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Posts Tagged ‘Psychosynthesis’

Last year I played with the idea of a community of inner selves in a sequence of posts I called My Parliament of Selves. I’ve also dealt with this idea in less personal terms.

I called into question the idea of an automatically unified and integrated self. A vast body of theory, clinical practice and research has accumulated which calls this assumption gravely into question. Split brain research and resulting theories, clinical experiences with multiple personalities and auditory hallucinations, as well as psychoanalytic theory (Freud and Jung especially) and its offspring are all useful starting points in revising a simplistic view.

For instance, Berne, the founding father of Transactional Analysis, saw us as beings organised into at least three different semi-autonomous and incompletely conscious subselves. These he called the Parent, the Adult and the Child. The extent to which these subselves are in harmonious cooperation is one of the determinants of well-being.

A model of therapy often used in coordination with Transactional Analysis is the Gestalt Therapy of Fritz Perls whose most fundamental tenet is that we are divided beings seeking to become whole. His therapy is a form of consultation between conflicting aspects of the person.

I am also aware of the literature which deals with not just dissociated multiple personalities but also mediumship.

None of that prepared me for the shock I felt on revisiting a diary entry of mine from early 2000, which recorded some dream work I had done. I was looking for some notes I took at about that time on the subject of near-death experiences. This was something altogether different.

One way of working a dream, as I have described elsewhere, is the Gestalt technique of assuming the role of a dream element, whether that be a person or a thing and speaking in its voice. In the dream the night before the entry was made I had seen myself reflected in a mirror as a woman, so, when I woke, I worked on the dream by stepping into her presence and speaking her thoughts.

The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mt Fuji (for source of image see link)

‘So you have found me at last,” she says out of her mirror. “Do you like what you see? Will you turn away from me again? My delicacy looks vulnerable and you do not trust me in your world. You do not trust me to be your guide. You think I’ll come to harm. I am not so delicate as you think. Or you fear I’ll bring you to harm. Look at my eyes – a deep deep black. I am in a way your soul. I am the unacknowledged strivings of your truest self. I am beauty. I am truth. I am life. I am love. I am your connection with the infinite. Through me you can know what lies out of your reach otherwise. I know what feeds your spirit and what does not. I am the repository of all the rich experiences you have ever known. Who do you think listens to this Chopin you are playing right now? Who responds to the views of Mount Fuji? Why do you never give me the time truly to savour those wonders? Why do you always wrench me away into the arid distractions of your daily unlife? Why when you usually write this journal do you never wait for me to have my say? Why do you fill it will the froth that floats on top of your mind? Is my path too steep for you? Do you fear your being will not bear the strain of it? Do you fear that paying attention to my concerns will make you careless of your responsibilities in the world? That is not true. Working in the world from my perspective will be richer and more telling.

‘When I look back over your day I can explain why you were so silent for so much of it. Do you remember your thoughts about suffering? All the people that you encountered [she names them but it is best I do not for reasons of confidentiality] – they all speak to the same issue. Suffering is not what we think it is. Its fire turns the clay of our imperfections to flawless china; suffering perfects the soul and enables it to rise to its highest destiny.

‘You do not believe that. I can feel the writhing of your disbelief. You revolt against the idea of bearing such sorrows and such pains in this world. You feel you could not ever do so. You want to evade such pain. That may be your good fortune – to avoid it — but it should not blind you to the purpose of suffering in others. Even those who bear it badly will see how they were blessed when they discard their body and ascend. Even if you had been able to think what I am saying you could not have shared it and what you did think was so negative and bleak there was no point in saying it. So you stayed silent and felt sad. If you have truly learned your lesson from this – which I doubt – you will not turn your back on me again. Try what this life is like – the life lived in full consciousness of me.’

The power of this took my breath away. What’s more I was stunned to realise that I had forgotten the whole encounter entirely, even though I wrote it down so fully at the time and added: ‘I would like to pledge that I will explore the world from this perspective to the best of my ability. But can I do so?’

My doubts were clearly well-founded.

There are many ways of interpreting this persona or sub-personality. Jung’s idea of the anima is perhaps the first to spring to mind. One website defines the anima as follows:

The anima is both a personal complex and an archetypal image of woman in the male psyche. It is an unconscious factor incarnated anew in every male child, and is responsible for the mechanism of projection. Initially identified with the personal mother, the anima is later experienced not only in other women but as a pervasive influence in a man’s life.

Jung did not see this as the soul in the way my sub-self forcefully asserted herself to be.

The anima is not the soul in the dogmatic sense, not an anima rationalis, which is a philosophical conception, but a natural archetype that satisfactorily sums up all the statements of the unconscious, of the primitive mind, of the history of language and religion. … It is always the a priori element in [a man’s] moods, reactions, impulses, and whatever else is spontaneous in psychic life.[“Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i, par. 57.]

And the depth and power of the spiritual insights my mirror-self articulates, especially concerning suffering, seem at odds with all that is written about the anima.

The link with suffering might be giving me a clue to where some of the passion of the persona derives from. I have explored at length how my parent’s grief over my sister’s death four years before I was born scorched my early years.

In addition, the rebukes she spits out about my not devoting time to immersing myself in deep experiences resonates with my work over the years on improving my powers of reflection (see diagram at the foot of this post for my latest perspective on this).

None of this though quite accounts for the sense of a whole personality expressing itself in this outburst – a personality to whom I have denied expression, something I have failed to integrate. I have consigned her to fulminating under the surface most of the time. The anger is searing.

