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Last time

I am getting close to the main road at this point.

‘Can I stick my oar in quickly here for a sec?’

‘Of course,’ Fred replies.

‘Do you remember what that system of continuous conscious breathing was called?’ I ask.

Another silence. I break it this time.

‘Rebirthing.’

‘But the baby’s been born already and is buried now.’

‘Yes, but in a chamber of my heart. How like a womb might that feel. Perhaps I can leave you to ponder on that just now. I’ve got to pick up some shopping on my way home. I can’t deal with that and focus on this as well.’

This is met with a chorus of agreement.

* * * *

The following morning Alan phones to ask me to meet him at the cemetery. He wants to check out their tearoom for the wake. I was hoping to have time to think about what my parliament of selves is wrestling with, and maybe tune in to their conversation again, but know that my first responsibility is to support him in his grief.

The parking is free at the cemetery so we agree to meet up there in half an hour.

The sting in the tail of winter has not struck as yet. The sun is shining on the graves among the grass as I drive up. Alan is already there waiting for me as I clamber out of my car.

‘How goes?’ I ask knowing exactly what his answer will be.

‘Don’t ask.’

We head off to the tearoom in the converted chapel. The long narrow path between the jumble of graves, with headstones straining to stay upright, leads to a door with a sign telling us the door is closed and to go round the other side.

We step through the main door at the back into a small anteroom leading to the cafe area. The high ceiling, white walls and leaded windows create a light and peaceful atmosphere enriched rather than dispelled by the faint echoes bouncing off the stone of the walls.

Alan is clearly impressed.

‘Jane would’ve loved this.’

‘I’m glad. D’you fancy a coffee while you ponder on this as a venue?’

‘Good idea.’ He goes off to sit at a table in the far corner. I go to the deserted counter at the opposite end. Within seconds a bundle of energy in a green apron bustles in.

‘Hi. I’m Ellen. What would you like?’

‘One Americano and a large cappuccino, please.’

‘Coming right up. Isn’t it a beautiful day? So much sunlight.’

‘Dead right it is. This is a beautiful place you’ve got here.’

‘Thank you. Chocolate on your cappuccino?’

‘How could I drink it without?’

She grins and says, ‘Please take a seat and I’ll bring them over.’

Alan is lost in thought. I sit down.

‘Do you mind if I just pop out while she’s making the coffees? I need to take a look at my mum’s grave. It’s just by the path we came in on.’

No, of course not.’

Within seconds, Ellen comes with the coffees.

‘Thanks, Ellen. My friend’s just popped out to look at a family grave.’

She nods and turns to go.

‘Just a quick word,’ I add. ‘He’s just lost his wife and is thinking of using your cafe for the wake after the burial here.’

‘No problem,’ she says. ‘Just come and chat to me before you leave.’

As I stir the chocolate into my coffee, the sound of voices begins to ring inside my head again.

‘We’ve been thinking about this rebirthing idea. How d’you reckon it would work?’ Pancake tries to hide her sceptical tone behind a veil of simulated sympathy.

‘I’m not absolutely sure,’ I admit, ‘but it might be worth my trying the continuous breathing till the tears come flooding up again if they do, and then persist for much longer than I’ve ever done before, to see where it leads.’

‘That makes a kind of sense.’ Mires was always likely to be the first one on board with this idea. Even if it doesn’t work this is the kind of experiment he is always keen to try.

Indie is nodding as Humfreezes speaks. ‘If that’s what you want we’ll give it a go, but I’m not convinced. I know it’s a form of meditation but it’s not the kind I see as the most effective.’

Pancake scowls but doesn’t actively disagree. Wordless is speechless.

‘So as soon as I can get some time alone, we’ll give it a go then?’ I check out.

‘It looks like it’ Mires confirms.

The cafe door opens again and Alan comes back and sits down.

‘I still miss her.’

I nod sympathetically.

His coffee is almost cold. He gulps it down quickly.

‘D’you like this place? Will it do?’ I ask.

‘I think so. Just Jane’s kind of spot. Let’s see what they have to say.’

It doesn’t take long for him to agree the details with Ellen at the counter. I can’t resist slipping in a question.

‘When was the chapel converted?’

‘Just three years back we finished it, my husband and I.’

‘You’ve done a really good job. What made you take this on?’

‘Well, I was a florist for 25 years, and then my daughter died in a road accident.’

‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’

‘My husband and I wanted something to give our lives meaning after that. He’s a builder.’

‘You mean he did the whole conversion?’

‘Basically, yes.’

‘I take my hat off to you both! That’s amazing.’

‘We’re so glad we did it. It cost us a lot of time and money but it’s been worth it. I have never enjoyed any job so much as this one.’

‘And it’s helping people as well.’

‘Yes. That’s part of the reward of it all.’

Alan was beginning to look a bit restless.

‘We’ll come back soon and discuss the details when we’re clearer about how many are coming,’ he cut across.

‘Of course,’ Ellen smiled and shook his hand and mine.

I’m not sure about Alan, but I left carrying with me a feeling of warmth and admiration for this lady. Even moments of grief can bring encounters with inspiration.

* * * *

My wife has gone to Birmingham for the day with her friend, to do some shopping and see a film.

This is the best chance I’ll get for quite some time to try and exhume or rebirth my buried self. I’m quite anxious about it though. In the past when I have used this method of continuous breathing there has always been someone else there who was familiar with the process. This time I’ll be on my own except for the parliament of selves inside my head.

They’d never forgive me if I back out now. We have all agreed to use this time for this purpose.

I decide I’ll be more comfortable in my pyjamas and dressing gown, lying on the bed rather than on the floor. My wife won’t be back till after 11 in the evening, so we’ve got more than 12 hours. It should be more than long enough.

I change and lie down before trying to get in touch. It takes a few minutes before I hear anything. Maybe they are just as nervous as I am.

It’s Indie who speaks first.

‘Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?’

‘As sure as I’ll ever be.’

‘Can you manage this by yourself, d’you think?’ Mires asks, wearing his therapist’s hat.

‘I’ll have to. There’s no other way. I don’t feel comfortable now going to another therapist. I know how the process works and there’s no real risk involved.’

‘Suppose you discover something really horrific?’ he insists.

‘I think, if there had been any really terrible skeletons in my cupboard I’d have had some hints from my parents. My mum wasn’t one to leave a scary tale untold.’

‘OK. If you’re sure . . .’ he concedes.

‘Let’s get on with it.’

‘And let’s hope this sees the last of all this mumbo-jumbo,’ Wordless hisses through gritted teeth.

It’s a good job we don’t have to have everyone on board for this to work, unlike with the séance.

As usual the first half hour or more is uneventful. I steer my customary careful course between hypo- and hyperventilating. There is the usual slight buzzing in the head and occasional tingling, when I overdo the breathing a bit. I am possibly biasing the process slightly by scanning my chest for the beating of my heart as I’ve half-convinced myself that this is where it will all be happening.

Then something strange and unexpected begins to happen. I’m not getting any well of tears. I seem to be floating. I’m not sure whether it’s on water or through the air. It’s a very odd sensation. A little bit scary, in fact. It’s getting slightly harder to keep breathing. It’s as though I may be under water or high in the air. More likely the latter as I can get some air into my lungs. I’m not choking in water.

‘What’s going on?’ Indie shouts, sounding quite worried.

I find I can’t even think to explain. I can just about keep breathing.

