Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Peter Koestenbaum’

Reflection is the key to containment, which is in turn a key to transcending the crocodile within. I have already started to republish a sequence of posts that goes far more deeply into this from a clinical point of view to supplement what will be a short-hand version here for practical use.

There are two other factors closely related to Reflection that need to be added into the mix. They are so close I am treating them as basically one integrated capacity, so they are only one R in the diagram above. These are Relatedness and Relativity(see the parallel sequence of posts on mind-work for more detail).

Reflection, as you will be aware is also a core quality of the Bahá’í spiritual process closely linked to detachment, 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, which only gets a brief mention in this post.

Reflection, relativity and relatedness as discussed here are the antidotes to the three forces of suppression I outlined in the previous post – drowning, dogmatism and disowning, which are common when we function in survival mode. Together they also help create the antidote to acting out, or disinhibition, the unhelpful opposite of suppression.

Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity are the core of what I have called elsewhere the mind-work process, the means by which we achieve creative control of our own inner processes.

I’ve outlined a typical trigger situation on this blog before.

Jack was really cheesed off. He was sitting in his favourite cafe, with a gleaming cafetière of his much-loved Ethiopian coffee nestling up against a tempting piece of Courgette cake, with his mood completely spoiled by the problem on his mind. It was his damn brother again. Why did Sam think he had a right to get bailed out of his self-inflicted difficulties simply for the asking?

He could hear the email that he had printed out rustling in his pocket as he leant forward to press down the plunger on the cafetière. If only he hadn’t read it yet. Still, he was always hopeful that a good coffee would improve his mood. He watched the stream of steaming coffee mingle with the milk in the white cup.

The first sip helped, though the second pouring would be better now the cup was warm.

His gut reaction to Sam’s request for help troubled him. His brother knew he didn’t drink. He tried to remember the last time he had tasted alcohol. He thought it was the half pint of bitter after his last game of squash. Somehow once he had started meditating, alcohol lost its appeal completely. It mucked your head up anyway so you couldn’t meditate properly, and in any case booze had stopped tasting as good.

But even after all the meditation he had done, he was sitting in the cafe feeling stressed.

Sam had asked for a ‘loan.‘ His tobacconist shop was losing money. He ‘just’ needed £20,000 to tide him over while he closed the tobacconist’s down and opened an off-licence in the next street.

They’re not easy to deal with, especially when those triggering our reactions are familyor close friends, as is almost bound to happen sometimes.

Reflection

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. 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 reactions, assumptions, models and maps. We are no longer chained to our crocodile.

It would help Jack to calm down, enjoy his coffee and cake and at the same time look at his feelings from the outside rather than from underneath.

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. The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict, reduces our levels of anxiety and irritation, 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, and of acting out where we unleash our feelings only to regret the unconsidered consequences. It facilitated by processes such as those described in Psychosynthesis (see the exercise below which is adapted from their Disidentification Exercise) and by the practice of Mindfulness.

 

Our personal history comes into the mix as well, as Jack’s experience illustrates:

It had been four years since he had heard anything at all from Sam, and, now he had heard, it was because Sam wanted something. And something his younger brother should have known Jack wouldn’t want to give. He skipped to the end of the explanation.

‘Hope you feel able to lob me the £20,000. I’ll pay you back, you know that. It’s not like when you paid my fees at uni. I knew that was given to me ‘cos you knew how important my education was.’

‘Like hell it was a gift,’ Jack spluttered in his head. ‘I told you right from the start I wanted it back.’ He was aware he was grimacing to himself and tried to compose his face. The woman at the next table was giving him a strange look. He made himself calm down by counting ten breaths very slowly.

It would have been tolerable if Sam had made good use of his time at university. Their parents were both dead by then, and had never been rich enough to leave them anything in any case. They’d had to fend for themselves. Jack felt he had always taken that challenge more seriously than Sam. Instead of studying hard, Sam had spent more time in the pub than in the library and just scraped a third in modern languages. To add insult to injury he then got a job in a pub kitchen and trained to be a chef.

With reflection we can gain critical distance from an imprisoning assumption, which underpins many of our model and the conclusions we have come to in the light of experience, and traps us to the crocodile: we no longer believe that brain noise is real, that a particular emotion or set of emotions defines us.

There is an insidious trap here that holds many of us captive. It’s the fear of being a hypocrite. If I am angry with you, surely it would be more honest to tell you so in no uncertain terms rather than go mealy-mouthed?

This hinges on what aspect of our being we feel we should be true to.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapyhas a useful insight here (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – pages 218-19):

Marrying because of love is considered quite reasonable in our culture, and love is dominantly thought to be a feeling, not a kind of choice. The feelings of love are extremely unpredictable. We speak of love as if it were an accident; we say that we fall into and fall out of this emotional state, for example. It should not then be a surprise when we fall into and fall out of marriages in much the same way. . . . Consider how much easier it is to keep a marriage vow if marriage is based on a choice to marry and love is considered to be a choice to value the other and hold the other as special.