It is possible that the persona was not in fact the anima at all, but rather something more akin to another concept Jung explores in his essay on the mana-personality (Collected Works, Volume 7, page 236). It is something around which the ego unconsciously revolves rather as the earth circles round the sun. He writes:

I call this centre the self.… It might equally well be called the ‘God within us.’ The beginnings of our whole psychic life seem to be inextricably rooted in this point, and all out highest and ultimate purposes seem to be striving towards it.

The Society of Friends refers to ‘that of God within us.’ Bahá’u’lláh Himself writes (AHW: 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

In The Seven Valleys He quotes ‘Alí, the Successor to Muhammad, as saying:

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

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

There is at least one fully articulated model of therapy that incorporates a sense of a higher self and seeks to help us connect with it: this is Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis, which I have explored in various places on this blog. A coloured adaptation of his basic diagram illustrates this perspective clearly enough for now.

Clearly I need to take great care before jumping to the conclusion that this passionate dream element was definitely my Higher Self summoning me to better things. Even so, I also need to think hard before yet again dismissing this experience irretrievably to an  archive shelf somewhere deep in my memory store.

Perhaps a bit of reflection would help?

There is one other theory that might conceivably apply but which has much that feels dubious about it. I will take a look at that hopefully next week. The explanation is a strange mixture of ideas that resonate with and idiosyncrasies that repel me. I want to dig a bit deeper at least in terms of the best bits.

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filter-spectrum-v2At the end of the last post we looked at psi. Other transpersonal experiences, particularly ones relating to mind-brain independence, are more controversial, if that is possible. Psi is even seen as a confounding variable, which I suppose is progress of a kind, rather than a supportive prop.

For example, Braude’s work in Mortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):

On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.

Less sympathetically, Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

Quotations from Thompson’s sceptical and Mario Beauregard’s convinced account will illustrate the problem. I’ll focus on the hearing issue, though that is by no means the only point of contention.

thompsonThompson writes in Waking, Dreaming, Being (page 307):

Reynolds’s eyes were taped shut, so she wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on around her. Although she was wearing fitted ear plugs that delivered 40-decibel white noise to one ear and 95-decibel clicks every eleventh of a second to her other ear (in order to monitor her auditory brainstem response), she probably would have been able to hear the sound of the saw through bone conduction (as when you hear inside your head the sound of the dentist’s drill). On the basis of hearing the sound, she may have generated a visual image of the saw, which she described as looking like an electric toothbrush. She would have been familiar with the surgical procedure from the surgeon’s description and from having read and signed the informed consent form, and she would have seen the layout of the operating room because she was awake when she was wheeled in. So she probably had enough knowledge to create an accurate visual and cognitive map of her surroundings during her out-of-body experience. Reynolds’s ability to hear what the cardiac surgeon said may seem less likely, but to my knowledge no one has tried to replicate the auditory stimulus conditions to determine whether speech is comprehensible through those sound levels or during the pauses between the clicks.

mind-brain-relationshipBeauregard’s view is different (Exploring Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship – page 132):

Sceptics will argue that when Reynolds saw the surgeon cutting her skull or heard a female voice say something about the size of her blood vessels, she was not clinically dead yet. Nevertheless, her ears were blocked by small moulded speakers continuously emitting 100-dB clicks (100 dB correspond approximately to the noise produced by a speeding express train). Medical records confirmed that these words were effectively pronounced (Seabom 1998). Moreover, the speakers were fixed with tape and gauze. It is thus highly unlikely that Reynolds could have physically overheard operating room conversation.

Intriguing or what? Deuce maybe? Or a plague on both their houses?

In terms of Reynold’s supposedly prior knowledge, it is perhaps also worth quoting Penny Sartori’s 2008 work in Swansea, quoted by Fenwick in a later chapter of the mind-brain book. In her study she was able to ask (page 148):

. . . whether the patients who said they left their bodies during the cardiac arrest were able to give a more accurate account of what happened during their resuscitation, than those who did not claim to have left their bodies or to have any memory of seeing the resuscitation. She asked both groups to describe what they thought had happened during the resuscitation and found that those who said they had seen the resuscitation were more accurate in their account of what had occurred than those who were simply guessing. This finding is important as it is the first prospective study which suggests that veridical information may indeed be obtained in some manner by someone who is deeply unconscious and who has none of the cerebral functions which would enable them either to see or to remember.

Thompson feels, even so, that there is a possible way of explaining these sorts of experiences. He quotes the work of Olaf Blanke and Sebastian Dieguez (page 313) who ‘put forward a model of how the distinct brain areas known to be frequently damaged in cardiac arrest patients may contribute to the various elements that make up near-death experiences.’ They claim to have found two types of NDE, one linked to right- and the other to left-hemisphere functioning. He adds (my italics): ‘it also seems possible that a patient could have both types of near-death experience and later link them together into one remembered and reported episode. Pam Reynolds’s near death experience, for example, might have been of this kind.’

So, you pay your penny and takes your choice.

I feel I’m back in a familiar place, the one described by John Hick.

John Hick adduces a very compelling argument that appeals to a mind like mine that has never had even a glimpse of what Pam Reynolds, amongst many others who came back to describe their near death experience, had access to. Hick, in his book The Fifth Dimension, contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to  believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe.

To be fair to Thompson I need to add two more quotes which resonate with this in a way, the first from the end of the section on NDEs (page 314):

Although Blanke and Dieguez’s model is speculative, as they admit, it serves to illustrate how we can begin to approach near-death experiences from a cognitive neuroscience perspective, instead of supposing, as many near-death experience researchers do, that these experiences pose an insurmountable challenge to neuroscience.

