Posts Tagged ‘Peter Koestenbaum’

At the end of the previous post, I raised an important question, given how divisive our attachment to the contents of our consciousness can be much of the time: would it not be easier for us to reflect, meaning step back from the contents of consciousness and connect with deeper and more authentic aspects of our being, if we believed that the mind is independent of the brain?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Son of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, describes reflection at one point as the ‘faculty of meditation’ which ‘frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.’[1]

By reflection what Koestenbaum seems to mean is something closely related to meditation in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s sense. 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.’

If we believe that our minds are simply products of our brains, it will be very tempting to simply assume that brain-noise, the most vivid part of our inner experience, is virtually all there is. We’ll be convinced that we are just the constant stream of anger, fear, hate, love, joy and sadness, of thoughts and beliefs about others, ourselves and our world, and of the plans we make in consequence, which flows across the screen of consciousness and carries us away with it all too often, no matter how destructive it may be at the time.

So what other choice could we possibly have but to go with this flow for which we believe there is no substitute?

That many of us choose to gain more control over our minds than that, is admirable, but I can’t escape the feeling that we would find it easier if we could only believe that we are far more than our brains. My own experience strongly suggests that this will be the case. Before I took the plunge into the Bahá’í Faith, my meditative practice got me a long way – in fact it prepared me to recognise that the Bahá’í perspective was what I had been looking for all my life.

Since then I have more consistently tried to enact the same level of detached concentration across more areas of experience, a persistency that I feel stems at least in part from my having recognised that I must not continue to confuse the signals of my primate brain with the essence of my being if I am to fulfil as much of my potential as I can on this material plane.

So, would not the taking of that same step make it easier for others as well as me, not only to consult together more effectively in greater awareness of our interconnectedness, as I have argued elsewhere on this blog, but also to break out of what Ziya Tong describes as our ‘reality bubble’ and transcend what Tom Oliver argues is our ‘self delusion’?

For Ziya Tong, the sad truth is:[4]

Our food comes to us from places we do not see; our energy is produced in ways we don’t understand; and our waste disappears without us having to give it a thought. … humans are no longer in touch with the basics of their own system survival.

Tom Oliver is as intensely concerned to counteract our dangerous delusion that we are independent selves:[5]

. . . We have one . . . big myth dispel: that we exist as independent selves at the centre of a subjective universe.

He explains:[6]

We are seamlessly connected to one another and the world around us. Independence is simply an illusion that was once adaptive but now threatens our success as a species.

Surely it would be wiser, in the light of all the evidence pointing in that direction, to discard the misguided conclusions of promissory materialism, which is just as much an act of faith as theism is, embrace the idea that we are more than our limited brains and transcend the blind spots so forcefully flagged up by Tong and Oliver. It might even help us save the planet as well as ourselves.

This seems to me to be the foundation stone upon which I have built my own understanding of an effective spiritual psychology.  There are many other elements that I have drawn from the Bahá’í Revelation that have shaped my thoughts and practice. Consultation is one key example, which I have already mentioned.

When I have more time I hope to revisit some of those as well. I’m afraid this will have to do for now.


[1]. Paris Talks – page 175.
[2]. The New Image of the Person – page 99.
[3]. Ibid.: page 49.
[4]. The Reality Bubble – page 172.
[5]. The Self Delusion – page 3.
[6]. Ibid.: page 4.

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I was recently triggered by a Zoom conversation with a couple of friends into pondering on exactly what I had learned from my experience of Bahá’í life and Bahá’í literature that enhanced my understanding of psychology. I’ve covered a load of relevant stuff on this blog but never bothered to pull it all together in a more focused way in one place. At present I have at least one other major project on my to do list so trying to attempt anything too ambitious would be impossible.

I’m therefore going to make a very tentative start by focusing mainly on what I feel is perhaps the most important element and an important practical consequence.