They illustrate their point with a telling example:

Suppose, for example, that a man marries a woman ‘because she is beautiful.’ If his spouse then has a horribly disfiguring accident, that implies that the reason for marriage has left. Even if the man does not want to react that way, he may have a hard time dealing with what his logical mind feeds him, inasmuch as the original action was based on, linked to, explained by, and justified by this reason and the reason has now changed. This kind of thing happens all the time when people marry and later find that they no longer have the same feelings of love towards their spouses.

Marriage is a commitment and a choice, they argue, rather in the same way as Scott Peck, in A Road Less Travelled (page 119) contended that ‘Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional. The person who truly loves does so because of a decision to love. This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is present.’

It seems there are other parts of the self that do not reduce simply to the ego and its crocodile and honouring them at the expense of our feelings may be necessary. These include commitment and values (more of that in the final post).

So, are you a hypocrite for sticking with a relationship when the feeling we call ‘love’ has gone?

An easier example for us all to agree with, I suspect, relates to fear. Just because we are afraid of crowds, should we never go out? It should be obvious to everyone that making ourselves go out is not hypocrisy but courage. We are enacting a value that will enable us to grow stronger. With containment we don’t have to pretend we are not afraid, either. We can feel fear and still go out, and become less afraid as a result

Sadness may be less clear cut. There are times when we need to allow ourselves to feel sad, and respect that feeling by being alone or just seeing family and close friends. But to allow our sadness to take over our lives so we never socialise again would be clearly unwise. This is a other situation where we have to have the courage to rise above our pain and go out into the world again and rebuild our lives.

In my view the same is true of anger. I agree we should not pretend to ourselves we are not angry, but we do not have to express it automatically. We need to check out the reason for our anger. For example, if we are feeling furious with John because of what Fred did to us earlier, or because we are stressed by our work, or impatient with lack of sleep, how would we be honest to attack him? Our feeling is not his fault. We would be acting out the proverb and kicking the cat instead of dealing with our real problem.

Reflection and the consequent containment gives us the chance to unpack the feeling more clearly and decide what would be the best thing to do – get more sleep, sort out the work problem or focus on what to do about Fred?

And even in the case of Fred, it may not be all that clear what we should do. Perhaps Fred is under pressure himself and lost control for a moment over his tongue or his actions, letting his crocodile loose. Perhaps he needs understanding more than confrontation right now.

Sometimes, as well, we get angry with people who do something that reminds us of what we hate about ourselves.

‘Why is he always repeating himself?’ we think. ‘It really gets on my nerves.’ And yet if we gave ourselves time to think about it or checked this out with others, we might discover this is something we do a lot as well and secretly wish we didn’t.

If we tell Fred of why we’re angry, and he says, ‘But you do that all that time’, if we have not reflected in this way he will simply make us more furious, and expressing our anger ‘honestly’ will have achieved nothing positive and done more damage, while underneath it all is an invisible and unacknowledged hypocrisy of our own.

Or it might be that what Fred did reminds us of how our father or our brother used to hurt us in the past.

In either case, if we can raise our concern calmly and dispassionately (easier said than done, mind you) we could learn more and maybe change for the better as a result.

This involves shifting from blaming him, such as when we say ‘Why can’t you remember what you’ve said for once? You really irritate me!’ to taking responsibility for the feeling we have by saying, ‘I hope you don’t mind my letting you know this, but when I experience you as repeating something that you have already said, I get very irritated.’

This leaves the door open for investigating together exactly what’s going on. Does he really repeat himself a lot, or is that just our impression? Even if he does repeat himself, is my reaction to it out of proportion because of some past experiences of my own? And last of all, do I do the same thing without realising it, and am I attacking him for something I don’t like about myself?

Relativity

In combination with its sister quality, relativity, reflection becomes a powerful tool indeed. The antidote to chronic dogmatism 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.

There are, of course, not just inner obstacles to relativity: there are cultural ones also. I have explored these at more length on this blog, so I will only deal with them briefly here, as the present focus is on what we can do as individuals to learn to contain our inner crocodile more effectively.

When there is a prevailing, narrow and passionate ideology at work, the crocodile is unleashed as soon as someone behaves in a way that transgresses a treasured boundary and places them in forbidden territory. We rescind their shared humanity and thus deprive them of their right to protection. This legitimises the anger and disgust of the crocodile inside and it therefore need no longer be contained. In fact, we may well feel it should not be contain. Acting out our basest instincts becomes a virtue.

