‘social or communal consciousness… It is the experience of unity with a large number of conscious centres over a long period of time.’

The poem I wrote, triggered by Mellen-Thomas Benedict’s account of his NDE in Ken Ring’s Lessons from the Light,[9] has echoes of this same insight:

The light changes into a mandala of souls
all our souls, our true selves, are fused,
we are one being,
we are the same being,
distinct aspects of the same Being.
I enter this mandala of human souls
white hot with all the love we’ve ever wanted,
a love that can heal everything, everyone

Where he possibly moves beyond McGilchrist (but I might be wrong about this as I am only about halfway through the 1333 pages of the main text of The Matter with Things) is at the fifth stage and beyond. The fifth stage is ‘cosmic consciousness’[10] where ‘the social consciousness becomes now the object of our consciousness… With this reduction we have reached the experience of universality.’ The sixth and last level[11] is ‘the eternal now… when even space and time become the objects of the intentional stream of consciousness. The subjective core, which has succeeded in making an object of cosmic consciousness, experiences itself outside of space and time.’

It’s pretty clear though how the left hemisphere language of these explanations of right hemisphere spiritual experience would have helped hugely in preparing my mind for my encounter with the deeply mystical and profoundly spiritual insights in the Bahá’í Writings to which I would shortly be exposed. Proof if any more was needed that I owed Koestenbaum far more than I described in Leaps of Faith.

It also perhaps explains why I came to feel that I was not only a Buddhist but also an Existential traveller on the Bahá’í path.

His next point again resonates with The Matter with Things. ‘Consciousness is objectless’ and Western languages do not really have words for this. McGilchrist is again relevant here with his sense of the limitations of language. For example, he explains the value of art in this respect:[12] ‘the beauty and power of art and of myth is that they enable us, just for a while, to contact aspects of reality that we recognize well, but cannot capture in words.’  He adds, ‘we would be lost without words, but sometimes it is wisdom to be lost for words.’

My sequence of posts, triggered by reading Irreducible Mind, deals in detail with my struggle to accept the idea of mind-brain independence and the spiritual origins of mind, so I won’t dwell on it here.

Mysticism

I will close my discussion of Koestenbaum with some summarising thoughts from his chapter on Mysticism. He goes on to explain[14] what he terms ‘the phenomenological description of pure consciousness.’ By this he means that:[15]

The consciousness within me is first of all experienced as universal… Second… as infinite… the absence of limits… third (as) coeval (coincident) with space and time… fourthly as indestructible (and) … finally, this consciousness can be experienced and recognised as the ground of being… as one answer to the question: what and where is home?

I have already said too much to have the space here to unpack in detail why that short passage seems so crucial to priming my mind to accept the huge leaps of faith required of me if I, a recent atheist/agnostic of something like 20 years duration, was to accept the Bahá’í revelation. All I will do here is flag up the word ‘indestructible,’ which challenged my concept of the finality of death, and the phrase ‘ground of being,’ which was a stepping stone towards a digestible idea of God.

Equally interesting, but less dramatic, was the way this led, in his exploration, to something almost identical with practice of disidentification in Psychosynthesis. He wrote:[16]

I am not this thought; I am not this feeling; I am not this physical object; I’m not this body of flesh and bones, nor am I this self-concept. I am not these feelings, these attitudes and these responses associated with my personality. Nor am I these character defences or body armour with which most of us so closely identify ourselves. I am in instead and in truth pure and universal consciousness.

Koestenbaum published his book in 1978. As I only have my notes I can’t check whether he acknowledges any debt to Psychosynthesis as his source for this idea. Either way it doesn’t really matter as the double validation, both in this book and Assagioli’s, first published in 1965, helped me on my way.

There is more I could say but this is probably enough for now to make my point and redress the failure of my original account to do justice to Koestenbaum’s crucially important role in my spiritual journey.

My conscience is somewhat eased by my having corrected the record in this way.

References

[1]. The New Image of the Person – page 73. Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are from this book.
[2]. Page 99.
[3]. Page 49.
[4]. Page 77.
[5]. Page 79.
[6]. Page 80.
[7]. The Matter with Things – page 336.
[8]. Page 80 again.
[9]. Lessons from the Light – pages 286-91.
[10]. Page 81.
[11]. Page 82.
[12]. The Matter with Things – page 631.
[13]. Page 86.
[14]. Page 145.
[15]. Pages 146-47.
[16]. Page 165.

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. . . . . [T]he change of consciousness required in the world could only come through a change within each person: it seemed that the possibility of redemption for the world and the possibility of redemption for each person were part of the same process; one could not happen without the other.

(Jean Hardy – A Psychology with a Soul – page 209)

It is the honeybee’s social behaviour, more than its ecological role, that has fascinated and amazed humans down the ages. . . . . No other creature has in turn been used as a metaphor for feudal hierarchy, absolute monarchy, republicanism, capitalist industry and commerce as well as socialist aspirations.

(Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum – A World without Beespages 13-14)

Bee & Snapdragon

Given that I am revisiting Leaps of Faith it seemed appropriate to republish this sequence as well as this point. 