I feel as though I am picking up speed. I open my eyes briefly and see the bedroom is the same as always. It’s just my body feeling as though I’m being propelled along. I close my eyes again and keep breathing. I’m not sure whether it’s some kind of near death or near birth experience. If anything it feels like a bit of both. Am I flying or in danger of drowning? The roaring that is starting in my ears could be either.

It’s then I remember my situation in Much Wenlock. I was trembling, and as I breathed the trembling just went on and on. It was only when the therapist said I needed to let go and accept whatever it was that was struggling into consciousness that things changed dramatically and immediately. Am I in the same kind of situation again? Do I need simply to let go and stop puzzling over this experience?

‘Yes, let go! Let go!’ It’s Indie again. ‘That’s what I had to do when you all called me. If I hadn’t let go I’d still be shut away, locked in my distrust and isolation. Let go!’

With a quick prayer, as I did last time, I let go. The only way I can describe what happens next is to say that it seems as though I have just burst my head through the surface of a lake or risen above the mist and clouds into brilliant sunshine, except that I don’t see it – I just feel that this is how it is. It is even more intense than the dream I had in my teens of floating on my back supported by the clouds below that were carrying me along. It is freedom. It is beauty. I am truly alive at last. I burst into tears of joy this time, not grief.

Then came the thought. ‘You have left the tomb of your parents’ grief at last.’[1]

To be honest, I’m not quite sure whether the thought said womb or tomb. It felt like both in a way. Whichever it is, it feels like being reborn.

‘You’ve done it,’ screams Indie.

‘Well done,’ shouts Mires and Humfreeze together.

‘I’m not sure what happened there but it seemed to go all right,’ chipped in the more hesitant Pancake.

‘What happened exactly?’ I ask in a state of mild bewilderment. Right now I can interact with them in the usual way and my sense of floating or flying has completely disappeared.

‘At first you seemed to disappear into the chamber of your heart, which became translucent, and then you blended into the infant we had buried, I think. We lost sight of you completely,’ Mires explains quietly. ‘What happened next is a bit confusing. The chamber seemed to dissolve completely and the child – it’s a toddler now – tottered out into a brilliant light and you were suddenly back on the bed in full sight. All very weird.’

‘Where’s the toddler now?’ I’m anxious about whether he’s all right.

Pancake chips in. ‘Indie has taken him to a quiet place to calm him down. He – at least we think it’s a he but are not completely sure – is excited and upset at the same time. He’s fine though. He’ll live!’

We all fall silent for a few moments.

‘So, what do you reckon happened and why?’ I’m really keen to get some clarity on all this.

‘Well, I hate to say this but it looks as though Fred might have been right after all.’ Humfreeze pulls a sour face to hide his smile.

‘How d’you mean?’

‘It looks like when you were in the womb you were floating in a pool of pain in a way. I don’t literally mean the amniotic fluid. What I’m trying to say is that while you were enveloped in the fluid in the womb, the signals you were getting from your mother were all about loss, pain and grief. It was almost intolerable. We know your body can’t remember all this in detail, though the emotional centre of your brain will have recorded the intensity of this without knowing where it came from. Your soul might have been able to remember it, but none of us can tune into that dimension. When you were born you could not leave it behind. You have carried it with you ever since, till now at least. The fact that your brain held onto the pain and grief with no idea of the circumstances that generated it means that your whole life has been clouded at times, maybe most of the time, by a mist of loss and pain.’

Mires nods as Humfreeze speaks.

I lie there stunned and yet relieved. It makes a kind of sense. I know intuitively that there is still a long way to go before my toddler self can mature to the point of joining with the rest of us as we work at creating a single sense of a unified self that can perhaps become capable, if not of tuning directly into spiritual reality, at least of developing a clearer sense than ever before of the direction that this transcendent reality requires me to take for the rest of my remaining days.

‘Yea, verily,’ Pancake chants, having overheard my every thought. ‘Let’s hope there’ll be more action then and a lot less rumination.’

‘There she goes again,’ Wordless says, breaking his silence at last. ‘It’s not going to be easy making space for my poetry and her treadmill.’

Yes, I think to myself, we’ve got a really long way to go still.

I find myself wondering whether this will help me be of more use to Alan in his grief. Only time will tell.

Footnote:

[1]. It’s possibly worth mentioning that I wrote this episode before reading Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, particularly pages 228-233, which describe one man’s intense spiritual and healing experiences under the influence of a carefully controlled dose of psilocybin. The parallels were slightly uncanny.

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Head of Man with Red Eyes (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

The nurse ushers us into a side room.

‘As soon as we know anything, we’ll come and tell you,’ she whispers. ‘Please make some coffee if you want.’

She closes the door quietly behind her. There is a kettle, two stainless steel containers, one with instant coffee and the other with tea bags by the looks. There are no cups in sight.

In the far corner a woman sits by her handbag, head bowed, looking at the screen of her phone. All the time she’s with us, she doesn’t scan it with her fingers.

Alan and I sit down opposite a painting of blue irises. He is too stunned to speak much. I sit quietly beside him. We wait for someone to come and tell us what is happening.

A woman with an apron comes in gently. She checks the cupboard.

‘You don’t have any cups. I’ll go and get some.’ She smiles at us and leaves.

Alan and I smile faintly at each other. His eyes are red with weeping.

The door opens again.

‘I’ve brought some cups for you. The milk’s in the fridge below,’ she explains, opening its door before she goes again.

We sit there and do nothing.

In the silence I become faintly aware of a movement at the back of my mind. I try not to take any notice. My job is to watch out for Alan, not disappear into my own inscape.

The movement becomes more insistent. It feels as though someone is standing right behind my eyes.

‘We have another self to exhume.’

I recognise the voice straightaway as Indie’s. This is a bit of a shock, to say the least. It’s a good 18 months since I heard anything from my parliament of selves.

‘What d’you mean, exhume?’ I telegraph silently.

‘We buried him in a chamber of your heart when we were all very small.’

The door opens. Indie vanishes from my mind. A doctor and two nurses come in. One of the nurses talks quietly to the woman with the phone and she leaves looking slightly upset.

The three of them sit down opposite us.

‘I’m Mr McGrave, Senior Cardiologist. There’s no easy way for us to tell you this, Mr White.’

Alan moves uneasily in his seat and makes a slight choking noise.

‘When she came in her heart had stopped,’ he goes on. ‘We used every means we could to start it beating again but we couldn’t get a pulse. She wasn’t breathing on her own either. We tried several times, but scans showed major damage to one ventricle of the heart indicating that it would no longer be able to work. There were significant toxins in the blood as well.’

‘We’re so sorry to have to tell you this,’ the blond nurse adds.

Alan can no longer hold back his sobs.

‘We’ll leave you now to process this’ the bearded nurse explained. ‘We’ll come back after a while and if you wish we can take you to the room where her body is so you can see her. Would you like that?’

Alan nods.

I put my arm on Alan’s shoulder as he tries to regain his composure. He begins to calm down.

‘Would a coffee help?’ I ask.

He nods.

As I wait for the kettle to boil, I can’t stop Indie insisting I listen to her.

‘We entombed a child self,’ she says. ‘He just wouldn’t stop moaning and crying. We couldn’t comfort him. He asked us to hide him away somewhere under the ground of your heart. We agreed. It seemed kinder to smother him out of sight, but we knew he wouldn’t die. You know that, don’t you?’