Relatedness

We also 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. 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. 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.

All these capacities combine to help 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 handling difficult emotions and loosens the grip of the crocodile’s jaws.

As previously explained, in our culture we are all too prone to either repression (convincing ourselves we’re not experiencing something when we are), drowning (being swamped by a tsunami of emotion) or acting out (expressing whatever we are currently experiencing and ignoring the consequences until it is too late). Containment is a more creative way to respond, a key to change and also a way beyond dogmatism.

An inability to contain experiences of a disturbing nature accounts for much substance abuse, self-harm and dependency on mind-altering subscription drugs. It’s also fair to add that containment is often not possible to sustain outside a set of supportive relationships. It can feel too scary, too risky. 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 too little containment.

It’s perhaps also important to add here that reflection, with its related skills of openness and relativity, constitutes a form of detachment. Detachment is what can open the door to a higher Self, which I will begin to explore next time.

If we accept that Reflectionsubsumes two other ‘R’s as well, what are the remaining three Rs in the diagram.

Relating

One is derived from relatedness and our consequent capacity to open up to others and consult with our fellow human beings in a spirit of collaboration. Relating, as I term it, is to do with our sense of connectedness to the world of people, creatures and nature by which we are surrounded and within which we are embedded. Increasing this sense of our interconnectedness also enhances a sense of proportion and creates a feeling of security which helps us keep the danger detecting, touchy and aggressive crocodile in check.

It is also essential to our becoming capable of transcending not just the crocodile within but the conflicts and tension between us as people and between us and natural world around us.

Irreducible Mind summarises the position of two early investigators of the truth of this, FWH Myers and William James (page 562):

For Myers and James . . . we are open, in some way profoundly interconnected with each other and with the entire universe, and what we consciously experience is somehow selected by our brains from a much larger field of conscious activities originating at least in part beyond the margins of everyday consciousness, and perhaps even beyond the brain itself.

Though in reality we may be connected to everything, our usual experience of connectedness is far more selective, and this can be a major problem when a fanatical over-identification with a group or an idea comes into play.

Robert Wright sees this in evolutionary terms. In his book The Evolution of God, he discusses how the expansion of the moral imagination (page 428) can ‘bring us closer to moral truth.’

His line of argument will not appeal to everyone: it’s probably too materialistic for many religious people and too sympathetic to religion for many materialists. He states:

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (pages 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

The central body of the Bahá’í Faith, the Universal House of Justice, captures what should be our goal in the following word (From the 24 May 2001 message from the Universal House of Justice to the Believers Gathered for the Events Marking the Completion of the Projects on Mount Carmel – my emphasis):

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

This is the challenge facing us in the world today, and developing the ability to contain our crocodile reactions and connect more constructively with life around us offers us all the beginnings of a path towards a better world.

The Other Rs

Then there is the last ‘R’ of the Rts and crafts. The mnemonic here is a feeble joke but covers a lot of ground, from gardening to listening to or composing symphonies. All such activities enhance our capacity to reflect and ground us more deeply in a creative and compassionate sense of reality.

To help us remember it, containment can be rephrased as restraint, not exactly the same thing but close enough to help us call it easily to mind when we need to use it.

Now I need to move on to consider the critical element of transcendence in the next and final post.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

I recently have a short talk at the Birmingham Interfaith. It seemed worth sharing here as it relates to the current sequence.

Ever since I studied English Literature, and long before I eventually specialised in psychology or discovered the Bahá’í Faith, the words of a poet-priest from the Elizabethan period have stuck in my mind.

John Donne wrote:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

He wrote those words, part of the third of his five satires, during what must have been an agonising period of his life, when he was deciding to abandon the Roman Catholic faith, for which members of his family had died, and become an apostate. By taking this step, he avoided torture and execution and gained a career at the possible cost, in his mind, of eternal damnation.

While the Western world feels it has moved on from such ferocious divisions, the same does not seem to be true everywhere. Also, we should not perhaps feel we are completely free from milder variations of religious intolerance here.

This means that Donne’s message is still relevant.

The most obvious implication of what he says here is that we have to work hard to find Truth.

However, there are other equally important implications, and one of them in particular is crucial to the work of the Interfaith and makes a core aspect of the Bahá’í path particularly relevant for us in our relations both between ourselves and with the wider community.

Within the interfaith, we are all, in a sense, approaching Truth from different sides of this same mountain. Just because your path looks somewhat different from mine in some respects, it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, yours is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth.

Donne clearly felt so at the time he wrote Satire III:

As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion.

It is clear, if this is as true as I think it is, that we would all move faster upwards if we were able to compare notes humbly and carefully.

I think an aspect of the Bahá’í path is particularly useful for this purpose.