This is at least honestly tentative, untainted by fundamentalist scientism. His basic position is similarly balanced (ibid.):

One way to lose touch with the existential meaning of near-death experiences is to argue, on the basis of the kind of cognitive neuroscience perspective just sketched, that these experiences are nothing other than false hallucinations created by a disordered brain. Another way is to argue that these experiences are true presentations of a real, transcendent, spiritual realm to which one’s disembodied consciousness will journey after death.

Both of these viewpoints fall into the trap of thinking that near-death experiences must be either literally true are literally false. This attitude remains caught in the grip of a purely third-person view of death… Both viewpoints turn away from the experience itself and try to translate it into something else or evaluate it according to some outside standard of objective reality.

Where does that all leave me?

I have failed so far to find evidence to confirm that transliminality of any kind is anything more than an occasional correlate of psychosis. Moreover, I sense that at this point, I am going to be hard-pressed to find strong evidence that will support the notion that psychosis entails the leaching into consciousness both of subconscious brain activity and extrasensory stimuli.

300px-psychosynthesis-egg-diagram_color

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

Disappointing.

Still, I have clarified to my own satisfaction what I think I need to find evidence for. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Some Answered Questions that (pages 241-42):

The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names—the human spirit and the rational soul—designate one thing. . . .

. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

The diagram at the top of this post, with which I illustrated in an earlier post the issue of brain-produced and extrasensory stimuli, plainly does not go far enough. One of the best existing attempts of something that does is to be found in psychosynthesis.

It neatly distinguishes the conscious self (the ego) from the Higher Self – in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms the mind as a power or fruit of the spirit. With its help I am hoping to explore these issues further, particularly with respect to psychosis and creativity.

I would hope eventually to be able to tease out how trauma can lift us towards compassionate self-transcendence instead of shrinking us towards self-protective egotism, depending upon our response to it. The implication for creativity would be whether the pain of life makes a better person as well as a better artist because greater creativity and access to the transcendent are both possible and facilitated by pain, and for psychosis whether pain causes less effective filtering for both brain-generated and extrasensory experiences.

In both cases trauma could lift or lower the trajectory of a person’s life. I’d like to explore more deeply why some people go up and others go down.

I’ll leave it there until the New Year, and pause my posts until then as I did last year. I wish all my readers well over this festive season.

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

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

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

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

Bee & Snapdragon

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

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

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

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

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

In this book he states that (page 69):

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

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

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

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

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

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

Koestenbaum explains this (page 73):

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

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.

Reflection, he says (page 99):

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

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

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

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

These words of Koestenbaum words jolted it even wider.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection Cube

The Experience Cube

The Power of Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

This is difficult to explain clearly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychobabble

Footnote:

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

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Dream GameAs I hinted at the end of the previous post, I don’t think the Transactional Analysis model goes far enough. It helps us develop a reasonable sense of part of the mind’s layout, but it lacks any contour lines to give us a real feeling of its depth.

One of the problems with TA is that it privileges the intellect – our head to use the everyday expression. In a way it has the same weakness as Kahneman’s model, discussed in detail elsewhere. Yes, we can clearly see the importance of distancing ourselves from our gut reactions, which Kahneman in my view mistakenly terms intuition. But, we have only our head to rely on in both these models. I don’t deny that this is far better at making wise decisions than our guts, particularly when complex situations are involved.

The TA psychotherapist who led the group I was in recognised that this emphasis on intellect was a weakness which is why she also drew on Gestalt therapy techniques and dream work in her approach. In fact, when I started to write this sequence of posts I had forgotten that and it was only as I thumbed through a journal I wrote at the time that I saw references to both techniques.

Even with the inclusion of both those methods, and I have given a vivid example in another post of how I used them to powerful effect many years later, TA still did not go far enough, as we will now see.

Star-diagramAn Encounter with Psychosynthesis

There are models that suggest we can and should go one step further at least. We need to be as suspicious about all our thoughts not just some of them. All our thinking is infected or at least influenced by ideas we have never questioned. We need to step back from our thoughts in their entirety just as I had been trying to step outside the prison of my conditioned reactions. Even positive thoughts may not be reliable.

While I was studying for my psychology degree at Birkbeck, I lived in Hendon, not far from the Psychosynthesis Institute. I’m not sure whether that’s what triggered my interest in that particular form of therapy. It may not have been, given the similarity between certain aspects of Psychosynthesis and TA, namely the exploration of subpersonalities. Jean Hardy, in her book on Psychosynthesis – A Psychology with a Soul – explains that (page 38) ‘the concept of subpersonality is a means of approaching… hidden and often seemingly forbidden areas.’

That may have been what drew me to Psychosynthesis, but it was not the main idea I derived from my reading about it.

In the end what captured my attention was the psychosynthesis idea of disidentification. That it presupposes a transcendent dimension including a Higher Self, with which we can get in touch, might have been expected to put me off, given my agnosticism at the time, but it did not seem to. This approach also emphasises the importance of values, which we need to connect with in order to guide our use of will power (yes, Assagioli believes that discredited faculty does exist), but I don’t think that’s what hooked me at the time either.

Assagioli explains (Psychosynthesis – page 22):

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

Hardy quotes Assagioli on this issue (page 24):

. . . . the ‘man in the street’ and even many well-educated people do not take the trouble to observe themselves and to discriminate; they drift on the surface of the mind-stream and identify themselves with its successive waves, with the changing contents of their consciousness.