‘Please can we deal with this later,’ I plead in my mind, even though I am desperate to know more. ‘Alan is my priority right now.’

‘We have to do something. Soon. We can’t leave him there any longer. He’s the only one left out in the cold now. When can we talk?’

Before I can answer the kettle boils and she disappears again.

‘You don’t take sugar, do you?’ I ask simply to break the silence.

‘You know I don’t.’

‘Yes, of course. It’s amazing how these situations can get you muddled, though.’

I pause.

‘Jane didn’t drink coffee at all, did she?’

‘Not after the blood pressure problem, no.’

‘I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, to be married all those years to someone younger than you, and suddenly to find she’s gone.’

Alan doesn’t reply.

‘Losing my mother was different. She was in her seventies, and in those days, when she died, that was a good age. We were expecting it.’

I wasn’t sure any of this was helping but didn’t feel like lapsing back into silence.

He stares at the floor.

I carry the cups across, give him his and sit down next to him with mine.

‘What happened exactly – if you can bear to tell me that is?’

He pauses for a moment.

‘It was a complete shock. She was feeling sick overnight, but I didn’t think anything of it. I thought she’d just eaten too much the evening before. It was only when she got up and was violently sick that I began to worry.’

He stops again for a moment to regain his composure.

“Please don’t carry on if it’s too hard.’

‘No, no. It’s all right. I want to tell you. She was so sick she couldn’t stand. That was when I rang for the ambulance. She was still conscious when they took her away. I really figured she’d be OK. When I got to the hospital, I rang you when I realised it was a lot worse than I thought.’

‘I’m glad you did,’ I reply, putting my hand on his shoulder.

I can’t think of anything else to say.

Before Indie can return, as I fear she might, the door opens again and the blond nurse comes back in.

‘You can see your wife now, Mr White, if that’s still OK.’

He nods and stands. I stand with him and we follow the nurse out of the door, turn right and then into a set of double doors just down the corridor on the right. Someone holds the door for us as the nurse goes in ahead to pull back a blue screen to reveal the body. This is the second body I’ve seen in the last two years, but this one is not so carefully adorned and arranged as the one in the hospice had been. One sheet, and under that a surgical gown, her body, now deserted, and no flowers.

As Alan bends down to kiss his wife on the cheek he breaks into sobs again.

I put my hand on his back and rest my gaze on what I can see of her hair, just beginning to be flecked with grey. As he stands again, stifling his sobs and holding her hand, I see her mouth. It’s open as though she is gasping for air, but she is too still for that. With my hand on his back and my eyes on her face my awareness of the room fades.

There is a conversation going on in hushed tones in the back of my mind.

‘I think we’d better wait till he’s out of this situation before we try and talk to him again.’ I recognise the deep voice and clipped vowels. It’s Mires, saying what you’d expect of a sensitive psychologist.

‘I don’t agree. It’s not fair to leave it too long. You all rescued me when I thought I was alone forever. I know how it feels to be abandoned. I don’t want to do that to someone else.’ I don’t have to hear her voice to realise that only Indie would have known what it was like to be in that predicament.

A brittle woman’s voice breaks in. ‘I’ll just go along with whatever you all feel. I’m right out of my depth in this kind of stuff.’ This is a surprise. Emma Pancake, usually the one to rush into action, doesn’t know what to do.

‘That’s one for my diary,’ flashes through my brain. Fortunately, they’re too busy talking to hear my thoughts right now.

‘I agree we should wait. I need more time to think about this.’ No surprise there, then. Humfreeze, the master meditator, remains true to type.

‘I think we should go now,’ Alan cuts across.

I jerk out of my reverie.

‘Yes, of course.’

We head for the door. The nurse waiting outside steps in to close the screen again.

‘Please wait in the room again and someone will be with you shortly to explain what you need to do next,’ she explains gently.

It doesn’t take long for the tall male nurse to slide in with a small folder and hand over a booklet with all the information needed about the steps to take to prepare the funeral arrangements, get the body moved and close the dead wife’s bank account. I don’t even have to take notes for Alan who looks as though his mind is somewhere else.

When the man goes we wait a few seconds. Alan stands and puts on his coat. I walk him home mostly in silence – the hospital car park is far too expensive for us to use.

As we reach his gate, I ask ‘Will you be OK?’

‘I’ll be all right. I just need some time to myself.’

‘Ring me if you need me, otherwise we’ll meet on Wednesday to plan what you need to do next, yes?’

‘Not too early. Come round about 11.’

‘OK.’

He fumbles for his keys as he walks up the path to his door. I wait till he closes it behind him before walking slowly back to my place over the river.

As I walk along the quiet footpath towards the pedestrian bridge over the river, I hear them at it again.

‘Can you listen to us now,’ Humfreeze asks.

‘Yes, Chris, I can,’ I hear myself think.

Though we’re in for another Siberian-born Scorpion sting in the tail of winter, flecks of cherry blossom are just beginning to appear.

‘We want to set a time for another séance. That seems the best way to get the infant back. It worked well last time with Indie,’ ’ he explained, with just a faint trace of self-congratulation over his key role as medium in reconnecting with her.

‘I’m not sure about that,’ Mires interjected. ‘This situation seems slightly different. With Indie we didn’t know whether she existed or not, let alone where she was. She was like a possible ghost to us. In this case, three of us definitely remember deciding to put the baby out of its misery without actually killing it. Even Indie thinks she can remember being involved in that, which makes a kind of sense, in that it would have happened before her consciousness split off from the rest of us. I don’t think it’s a séance we need.’

As I cross the bridge and glance quickly down the river to my left, the sun comes out from behind a cloud, lighting up the surface of the water. I’m dazzled.

‘So what’s your suggestion, Fred?’ Humfreeze asks with the air of a man who knows there is no other way.

‘Breathing meditation.’

‘Are you joking or what, Fred?’ Pancake bursts in. ‘OK. I got the séance point in the end. It was a crazy long shot but it worked. What’s meditation got to do with this? Or are you just pandering to Chris’ ego and giving him a key role in a different shape?’

‘You don’t remember what Pete said about his work on his operation, do you?’

‘Yes, I do. But he did quite a bit of breathwork and the only concrete thing he ever found out was about the operation, and that’s how we ended up getting in touch with Indie. Surely, if there was anyone else accessible to heavy breathing he’d’ve found out by now.’ Pancake is clearly getting really fed up of all this flaky New Age stuff.

Mires presses the point. ‘But even if he did a lot of breathwork, did he really do enough?’

‘Why wouldn’t he have done?’ Pancake isn’t going to give in without a fight.

Mires pauses and takes a deep breath. ‘You’ll need to give me some space to explain.’ He was well aware of Pancake’s talent for interrupting.

She nods. He picks up his thread.

‘From what I’ve read the traumas we’ve experienced are stored in a kind of hierarchy in our heads – the more recent, the more accessible. As you access the ones nearer the surface, so the ones lower down become easier to reach. Often working on a difficult one exhausts us and we stop, sometimes for a while, sometimes indefinitely.’

‘Is there a shred of real evidence for that?’ Pancake’s reservoir of patience is shallow at the best of times.

‘It depends upon what you call real evidence.’ Mires is biting his tongue with difficulty. ‘There’s qualitative support for it.’

‘You mean anecdotal evidence, don’t you, Fred?’

‘Not exactly. Groups of individual cases stack up to more than an anecdote. Can I carry on now?’

She nods.