At the end of the last post I indicated this one would be dealing with my early meditation practice and beyond.

At that time, I had to do a fair bit of travelling by train and used those journeys to practice meditation. I had been advised to begin with modest amounts of time and build up from there. To begin with, even two minutes of following the breath was as much as I could manage before my mind went walk-about. Not too disconcerting for other passengers then. No chance they’d think I had gone into a coma.

As I remember it took me months – not sure how many – before I could meditate for 10 minutes, and even longer before I reached the magic half-an-hour. By the time this was achieved, I was practising in the morning before I left home. Trains were too distracting to create this amount of quiet time.

Almost two years later towards the end of my Clinical Psychology course and after my prolonged exploration of Buddhism with its intensive meditative practice, I was jolted into re-examining the two schools of therapy I’d put on hold. By this stage I was often meditating for an hour at a time, usually at night. This may have prepared me, in ways I didn’t understand, for the experiences that were to follow. Even so, I wasn’t having any obviously mystical experiences and God wasn’t coming into the equation yet for me.

Existential statesThe core of what is relevant to my next step up the as-yet-undetectable ladder came in a brilliant book on existentialism by Peter Koestenbaum – The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy – which I read at that time.

In this book he states that (page 69):

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

By reflection, amongst other things, he means unhooking ourselves from our ideas.

An example he gives from the clinical context illustrates what he means:

. . . to resist in psychotherapy means to deny the possibility of dissociating consciousness from its object at one particular point . . . To overcome the resistance means success in expanding the field of consciousness and therewith to accrue increased flexibility . . .’

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? In therapy it is the feeling of trust and safety we develop towards the therapist that helps us begin to let go of maladaptive world views, self-concepts and opinions.

This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life.

Koestenbaum explains this (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.

Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

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 was almost at the end of my clinical training when I read those words. At last, I felt, I had begun to understand something of the real power of that idea. With Transactional Analysis I had begun to grasp, in its idea of decontamination, the glimmerings of what might lie ahead in terms of full reflection. I then moved onto my initial practice of disidentification, which could be seen as a strong extension of decontamination, and, at the same time, Buddhist meditation. They all had in their overlapping ways begun to open the eye of my heart.

These words of Koestenbaum words jolted it even wider.

‘That settles it,’ I thought. ‘As soon as I finish this course and get a job, I’ll explore this form of therapy.’

What I didn’t realise, at that point, was how prepared my mind was for another shift of consciousness. I’ve described this at length elsewhere on this blog in Leaps of Faith, so I won’t dwell on it here. In short, I found the Bahá’í Faith and all my spare energy and time, after I completed my course, were invested in learning more about the path I had committed to.

Jean HardyLooking back on that whole process now reveals exactly what I couldn’t see was happening right from square one.

Jean Hardy’s book on Psychosynthesis – A Psychology with a Soul – resonates right from the outset with what I have come to believe as a Bahá’í, though I never encountered her book till much later. Not that this lets me off the hook as she quotes on her opening page a letter of 1819 from John Keats, a favourite poet of mine, to his brother and sister: ‘Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making”.’

This is really close to where I have ended up. In Bahá’í terms this world is a womb (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh LXXXI):

The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.

Different words: same implications. Even more uncanny, if I didn’t know that he had corresponded with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, would be the connection Roberto Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, makes between the personal and transpersonal progress of the individual and the progress of society (Hardy: page 19).

What I had failed to appreciate as I progressed along the road through these countries of the mind was how they represented closely related steps up a ladder of increased understanding. Only now looking back do I see that. The words of T S Eliot, through the mouth of Becket, came floating into my mind as I wrote that: only ‘Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain.’

The upshot was that I plunged deep into a new profession, that felt more like a vocation, and a new spiritual path, that was a declaration of intent rather than an end state, both of which took up almost all my time, leaving no space for training in psychotherapy.

Reflection Cube

The Experience Cube

The Power of Reflection

There’s more now that I need to explain though, I feel. Please don’t groan. We’re almost there.

Right at the beginning of July, when I thought I’d got this sequence almost finished, I realised that I had a strong sense of frustration about something. Slowly light dawned.

I’ve spoken briefly about my 3Rs on this blog before. That’s my mnemonic for the three activities that help me process experience and make better sense of it: reflection, reading and writing. It suddenly clicked that my strong need to find space and time for these was clashing with at least two more Rs: my religion and my relationships, both of which obviously make demands on my time. Recreation, a sixth R, was also competing to a lesser degree.

I spent several days mulling over how to resolve the clash, so that I didn’t feel frustrated when the treadmill of minutes and emails for faith-related matters stopped me from quietly thinking over the events of the day, or feel guilty when writing about my experiences interfered with my time on the treadmill helping my wife in the garden.

The light bulb moment was when I realised that reflection is something I can do all the time. Even more, as I wrote in my journal at the time of this light bulb moment, ‘how I want/need to do everything is reflectively.’ 

This is difficult to explain clearly.

The best way I could represent it at first was in the diagram above. All sides of the cube of experience, as I am calling it, interpenetrate. The skylight through which the fullest illumination of reality falls is that of Reflection. At first I saw Reading and Writing as consolidating what could be loosely termed Wisdom, just as Religion (in my case the Bahá’í Faith with Buddhist traces) and Relationships clearly fostered Compassion and a spirit of service to others.

I searched for a way of holding onto this core idea in a more powerful and emotionally richer way than was captured in this rather abstract diagram.

Bee in Snapdragon 3As I sat in our garden with my coffee at the usual dimpled glass table, I watched the bees foraging in the snapdragons close at hand. I am always lost in wonder at the patient and tireless way bees work at collecting the pollen and nectar so crucial for the health of the hive.[1]

‘That’s it,’ I thought. ‘My mind is more like a bee than a butterfly.’

I realised that what I need to be mindful of is how to gather the nectar of love and the pollen of wisdom in every situation, and equally importantly of the need to return to my hive frequently enough to store what I have gathered there before I drop and lose it. In this way the metaphor of the bee will help me remember how I want to be. In that way, doing and being will cease to be at odds.

I couldn’t quite leave it there though, as the slightly illogical twist in the metaphor indicates.

My mind is not a bee but the hive that contains them – and it is not a hive in the chaotic and disparaging way I have used the image in some of my poems, as a buzzing and distracting mess.

My mind is buzzing, and in the past I misunderstood the way much of that buzzing is focused and interconnected. Just as in the hive bees are engaged in activities that gather and process nectar and pollen, which are vital to their being able to feed their young and survive the winter, so my mind sends out feelers to explore its environment. What I have failed to understand is that, beneath my consciousness, my mind has been striving to reflect on what it then experiences so that the nectar of love and the pollen of wisdom can be gathered from the flower of every experience, before being stored so that other largely subconscious processes can strengthen my mind’s ability to reflect even more effectively and consolidate what it is learning.

At the peak of the eureka moment I wrote, ‘No deadlines, only beelines for my reflection work from now on.’ In a way it has taken bees to teach me how to be.

At the risk of creating an infinite regress of a Russian-doll-type, we could say that if we can bring the hive inside our minds into order we can become constructive workers within the hive of society, whether at local, national, continental or global level.

The Experience Cube FinalIn the end all this ties quite neatly into the idea of the Third ‘I’ that I have explored on this blog before and republished recently.

Reflection helps connect me to my heart, the source of deep intuitions. That’s obvious enough. In addition, I just had to modify the Cube of Experience not only to accommodate the Third ‘I’, but also to recognise that I had neglected how important Nature and the Arts are to me and how Reflection is linked more closely than anything else to Wisdom and Compassion.

You may wonder also why Recreation occupies a central role in its panel, rather than religion. I was strongly tempted, for what I expect are obvious reasons, to put Religion in the centre spot, but decided not to. I pondered upon what Recreation – or rather Re-Creation – should be about if it was to be more than simply rest, and wanted to remind myself graphically of my conclusions. I decided that Re-Creation would be both the effect of Religion and Relationships, and in its turn enhance my engagement with them, so it was placed in the middle.

I’m aware that this is still very much a work in progress. Maybe I’ll pull it all together better in a later post somewhat along the lines of the diagram at the bottom, where the end state on the right echoes the traffic light system I’ve explored elsewhere.

Since I began this sequence I have encountered some ideas that I need to ponder on as well. My good friend, Barney, pointed me in the direction of The Shallowsa book by Nicholas Carr about the impact of the internet upon our brains and minds. Even though my shelves are crammed and my pile of unread books is increasing inexorably towards the ceiling, I bought it, and I’m glad I did. Carr explains how undue use of the net is antithetical to the whole idea of reflection. Having discussed how the internet strengthens certain capacities of the brain, he moves on to discuss the downside (page 120):

What we’re not doing when we’re online . . . has neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.

My hope is that if I can approach all experiences reflectively I can have my cake and eat it, gaining the best of both worlds. I can blog and surf the net without damaging my reflective capacities as long as I do it reflectively (probably easier said than done) and as long as I protect with rigorous time-banding sufficient time to read and write (not type on my laptop) in a quiet undistracted space. Carr’s book suggests such an attempt might be an imperative necessary (page 168):

The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. . . . . The problem today is that we are losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind.

What’s rather spooky is that when I had written all this, and picked up The Shallows again to read on, what should I find but the following (page 179):

“We should imitate bees,” Seneca wrote, “and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better. Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and then turn them into a  single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.”

Weird or what, to be unintentionally rendering a faint echo of Seneca across so many centuries. It testifies to the close affinity that exists between humanity and bees.

Anyhow, I’ve said enough for now I think. Instead, I need to make a plan for how to practice what I’m preaching. I need to give myself the time and space to do that so my blog might carry a lighter footprint for the time being.

Psychobabble

Footnote:

[1] It’s perhaps worth pointing out that this picture was obtained at risk of life, limb and camera. As I tilted forward on my plastic garden chair and snapped the bee in the snapdragon I also snapped the chair leg and nearly sent the camera flying as I tried to halt the fall. Was there a warning there somewhere?

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