Psychosynthesis places great emphasis on practising disidentification exercises (see image below for an adapted example) so that we can learn how to step back from the contents of our consciousness and operate more calmly and wisely from a more grounded sense of ourselves. This of course immediately appealed to me, given that I was operating in a bit of a cauldron at work and needed to learn how to maintain my composure and presence of mind under pressure.

disidentification-exercise

Existential Psychotherapy

However, this was not the end of his influence. Assagioli himself, in the opening pages of Psychosynthesis, prompted me also to look at Existential Psychotherapy. At first I was only really aware of the importance this approach attached to meaning and choice: the perspective changing insight from existentialism came much later as I will explain in the next post. At this point in the development of my thinking I could see the importance of both meaning and choice, but somehow the existential approach to meaning seemed to ring a bit hollow.

Ernesto Spinelli’s valuable exploration of existential therapy – Demystifying Therapy – contains a passage that highlights what was the problem for me (page 294):

. . . . we are confronted with the meaningless of it all. The meaninglessness refers to the idea that nothing – not you, nor I, nor any ‘thing’ – has intrinsic or independent or static meaning. If things are ‘meaningful,’ then they are so only because they have been interpreted as being so. . . . . . Each of us, if we follow this line of argument, does not inhabit an independently ‘meaningful’ world – rather, we, as a species, as cultures, and as individuals in relation to one another, shape or create the various expressions of meaningfulness that we experience and believe in.

This sounds rather like Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian, in Carlos Castaneda’s series of books: in explaining the way of the warrior, he argued that the best we can do is achieve a kind of ‘controlled folly’ by investing meaning in the meaningless.

A warrior must know first that his acts are useless, and yet, he must proceed as if he didn’t know it. In other words, a warrior must know he is unimportant, but act as if he is important.

A Moment of Choice

I was struggling to discover where I stood on this for the whole time I was earning my BSc degree. Does life have a meaning or doesn’t it?

As I came to the end of my degree course I had to begin considering my next step. Emotionally, I was clear. I wanted to become a psychotherapist. I wasn’t sure what kind of psychotherapist I wanted to become, but was swinging between two options: Existential Psychotherapy or Psychosynthesis.

I decided to consult with my tutor. I explained my dilemma and also added that ultimately I wanted to work in the NHS not in private practice. I was stunned by the advice I got.

She said, ‘If you go into the NHS as a psychotherapist you will have to work under the direction of a psychiatrist.’

My extreme scepticism about the medical model made this option completely unacceptable.

‘What should I do then if I want to work within the NHS?’

‘I think the best option,’ she said, ‘is to become a clinical psychologist.’

I went off in a state of frustration and shock to explore this idea. In the end I went with it, thinking that when I’d got my clinical qualification I could always do my psychotherapy training.

Spirituality

In re-examining my diaries of the period in which I was doing my Clinical Psychology training, I came to realise that my world-view was fundamentally changing in a way I had failed to remember. I thought I was still resolutely agnostic at least if not downright atheist during all this time. It seems that this was simply not the case: my reality was slightly more complicated. I find the word ‘spirit’ occurring far more often in my journals of this period than I would have expected. The reason for that seems to have been my exploration of Buddhism.

Osho-Buddha-MAJJHIM-NIKAYAI can still remember the day I stood in front of the Surrey University library shelves and took down a book on Buddhism. Memory says I did this because I’d had a heads up about how sophisticated the Buddhist model of the human mind was. This may have been the case. It may have been more complicated than that at the unconscious level, in that my aunt, by then in her late 80s, had asked me to investigate Roman Catholicism again and, refusing to see a priest, I had agreed to look at a book on the subject, pulled down from shelves in the same section of the library.

Whatever the reason, I not only read about Buddhism, I also visited the Buddhist Centre in London and attended classes on meditation. I can locate this accurately in time as I was in the first year of the course doing my child specialism placement. By the 11 January 1981 I was taking detailed notes from Alan WattsThe Way of Zen. My comment on my reading up to that point may be revealing:

That reading stemmed from my need for some moral or value focus in my life. Interesting that in 1792 the Retreat in York was founded by Tuke, a Quaker, on moral principles not knowledge, and yet achieved so much so far ahead of its time for ‘lunatics.’ And yet so much harm has been done by fanatics in the name of various moralities. Only a life-centred rather than idea-centred morality will serve. Buddhism comes closer than any I know.

A fortnight later, while reading Christmas Humphreys‘ book, my thinking has moved on:

Even being committed to the “right” side in a battle… blinds my mind to the transcendent realisation that both sides are in the last analysis one. Best to tend the wounded of both sides than fight, even for freedom!

I was already showing strong reservations about the limits of psychology and responding strongly to Buddhism:

I will continue to think about Buddhism. It’s shedding an unbelievably clear light on my problems and giving me the strength to cope with them.…. People and their welfare are more important than the sterile ideas peddled on the course, more important than any ideas at all in fact. I can at least use the experience of the course better to understand my fellow human beings and myself under stress – it won’t be wasted.

A year later I seem to have achieved a more harmonious perspective:

My life is slowly becoming simpler, more integrated, less fearful. I can see how poetry, psychotherapy and Buddhism fit together. And perhaps how they all cohere with my personal life.

More on my struggles to learn how to meditate next time and on one of the epiphanies that helped shift my perspective radically.

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3rd 'I'When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing the week before last, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This second sequence is about the need to draw on deeper powers than instinct or intellect: this is the fifth post.

The previous posts in this sequence have attempted to illustrate the problem that certain kinds of dilemma pose for Kahneman‘s model of decision-making. He explores two basic modes of human cognition, which he labels System 1, which I have short-handed as instinctive, and System 2, which I have short-handed as intellectual. He shows how drawing on the powers of System 2 enhances our decision-making very significantly. He does not seem to consider that there is anywhere else for us to go beyond that.