‘I think we can all agree that the hospital trauma came after whatever led to the infant howling all the time. And you all realise, from listening in to Pete’s thoughts as he writes his diary, that he knows that the well of tears he tapped into when he first did the continuous conscious breathing has never gone away. What does that suggest, d’you think?’

There is a long silence.

‘Unfinished business,’ Indie suggests.

‘Exactly, Indie. Unfinished business.’

‘But what kind of unfinished business, for heaven’s sake?’ Pancake can’t stay quiet for long.

‘Well, I’m really sticking my neck out here, but Jung gave a lecture at the Tavistock Clinic in 1935, and spoke about a young girl whose condition had baffled him[1] until, as he put it, “I realised afterwards, she had never been born entirely.” We know that Pete’s mum was pregnant in wartime and that her daughter had died just before the start of the war. This was a seriously traumatic time. One shock was not really processed before a series of other shocks followed. Bombing raids were probably just a part of it. She gave birth before the war was over. What sort of start in life was that? What sort of birth process was it, do we think? A calm and reassuring separation from the womb or an alarming ejection into a frightening world?’

‘And how is all this going to help me write poetry?’ Wordless finds his voice at last. ‘It’s all up your street, Fred. I can see that plainly enough. Polysyllabic psychobabble! But some of us have got better fish to fry.’

Humfreeze just glares at him a moment before picking up the thread again. The meditation angle is enough to keep him on board.

‘Bill’s off message as usual, but I can see where you are coming from, Fred,’ He says almost sympathetically. ‘How does that help, though, even if it’s true? And what’s it got to do with breathing? I can see how the breathing would work in recovering memories of chloroform in a five year old, but I’m not sure about that with a new born baby.’

I am getting close to the main road at this point.

‘Can I stick my oar in quickly here for a sec?’

‘Of course,’ Fred replies.

‘Do you remember what that system of continuous conscious breathing was called?’ I ask.

Another silence. I break it this time.

‘Rebirthing.’

‘But the baby’s been born already and is buried now.’

‘Yes, but in a chamber of my heart. How like a womb might that feel. Perhaps I can leave you to ponder on that just now. I’ve got to pick up some shopping on my way home. I can’t deal with that and focus on this as well.’

This is met with a chorus of agreement.

(More of this next time)

Footnote:

[1] This is mentioned among other places in Samuel Beckett: the last modernist by Anthony Cronin (page 221) and Samuel Beckett: crossroads and borderlines by ‪Marius Buning, Matthijs Engelberts and Sjef Houppermans (page 129).

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Autumn Garden

After my relatively recent preoccupation with dreams it seems appropriate to republish this sequence which is a fictional attempt to project my inscape into words. Dreams and day dreams feature quite a lot!

In the last post, I describe how William Wordless, Frederick Mires and I had been arguing over how to combine breadth of interests with depth of exploration. Then we joined the main path back to the cafe, with the games and picnic area on our left and the redwood grove in the middle distance on our right.

It’s too cold a day for the picnic area. As we look ahead we see Indira Pindance, our vulnerable new friend, and Emma Pancake, activist and pamphleteer, huddled at a table using steaming cups to warm their hands. They appear to be waiting for us.

‘Where’s Chris?’ I ask when we’re in earshot.

‘Sitting on a bench under a tree somewhere, I expect, waiting for enlightenment to strike,’ Pancake sarks. ‘What have you been doing?’

‘Arguing as usual,’ Mires sours.

‘What about?’ Pindance asks anxiously. She’s always sensitive to any hint of animosity.

‘Books mainly. Well, not exactly. About whether reflection will help us get more out of what we do including reading books,’ I attempt to explain.

‘Reading is a waste of time,’ Pancake flatly declares. ‘There’s not enough time as it is if we are going to change things for the better before we die. Wasting it on books is a crime against humanity.’ She’s just trying to be annoying now, and may be succeeding.

‘Don’t talk such rubbish,’ Mires shouts, catching the bait as usual. ‘Without books you won’t understand the reality you are trying to improve.’ Pancake barely manages to conceal a triumphant grin behind her coffee.

‘I think we need to have Chris here as well if we’re going to be able to talk about this calmly and constructively,’ I suggest.

‘I’ll go and find him. I think I know where he is.’ Pindance has made a strong connection with Humfreeze from the very beginning. He was the one who made first contact and encouraged her to come out of the shadows and loneliness of her earlier existence. She runs off up the path towards the Autumn Garden.

‘Anyone else want a drink I ask?’

‘Coffee for me,’ says Wordless.

‘Tea for me,’ says Mires.

‘D’you need a hand?’ Pancake asks.

‘I can manage,’ I answer with an echo of Pindance’s original independence script. ‘Are we staying outside?’

‘I think it would be better,’ Pancake advises, ‘given the way the conversation might unfold when we’re all together.’

By the time I come back with the drinks Christopher Humfreeze, meditator extraordinaire, has joined us with Pindance sitting next to him.

‘Sorry, Chris, did you want a drink?’ I ask in a tone that indicates that a refusal would be welcome at this point.

‘No thanks.’ Humfreeze waves his bottle of water vaguely in the air. ‘This is healthier.’

‘Have the others brought you up to speed, Chris?’ I ask as I squeeze awkwardly into the gap between the attached bench seat and the wooden table, almost spilling my coffee over Mires as I do so. I must remember to always put my drink down before performing acrobatics.

‘They have.’

‘So, what do you think?’

‘Well, I daresay you can guess, and it’s not gone down well with Fred and Emmie. Not sure about Indie. She’s not said anything yet.’

‘Well, fill me in anyway, Chris.’

‘OK. I personally don’t think there’s any need to read obsessively or keep constantly busy. We should just meditate consistently – then we’ll do only what really needs to be done and read only what needs to be read, and no more.’ He paused, then added ‘Simples,’ in Meercat style with a defiant grin on his face.

‘But how do you know that the books you haven’t read are not for you right now? You can’t know till you start reading them surely,’ came Mires’s predictable response.

‘Surely you learn more from direct contact with reality, than you can ever get from a book, and meditation in a vacuum, cut off from the oxygen of the ordinary world, is a fast train to lala land,’ came Pancake’s attempt to refute them both.

‘Only if you refuse to believe you can access a wiser self through silence and solitude,’ Humfreeze snapped back. ‘Our wiser self has access to levels of consciousness deeper and broader than any book, but it’s hard to reach and hear it in the distracting hubbub of the social world.’

‘We’re in danger of creating another stand off if we carry on like this. That’s not what we agreed we would do from now on. We need to work together on a solution that works for us all, not just for one of us.’ Mires is remembering his psychology at last.

‘That’s going to be easier said than done,’ Pancake chips in. ‘It’s not easy to step back from the habits of a lifetime, especially ones we feel are vital to our survival as ourselves, at that.’

Wordless nods in agreement. ‘I’d like to hear from Pindance. I bet she has a different view of things again.’

She looks hesitant and uncertain but manages to speak at last.

‘Do you remember, Pete, a long time ago, over coffee in a basement kitchen, a good friend of yours who died recently, shared a great idea.’

‘I’m not sure what you mean, Indie.’

‘You were telling him how hard it was to focus on what you needed to do. He asked “Why don’t you try time-banding?” Do you remember now?’

‘I do,’ I said softly. ‘It was such an important idea, and yet so simple. Just put a fence round certain spans of time and do nothing but what you have planned to do in that time frame. It might even be only an hour, but protect it from distraction. How is that going to help us now though?’