It stems partly from our core beliefs that all the great world religions are in essence one at the spiritual level, coming as they do from the same divine source, and that all of humanity is one at this spiritual level, not just at the level of our increasingly global material connections.

Bahá’u’lláh expresses this second form of unity in powerful terms. We are all created from ‘from the same dust’, and he explains why it is important that we recognise this: ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

It’s perhaps important to clarify that the unity He describes is inclusive of diversity: it does not mean uniformity. So, there will be cultural differences affecting our perspectives, creating a need to reconcile them if problems are to be solved.

This radical concept of oneness and interconnectedness is at the root of two Bahá’í practices that relate to our ability to work together in a way that transcends our differences. The skills appealed to me deeply as a way of enriching my therapeutic work with people whose perspectives on life were causing them painful problems.

One practice is shared by just about every religious tradition to some extent, and perhaps most extensively by Buddhism, which has the longest and richest tradition in this area.

This is termed reflection, meditation or contemplation in the Bahá’í Writings. There is one particular fruit of the meditative process that is most relevant here.

This spiritual skill or discipline helps create the necessary detachment and humility for true consultation to take place, because we are able to step back and withdraw our identification from our thoughts and ideas sufficiently to listen sympathetically and open-mindedly to what others are saying.

My experience as a Bahá’í strongly suggests that the detachment necessary for effective consultation between people cannot be achieved easily or possibly at all without this complementary process within each of us. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Son of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith,  describes it 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.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1972][1] He also uses the terms reflection and contemplation to describe this state of mind. This process is so powerful that a tradition of Islam, quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states, ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ [Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán 1982]

The simplest way of explaining my understanding of what this involves is to use the image of consciousness, or in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms ‘the meditative faculty,’ as a mirror. At one level the mind simply captures as best it can what it experiences just as a mirror captures what’s in front of it.

A deeper implication is that, just as the mirror is not what it reflects but the capacity to reflect, our consciousness is not the same as its contents. To recognize this and develop the capacity to withdraw our identification with the contents of our consciousness, whether these be thoughts, feelings, sensations, or plans, enables us to consult with others effectively and reflect upon, as in ‘think about,’ our experiences, ideas and self-concepts. Once we can do this it becomes easier to change them if they are damaging us or other people.

Acquiring this skill is not easy.

An existential philosopher called Koestenbaum expresses it very clearly in his book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy.

He states that (page 69):

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

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? True reflection at the very deepest level, it seems to me, has to ultimately depend therefore upon the degree of our reliance upon God, but can also be achieved to some degree by disciplined practice alone.

Koestenbaum is optimistic about our ability to acquire this skill (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 what he means is definitely 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.

Reading Koestenbaum has helped to deepen my understanding of this concept.

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. In developing that capacity we will have to strive for perfection and be content with progress, as the saying goes.

As a process within the individual, it is complemented by and interacts with the process of consultation, as we will now explore.

Once we can reflect, we can then consult. Interestingly I see this as a two-way street. Just as reflecting more skilfully makes for better consultation, so does striving to consult properly enhance our ability to reflect.

And consultation makes the creative comparison of paths and perspectives possible, as we will see. As far as I am aware no tradition other than the Bahá’í Writings makes this link between these two skills so clearly nor emphasises so strongly the need for consultation as a dissolver of differences and enhancer of understanding both at a practical and a theoretical level.

Why is all this so important?

A statement on prosperity from the Bahá’í International Community, an NGO at the UN, states a key weakness of our culture’s basic approach:

Debate, propaganda, the adversarial method, the entire apparatus of partisanship that have long been such familiar features of collective action are all fundamentally harmful to its purpose: that is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.

Karlberg, in his book Beyond a Culture of Contest, makes the compelling point that for the most part our culture’s processes are adversarial: our economic system is based on competition, our political system is split by contesting parties and our court rooms decide who has won in the battle between defence and prosecution, rather than on the basis of an careful and dispassionate exploration of the truth. The French courtroom is, apparently, one of the few exceptions.

The Bahá’í International Community explain how we need to transcend our ‘respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals.’ They speak of ‘an atmosphere, characterized by both candour and courtesy’ where ‘ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur during the discussion but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued.’

Karlberg describes this alternative model in far more detail in his book than is possible to include here. His approach is based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is that (page 131: my emphasis):

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

It isn’t too difficult to see how all this might be applied to our interfaith work.

Paul Lample, a member of the Bahá’í supreme body, the Universal House of Justice, explains further (Revelation and Social Reality – page 215):

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context. Consultation is therefore, the practical, dialogical means of continually adjusting relationships that govern power, and, thus, to strive for justice and unity.

So, exactly what is this consultation?