The Mind/Brain Problem

I’ve dwelt on this issue at great length on this blog already, so what I’m going to try and capture here are just are some key points.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, replied to a question he was asked by saying, in part, ‘. . . [the mind] is the power of the human spirit. The spirit is as the lamp; and mind is as the light which shines from it. The spirit is as the tree, and the mind is as the fruit.’[1] These words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, were a bit of a shock to me when I first encountered them just after I’d finished qualifying as a Clinical Psychologist, given that all my training simply assumed that the brain creates the mind, end of story.

Even though this is still a major issue for many of us shaped by Western culture, I don’t have time to go over the details of my journey as I tried to get my head to accept what my heart clearly felt must be the truth: that the brain did not create the mind, mind is an emanation of the spirit.

One quote will have to stand for all just now

In The Spiritual Brain Beauregard refers in summary to the areas of exploration he has adduced, which he feels a nonmaterialist view can explain more adequately:[2]

For example, a nonmaterialist view can account for the neuroimaging studies that show human subjects in the very act of self-regulating their emotions by concentrating on them. It can account for the placebo effect (the sugar pill that cures, provided the patient is convinced that it is a potent remedy). A nonmaterialist view can also offer science-based explanations of puzzling phenomena that are currently shelved by materialist views. One of these is psi, the apparent ability of some humans to consistently score above chance in controlled studies of mental influences on events. Another is the claim, encountered surprisingly often among patients who have undergone trauma or major surgery, that they experienced a life-changing mystical awareness while unconscious.

Peter Fenwick, in his chapter in Leslie Kean’s Surviving Death, quotes Sir John Eccles’ definition of where he thinks reductionist materialism leaves us:[3]

The human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism, to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition. We have to recognise that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.

This paves the way for finding the idea of mind-brain independence credible.

The literature explores at some length the life-changing benefits of near death experiences. Sam Parnia, in What Happens When We Die flags up, for example, reduced levels of materialism, a reduced fear of death and increased levels of altruism[4].

What interests me most for present purposes are the implications of accepting that the mind is not reducible to the brain for the ability to master the skill of reflection, as I have come to understand it.


And here comes another quote that leapt out at me from the Writings as I explored them in the aftermath of my starting to tread the Bahá’í path. Bahá’u’lláh had quoted the hadith[5] ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ This I have also explored at length elsewhere. Reflection was something I saw as very closely related to meditation and heavily dependant upon, if not overlapping with, aspects of detachment.

So, into the mix of my muddled understanding at the time went ideas about reflection.

It involves stepping back from our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and plans. Psychosynthesis calls this process Disidentification. This approach to psychotherapy believes it is a path towards recognising the essence of our true nature, towards connecting us with what we truly are.

Existentialist Philosophy, in a version which I have found the most appealing, calls this process reflection. Reflection, from this perspective, is the capacity to separate consciousness from its contents (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. Just as a mirror is not what it reflects, we are not what we think, feel and plan but the capacity to do all those things. Knowing this and being able to act on it frees us up: we are no longer prisoners of our assumptions, models and maps. We come to see we are our consciousness not its contents.

What I didn’t consider then but want to raise now is an important question, given how divisive our attachment to the contents of our consciousness can be much of the time: would it not be easier for us to step back from the contents of consciousness and connect with deeper and more authentic aspects of our being if we believed that the mind is independent of the brain?

More on that next time.


[1]. Some Answered Questions (2014) – page 242.
[2]. The Spiritual Brain – Kindle Reference 2528.
[3]. Surviving Death – page 146.
[4]. What Happens When We Die – page 225.
[5]. Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 238.

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At the end of the previous post I suggested that, while Koestenbaum’s pointer that the ‘extreme inward region of consciousness’ to which reflection enables us to get closer is what we in the West call God was extremely valuable, it was not enough in itself. It was not until I found the Bahá’í Faith that I realised just how important two other factors in our behaviour were to this process of self-enhancement: consultation and service.

I have explored these elsewhere at some length so I will deal with them briefly here.