‘Well,’ she added thoughtfully, ‘for a start time banding protects you from time bandits.’

‘I get that all right. Distractions steal time and we need to shut them out somehow. But our problem is we have competing priorities. Chris’s bandit is Fred’s best friend!’

‘You’ll have to make a deal,’ Pindance spoke more forcefully than usual. ‘I can’t stand to see you all at odds like this. Your arguments really upset me. I need you to be kind and calm together, or I get scared that one of you will betray us and what we should stand for, like I was betrayed before, and we might all have to go down into the shadows I was lost among before.’

She stared round anxiously at all of us, straining to read our faces, as though fearing we would not understand her.

‘I just want to create harmony and peace. I want to learn to get to the roots of mine and other people’s anger, fear and sadness and transform it into something more positive – I’m not sure what exactly. I just know that each of you, as well as me, have pain and trauma rooted in some experience. Your passion for reading, Fred, yours for poetry, Bill, and yours for action, Emmie, have their roots in something in our past. Understanding these roots can help our branches create more nutritious fruits.’

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh (possibly his last painting)

That definitely focuses our minds.

Pancake has clearly got part of her point at least. ‘If time banding works, and we can find enough time to divide between us, we can each take our share of protected time to use for what we value most. More than that, if we all help each other make use of this special time it could work better than before. If Fred doesn’t make me feel guilty for being out there in the world, and I don’t keep nagging Chris to get off his backside, we’ll all benefit. And that includes your poetry, Bill, and your reflective approach in all these things, Pete. We may even manage to create some spaces for covering a wide range of interests as reflectively as possible, and others for a more focused  and deeper exploration of specific topics. I’m not sure what you need time for, Indie. You need to let us know.’

‘How can you be so young and yet so wise, Indie?’ Wordless finally manages to get a word in edgewise. ‘You speak almost like a poet.’

‘Because I have been quiet all this time, and simply listened and watched, for fear of being harmed, I’ve learned a lot.’

‘You must share this with us sometime,’ Mires quietly requests.

‘I can only explain what I know how to put into words so far. Maybe, Emmie, I need quiet time to dive beneath the surfaces I only float across so far,’ she replies. ‘I’m not really sure yet.’

‘At the risk of raining on your parade, I have to say that there’s just one other slight snag with all this. Time banding is just one part of the solution.’ Humfreeze is speaking quietly but with an almost irresistible firmness of purpose. ‘An equally important consideration is mind-banding as a way of resisting mind-banditry. It’s true that if we all co-operate, mind-banding will be easier. But we can’t assume that we are all the entities active in Pete’s mind. There may well be others keen to sabotage our project for what seem to them good reasons. We have to take up Pete’s idea of trying to master the art of reflection as well as my pet discipline, mindfulness, if we are to be sure of fending off enough of the possible distractions to get the most out of whatever experience we are jointly having. Does that make sense?’

‘Complete sense, even to me,’ Pancake confirms. The rest of us are all nodding as she speaks, and, as she stops, the phone rings and I wake suddenly. Irritated, I listen for the message before I pick up.

A robot voice begins ‘We understand you recently have been involved in a serious accident . . .’ I press to answer and immediately hang up.

Still half asleep I pick up the pencil and the pad from the bedside table and begin to write. What I have just dreamt is far too important to forget – far more important than an accident that never happened.

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Bee & Snapdragon

After my relatively recent preoccupation with dreams it seems appropriate to republish this sequence which is a fictional attempt to project my inscape into words. Dreams and day dreams feature quite a lot! 

My Parliament of Selves is in furious session. It’s a bit early in the day even for them. I’m barely halfway through my first cup of coffee. I’ve known for a long time about their constant squabbling, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier.

William Wordless, smelling the fuschias hanging from the basket by the wall, scowls as he speaks.

‘I feel we really need to set aside quality time for writing poetry. It’s been months since I’ve written anything worth reading in that line.’ His long grey hair mimics the swinging of the blossoms in the breeze.

‘For God’s sake, Bill, grow up!’ Frederick Mires is lounging in his garden chair at the long glass table with a book in his hand as he growls. There is a pile of several thick volumes on the table beside him. ‘You can’t have your head in the clouds singing about daffodils the whole time. There are far more important things than that.’ The sunlight flashes dazzlingly from the lenses of his reading glasses.

‘Like what for heaven’s sake, Fred? What’s more important than singing about nature in words that reach the heart.’ Wordless blinks as he speaks and can’t meet the glare of Mires’s gaze.

‘The mind, Bill, the mind. Even if I spent the rest of my days working to understand consciousness, I’d still be only just scratching the surface when I died. But consciousness is what we truly are, and we must understand it better. It’s vital, and psychology is by far the best path.’

‘May I get a word in edgeways here?’

A tall figure in a kaftan moves out of the shadows at the far end of the garden. Christopher Humfreeze hates arguments. In fact he doesn’t like company of any kind much, feeling that his time alone communing with his spirit is far too valuable to squander on small talk.

Wordless bares his teeth in a wide grin. ‘If you must!’

‘Poetry and psychology are all very well as far as they go, but they don’t go anywhere near far enough. They are word-blocked. We have to go deeper than words can carry on us: we have to learn how to travel the path of silence.  That’s the only way to get to the very heart of things in themselves.’

‘But that’s what poetry does as well in a different way, you bigoted idiot!’ blurts Wordless somewhat tactlessly.

‘Calm down, Bill,’ soothes Mires in a slightly condescending fashion. ‘Give him a chance to explain himself. Psychology teaches that every perspective is valuable in helping us understand a reality as complex as . . . .’

‘Thank you, Fred. Can I carry on now?’ interjects Humfreeze with the calm under provocation that only his many hours of meditative practice enable him to do, and with only the faintest tinge of contempt for Mires’s patronising tone.

‘Not if I have anything to do with it!’ Emma Pancake snorts as she strides across the garden, throwing her handbag and a stack of leaflets onto the table. ‘I’ve heard all this a zillion times before.’ She throws herself into a vacant chair, pours a cold coffee from the cafetière and sits back with her feet on the table.

‘Do you really believe that sitting still for hours on end is going to change the world for the better? Never in a million years! You all need to grow up and get real. Yes, I agree that words aren’t enough in themselves, but decades of navel-gazing isn’t the answer either. We’ve got to get out there and do something fast. We can’t wait until our words tinkle like bells, until we’ve got completely bogged down trying to understand everything completely, or only after we’ve plumbed the depths of our own mind to the bottom of beyond.’

‘We’ve heard all this from you before as well, Emmie, as you dash around too fast with your half-baked plans,’ Humfreeze cuts across her quietly, ‘and anyway it was my turn to speak and you interrupted.’

‘Sorry to say this,’ Wordless butts in clearly not meaning it. ‘We can all say that. We’ve heard your icily detached take on things a million times or more, Chris, and to be fair we’ve sat through mine and Fred’s as well. We can go over and over this for another thirty years and end up in exactly the same pointless stand-off. I will be writing no real poems. You won’t understand consciousness any better than you do now, Fred. You’ll still be skating across the mind’s surface, Chris, and you, Emmie, will have done almost nothing to change anything. Until we learn to work together we are never going to get anywhere.’

‘And how are the hell are we supposed to do that, if you don’t mind my asking?’ she retorts acidly.