Shoghi Effendi, a central figure in the explication of the Bahá’í faith after the deaths of its Founder, Bahá’u’lláh, and His son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as saying that ‘the purpose of consultation is to show that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1922[2]]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out the qualities required of us if we are to consult effectively. These include ‘purity of motive,’ ‘detachment from all else save God,’ (detachment – that key word again that helps us be united), ‘humility,’ and ‘patience.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1978[3]]

It should be clear by now that bringing those qualities to any process of collective decision-making will be made far easier if participants have already begun to master the art of reflection. In fact the link is so strong that Paul Lample, in his book Revelation & Social Reality,expresses it as follows (page 212): ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

In the light of all this, to summarise the core aspects, we could say that consultation as Bahá’ís understand it, is a spiritually based process of non-adversarial decision-making which assumes that:

  • no one person can formulate anywhere near an adequate representation of the truth. In a study group on consultation I facilitated at a Bahá’í summer school in Scotland last year, one of the participants nailed an extremely important point to the wall of our understanding. He said, ‘Being honest is not the same as being truthful. None of us can be sure what the truth is. That’s why we need to consult.’ An important implication of this is that even when we are convinced we are telling the ‘truth,’ we need to have the detachment to accept we might still have got it wrong, objectively speaking. So,
  • groups of people, if they pool their perspectives in a collaborative fashion, formulate increasingly accurate but still never fool-proof approximations to the truth, and
  • today’s formulation, no matter how useful, may be out-of-date by tomorrow.

Only its proper use can be guaranteed to transcend differences and discover the most effective and constructive lines of action.

The unity we all both desire and need is an ideal that may not be possible without true consultation, which is a spiritual discipline not easily or cheaply achieved.

Hopefully we can all agree that these concepts constitute fruitful food for thought, or do I really mean reflection?

Footnotes:

[1]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:Paris Talks(Bahá’í Publishing Trust UK – pages 173-176).

[2]. `Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in a letter dated 5 March 1922 written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, published in “Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932”, pages 21-22.

[3]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá –number 43.

Read Full Post »

PTSD and war

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

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

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

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

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

keyesdouglas

Keith Douglas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What use is religious practice here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How might reflection help us find meaning?

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

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

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

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

Consultation

But there is one step further we can go.

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

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

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

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

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

Later he adds further illumination (page 215):

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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)

Distraction

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.

Reflection

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.

Read Full Post »

To download the complete materials click this link Upholders of His Oneness v2.

Each day we drove into Strathallan from Dundee. This was because my health issues meant that I needed to make sure I had enough rest each day. Being a resident at summer school means that you have the benefit of more activities but with that goes a greater expenditure of energy that I couldn’t afford this time round.

So, after the long ribbon of the bridge over the shining waters of the Firth of Tay and the 17 miles of dual carriageway under alternating showers and sunshine, we arrived back at the school in time for prayers and Khazeh Fananapazir’s engaging exploration of the significance of this year. Two hundred years ago Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was born in Tehran. This year therefore Bahá’ís are taking every opportunity to remember His life and connect with Him spiritually, as well as to deepen our understanding of the spiritual connection between Bahá’u’lláh as the Manifestation of God for this day and the Báb as His Herald .

After that, and a cup of coffee and a cake, we headed for our workshop.

Consensus Consciousness

It might help if we begin more or less where we left off. Charles Tart in his book Waking Up.’ begins his analysis of social reality and its impact on the individual by contending (page 9) that ‘Consciousness, particularly its perceptual aspects, creates an internal representation of the outside world, such that we have a good quality “map” of the world and our place in it.’ He doesn’t mince words when he describes what he feels is an important correlative of this (page 11): ‘Our ordinary consciousness is not “natural,” but an acquired product. This has given us both many useful skills and many insane sources of useless suffering.’

He chooses to introduce a phrase that captures this (ibid):

. . . [For the phrase ordinary consciousness] I shall substitute a technical term I introduced some years ago, consensus consciousness, as a reminder of how much everyday consciousness has been shaped by the consensus of belief in our particular culture.

He continues (page 59):

. . . . one of our greatest human abilities, and greatest curses, is our ability to create simulations of the world . . . . These simulations, whether or not they accurately reflect the world, can then trigger emotions. Emotions are a kind of energy, a source of power.

In the workshop at Strathallan School we delved deeply into this down side and its costs from a spiritual point of view. In a mystical work of poetic power and great beauty Bahá’u’lláh writes (Seven Valleys – pages 19-20):

Thus it is that certain invalid souls have confined the lands of knowledge within the wall of self and passion, and clouded them with ignorance and blindness, and have been veiled from the light of the mystic sun and the mysteries of the Eternal Beloved; they have strayed afar from the jewelled wisdom of the lucid Faith of the Lord of Messengers, have been shut out of the sanctuary of the All-Beauteous One, and banished from the Ka’bih of splendour. Such is the worth of the people of this age! . . . . .