For my part, I have been arguing that there is evidence, such as the effectiveness of dreamwork, to support the idea of a System 3, a genuine deeply intuitive mode, which draws on right brain and possibly spiritual capacities which are both slower and more holistic than System 1, and less verbal and more visual-kinaesthetic than System 2. I used the powerful image of the heart when referring to this mode of being, and suggested that because it whispers, we cannot hear its wisdom unless the mind is quiet.

This post and the next will examine first of all how silence is key to mobilising System 3 for an individual, and then look at how interthinking/consultation works for a group, especially if its members understand how to connect with their hearts. Both contexts, to my understanding, depend upon a state of what is usually termed ‘detachment’ and a process best captured by the word ‘reflection.’

Those who prefer not to accept the idea of a transcendent spiritual reality can still make use of these concepts up to a point, as the enhancement of cognitive therapy by the addition of mindfulness compellingly testifies. Those who embrace the idea of soul or spirit can, if the evidence of Dossey is to be believed, resort to prayer as a way of further strengthening the process without justifiably being accused of irrationality. Maybe Jack, who has been ruminating on his quandary for six weeks now, could do something with this to break his ties to the pendulum of indecision from which he is suspended.

Silence participants

Participants in ‘The Big Silence

How Golden is Silence?

Some time ago I watched a series of television programmes which illustrated how important silence can be in assisting us to gain access to aspects of our being which are extremely elusive. I blogged about it and in the process included what are for me two key quotes from the Baha’i writings on this subject. The first asserts (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: page 156) that ‘The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.’

I cannot pretend to plumb the depths of this statement. I have quoted it because I feel it not only establishes the critical importance of silence but it also links silence with detachment. As we will see in a moment, even at its most basic level, one that does not necessarily challenge a materialist to believe in God or accept the reality of the soul, detachment is a state highly conducive both to accessing our deepest intuitions and to apprehending accurately what others are seeking to communicate to us. More on the second point later.

 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expands on the possibilities inherent in silence (Paris Talks page 174):

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.

I have already blogged at length about the difficulties presented by our terminology when discussing mind, soul, spirit, and so on. I will not rehearse all that again here and would request that no one reading this allow themselves to get sidetracked from the essence of what I am seeking to convey here by the fact that the translator of this passage has used the word ‘intellect’ instead of ‘mind.’

ConvergenceConvergence of Approaches

Contemplation, reflection, mindfulness and meditation are words that are often used to mean closely related states of mind and modes of thinking. This is not to say that there are no differences at all between them that could be illustrated by different schools of thought. What I am going to be focusing on, though, is their illuminating common ground.

Almost every exercise in mindfulness involves a process of breaking old distracting patterns of thought and substituting a different mode of consciousness. Whether we are asking ourselves to focus on a candle flame, a raisin (as many psychologists begin by doing), a mantra or a melody, what we are doing is unhooking our consciousness from its usual flow of self-talk and imagery, and choosing instead one thing and one thing alone to concentrate all our attention upon.

It is easy to see how this step shifts us from a cacophony of distractions in the head to a state of relative quiet where the flow of our breathing or of a melody, the taste of a raisin or the glow of a candle, helps us tune out the din.

In describing these exercises I have used a key expression: ‘unhooking our consciousness.’ For me, this is an aspect of detachment. If it is not a pure state of detachment, it is certainly a step towards it. It also suggests that silencing the mind and achieving a state of detachment of some important kind are related, are mutually reinforcing.

It seems to involve stepping back from our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and plans. Psychosynthesis calls this process Disidentification (see link – Disidentification exercise). This approach to psychotherapy believes it is a path towards recognising the essence of our true nature, towards connecting with what we truly are.

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

The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict and indecision and opens us up to new experiences, different perspectives: 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. As we will see it paves the way for exchanging perspectives with other people and learning from that exchange to find transcendent positions.

1 Earth Heart aloneConnecting with our Core

That so many different systems of belief converge on this one idea suggests that it is real, implies that it is a powerful way of connecting with the deepest levels of our being.  Koestenbaum is no theist, but the image by which he chooses to summarise this insight speaks volumes.

He explains it as follows in his book ‘New Image of the Person: the Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy’, (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.’ Reflection, he says (page 99): ‘. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.’ This links back to an unexpected core idea he had already presented (page 49): ‘The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.’

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

‘Abdu’l-Bahá continues:

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

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

At the bottom of this post is a simple exercise anyone can try that takes a small step in the direction of connecting us with the ground of our being. Hopefully any experiments with this will clear the path for tackling the challenges of the next post which will deal with group processes. It could be that this would also have helped Jack find a way to transcend his dilemma, on the horns of which he has been pinioned uncomfortably for weeks now. Perhaps we’ll see.

Bahai Mantra

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Mind

Image scanned from Marcel Paquet ‘Magritte’ (Taschen)

When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing today, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This first sequence is about my struggles with practising mindfulness: here is the third post.

My much earlier post on interconnectedness included a declaration of intent – I was going to seek a deeper understanding of the concept both by reading and by the practice of mindfulness, amongst other things. So, how have things been going in this phase of mindfulness practice, drawn from Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book on Mindfulness?

I was dreading the Mindful Movement meditation. For a start it just feels weird, standing in a room with windows to the outdoors, following softly spoken instructions to reach in the air for an imaginary apple. The other stuff simply amounted to sawn off flexibility exercises. I couldn’t see how any of that could be conducive to mindfulness. The succeeding Breath and Body exercise was bread and butter to me – it made sense and was very like what I have been practicing off and on for years.

The Mindful Movement meditation has not proved as bad as I expected but it still leaves me feeling slightly bewildered every time I do it. I think that part of the problem is that, in spite of the constant reminders to the contrary, I am still holding onto to a hope, which I even keep secret from myself most of the time, that at some point there will be a dramatic breakthrough.