Bee in Snapdragon 3I take another sip of coffee and gaze at the three bees foraging on the snapdragons. The skill with which they lift each flower head’s petal lid to gain entry is spellbinding to watch.

Wordless is right. How am I ever going to get these warring selves in my head working together?

Till now I’ve given each of them a parcel of my time, switching between poetry, meditation, psychology and activism. As a result I’ve not got very far with any of them. It takes focus and almost endless effort to achieve excellence in any field, but I have seemed unable to decide what to focus on in this way for any length of time. A pentathlete can win a gold medal across five disciplines, but of course is unlikely to overtake a specialist in any of them. In this case, at least though, all the skills are in the domain of physical prowess. I’ve not put anywhere near even that level of effort into any of the four fields I am pretending to plough, and they are not even closely related at first glance. No wonder excellence seems to be eluding me across the board!

From my supraliminal point of view, I’m being taken over by each of them in turn in a blind and random way, rather than choosing consciously and deliberately to identify with whichever of them best suits the current situation and my carefully chosen purposes.

Could Humfreeze be right in one sense at least, though they didn’t give him a chance to explain it? Mastering the art of deep reflection might not just benefit him, but lift the poet, the activist and the psychologist within me to higher levels of functioning which will benefit me as well.

If so, how to make a plan that would achieve this? And who’s going to make it?

‘That remains the challenge of the moment,’ I think as I get up, say farewell to the foragers, pick up my cup, and go back indoors to rinse it in the sink as mindfully as I can.

Wish me luck, whoever I am!

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A Mumbai pavement

The drive up the section of the Western Ghats from Mumbai towards Panchgani was much less scary than the last time we came. Instead of the single track, with two way traffic winding alongside vertiginous drops into the valleys below, we wound our way serenely up and down three-lane dual carriageways higher and higher into the mountains, past the same river and in sight of the same lakes as before.

Even so it was a longer drive than expected, more than five hours, because of the dense volume of traffic leaving Mumbai.

The closer we got the more peaceful it became. Unlike Mumbai, Panchgani had not changed all that much – slightly busier perhaps, but still much quieter, much slower, than Mumbai.

I’m publishing a couple of poems relating to this place, one that I love the most in India. One is the reposting last Monday of the story of the burial of my wife’s grandma and the next one tries to capture the emotional impact of this most recent visit.

This post has a different purpose.

Bougainvillea in Panchagani

The value of this visit did not just reside in revisiting old haunts, like grandma’s grave, Table Land or my wife’s old school, important as those experiences were.

This post is going to try and record something much harder to define. It is something that belongs among those strange coincidences and sudden leaps of faith that led to my becoming a psychologist and choosing the Bahá’í path. It didn’t involve anything so dramatically life changing but it had something of the same strange unsettling power.

Panchgani is much colder than Mumbai, though I did not really notice this until after sunset. We hadn’t thought to bring any warmer clothes than those we had been wearing at sea level.

As the sun was setting and we sat on the patio of the Prospect Hotel where we were staying, the conversation became an ever more intense exploration of spiritual issues with like-minded souls (I’ll not share their names for fear of embarrassing them). Two of them were as deeply interested in spiritual psychology as I am. Rarely have I ever had the chance to meet with psychologists with a spiritual bent, probably because such people are as almost as rare as the Phoenix, for reasons I have explored elsewhere on this blog. The sense of rising energy became stronger every moment as the exploration continued and I did not notice at first how much I was shivering.

At last I apologised for breaking the flow of the conversation saying that I had to go to my room to get my dressing gown, the only warm garment I had with me. Immediately, I was offered a warm sweater, which I gratefully accepted, and sat down again to immerse myself once more in the refreshing flow of conversation.

As we spoke many books were mentioned. I threw into the mix at various points the recent books I’d read about Shoghi Effendi through the eyes of the pilgrims who visited Haifa in his lifetime, and at least one book from long ago – Schweder’s Thinking Through Cultures – which I blogged about a long time back.

One of my companions mentioned a book I’d never heard of: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. I wrote the title and the author down, but didn’t think much more of it at the time. I noticed that the sweater had not done much to diminish my underlying sense of shaking which clearly wasn’t to do with feeling cold anymore. It didn’t feel like shivering anymore: perhaps it had never been only that.

I had to entertain the possibility that some other seismic change was taking place at an altogether different level, something perhaps to do with the territory we were treading together or the connection that was active between us all or maybe both.

Anyway, once the intensity of the conversation died down, the rest of the visit, though memorable for the beauty of the place, the hospitality of our hosts and tranquility of the whole environment, lacked anything quite so dramatic.

We were very sad to leave the following day after so short a stay.

It was only later that a synchronicity occurred that suggested that the conversation in Panchgani might have had more to it than I thought.

I was lamenting to my wife that I should have brought more books. I had finished the two massive tomes I’d brought with me. I thought they’d last the whole trip and possibly beyond. Three weeks, with not much other work to do, can gobble up more pages than I realized.

A few hours later there was a knock on the door.

‘It’s a parcel for you,’ my sister shouted.

‘For me?’

‘Yes, for you.’

I went to the door and signed for the package the postman handed over.

I looked at the label. It was from the person who had recommended the book by Shafak. I could tell immediately the parcel contained a book.

You will have already guessed which book it contained. You’ve got it: The Forty Rules of Love.

As usual I checked out the reviews. One of them referred to it as a children’s book, not my usual diet. Other reviews and a quick glance inside the book itself quickly dispelled that delusion. I don’t know (m)any children who would read their way through this book.

Even more convincing was my web search of the topic and the discovery of the entire list of 40 rules in condensed form. Some of them were amazingly resonant. I’ll deal with the issue of whether they are expressed in this way by either Shams or Rumi later.

Take Rule 6 for example: ‘Loneliness and solitude are two different things. When you are lonely, it is easy to delude yourself into believing that you are on the right path. Solitude is better for us, as it means being alone without feeling lonely. But eventually it is the best to find a person who will be your mirror. Remember only in another person’s heart can you truly see yourself and the presence of God within you.’

One sentence in particular struck a chord with me: ‘Solitude is better for us, as it means being alone without feeling lonely.’

Ever since childhood, with its experiences of stays in hospital for surgery before the days when parents could remain close, I have felt that in the end I cannot be absolutely sure that, in times of need, I will have someone there to support me. I learned the importance of self-reliance early and have practiced it often. This, combined with my introversion, means that loneliness is not a feeling I’m familiar with. I don’t generally feel lonely when alone. I invent, or perhaps naturally possess, purposes to pursue by myself. I love the company of like-minded hearts as the Panchgani episode illustrates, but I can use books, writing, art and nature as satisfactory substitutes for quite long periods of time if necessary. So, I relate to that point, though admittedly in my fashion. I’m not so clear about the mirror idea.

I also found I related pretty strongly to Rule 9 as well: ‘East, west, south, or north makes little difference. No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.’

Not only have my tendencies in this direction been reinforced by the spiritual path I travel, in that Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, both quotes ‘Alí, Muhammad’s successor in the Seven Valleys (34):

. . . . reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

“Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?”

and in the Hidden Words (from the Arabic 13) directly urges us to recognise that if we ‘turn our sight unto’ ourselves we may find God standing within us, ‘mighty powerful and self-subsisting.’ This same idea is echoed in the Quaker phrase used by George Fox who spoke of ‘that of God in every man.’

Poetry also has reinforced these tendencies within me. I’ll quote just two examples, the first from an Anglican priest.

The best journey to make
is inward. It is the interior
that calls. Eliot heard it.
Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind, and let himself
down for the poetry stranded
on the bare ledges.

(R. S. Thomas: ‘Groping’ page 328, Collected Poems)

And the second from a Jesuit priest looking at the dark side of that immensity, something which puts many of us off such explorations:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins: No worst, there is none)

I don’t think it’s something only priests tend to do, by the way, but maybe not all poets – only poets who are also priests perhaps. I must check out George Herbert and John Donne: I don’t remember anything of quite that kind in their work, though I’m fairly  sure Thomas Traherne came pretty close. I may just need to revisit every other poet on my shelves in case a find a black swan poet of the interior who isn’t a priest: my first ports of call will probably be Henry Vaughan, a 17th Century medic and mystical poet, David Gascoyne, whose later poetry became distinctly mystical, followed by Wordsworth and Eliot as Thomas points firmly in their direction. One of my favourite Wordsworth poems, – Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood – according to some, owes a debt to Vaughan, something else to tease out if possible.

That’s enough for now. Next time I’ll close in on the question of the Rules’ origin.

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O thou who art attracted by the Fragrances of God!

. . .  I read thy poem, which contained new significances and beautiful words. My heart was dilated by its eloquent sense. I prayed God to make thee utter more beautiful compositions than this.

(Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

It may seem strange resurrecting a post on poetry from 2009 amidst sequences on psychosis. If you are interested to know you’ll need to patience to read on almost to the end!

The BBC Poetry Season currently unfolding is causing me to reflect on why I think poetry matters.

There may be a clue for me in how my interest shifted, when I left the Catholic Church, from poetry to novels as my favourite reading matter. It’s true that my disillusion with religion was influenced by poetry as well: one of my favourite poets at the time was Byron. Others, though were Wordsworth, Coleridge, George Herbert, the Tennyson of In Memoriam and Gerard Manley Hopkins — a spiritually troubled bunch maybe but not exactly godless.

Even though I spent another decade teaching English Literature, my love for poetry remained prematurely buried: occasionally I could hear its finger nails scraping at the coffin lid but put it down to rats behind the skirting boards.

When my career change came and I took up with Psychology you would have thought that would be the end of it. The undead in the coffin should have given up the ghost and turned into a corpse. But strangely enough it didn’t. I threw myself enthusiastically into my new calling and was two years into my degree course while working at a day centre for the so-called ‘mentally ill,’ before I had a strange dream to remind me that my love for poetry might be buried but it wasn’t dead.

I can’t now recall all the details but the key moment in the dream was when my car broke down. I clambered out to look under the bonnet to see what was wrong. (This was at a time when I often had to cook the spark plugs in the oven in the morning before the car would start, so at this stage it would’ve been tempting to dismiss the dream as simply revisiting a prosaic daytime anxiety.) When I lifted the bonnet though everything changed. Instead of the engine there was the most beautiful golden horn — the instrument not the sharp pointed weapon of the rhinoceros.

When I woke I knew that something needed explaining here. What on earth was a golden horn doing under the bonnet of my car in place of the engine?

To cut a long story short, the chain of associations led me from music, creativity and song through the horn of plenty as a pun to Yeats‘ moving poem A Prayer for my Daughter.

It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

(lines 33-32)

(Before dismissing this as sexist, it’s important to take into account that there is a particular emphasis on the word ‘fine’ here which, in the context about his worries concerning his daughter’s future, is partly to do with being made proud by beauty and unconcerned about defects of character.)

There is more, fuelled by his experiences with Maude Gonne who was a bit of a fanatic:

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind.

(lines 60-65)

There were obvious surface implications here which I had to consider and weren’t excluded by the main message I finally took away from the dream. It was asking me how I might have undone the Horn of Plenty in some way, perhaps by disowning something important to me that the dream was trying to remind me of. What might an ‘opinionated mind’ have to do with it? What were the good things understood by ‘quiet natures’? And what, if anything, was my ‘old bellows full of angry wind’?

The bottom line for me was that the dream was telling me in no uncertain terms that I had sold out poetry (‘song’) for prose, heart for intellect (‘the opinionated mind’), and intuition for reason and most of all was emphasising that this choice was ‘breaking down,’ that perhaps even the car (an ‘old bellows’?), symbol of a mechanical approach, was the wrong vehicle to be relying on so exclusively.

Discounting, in existential therapy, cuts both ways. You don’t solve the kind of discount I was making by throwing away the car of prosaic mechanical psychology and picking up the horn of poetry and blowing it for all your worth in everybody’s ears. You find a way of balancing both, of integrating them at a higher level of understanding which dissolves their apparent incompatibility. You can’t drive a horn to work or play a haunting melody with an engine but you might need to find the right place for both of these in a complete life..

Interestingly my work with ‘psychosis’ helped me do precisely that.

The psychotic experience, looked at from this angle, is all metaphor. Hallucinations are imagery taken literally: delusions are stories mistaken for plain truth. Both hallucinations and delusions are rooted in reality in the same way that poetry and dreams are, and they point towards truths that we might otherwise ignore or cannot otherwise express. They only become dangerous when we unreflectingly act them out in ways that you would never act out a poem and most people do not act out dreams because their motor system has been shut down in sleep.

The great power of poetry is to articulate for us and convey to us the otherwise inexpressible aspects of experience that cry out to be integrated if we are not to die spiritually, emotionally and intuitively. I was rescued by my dream from continuing to disown the creative force of poetry. Reintegrating poetry into my life was a critical step, not only in becoming a better clinician than I would otherwise have been by the aid of psychology alone, but it also led me to a greater openness to the spirituality of Buddhism than I would otherwise have been capable of, which in turn led me to the Baha’i Faith whose poetic and mystical writings  were easier for me to absorb than would have otherwise been the case.

In a very real sense I owe the rich texture of my present life at least in part — and it is a significant part — to poetry.

Yeats wrote:

. . . many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

(lines 38-40)

And in the Bahá’í Writings we are told:

A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding….

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh: CXXXII)

They both seem to be speaking of the same appealing quality in their different ways.

That’s why it is so good to know that the BBC is seeking to bring the creative and transformative power of poetry to people who might otherwise be tempted to ignore it.

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What is the dust which obscures the mirror? It is attachment to the world, avarice, envy, love of luxury and comfort, haughtiness and self-desire; this is the dust which prevents reflection of the rays of the Sun of Reality in the mirror. The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 244)

assagioli

Because my current sequence of posts refers to the Kellys and their thought-provoking text Irreducible Mind, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence from March 2013. This is the last of the three parts.

In the previous two posts I’ve been moaning about how I was robbed when my training in psychology steered me away from the work of thinkers such as FWH Myers as though they had the plague. What I probably need to do to redress the balance is mention how much I was influenced by thinkers who were deeply influenced by Myers. In one case I know that for certain because I still have Roberto Assagioli‘s introductory text on psychosynthesis, which I read in 1976 and which cites Myers in the list of references at the end of Chapter I. Another was a seminal book I borrowed but never bought, so it is impossible to say whether the influence was direct and acknowledged: this was Peter Koestenbaum’s New Images of the Person.