Clearly, this kind of tunnel vision is more than enough to account for why Bahá’u’lláh can dismiss much of what we think as superstition, illusion, delusion and ‘vain imaginings.’ There was some discussion in the workshop as to whether invalid should be taken to mean ‘sick’ or ‘unconfirmed/inauthentic.’ Fortunately we had the chance to check out with Khazeh, the presenter of the plenary sessions and a reader of both Arabic and Persian, what the word in the original text meant: he said without the slightest hesitation, ‘sick’.

Also, what we see is still very much in the eye of the beholder. In an exploration which compares reality at the spiritual level to the sun, whose pure light is white, Bahá’u’lláh illustrates how different what we observe is from the light itself (pages 19-20):

In sum, the differences in objects have now been made plain. Thus when the wayfarer gazeth only upon the place of appearance–that is, when he seeth only the many-colored globes –he beholdeth yellow and red and white; hence it is that conflict hath prevailed among the creatures, and a darksome dust from limited souls hath hid the world. And some do gaze upon the effulgence of the light; and some have drunk of the wine of oneness and these see nothing but the sun itself.

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that these subjective differences, which result from the imperfections of our vision, can give rise to utterly toxic conflicts, conflicts whose origins are in essence delusional.

Cleansing the Mirror

As individuals, brainwashed by flawed worldviews, what can we do to transcend the resulting limitations?

In exploring this angle on the issue I am not discounting that steps also need to be taken to address the limitations of our culture, but, in seeking to capture the flow of consultation around the quotations we were considering, it’s easiest to start from here and deal with the wider issues later.

Bahá’u’lláh writes (Gleanings – XXVII):

. . . These energies with which the Day Star of Divine bounty and Source of heavenly guidance hath endowed the reality of man lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp. The radiance of these energies may be obscured by worldly desires even as the light of the sun can be concealed beneath the dust and dross which cover the mirror. Neither the candle nor the lamp can be lighted through their own unaided efforts, nor can it ever be possible for the mirror to free itself from its dross. It is clear and evident that until a fire is kindled the lamp will never be ignited, and unless the dross is blotted out from the face of the mirror it can never represent the image of the sun nor reflect its light and glory.

I have dealt at length elsewhere on this blog with the idea of the human heart as a mirror that needs to be burnished if it is to reflect the light of spiritual reality and that we also need to be sure that we do not mistake what is reflected there for the mirror itself. It is enough at this point simply to quote a writer whose insights, along with my experience of Buddhist meditation, helped prepare me to understand Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation sufficiently to choose the path He reveals to us. What this writer says covers what our consultation on the day disclosed to us about the power and challenges of separating consciousness from its contents, a process he calls reflection.

In his brilliant book on existentialism The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy, Peter Koestenbaum 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 feel this brings us in psychotherapeutic terms close to the exact place ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is describing in Paris Talks. These are the quotes we wrestled with at the Summer School, striving to understand the role of silence more fully (page 174-176):

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 at one time — he cannot both speak and meditate.

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. . . .

Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit — the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. . .

Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see.

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

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

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

Therefore let us keep this faculty rightly directed — turning it to the heavenly Sun and not to earthly objects — so that we may discover the secrets of the Kingdom, and comprehend the allegories of the Bible and the mysteries of the spirit.

May we indeed become mirrors reflecting the heavenly realities, and may we become so pure as to reflect the stars of heaven.

Bronze mirror, New Kingdom of Egypt, Eighteenth Dynasty, 1540–1296 BC. For source of image see link.

This paved the way for our attempt to understand the relationship between achieving oneness and cleansing the mirror of the heart, which Bahá’u’lláh describes as burnishing, a process of intense friction involving metal against metal, not just picking up a duster and some polish to bring the shine back to a modern glass mirror. Once again a quick confab with Khazeh confirmed that the original word implied effort and friction. This suggests that Bahá’u’lláh may have had the early metal mirrors in mind when He wished to convey how difficult, even painful, the polishing process would be for the heart’s mirror. A Wikipedia article states:

. . . . stone and metal mirrors could be made in very large sizes, but were difficult to polish and get perfectly flat; a process that became more difficult with increased size; so they often produced warped or blurred images. Stone mirrors often had poor reflectivity compared to metals, yet metals scratch or tarnish easily, so they frequently needed polishing. Depending upon the color, both often yielded reflections with poor color rendering.[6] The poor image quality of ancient mirrors explains 1 Corinthians 13‘s reference to seeing “as in a mirror, darkly.”

The art of making glass mirrors was not perfected until the 16th Century.