It’s the poem at the top of this post again. I’ve kept it there for now as a reminder. Mindfulness is about making me aware of inner scenery, not about changing the furniture.

It must be working at some level as I catch myself, far more often than before, pausing as I put the coffee grounds into the cafetière, to savour the aroma and scrutinise the subtly different shades of brown and varying sizes of the coffee grains. Also this morning I noticed that there were three different kinds of snapdragon in the pots outside the front door instead of just glancing and categorising them all as the same thing.

 

Pizza base eye blend

Perhaps most tellingly I noticed, as I was preparing the pizza dough, that the shadow the oil made on the glass base behaved not quite as I supposed at a casual glance. The shadow on the window-side fell inside the ring of oil and the shadow on the opposite side fell outside the edge of the oil. It was obvious why as soon as I spotted it, but until I spotted it had never occurred to me that the orientation of the light would make shadow a prisoner of the oil on one side and a free shade on the other. Looking at the photograph I took showed that the same is true for the shadow of the glass base on the wooden chopping board. I had never troubled myself to catch sight of this fine distinction before.

The discovery of this deficiency did not come as a complete surprise. When my wife and I visit someone in their home, often when we leave my wife will exclaim, ‘Did you see that lovely vase on their sideboard?’

To which I usually reply, ‘What sideboard?’

This brought back the story I had first read in Assagioli’s book – Psychosynthesis. He describes the approach Agassiz took in training his students.

After the experience with the oil I came across another account of the same situation in Paul Jerome Croce’s book – Science & Religion in the Era of William James – (page 119):

His most important innovation in the classroom was his use of primary materials. Instead of lecturing, Agassiz preferred to give his students specimens or to take them into the field. Many of his former students report that their first assignment was simply to look at a single fish for a few days, observing it in minute detail. Each time the students brought an abundant and “complete” reading of the fish, Agassiz would insist that more could be found; and the students invariably amazed themselves with the new things they would see.

I first read that story in 1976. It seems I am a slow learner.

I will be coming back to Croce’s book on William James at a later date. In the meanwhile I will push on with my mindfulness practice.

Louis Agassiz (for source of image see link)

Louis Agassiz (for source of image see link)

 

 

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EdmundsonLast Monday I gave a brief account of Mark Edmundson’s disillusioned dissection of our culture based mainly on his introduction. I promised to follow this up with a sampling of two other issues he takes up in his Quixotic attack on the windmills of materialism: the demolition work of Shakespeare and of Freud.

Shakespeare:

Edmundson warned me in his introduction of what I would find when we come to Shakespeare (page 10-11):

What is true is that Shakespeare helps change our sense of human life and human promise through an almost complete rejection of ideals. Like his contemporary, Cervantes, Shakespeare has only contempt for the heroic ideal. . . . . .

Shakespeare, as Arnold Hauser argues, is a poet of the dawning bourgeois age, who has little use for chivalry and the culture of heroic honour.

This was not a problem: the militarily heroic holds few attractions for me. However, as I discovered later Shakespeare, according to Edmundson, is not just attacking heroism, though that is a main target: he is (page 140) writing for

. . . . a class that has little use for deep religion, the religion of compassion. . . . . . And he writes for a class with no real use for high thought – though Shakespeare is from time to time tempted by the ideal of contemplation.’

He then analyses in detail plays including Titus Andronicus, Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Troilus & Cressida that ruthlessly deconstruct the hero.

ShapiroInterestingly, it is not just Cervantes who influenced Shakespeare away from ideals. Montaigne, it is possible to argue, as James Shapiro does in 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, was also an influence on Shakespeare (page 332), as perhaps he was on Freud as we will see, and an influence particularly relevant to Hamlet:

He had surely looked into Montaigne by the time he wrote Hamlet – intuitions of critics stretching back to the 1830s on this question should be trusted – but he didn’t need to paraphrase him or pillage essays for his ideas. . . . . . . There was more than enough scepticism and uncertainty to go round in England in the final years of Elizabeth’s reign . . .

What is more important, perhaps, is the influence of Montaigne on the development of the soliloquy (page 333):

Redefining the relationship between speaker and audience, the essay also suggested to Shakespeare an intimacy between speaker and hearer that no other form, not even the sonnet, offered – except, perhaps, the soliloquy.

This may help explain why the one exception, which Edmundson detects to the reductive pattern he has identified, is Hamlet.

One of the reasons for this may be, as Shapiro suggests (ibid.), that:

Probably more than any other character in literature, Hamlet needs to talk; but there is nobody in whom he can confide.

Perhaps this is why Edmundson can find in him (page 174) ‘the free play of intellect’ he values so much. Hamlet can ‘think in quest of the Truth.’ And a truth that holds for everyone across time, not just pragmatically for the specific situation in some particular play.

It may therefore be no coincidence that this is my favourite play.

Edmundson argues that we feel that Shakespeare does not advocate any specific value system because the ones that live in his plays (page 12) ‘simply echo the anti-idealist values of his current audience and of the current world almost perfectly and, so, are nearly invisible.’

In the end, however, I do not accept his contention that Shakespeare does not value compassion, whatever we argue his audience might think and no matter that we can find evidence from his life that he fell short of that ideal in person. For instance, as a grain hoarder himself, his real life position on the 1607 food riots was rather different from the empathy for the rioters that comes across in Coriolanus.[1]

How, though, can the man that wrote,

The sense of death is most in apprehension;
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

(Measure for Measure Act 3, Scene 1, lines 76-79)

and

. . . . the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,
And there, all smother’d up, in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to creep forth again . . .

(Venus & Adonis lines 1033-36)

not understand and value compassion? And I am not equating this with the uncanny empathy that allows him to enter the shadowy mind of an Iago or an Edgar.

NuttallSo, at this point, I am more or less convinced that he despised the heroic. I can accept that he might not have been strong on contemplation, though I do need to think more on that one. AD Nuttall would apparently not agree, given that he has written a whole book on Shakespeare, the Thinker and clearly feels that his truths are valid across time (page 22):

Shakespeare’s response is, precisely, intelligent rather than a mere cultural reflex. He thinks fundamentally, and this makes him a natural time traveller.

Even so, he may not be a million miles apart from Edmundson, as he also acknowledges that (page 12) ‘we do not know what Shakespeare thought about any major question, in the sense that we have no settled judgements of which we can be sure.’

I absolutely disagree though that he did not value compassion, while I do accept that, as a dramatist, he could have gone a long way to creating his vast range of convincing characters with high levels of cognitive empathy alone.

I am left, though, with a slightly uneasy feeling. Maybe there’s more to Edmundson’s case than I am happy to accept. This nagging doubt goes back as far as my reading of Anne Glynn-Jones’s book, Holding Up a Mirror: how civilisations declineI am always a touch sceptical about confident claims to explain how complex entities such as civilisations operate, even though I keep getting drawn to reading them, as my posts on Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilisation testify. Glynn-Jones builds a case against Shakespeare on the basis of Pitirim Sorokin‘s social cycle theory. I would have found it easy to dismiss her case had I not felt that elements of Sorokin’s model made a great deal of sense to me as a Bahá’í.

The core of what she feels relates to Sorokin’s concept of the sensate society. He classified societies according to their ‘cultural mentality’, which can be ‘ideational’ (reality is spiritual), ‘sensate’ (reality is material), or ‘idealistic’ (a synthesis of the two). The relevance of those categories to the current issues is obvious.

She feels the Shakespeare is a dramatist of a sensate society. She quotes many examples of where Shakespeare can clearly be argued to be pandering to the basest sensation-seeking instincts of his audience. She quotes Tolstoy (pages 264-65):

Shakespeare exemplifies the view ‘that no definite religious view of life was necessary for works of art in general, and especially for drama; that for the purpose of the drama the representation of human passions and characters was quite sufficient. . . . . .

And he concludes, ‘The fundamental inner cause of Shakespeare’s fame is . . . . that his dramas . . . . corresponded to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time.’

Because I felt that to be a distorted misreading of Shakespeare’s audience as a whole and a very selective reading of his work in its entirety, I dismissed this view of Shakespeare completely at the time, though I could also see what she meant.

I agree he side-steps directly addressing religion but feel this is because it would have been too dangerous – and almost certainly unprofitable of course as well. That does not prove that he did not have a transcendent sense of the value of all life, and I believe he was deeply aware of its interconnectedness.

I accept that he loathed the heroic. He was definitely no philosopher. But a deeply felt compassion, rather than a mercantile value system, is what for me has ensured that he lives on, and continues to attract audiences across the world. It’s just that he does not explicitly teach compassion: he demonstrates it, though, in almost every word that he writes.

And so the pendulum swings on. Enough of that for now.

Freud:

In his introduction Edmundson states (page 12) that ‘Freud takes the enmity with ideals implicit in Shakespeare’s work and renders it explicit.’ He argues (page 14) that ‘Freud stands in the tradition of Montaigne, affirming the belief that the life of sceptical, humane detachment is the best of possible lives.’

Freud, Edmundson claims, takes this to an altogether different level (page 165):

One of the main functions of Shakespeare’s great inheritor, Freud, is to redescribe the ideals of compassion and courage and the exercise of imagination as pathologies and forms of delusion. . . . . Freud makes the middle-class people who live by half measures feel much better, allowing them to understand that the virtues that intimidated them are forms of sickness and that normality – clear-eyed and stable – is the true achievement. What a reversal!

I have read almost no Freud in the original, so strong has been my distaste for his views[2] as they have reached me through secondary sources, many of them his admirers. However, I am aware that it is possible to share my suspicion of his value without seeing him as exactly the kind of reductionist Edmundson identifies.

WebsterTake Richard Webster for example in his book Why Freud Was Wrong, in its way as brilliant as Edmundson’s. In his introduction he outlines his case against Freud. After explaining his sense that psychoanalysis is to be valued, if at all, not because it is truly scientific and valid, but because it enshrines imagination, something which has been side-lined by modernist reductionism, he makes a second telling point (page 9):

There is another reason why the vitality of the psychoanalytic tradition should not be taken as confirmation of the validity of Freud’s theories. This is because a great deal of it is owed not to any intellectual factor but to Freud’s own remarkable and charismatic personality and to the heroic myth, which he spun around himself during his own lifetime.

This is intriguing in the light of Edmundson’s case that Freud was a debunker of the heroic, but is not incompatible with it. In fact, it suggests that Freud failed to analyse himself dispassionately.

Webster takes this a step further (ibid.):

Freud himself consciously identified with Moses, and the prophetic and messianic dimensions of his character have been noted again and again even by those who have written sympathetically about psychoanalysis.

So, not just a hero, then, but a quasi-religious figure in his own eyes. Even more intriguing. Webster even goes on to claim that Freud (page 10) ‘went on to use the aura and authority of scientific rationalism in order to create around himself a church whose doctrines sought to subvert the very rationalism they invoked.’

His final point on this thread is hugely ironic in the light of Edmundson’s claims that Freud demolished the cult of the heroic ideal (page 11):

If Freud has not been seen in this light it is perhaps because the very success which he has enjoyed by casting himself in the role of intellectual liberator has brought with it the kind of idealisations and projections to which all messiahs are subject.

Towards the end of his book, Webster draws another conclusion about where this has helped to take us, which resonates with my recent explorations of Shelley, and with Edmundson’s rants against the aridity of much current lyric poetry in Poetry Slam. He argues for redressing the current bias against imagination and states that (page 504-05):

. . . . [u]ntil we have done this it seems likely that we will remain in thrall to the dissociated intellectual culture which we inhabit today, where an austere and politically influential scientific and technological culture, devoid of human sympathy and understanding, exists side by side with a weak literary and artistic culture which, because it has unconsciously internalised the image of its own superfluity, is prepared both to the stand back from the political process and to concede to the natural sciences the exclusive right to explore reality systematically and to pronounce authoritatively upon it.

Returning in more detail to Edmundson’s attack upon Freud, he defines the main focus of psychoanalysis as being on one ideal in particular (page 232):

History (and Shakespeare) have dealt with the myth of courage; history (and the Enlightenment) have dealt with the myth of faith. Love is Freud’s primary antagonist among human ideals, and he attacks it from every plausible direction.

In terms of love’s great exemplars, including Jesus and the Buddha, Freud argues (page 237) that they are ‘asking too much of human beings.’

How can we love our fellow men? Freud asks. Our fellow men, in general, have at best a mild contempt for us; at worst, they nurse murderous rage. . . . . There is only Self. Soul is an illusion.

I have dealt already on this blog with Matthieu Ricard’s utterly convincing refutation of such debasing cynicism in his book Altruism, which demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt, and on the basis of a huge amount of systematically gathered data, that we are innately capable of developing high levels of altruism, fairness and compassion. My last sequence of posts revisited his brilliant book from a different angle.

Edmundson goes on to quote Karl Kraus (page 243): ‘Psychoanalysis… is the disease of which it purports to be the cure.’ He goes on to explain what he believes this means. Having listed various ways human beings can rescue themselves from meaninglessness, such as love, creativity, compassion, courage or idealistic thought, he rounds his cannon upon Freud’s benighted cul-de-sac (page 244):

… all these activities are out of the bounds. Embracing them, for Freud, causes only trouble.

It is possible that to deny human beings these primary satisfactions makes them sick. It causes a disease, it does not cure it. If you live life without courage, compassion, the true exercise of intellect and creation through love, then you will not feel very well. You may even get quite ill.

before he delivers the coup-de-grace:

Then, when the banishment of ideals has made you ill, Freud can show you, through psychoanalysis and through the ethical program of his thought, how to feel a little better than you do. Psychoanalysis helps the culture of Self create a disease. And this disease psychoanalysis will happily help cure.

He feels the legacy of this, for psychotherapy as a whole, is deeply damaging (page 245):

Therapy can have many values, but they will never be idealistic. All therapies are about learning to live with half a loaf.

He is probably selling psychotherapies such as Psychosynthesis short when he uses that dubious word ‘all.’ But his point is valid for mainstream approaches. Spirituality and idealism are seen by them as suspect.

I hope this all too brief helicopter review inspires you to buy the book and read it, and I hope you then enjoy it as much as I have. Life is a lot richer than our materialistic gurus would have us believe, thank goodness.

Footnote:

[1] This side of Shakespeare was revealed in research done by Dr Jayne Archer, a lecturer in medieval and renaissance literature at Aberystwyth University.

[2] I am aware, from January’s Guardian article by , of the recent study which goes some way toward rehabilitating psychoanalysis as a treatment for depression.

He writes:

. . . . . [R]esearchers at London’s Tavistock clinic published results in October from the first rigorous NHS study of long-term psychoanalysis as a treatment for chronic depression. For the most severely depressed, it concluded, 18 months of analysis worked far better – and with much longer-lasting effects – than “treatment as usual” on the NHS, which included some CBT. Two years after the various treatments ended, 44% of analysis patients no longer met the criteria for major depression, compared to one-tenth of the others. Around the same time, the Swedish press reported a finding from government auditors there: that a multimillion pound scheme to reorient mental healthcare towards CBT had proved completely ineffective in meeting its goals.

So I need to clarify, perhaps, that it is Freud’s quasi-mythical beliefs such as the Oedipus Complex that repelled me as being too absurd to qualify as a universal truth. Other aspects of his thinking, taken over and used by other schools of therapy, have their place, such an projection and denial, as well as the acknowledgement that for some people it can be imperative that they understand their inscape deeply before they can move on, and that this can take years. Even so these are not universally applicable components of an effective therapy at all times. There is no one size fits all panacea – not psychoanalysis, not CBT.

I don’t think Burkeman would disagree with that as he concludes ‘. . . . . many scholars have been drawn to what has become known as the “dodo-bird verdict”: the idea, supported by some studies, that the specific kind of therapy makes little difference. (The name comes from the Dodo’s pronouncement in Alice in Wonderland: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”) What seems to matter much more is the presence of a compassionate, dedicated therapist, and a patient committed to change; if one therapy is better than all others for all or even most problems, it has yet to be discovered.’

Stuck in memory from my first degree in psychology, there was an interesting piece of meta-analysis from 1979 that pulled together all the studies of the efficacy of psychotherapy that had included an advance measure of how credible clients found the therapy they were undertaking. When all other variables were controlled for, the strongest predictor of effectiveness was how much the client believed the therapy would work. Unfortunately I have not been able to track that down recently.

And for me, if it has no place for a spiritual dimension, such as can be found in Jungian analysis and Psychosynthesis, there is still a major defect in the approach.

 

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