Assagioli explained in his book the importance of what he calls a ‘disidentification exercise’ (page 22):

After having discovered [various elements of our personality], we have to take possession of them and acquire control over them. The most effective method by which we can achieve this is that of disidentification. This is based on a fundamental psychological principle which may be formulated as follows:

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

(For the psychosynthesis disidentification exercise see the following link.)

Then, in another exciting moment, I came upon Koestenbaum’s ideas about reflection six years after I had read Assagioli. 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. It is like a mirror learning to see that it is not the same as what is reflected in it. So here was a writer in the existentialist tradition speaking in almost the same terms as psychosynthesis. I had practised Assagioli’s exercise for a long period after reading his book. Now I was triggered into resuming the practice again by what Koestenbaum had written.

I came across Koestenbaum’s book just before I discovered the existence of the Bahá’í Faith (for a fuller account see link). It helped me take what I had found in Assagioli and fuse it with what I had found in the Faith and create an experiential exercise to express that understanding in action in a way that helped me immensely to adjust to spiritual concepts which until that point had been completely alien to me for decades – all my adult life in fact. The Baha’i Writings talk about certain key powers of the soul: loving, knowing and willing as well as introducing me to the idea of the heart, the core of our being, as a mirror. I pulled this into my version of the exercise (see below). What I didn’t realise until later was that Assagioli had corresponded with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and had therefore to some degree been influenced by Bahá’í thought. (See Disidentification exercise for the final version that I used myself rather than this one I revised to share for the use of others).

Separating the Mirror from its Reflections

How amazing then to find Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quoting Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):

The conviction which every man has of his identity . . . needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it.… I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment…; But that Self or I, to which they belong, is permanent…

What I regret therefore now is that the usefulness of this exercise did not make me trace it back to its source and find out more of what Myers thought about this and many other things of great importance to me. So, better late than never, that is what I am about to do now.

Myers’s the self and the Self

The disidentification exercise rattled the cage of my previous ideas about who I was in essence. While I didn’t quite buy into Assagioli’s other ideas about consciousness at that time I felt, both intuitively and from the experiences I was having, that his idea was completely right that there is some form of pure consciousness underpinning our identity.

So, as good a place as any to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (page 83):

These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.

Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supraliminal experiences, used here by me in the sense of things that leak through the membrane from above, is strong enough to warrant serious consideration and he distinguishes between that and subliminal experiences that come, as it were, from underneath (page 87):

Supernormal processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.

He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91)

The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.

titania-l

Midsummer Night’s Dream

Thin Partitions

He also has much that is interesting and valuable to say about the implications of a proper understanding of these upper and lower thresholds, especially when they are too porous, for both genius and mental health (page 98):

When there is ‘a lack of liminal stability, an excessive permeability, if I may say so, of the psychical diaphragm that separates the empirical [conscious] from the latent [subliminal: unconscious] faculties and man,’ then there may be either an expansion of consciousness (an ‘uprush’ of latent material from the subliminal into the supraliminal) or, conversely, a narrowing of consciousness (a ‘downdraught’ from the supraliminal into the subliminal). The former is genius, the latter is hysteria.

His use of supra- and subliminal is slightly confusing here but the main point is that genius expands what we are aware of, and more comes above the threshold, whereas hysteria narrows our experience so that less comes into consciousness. This is partly clarified by Kelly explaining (page 99):

In short, Myers believed that hysteria, when viewed as a psychological phenomenon, gives ‘striking’ support to ‘my own principal thesis’, namely, that all personality is a filtering or narrowing of the field of consciousness from a larger Self, the rest of which remains latent and capable of emerging only under the appropriate conditions.

Even the expanded consciousness of genius, in this view, is still filtering a lot out – in fact, it still leaves most of potential consciousness untapped.

There is in addition a common quality of excessive porousness which explains why, in Shakespeare’s phrase, the ‘lunatic . . . . . and the poet are of imagination all compact.’ Myers’s view is that (page 100):

Because genius and madness both involve similar psychological mechanisms – namely, a permeability of the psychological boundary – it is to be expected that they might frequently occur in the same person; but any nervous disorders that accompany genius signal, not dissolution, but a ‘perturbation which masks evolution.’

For Myers dreams, though they may indeed be common and frequently discounted, they are nonetheless important sources of data (pages 102-103):

Myers argued [that] dreams provide a readily available means of studying the ‘language’ of the subliminal, a language that may underlie other, less common forms of automatism or subliminal processes. . . . Myers’s model of mind predicts that that if sleep is a state of consciousness in which subliminal processes take over from supraliminal ones, then sleep should facilitate subliminal functioning, not only in the organic or ‘infrared’ region, but also in the “ultraviolet” range of the psychological spectrum, such as the emergence of telepathic impressions in dreams.

This has certainly been my own experience. A post I wrote two years ago will perhaps serve to illustrate that for those who are interested. My dream of the hearth, recounted there, was, incidentally, the only dream I have ever had in which I experienced the presence of God, another reason for my attaching such great importance to it.

An important related topic he also addresses is that of ‘hallucinations.’ People tend to be quite closed minded on this topic, seeing visions and voices as the sign of a mind gone wrong. This is quite unhelpful. There is a mass of evidence that I may come back to some time to indicate that ‘hallucinations’ range from the darkly destructive to the life enhancing and it important to pay close attention to the details of them and the circumstances under which they occur before coming to any conclusion about them. Our society’s default position, the result of exactly the backward step under discussion here that both psychology and psychiatry took in the name of pseudo-science, is harmful rather than helpful quite often (I have explored a more positive approach on this blog – see the six links to An Approach to Psychosis). Pim van Lommel’s research into NDEs replicates the same kind of pattern in that patients whose families and friends were unsympathetic took much longer to integrate their experiences and found it a more painful process than those who were met with support and understanding. He summarises this (page 51):

When someone first tries to disclose the NDE, the other person’s reaction is absolutely crucial. If this initial reaction is negative or skeptical, the process of accepting and integrating the NDE typically presents far greater problems than if this initial reaction is positive, sympathetic, or neutral. Evidence has shown that positive responses facilitate and accelerate the integration process. In fact, without the possibility of communication, the process of coming to terms with the NDE often fails to get under way at all.

We tend to underestimate the frequency of ‘hallucinations’ in the ‘normal’ population, something the Myers was already aware of (page 108):

One of the most important accomplishments of Myers, Guerney, and their colleagues in psychical research was in demonstrating the previously suspected, but as it turns out not infrequent, occurrence of hallucinations in normal, healthy individuals.

Not all them should be dismissed as fantasy (page 109):

These studies and surveys also demonstrated that such hallucinations are not always purely subjective in origin. Some, in fact, are veridical – that is, they involve seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing some event happening at a physically remote location. . . . . Using their own figures for the frequency with which people recall having hallucinations in a waking, healthy state, together with statistics regarding the incidence of death in the United Kingdom, they concluded that hallucinations coinciding with a death happened too frequently to be attributable to chance.

All in all, Myers’s mould-breaking approach to the mind and to the problems of consciousness is refreshing to say the least, and maps onto my own long-standing interests in spirituality, creativity and ‘psychosis.’ It was icing on the cake to find what he said about science and religion, a point to savour and a good note to end this post on (page 113) :

On the one hand, . . . he believed that science could ‘prove the preamble of all religions’ – namely, that the universe extends far beyond the perceptible material world. On the other hand., religion could contribute to ‘the expansion of Science herself until she can satisfy those questions which the human heart will rightly ask, but to which Religion alone has thus far attempted an answer.’

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