If we become capable of polishing the mirror of our hearts, then we can potentially become capable of reflecting the pure undivided light of spiritual reality, thus transcending both our inner conflicts and our conflicts with others.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes this possibility in the following words (Selected Writing of ‘Abdul-Baha 1978 – page 76):

For now have the rays of reality from the Sun of the world of existence, united in adoration all the worshippers of this light; and these rays have, through infinite grace, gathered all peoples together within this wide-spreading shelter; therefore must all souls become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

This then will remedy our current conflicted state, wherein we are at war with ourselves as well as with others. This is Bahá’u’lláh’s description of the challenge we face compared with the reality most of us are blind to (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh = CXII):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

He is unequivocal about the role of religion in this healing process (ibid. – CXXVIII):

The religion of God is for love and unity; make it not the cause of enmity and dissension. . . . Conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book. This is a decree of God in this Most Great Revelation.

And now we come to a cusp where we move from looking mainly at the individual to where we look at the community. And here it is that we will see where words can change from misleading labels or names, corrupted by misguided worldviews, to lamps of guidance.

That needs to wait for the next post.

When we got back to Dundee that evening, from the window of the flat where we were staying we could see the lights of a cruiser docked at the harbour side. Though purely material, it had a beauty of its own.

Read Full Post »

Beech hedge

As I noted briefly on this blog, I’ve been reading back through the notes I took from Peter Koestenbaum’s book The New Image of the Person. That reminded me of this poem which I couldn’t resist republishing.

Letter to a dear Friend in Winter

I wanted to see now
Without then between. How
Impossible! Yet hope haunts me.
The colours of regret stain you
And everything. O for the white
Light of outdoors,
Not church colours!
At times, pain forced me into flight
Towards desolate pleasures, through
Bars, packs of shuffling days: each lie
Weakened my hold on any vow.

Now I scribble a lot
Searching for what is not.
The sunrise of autumn hedgerows
Warned me about this mud and stone
Sky. Beech leaves cling like memories –
Dry, brittle, dust-
Coloured. I must
Make sense of what all sense denies.
Cells, nerves, too feeble on their own
To decipher what the snail shows,
Or the corpse whose wheels of mind rot.

Once I held a fledgeling
At point of death – I’d sing
Of death who’d never watched the last
Act’s surrender or victory –
A sigh was all betrayed the change –
No, not sigh – death –
But flight of breath –
Quiet sundering to unhinge
The gate of thought! When our mind’s eye
No longer detects in the vast
Dark the flame to which we cling

What has become of us?
Here is the syllabus.
Where is the teacher and the school?
At this question all our endeavour
Ends. Perhaps it’s better to ask:
‘What if the mind
Fails to find,
On the bleak shore where the dead bask,
The shelter it always yearns for,
Are we to suppose it a fool
As it scours the dark for warm places?’

I’ve no affinity
With God as Trinity
For sure, since my need for answers
Finds finespun theology wide
Of the mark. So, here I stand.
My evidence
Preserved silence
In the question of my still hand,
A small ball whose still feathers hid
Still warm flesh. Nothing reassures.
I felt the infinity

Between fledgling and meat
Silence my every thought . . . .
Until the habit of thinking
Resumed its race to run the truth
To ground. If this opportunity
Beneath the skies,
Though shared with flies
And blind with relativity,
Is not to be wasted like my youth,
From my heart’s earth love must spring
– God knows how I’ll choose to act.

Pete Hulme Text © 1982[1]


[1] This is a poem written in the year I became a Bahá’í and reflects the struggles I was having then which are explored from a different angle in Irreducible Mind (2/3).

Read Full Post »

When I started blogging in 2009, I thought I was embarking upon something radically different from anything I’d ever done before. Now I am fairly sure that was not the case.

Recently I went back to my journal entries of 1982 because I wanted to read through the notes I had taken from Peter Koestenbaum’s book New Image of the Person: Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. Because I wanted to catch all the quotations, I read through the pages of my journal more carefully than I usually do when only checking out a date or a name. It didn’t take long to show that it had taken me over a month to read the book, and my notes are interspersed with personal, psychological, existential and spiritual reflections, with groups of quotations from other books I was also reading at the same time thrown in, including Albert Camus’s The Plague. A very familiar pattern that clearly hadn’t started with this blog.

Basically, my diary was where I did all my thinking before I transferred part of it to my blogging. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! The only real difference is that my diary was not in the public domain.

Levels of Consciousness 

In looking at my Koestenbaum notes I find many things I will want to come back to in due course. The first thing that is perhaps worth flagging up, given the themes I have explored on this blog, is the section of notes about levels of consciousness.

If you had asked me on oath where was the first place I had read about this idea I might have said Jenny Wade or Jeremy Rifkin, with a possible nod at Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. I’d know it couldn’t have been  Ken Wilber or Kazimierz Dąbrowski, neither of whom I read on the subject till much later. It would never have occurred to me that Koestenbaum was even in the mix, let alone the first person to run those words past my brain.