Consultation, Action and Reflection

While independent investigation of the truth is valued in the Faith, it is supremely important to compare notes with others to enhance our simulation of reality and enable ourselves to decide upon the best course of action. Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá return to this point many times. Bahá’u’lláh, for example, says ‘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.’[1]

Consultation is strongly linked with action. As Ring and Valarino stressed in their book, Lessons from the Light, without taking action on the insights gained from an NDE there will be only be shallow changes in our ways of being. The Bahá’í Faith emphasises exactly the same point in the value it attaches to being of service to others: actions outweigh words. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh: ‘Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.’[2]

Without the uplifting power of action and consultation, reflection will have little traction.

There are of course other elements to this process for Bahá’ís, including prayer, immersing ourselves in sacred verses and obeying the Laws of the Faith. However, I have chosen not to focus on them here, but rather to concentrate on the elements that relate most closely to those early influences on my spiritual progress that I am trying here to integrate into one coherent formulation in this sequence of posts.

Action as well as understanding is also critical when we are seeking to give expression to and consolidate our sense of connection with the earth. There is a sense of symmetry in the two ends of this diagram in certain respects at least. The same is true for our understanding of the myriad ways we are connected to our fellow human beings and other life forms on planet earth.

Action and understanding interact to enhance our connectedness.


At every level of that diagram – body, thought and spirit – interconnectedness is a critical consideration. Tom Oliver’s book, The Self Delusion, unpacks this powerfully at the material and social levels. The diagram takes it further.

I cannot resist repeating here the insight a dream once gave me: heart and earth in English are anagrams and this expresses the inextricable threads that bind the two together. Take that along with the insight the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh kept forcing on my consciousness after I started to tread the Bahá’í path that it is only by developing an ‘understanding heart’ that we will ever be able to decode the true meaning of reality at the highest levels and of the Bahá’í Writings, and you have all levels of the diagram blended into one phrase.

For the more sceptical reader it might help, before I end this sequence, if I refer once more to Iain McGilchrist and his ideas on lateralisation to bring the idea of an understanding heart down to a more material level for a moment, preparatory to launching off into transcendent realms again before the end.

Towards Acquiring an Understanding Heart

In The Master and His Emissary McGilchrist defines what would be a huge step forward in enhancing our level of consciousness:[3]

[T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.

For Jenny Wade, in her excellent book Changes of Mind, balancing these two aspects moves the person to the level of what she calls Authentic consciousness:[4]

Authentic consciousness requires access to the non-dominant hemisphere, but not exchanging one hemisphere’s orientation for the other’s. It is “whole brain” thinking, in which both hemispheres organise consciousness, suggesting some entrainment of EEG patterns across the neocortex.

The next stage after this is Transcendent consciousness, the last one before Unity consciousness – yes, she really does think Unity consciousness is the highest level. At this stage the synchrony of the two halves of the brain goes beyond intermittent entrainment:[5]

During meditation, EEG measurements show that both hemispheres slow from beta level activity to alpha and theta waves. Theta is the characteristic brain wave pattern of long-term meditators. Not only does synchronisation of brain waves occur between hemispheres in advanced states, but this entrainment forms harmonic patterns called hypersynchrony.

That last word has distracting implications given its involvement in the causes of an epileptic fit. I think Evan Thompson’s description of brain activity in the context of Tibetan Buddhist meditation is more helpful:[6]

The synchrony of the oscillations – the way that the EEG waves are in sync with one another across distant areas of the scalp – reflects the large-scale coordination of the neuronal populations into a large but temporary functional network . . . More simply put, during the meditation practice, numerous ‘neural assemblies’ – populations of neurones that fire together –rapidly establish communication and thereby formed a massive interconnected network.

Whether there is a further enhancement of the relationship between the hemispheres at the Unity level is not clear:[7]

It is not know whether people with Unity consciousness have significantly different brainwave patterns than those at the high end of Transcendent consciousness, especially concerning hemispheric influence…

Even so, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that, at the material level at least, attainment of a level of consciousness deserving to be labelled an ‘understanding heart’ will entail a greater degree of balance between the two hemispheres of the brain than most of us normally achieve at least in Western cultures. This level of consciousness plausibly can be claimed to give us access to transcendent levels of experience normally beyond the spectrum of awareness available to us.

Final Thoughts

I only wish that I could now prove having been blessed by richly detailed mystical experiences. Sadly that is not the case. Some fleeting glimpses perhaps but no more than that, falling far short of a high level of access to the spiritual realms.

What I do benefit from regularly are flashes of insight that help me rise to a higher level of understanding of complex situations and stressful challenges, which then enables me to respond more creatively and positively to them. I also am able to remain far calmer and clearer in mind under stress. I am more grounded in two senses of that word. I more strongly feel my connection with nature and humanity as a whole, and I am more firmly in touch with the core of my being – my ‘understanding heart’ at its currently still relatively immature level of development.

I am very aware that this whole account is less clear and compelling than I would ideally have liked it to be. My excuse is that many aspects of what I am seeking to describe here are hard to capture in prose. I have interpolated a poem or two of mine to try and penetrate somewhat deeper.

Maybe the main value of this whole exercise has been to help me, at least, understand what I am talking about. Whether that justifies my taking up blog space with it remains to be seen.


[1]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – Lawh-i-Maqsúd.
[2]. Persian Hidden Words Number 5.
[3]. The Master & his Emissary – page 203.
[4]. Changes of Mind – page 157.
[5]. Op. cit.: page 198.
[6]. Waking, Dreaming, Being – Page 73.
[7]. Changes of Mind – page 260.

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My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

Vincent to Theo – March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh page 272)

Before Christmas I republished my sequence on Reality, Art and the Artist. This sequence is my somewhat unexpected attempt to dig deeply into this topic from a different angle.  It seemed useful to post this again in the New Year.


Last Monday was not my best meditation day.

I was doing quite well till my mind got hooked by my shirt. I found myself suddenly remembering how I thought twice before letting its red corduroy comfort go to the charity shop as part of our current declutter. Red shirt led to blue shirt, which led to blue jacket, blue trousers and Crewe Station. I was there again. Just as I was boarding the train, one foot on the platform and one foot in the air above the step, carrying luggage that should have made it clear I was a passenger, someone tapped me on the shoulder thinking I was a guard and asked me what platform the Liverpool train was leaving from. I turned to look at them and put my foot down between the platform and the train, scraping the skin neatly off my shin as I did so. Fortunately I dropped my bags on the platform and not on the line. I used a tissue to staunch the blood between Crewe and Hereford. Rather than go straight home, I called in on a friend who got out the TCP and Elastoplast. I still remember the sting to this day. I remembered that this was the friend I’d called on once before 20 years earlier, when – and this came vividly back to me despite the span of time – driving home tired down the Callow at the end of a long week, I was overtaking (legally at the time) in the middle lane (they’ve blocked that option since for downhill traffic), when I saw a car coming up the hill doing the same thing. The long lorry I was halfway past was picking up speed. All I could do was brake. As I tried to pull in slightly too soon, I caught the Lada on the back end of the truck. Fortunately the Lada was made of sterner stuff than most cars at the time and didn’t completely cave in or get derailed, but it was pulled out of shape and the near side front tyre was blown. I pulled into the side of the road and, with the help of the lorry driver who had stopped to check I was OK, changed the tyre. The car was slightly wobbly as I drove off and I knew it was not a good idea to drive it all the way home. I was amazed to pass a parked police car on the way with no interest shown on their part. So, I drove to my friend’s and parked the car on his front lawn, the only safe space off the road. He had a bit of a shock when he got home from work. At this point I snapped out of my trance of associations and brought my mind back to the focus of my meditations, shaking of my irritation with myself and my slight reactivation of the Lada-on-the-lawn stress as best I could.

Incidentally, I don’t wear blue anymore when I’m travelling.


For this and other reasons I am revisiting an all-too familiar theme: reflection. To bring on board those who might not have read all my earlier posts on this issue I’ll pull in now a brief quotation from some time ago. It comes from a book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Hayes et al. It is attempting to explain that transient states of mind and mere self-descriptions are all too often mistaken for our true self. To help people step back from such identifications the authors liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board (page 192):

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.

Peter Koestenbaum makes essentially the same point more abstractly in his excellent book The New Image of the Person: The 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.

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.

Personally, while I find the ACT analogy helpful, I prefer the idea of a mirror and its reflections, partly I suppose because it uses the same word in a different but helpful sense. Our mind or consciousness is the mirror and all our experiences, inside and out, are simply reflections in that mirror: they are not who we are, not even the most intense feelings, our most important plans, or the strongest sense of self. We have to learn to see them as simply the contents of consciousness. Only that way can we tune into deeper and wiser levels of our being. Mindfulness at its best can enable us to identify with pure awareness rather than with whatever transient trigger has grabbed our attention.

I have been working fairly hard (not hard enough probably, as the derailed meditation at the start of this post suggests) to put the insights explored in that sequence of posts into action.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 (for source of image see link)

Capturing Consciousness

It has led into me into some interesting territory.

While I was exploring the concept of transliminality even further back in time I came across A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf edited by her husband Leonard after her death by suicide. I was drawn to examine what she wrote in case it shed light on my attempt to link creativity, thresholds of consciousness and so-called psychotic experiences together.

Long before I could integrate what I found there into my model, my focus of interest had typically moved on: my mind is still more of a butterfly than a bee, despite my best efforts so far.

However, the Woolf issue was still stalking the door of my consciousness, whether I was aware of it or not.

As part of my decluttering, I am in the process, as I have mentioned elsewhere, of checking whether I still need all the books I have bought over the years. I take a book off its shelf at random from time to time, open it and see if I have read it or not. Sometimes there are highlighter pen marks within and I put it back, at least for the time being. Sometimes there aren’t and occasionally it’s not even got my name signed on the flyleaf. In which case I dip into it and read a few random pages. I reported on having done that recently with a biography of Hardy. I repeated the same process with Julia Briggs’ account of the creative life of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf: an inner life.

Same outcome: no way that was going to the Oxfam bookshop.

Why not?

Basically her book was a brilliant tour of the writer’s mind. Within that there were a host of insights into aspects of the creative process related to mental health and reflection, or perhaps more accurately in Woolf’s case, creative introspection. Whatever the right term is, part of her genius lies in her capacity to capture in words the subtleties and complexity of consciousness, including the rambling associative networks that can hijack attention at any moment.

Before we tackle that head on, in the next post I’m going to make a detour via some paintings.

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Why am I grappling with this task now? That’s not an easy question to answer.


On 29 February 1976, I celebrated what I called the best event of that unusual day. I had read Psychosynthesis by Roberto Assagioli:

Some jargon, yes. Some holes – he’s appalling about music, not as scientific as he’d like to think, . . . but the sanest, most balanced, optimistic, and apparently potentially effective therapy I’ve read about.

Given that at this point my atheism hadn’t really been significantly dented, this was quite an accolade for such a spiritual form of therapy. And what had particularly gripped me was his disidentification exercise, though I found the practice of it hard going. Judging by the highlights I made at the time, I was struck by what Assagioli defines as the power and importance of disidentification:[1]

We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves.

If I was relying purely on my memory I would now state with complete confidence that my fascination with Psychosynthesis continued for months, if not a year or more. I was living in Hendon, close to the Psychosynthesis Centre, and was even contemplating paying them a visit.

Transactional Analysis

However, in reality, by 19 March I was writing: ‘I’ve leapt from Psychosynthesis to Transactional Analysis (TA) in no time at all.’ This was at a time when I was also dithering about whether to do a psychology degree or not. By 23 March I was going to an appointment with a TA therapist and by the 1 April I was attending her group. I did practice disidentification off and on for years after though, buying more books on Psychosynthesis in the late 90s.

What I think TA did for me was help me disidentify from my Parent and Child Ego States and use my Adult more. So it was a step up the ladder of reflection in a way, but not as powerful as disidentification would have been if I had practiced it more assiduously. However, I needed some tools to help me cope with the staff interaction patterns in my work at a MH day centre, and TA seemed a perfect fit.

It didn’t seem to take very long for TA to help me straighten out my handling of some aspects of the fraught relationships in the job situation. Initially I did not know how to deal with the backstabbing that seemed to me to be going on, but a diary of entry of 10 May 1976 suggests significant progress was being made, at least in clarifying one way of handling the problem. I wrote down my intentions clearly:

Basically I want to say, ‘Look, I don’t like what’s happening here. I’m not going to talk about her to you or about you to her. Whatever either of you say or think about each other is between you. I’m not going to get caught up in it. You sort out your own tangles: at least those that happen when I’m offstage. Any that happen when I’m on stage, I’ll try and say exactly what I think and feel if it seems appropriate and constructive. If it doesn’t I’ll try to shut up. I’m not going to keep on moaning and gossiping. Anything I’ve got to say about you I’ll say to you. . . . My policy is if you or anyone wants to talk about anyone else around here, I’m not going to talk about them behind their back. I’ve had enough. And I’ll say it to you as well as to her.’

It is intriguing how many elements of these various learning experiences primed my mind to respond positively to so much of the Bahá’í message. Here my intentions mapped so closely onto the Bahá’í perspective on backbiting. As Bahá’u’lláh explains, if we are seeking to find the right path in life, we ‘should . . . regard backbiting as grievous error, and keep [ourselves] aloof from its dominion, inasmuch as backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul.’[2]

Whether I followed my own advice to the letter and stated my case in the way I describe, I unfortunately do not know as there’s no clear record of my doing so. A later comment from the same date suggests I had my doubts: ‘I don’t know whether I’ll be strong enough to be like that.’

Anyway, best to get back to the main issues.


So, what had prepared the ground of my mind to welcome so warmly Koestenbaum’s perspective on reflection as a process of separating consciousness from its contents and connecting more strongly to our deepest self, was Assagioli’s concept of disidentification and TA’s focus on using the Adult Ego state to process experience, along with an intermediate prolonged and powerful experiment with a Buddhist meditation based on following the breath.

That something that worked so well involved breathing should come as no surprise given my dramatic breakthrough to a previously unconscious pool of pain after using continuous conscious breathing for several hours at a London Encounter Group. (In addition, the fact that my traumatic childhood experiences in hospital involved being chloroformed, which entails breathing in an unpleasant anaesthetic, it is entirely logical that undoing the emotional damage from that should involve breathing in air in a purer form.)

From that Encounter Group starting point before exploring Disidentification, then diving into TA, passing out of atheism, through Buddhist meditation and through Koestenbaum to the Bahá’í concept of the essential unity of all humanity, turned out to be a shorter step for me to take than I would ever have thought. (I’ve dealt with that at some length in Leaps of Faith(especially in the third part) so I’ll say no more here.)

I need to also flag up here something quite remarkable. When I originally read Assagioli’s book in 1976, not only was I moved to practice his disidentification exercise, but I also highlighted some other key ideas on page 18. He wrote:

The changing contents of our consciousness (the sensations, thoughts, feelings, etc.) are one thing, while the “I”, the self, the centre of our consciousness is another.…

In 1986, I found that Peter Koestenbaum makes essentially the same point more in his excellent book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. Reflection, he says:[3]

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

(My edition of Assagioli’s book came out in 1970: Koestenbaum’s in 1978. As I only have the copious notes I took from Koestenbaum’s book I can’t check whether he made any reference to Assagioli or not. I suspect he did not or I would have registered it.)

It was as if, for all that decade, I had been exploring the same deep truth without realising it until the very end.

The Explanation At Last

And now, I realise that what I have failed to do so far, I think, is to blend all these various key experiences into some kind of coherent account of how they relate to each other. Each had a key role to play in increasing my understanding of consciousness, my own and other people’s, but none of them on its own would have covered all the ground I needed to traverse.

My revisiting Donaldson and Covey recently made me appreciate the value of going back over old territory. My encounter with Levine’s book on trauma expanded my understanding of the meaning of my key experiences. I felt impelled to make better sense of the whole package.

So, here is my best attempt to capture the synergy of its various components.

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

The diagram at the head of this post attempts to fuse the Psychosynthesis and TA models. Assagioli’s own description of his diagram gives some credibility to this. He describes the Middle Unconscious as being formed[4] ‘of psychological elements similar to those of our waking consciousness and easily accessible to it,’ and goes onto describe the Field of Consciousness[5] as ‘that part of our personality of which we are directly aware,’ which is in effect the main focus of TA’s torch and lens.

Also the TA concept, as described by Woollams and Brown, of the Somatic Child[6], whose being is largely confined to ‘bodily functions and reactions’ maps closely onto aspects of Assagioli’s Lower Unconscious[7] with its focus on ‘fundamental drives and primitive urges.’

There is no equivalent in TA to Assagioli’s Higher Self.

In the next post, having slightly expanded the diagram, I plan to dig a bit deeper into the area beyond the boundary of the orange oval in terms that make special sense to me. I will focus initially on Levine’s important insights about our bodies before exploring the value of a spiritual perspective. In the post after that I will be expanding on Assagioli’s idea of the Higher Self and how to access it.


[1]. Psychosynthesis – page 22.
[2]. Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 193.
[3]. The New Image of the Person – page 99.
[4]. Psychosynthesis – page 17.
[5]. Op. cit.: page 18.
[6]. TA: the Total Handbook of Transactional Analysis – page 11.
[7]. Psychosynthesis – page 17.


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If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá from The Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 181)

I have been triggered to revisit books I have hoarded which deal with levels of consciousness. This all started with another rapidly abandoned look at Ken Wilber’s model. With moderate enthusiasm I had picked off my shelves Wilber’s Up from Eden, which had lurked up there unread since 1996. I felt that Fontana’s references to his work in Psychology, Religion and Spirituality warranted another look to help me overcome the reservations triggered in my mind by John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, where he takes issue with what he feels is Wilber’s arrogant implication that it is impossible for someone in a lower level society to leap to a higher level of consciousness (page 136):

. . . integral theorists actually support the idea that, out of the entire human population in the world, only an elite cadre of Westerners presently has the capacity to achieve the highest levels of human development.

I was not sure this criticism was entirely warranted but it did create reservations in my mind about some aspects of Wilber’s approach.

This was not what put me off this time.

I got as far as page 73 before the feeling that this was not the approach I wanted to immerse myself in right now grew so strong I couldn’t turn another page. His approach in this book was too mythological for my taste. I’ve so far been completely incapable of finishing any of Joseph Campbell’s work for this same reason. My distaste may be irrational but it remains insuperable.

As I sat and stared at my shelves aching for inspiration I remembered how much I had resonated to a book that explored in illuminating ways the split-brain culture we inhabit. No, not Iain McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary this time, much as I value that book and always will. There’s a clue in a comment I left on my blog more than a month ago, about a text that I have now re-read for the third time, but have not yet blogged about. I’ve probably never really attempted to integrate this account into my other explorations of levels of consciousness because the model presented does not easily map onto numerically coded versions such as those of Jenny Wade, Piaget, Wilber, Dabrowski  and Koestenbaum.

It is Margaret Donaldson’s Human Minds: an exploration. On page 135 she writes of what she calls ‘the value-sensing transcendent mode,’ something which our materialistic culture does not cultivate. She describes experiences in this mode as surging up ‘still in spite of the power of other modes which have threatened to exclude them.’ These experiences ‘come occasionally, unexpectedly, like marvellous accidents.’ Her book is partly about our need as a society to learn how to encourage us to access them more consistently. My own such encounters have been extremely rare indeed. Her insightful book also considers, though in less detail, the role of the novel and poetry in enhancing consciousness.

It also focuses on both the need to balance head and heart, science and religion, and on the ways we might get closer to achieving that.

I will deal fairly quickly with her discussion of her more basic modes of experiencing the world, then I will move on to the next highest levels in a bit more detail, before dwelling at greater length on her in depth exploration of the transcendent modes, both intellectual and value-sensing. In all probability this fairly rapid flight over the complex terrain of her richly informative model will fail to do it justice, but, if it at least brings her important work to your attention, that might just be enough.

Basic Modes

Margaret Donaldson deals first of all with the basic modes, the first of which concerns itself purely with the present moment, and begins in our infancy. She calls it point mode.[1] She goes on to add, ‘Later other loci become possible. For example, the second mode, which is called the line mode, has a locus of concern that includes the personal past and the personal future.’ More specific detail on the line mode next time.

Then our capacity expands to ‘the impersonal’ enabling us to think beyond our ‘personal goals.’[2] When this relates to thinking, that fits with our preconceptions about what it should be like. ‘But,’ she asks, ‘what about emotion? Can we take steps towards impersonality in respect of our emotions also?’

This is an issue we will come back to in more detail. For now I’ll just mention that she adds that ‘The process of “opening out” in those two directions is the one that I have previously called disembedding, in an earlier book, Children’s Minds.[3] This relates to some degree to concepts such as reflection and disidentification, dealt with at length elsewhere on this blog.

She emphasises that we modify our perceptions of the world ‘to suit our purposes.’[4] She was particularly taken with some of Freud’s descriptions of how we do that and expresses them in an effective metaphor:[5]

In talking of the defences Freud uses one image which I find illuminating. He likened the activities of a mind shaping its own consciousness to those of an editor revising a text, working towards an acceptable final draft.  The various mechanisms that have different editorial counterparts. For example, amnesic repression is equivalent to complete removal of parts of the text… likewise denial is equivalent to the insertion of ‘not:’… Projection is equivalent to changing the subject of a sentence: ‘He is I am evil, lazy, useless.’ Displacement amounts to changing the sentence object: ‘ I hate my father enemy.’ . . . In this way, we write for ourselves an authorised version of our lives.

In short, ‘. . . our experience of the world is experience of an interpretation.’[6] This maps closely onto my own sense of my perception of the world as a simulation. However, Donaldson explains, this tendency is balanced ‘by another more austere aim: the aim of understanding, of getting at the truth.’ The Bahá’í approach to this stresses the importance of an ‘independent investigation of the truth.’

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

There is another factor she mentions that again resonates with the Bahá’í Faith: ‘The second corrective is to consider shared experience.’ This sounds closely linked to the value attached to consultation, which is central to many processes of interaction encouraged in the Bahá’í community. Obviously these resonances partly explain my attraction to Donaldson’s model of consciousness, but it is not the only reason.

She argues that the foundations for our modes of consciousness are laid down very early.[7]  ‘At what point in life’ she asks, ‘does a child have a mind capable of concerning itself with things in some sort of controlled and organised way?’ and her answer is, ‘We can at least now confidently reply: “Very early, certainly by the end of the first two or three months, possibly sooner. (Stern terms it an emergent self.)’

She amplifies her comment by saying:[8]

There follows, from two to around eight months, the development of the ‘core self’ – a sense of self that is coherent, firmly distinguished from what is other, but not yet informed by an awareness of other minds.

. . . the point mode begins as the core self is established.

In the next post I will be exploring what follows on from that. It’s probably worth pointing out straightaway that, even later in life, as we shall see, point mode is not pointless.


[1]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 11.
[2]. Human Minds: an exploration – page  16.
[3]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 16-17.
[4]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 24.
[5]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 25.
[6]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 27.
[7]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 46.
[8]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 46-47.

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