What does he have to say about levels? Well, part of the reason I still resonate to some of what he says is that it is rooted in the process he calls reflection, which I have dealt with at length on this blog. This basically involves separating consciousness from its contents to the maximum extent possible, a process he tracks through various stages.

Koestenbaum’s model boasts six levels. He explains these over half a dozen pages or so (pages 77 -82).

The first stage, our starting point as it were, is where there is ‘no experienced distance between consciousness and object… we call this condition of consciousness the animal consciousness.’ The act of stepping back brings you to the second level: “eidetic or abstract consciousness,” in short to the ability to think. Next we reach “individual consciousness… [t]his level of consciousness thinks of itself as an individual and isolated self…’

This is where it really begins to get interesting.

The next ‘deepened level of consciousness is called the intersubjective or intimate consciousness… 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.”

What I am going to say now is extremely subjective. I’m going to say it anyway. When I was working well as a therapist, how I experienced the interaction between the client and me is almost exactly captured by those words. I felt as though I was in a quasi-meditative state which had opened an airlock, to borrow from his metaphor, in between my consciousness and the client’s, and the client had reciprocated. All sorts of factors could interfere with that process either on my side or on theirs, however it happened sufficiently often to make effective therapy possible.

As I reflect on this thought now, it seems to me that for consultation in a Bahá’í sense to work (something I have also explored at great length on this blog), something analogous has to happen at a group level. This is where he goes next, I think.

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.’ I don’t think by this he necessarily means the hive effect Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind. That promotes not wisdom but instinctive groupthink, or on a larger scale harmless collective, or sometimes even dangerous mob behaviour, rather than reflective cohesion of any kind.

I can again subjectively attest to something like this happening when I worked over a period of 25 years with a small group of others sincerely attempting to make decisions about all kinds of matters from the mundanely practical, through the highly emotional to the deeply spiritual. The group changed its members one or two at a time over the years as a result of an annual electoral process, but this did nothing to impair the sense of collective consciousness, one which, far from creating mindless conformity, encouraged the honest expression of diverse opinions while containing such differences within an ultimately harmonious frame.

The next two levels I have no personal experience of myself, but feel that the mystical literature testifies to something of this kind, including at points the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh.

The fifth stage is ‘cosmic consciousness’ where ‘the social consciousness becomes now the object of our consciousness… With this reduction we have reached the experience of universality.’

This may be at least in part what Bahá’u’lláh is describing when, in the Seven Valleys, He writes (page 18):

[The wayfarer] looketh on all things with the eye of oneness, and seeth the brilliant rays of the divine sun shining from the dawning point of Essence alike on all created things, and the lights of singleness reflected over all creation

He explains that differences are in the eye of us as beholder. He describes how the light we see is affected by the object it falls upon (page 19):

. . . colours become visible in every object according to the nature of that object. For instance, in a yellow globe, the rays shine yellow; in a white the rays are white; and in a red, the red rays are manifest.

This does nothing to detract from the pure whiteness of the original light itself, its inclusion of all differences in one. I absolutely believe in the reality of this level of awareness, even though it has eluded my consciousness so far. The essential unity of all things is hard to discern behind the material differences.

And the sixth and last level is even further beyond my reach. It 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.’

Rovelli has managed to explain lucidly how at least one theory of physics suggests there is such a realm wrapped inside quantum reality.

He believes that the evidence as we best understand it, from a loop theory point of view (he’s not a fan of string theory), is that matter is not infinitely divisible and there comes a point where it cannot be divided anymore at the quantum level. When he is talking about space, the quanta he is concerned with are the quanta of gravity, which constitute space itself (page 148): ‘the quanta of gravity, that is, are not in space, there are themselves space.’ What is crucial is the relationship between particles, their interconnections. He clarifies this by saying (page 150):

Physical space is the fabric resulting from the ceaseless swarming of this web of relations. The lines [between quanta] themselves are nowhere; they are not in a place but rather create places through their interactions. Space is created by the interaction of individual quanta of gravity.

This is how space disappears. Now for time (page 158):

We must learn to think of the world not as something which changes in time but in some other way. Things change only in relation to one another. At a fundamental level, there is no time. Our sense of the common passage of time is only an approximation which is valid for our macroscopic scale. It derives from the fact that we perceive the world in a coarse-grained fashion.

I think all this may go some way to explaining why I found Koestenbaum so fascinating in the first place and why I feel moved to revisit the notes I took all those years ago. Also I feel that my previous habit of restricting my quotes from his book to those relating to reflection only has rather sold him short. This is the beginning of my attempt to make up for that.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »