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Posts Tagged ‘Psychosynthesis’

It was a bit of a hassle organising our visit to a National Trust site for the first time since before lockdown. My wife and I tried to find a pre-booking slot at Berrington Hall, the nearest location, for the Saturday or Sunday. All slots were fully booked. We had more success trying for the next mid-week slot: Wednesday at 13.30 was ours for the taking.

My calendar dutifully informed me on the day that the roads were clear and it would take 24 minutes to get to Berrington Hall. The temperature outside was 28 degrees before we set off. Even allowing the car doors to remain open for a good ten minutes before daring to sit down inside, the seats felt scorchingly hot through the seat of my shorts.

We set off with the aircon blasting away and eventually cooled down. The ordinary entrance gate to the hall was closed, so we had go in through the lane that was usually the exit, not our first strange reversal of the norm in these Corona days.

As we approached the car park, the lady with a clipboard greeted us from under a shelter.

I wound the window down and asked, ‘Do you need to see our tickets?’

‘No, just tell me your name,’ she shouted back, carefully keeping her distance.

I did, and we were waved in with no further ceremony.

We parked the car under the shade of a tall hedge thinking that would keep it cool for our return.

We decided to have our walk first, then come back for nibbles and drinks if we could find cool shelter nearby. As we left, we passed a group of elderly ladies sitting under the shade of a young tree, enjoying tea and cakes.

‘Enjoying your tea under a tree?’ I couldn’t resist rhyming loudly in their direction.

They grinned back.

Even though the day was sweltering we enjoyed our walk once we got to the woodland near the pond.

When, after emerging from the shade of the woods, we were unable to cope with walking anymore in the heat, we made a detour back to the car park via a coffee and ice cream hatch near the stables. Zarin opted for an ice-cream and I risked a coffee despite the heat.

We arrived back at the car park after an hour or so away, to see the car baking in full sunlight. We both groaned aloud.

Fortunately the ladies had left the shade of the tree, so we took some cake and water out of the car with a sheet to sit on, and headed back to snap up its protection from the sun.

After my cake and coffee, with my head feeling more alert than usual from the caffeine hit I usually avoid these days, I tucked into the book I’d brought, as Zarin read through her yoga manual.

It was David Fontana’s Psychology, Religion and Spirituality.

I was already more than halfway through my re-reading of it. I’d bought it in 2005 and the occasional highlight indicated I had read at least parts of it before, but nothing had stuck in my mind in spite of the complimentary comment I’d scribbled in the flyleaf.

I’d enjoyed the book so far but nothing had prepared me for the pages I was about to read.

His references to Assagioli began to suggest I might be entering important territory, dealing as they did (page 163) with the personal self and the higher self and the concept of disidentification, all of which had strongly influenced me (see link).

Things calmed down again for a few pages until the topic of consciousness came up.

First of all Fontana reminded me of the Jungian model of consciousness (page 175), one that I had internalised many decades ago: it consists of four levels – normal waking consciousness, the preconscious, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious.

I won’t dwell on those or explain them further. I was just pleased to find myself on the home ground of my earlier days, but it was hardly a world changing insight.

It was when he began to refer to Ken Wilber’s The Spectrum of Consciousness that light bulbs started flashing. I have had that text on my shelves since October 2000 but have never bothered to read it. Apparently, according to Fontana (page 177) Wilber highly praises the Advaita Vedanta ‘developmental model of consciousness.’ And he quotes it at length.

There are six major levels, from the material (the most basic) through several levels to the ratiocinative level, the last one before the two highest levels kick in if you have worked hard enough or been very fortunate. It’s the last two levels that most engaged my attention.

The causal level (5) is where ‘consciousness can experience pure contentless awareness, or pure consciousness in and of itself.’ Level 6 is the Brahmanic level. Where ‘consciousness is aware of reality as a unified field of energy in which the material world, the individual, and the source of all phenomena, Brahman or the Absolute, are in essence identical with each other.’

In one way I was a bit surprised that I was getting so excited as levels of consciousness was not exactly a new and undiscovered topic for me (see links). When I paused to reflect though, I realised why these concepts were more alive for me now than they had been before.

One very recent poem, and particularly the experience that triggered, it have a bearing on this. I had been sitting in the garden at home with a cup of coffee and my notebook. To begin with I was just staring at the sky, as I thought. Then four lines of poetry came straight to mind, with appropriate scansion and full rhymes.

That poem broke abruptly through my cloud of thoughts like a shaft of sunlight. Since I wrote down those lines I have only changed five words, to help the potential reader understand better what I think my unconscious was trying to tell me. This is the amended version. It is rare for me not make many radical changes in a number of lines of the first draft of a poem: in fact that has only happened a handful of times at most in all the years I’ve been writing poetry.

Before I read the description of level 5, I felt the poem was simply providing me with a metaphor to capture the same point about consciousness as the mirror metaphor, namely that consciousness is not the same as its contents, just as a mirror is not what is reflected in it. I thought the poem’s insight was particularly helpful in this respect, as before I wrote it I had never thought to distinguish between clouds and the sky, just as, in a way, until I encountered Vipassana meditation[1], Assagioli’s disidentification and Koestenbaum’s reflection, I had been content to continue confusing my mind with what it was thinking, feeling, imagining, remembering and so on.

Suddenly though I was lifted to a different level of understanding for which my poem and the triggering experience had prepared me. I saw an immediate connection between the phrase ‘pure contentless awareness’ and my description of a ‘blue’ and ‘unchanging sky.’ ‘Blue’ is obviously the equivalent of ‘pure.’

However, the fact that the sky is not changed by the clouds that cross it, they simply hide it from us, had eluded me, just as the fact that consciousness is not changed by the thoughts and feelings that pass over or through it had also evaded my mind’s grasp. I had not only allowed my thought and feelings to hide the purity of consciousness from me but I had at some level not truly grasped that they had no effect on the ground of my consciousness at all.

Such is the power of metaphor for me.

This all goes further, though, and relates to level six also.

In another earlier poem, about whose triggering experience I now found myself forcefully reminded, I had described another experience of clouds and sky:

The key section reads:

When I was a child, delirious
they said, I floated lonely on a
cloud, bathed in sunlight. I’m serious.
Was it real? That I’ll never know for
sure. I didn’t see eternity
that day, but an OBE is far
from impossible. The clear beauty
of the blue expanse of sky, vivid,
serene, stays with me still. I could see
the sunlight streaming down, and tried
to turn and see the disc itself, but
failed.

Here I was above the concealing cloud of thought and feeling. I was as close to the sky in all its vivid purity as I could get. I obviously had not reached level 6: I could see the sunlight but not its source, the sun itself. When I recovered from the illness whose fever delivered me this gift, all the adults around me dismissed it as delirium, and I accepted that explanation, but the vivid memory of the experience has never left me. We didn’t understand in those days that factors that impair aspects of brain functioning can open the doors to different levels of experience that are ordinarily inaccessible.

I am beginning to suspect, or even to sense, that I had been steered into an unwise dismissal of something more like a peak experience, though not quite an epiphany, with important implications for my understanding of reality.

Ever since I can remember I have been on a quest for deeper understanding and still am, and am also haunted by a painful sense of having lost something infinitely precious. I think I may at last be getting closer to a convincing explanation for both those factors. The poem I am about to post next time, which was written after this post, is a kind of declaration of intent. Not quite the same as taking effective action though, I suspect.

Footnote:

[1]. As an article on the Buddhist Review website explains, ‘The meditator is trained to notice more and more of his own flowing life experience.’

 

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. . . . 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.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317)

This, then, is what a theory of everything has to explain: not only the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms and their development by evolution to greater and greater functional complexity; not only the consciousness of some of those organisms and its central role in their lives; but also the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value.

(Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmospage 85)

Now I come to the question of transcendence.

Transcending the crocodile does not depend upon accepting the existence of a soul, though that’s where this post will be going in the end.

Even if we only consider the brain and see the sense of self as its product, with no ‘true’ or ‘real’ self beyond that, we have ground to stand on which will enable us to shake off the shackles of the crocodile and avoid the swamp it lives in.

I’ve recently been reading Julian Baggini’s book How the World Thinks. His discussion of the No-Self issue addresses this point succinctly and may help me avoid rehashing arguments used elsewhere on this blog. He explores the Buddhist concept of anattā, which denies the reality of the ātman or self (page 178):

There is no ātman that has physical form, sensations, thoughts, perceptions of consciousness. Rather, what we think of as the individual person is merely an assemblage of these things.

He adds an important qualification (page 179):

If anattā seems more radical a view than it is, that is in large part because its usual translation is ‘no-self.’ But all it really means is no ātman: no eternal, immaterial, indivisible self. This is very different from denying there is any kind of self at all.

That Buddhism then encourages the effortful practice of meditative techniques to free us from the prison of this illusion of self clearly indicates that the no-self doctrine is not incompatible with the idea that we can escape the crocodile inside.

So, whether or not we have an immortal soul or self that is not a by-product of the brain, we can use techniques such as reflection or disidentification to rise above the tangle of thoughts, feelings, plans and perspectives with which we weave our convincing patterns on the loom of consciousness.

If I am relying on reason alone there is no way I can prove that the mind is independent of the brain anymore than someone else can prove conclusively it isn’t. Agnosticism is the only position available to reason alone. Many people are content to leave it at that. They may even happily look at the evidence marshaled for soul or no soul and keep their options open. I did that myself for a number of years.

Some of us though prefer in the end to make a choice. We’d rather decide there is or is not a soul, a God and/or an after-life. Either way that’s an act of faith.

I decided, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog, to believe we have a soul. I now feel this is the simplest explanation for all the data marshalled by psychologist David Fontana in his rigorous exploration of the evidence, Is There an Afterlife? For those interested in exploring further a more accessible book is Surviving Death by journalist Leslie Kean. Powerful individual testimony also comes from Eben Alexander in his account of his own experience as a sceptical neurosurgeon, Proof of Heaven.

If you prefer not to believe in a soul, the vast body of hard evidence still demands some kind of credible explanation, because trying to write it all off as flawed or fake won’t work. The evidence is in many cases more rigourous than that ‘proving’ the efficacy of the tablets we take when we have a problem with our health.

Anyway, I have come to think it’s easier to accept that our consciousness is not just an emergent property of our brain. If you’d like to stick with it we’ll see where it takes us on this issue.

Mind-Brain Independence

A quote from the middle of Emily Kelly’s chapter in Irreducible Mind on Frederick Myers’s approach (page 76) seems a good place to start from, because the last sentence cuts to the core of the challenge constituted by his position and the evidence that mainstream ‘scientists’ ignore:

This notion of something within us being conscious, even though it is not accessible to our ordinary awareness, is an exceedingly difficult one for most of us to accept, since it is so at variance with our usual assumption that the self of which we are aware comprises the totality of what we are as conscious mental beings. Nevertheless, it is essential to keep in mind Myers’s new and enlarged conception of consciousness if one is to understand his theory of human personality as something far more extensive than our waking self.

The mind-brain data throws up a tough problem, though. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though (page 73):

The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.

Others are of course now following where he marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon (page 177):

It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?

The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, as we will see – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. Whereas we now can draw upon all the complexities of Quantum Theory to help us define exactly what might be going on behind the screen of consciousness, and Lommel certainly does that, Myers had no such advantage. Nonetheless, he creates a rich and subtle picture of what consciousness might be comprised. He starts with the most basic levels (Kelly – page 73):

. . . . our normal waking consciousness (called by Myers the supraliminal consciousness) reflects simply those relatively few psychological elements and processes that have been selected from that more extensive consciousness (called by Myers the Subliminal Self) in adaptation to the demands of our present environment: and . . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self.

This problem is illustrated by Myers’s very helpful original analogy, and it shows just how far he was prepared to go in taking into account disciplines that others would have felt were beyond the pale (page 78):

Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.

Where does this take us?

Given the mirror used to illustrate the power of reflection, a reasonable description of the effects of sticking with the ego and its crocodile can be found in these words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Promulgation of Universal Peace– page 244):

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.

To find a close correspondence to the idea of disdentification in the words of an 18thCentury thinker felt like a further confirmation of its validity. Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quotes 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…

This contradicts my quasi-namesake David Hume’s perception of the situation as quoted by Braggini (pages 185-86):

What you observe are particular thoughts, perceptions and sensations. ‘I never catch myself, distinct from such perception,’ wrote Hume, assuming he was not peculiar.

I noted in the margin at this point, ‘’That’s not my experience.’

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 supernormal experiences is strong enough to warrant serious consideration (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.

He is arguing that the science of psychology needs to investigate these phenomena. I am not suggesting that, as individuals, we need to have had any such experiences if we are to make use of this model of the mind successfully. I personally have not had any. However, my belief that there is a higher self strongly motivates me to work at transcending the influence of my ego and its crocodile, and I suspect that subliminal promptings towards constructive action in complex and difficult circumstances often come from that direction.

This brings us into the territory explored by Roberto Assagioli in the psychotherapeutic approach called Psychosynthesis, with its use of concepts such as the Higher Self, for which I am using the term True Self.

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.)

A crucial component in implementing the Psychosynthesis model, in addition to finding it credible, is will power.

Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, contends that we are being raised by a higher force ‘into order, harmony and beauty,’ and this force is ‘uniting all beings . . . . with each other through links of love’ (Psychosynthesis: page 31). He explores what we might do to assist that process, and what he says resonates with Schwartz’s idea that persistent willed action changes brain structure. He writes (The Act of Will: page 57):

Repetition of actions intensifies the urge to further reiteration and renders their execution easier and better, until they come to be performed unconsciously.

And he is not just talking about the kind of physical skills we met with in Bounce. He goes on to say (page 80):

Thus we can, to a large extent, act, behave, and really be in practice as we would be if we possessed the qualities and enjoyed the positive mental states which we would like to have. More important, the use of this technique will actually change our emotional state.

This is what, in the realm of psychology, underpins the power of determination that the Universal House of Justice refers to in paragraph 5 of their 28 December 2010 message:

Calm determination will be vital as [people] strive to demonstrate how stumbling blocks can be made stepping stones for progress.

Changing ourselves in this way as individuals will ultimately change the world in which we live.

I am not arguing that transcending the crocodile is easy, nor am I saying that one particular way of achieving this will suit everyone. It is an effortful path and we each have to find our own. It is important that we do not mistake a credible looking path for the destination itself. If the path is not moving us towards our goal we must find another one. Nonetheless I am convinced the goal is within our grasp if we can believe in it enough to make the effort.

The Higher Good

There is one last important point for those of us who wish to believe in a God of some kind.

My very battered copy of this classic.

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects of man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his bookIs God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

The way forward, I believe, lies in recognising a higher and inspiring source of value that will help us lift our game in a way that can be sustained throughout our lifetime. For many of us that is God (from Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76):

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

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

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

Reflection, as you will be aware is also a core quality of the Bahá’í spiritual process closely linked to detachment, and has been discussed at length in other posts on this site, as has consultation which can be fairly described as a process of group reflection, which only gets a brief mention in this post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

Let’s take reflection first.

Reflection is the capacity to separate consciousness from its contents (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. We become capable of changing our relationship with them and altering their meanings for us. Just as a mirror is not what it reflects we are not what we think, feel and plan but the capacity to do all those things. Knowing this and being able to act on it frees us up: we are no longer prisoners of our reactions, assumptions, models and maps. We are no longer chained to our crocodile.

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

The principal focus of reflection in mind-work is often upon our models of reality and upon the experiences which give rise to them and to which they give rise in return. The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict, reduces our levels of anxiety and irritation, and opens us up to new experiences: the adaptation and change that this makes possible enhances the potential usefulness of our models and their connected experiences. It is the antithesis of drowning, where we are engulfed in our experiences and sink beneath them, and of acting out where we unleash our feelings only to regret the unconsidered consequences. It facilitated by processes such as those described in Psychosynthesis (see the exercise below which is adapted from their Disidentification Exercise) and by the practice of Mindfulness.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They illustrate their point with a telling example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relativity

In combination with its sister quality, relativity, reflection becomes a powerful tool indeed. The antidote to chronic dogmatism is relativity. Being dogmatic seals us off from new evidence which makes it hard to change our minds even when we are wrong.

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

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

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

Relatedness

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

All these capacities combine to help us to contain what might otherwise be too scary and/or disturbing to contemplate. What we cannot contain, we find it almost impossible to reflect on and process. Containment therefore plays a central role in handling difficult emotions and loosens the grip of the crocodile’s jaws.

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

An inability to contain experiences of a disturbing nature accounts for much substance abuse, self-harm and dependency on mind-altering subscription drugs. It’s also fair to add that containment is often not possible to sustain outside a set of supportive relationships. It can feel too scary, too risky. If we cannot trust anyone, and perhaps least of all ourselves, we cannot contain what frightens us or threatens to overwhelm us. So perhaps without trust there is too little containment.

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

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

Relating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Other Rs

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

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

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

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PTSD and war

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

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

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

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

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

keyesdouglas

Keith Douglas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What use is religious practice here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How might reflection help us find meaning?

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

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

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

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

Consultation

But there is one step further we can go.

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

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

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

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

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

Later he adds further illumination (page 215):

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

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

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

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

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O SON OF SPIRIT! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No. 13)

Rings of Self True self v2

In the past I have made various attempts to articulate what I mean by reflection and why it matters. This is one that seems worth re-publishing at this point. This is the last in the sequence of four.

 

I have to be honest. The main benefits of meditation that I have achieved so far are a calm state of consciousness, a steady groundedness and an intermittent connection with my subliminal mind. No mystical moments or experience of my Soul – so far as I’m aware at least. I could’ve been bathing in bliss, I suppose, and just not realised it. In any case it wouldn’t count for present purposes if I didn’t know it.

In fact, it seems that nothing much has changed since May 1982, when I wrote in my diary, after about a year of consistent meditation:

I have been astonished at the power of meditation to help me bring about fundamental changes in my thinking and orientation…, and all that without any dramatic experiences within the period of meditation. In fact, even the simplest aspects of meditation are a hard struggle – maintaining the posture, following the breath, passive watchfulness and not fidgeting. It takes all my concentration to achieve any one of those for the briefest period.

I think I might have been selling myself short a bit there.

There seemed to have been a flicker of something more significant a few days later when I commented:

I finally achieved an experience unlike any other. I felt my being forced open by something which dissolved my boundaries, physical and mental. There was, for a brief moment, neither inside nor outside. My self as I knew it shrank to a few fragments clinging to the edges of this something which ‘I’ had become or which had become me or which I always am deep down. I was frightened. I dared not quite let the experience be.

Although there was a repeat of that some weeks later, I came to feel that it was probably an artefact of the way my breathing slowed as my meditation got deeper, and I have never been able to entice any such experience without reducing my breathing in a way that creates a blending sort of buzz in my brain that goes nowhere and probably means nothing.

So, when it comes to writing about the True Self I’m going to have to rely on the testimony of others even though perhaps the main purpose of meditation for me is to achieve contact with that part of me which is really all that matters about me, if it exists as I believe it does.

Not exactly brimming with confidence, am I?

The ‘No Self’ Issue

I am aware that I have already posted at some length on the ‘No Self’ position so I’ll rehash that quickly now before moving onto slightly different ground. Last December I posted on this issue, looking at Sam Harris’s argument in An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality that there is no ‘real self,’ and concluded:

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to something Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.’

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

Setting aside my sense, which I have explored at length elsewhere, that the mere existence of consciousness warrants a transcendent explanation, where does this leave me now?

NDE

For source of image see link.

NDEs and OBEs

In that post I launched into a consideration of the evidence that suggests the mind is not reducible to the body/brain and it may even survive bodily extinction. Elsewhere I have explored at length the evidence Near-Death-Experiences (NDEs) provide to support the idea that the mind or consciousness is not dependent upon or reducible to the brain.

There are also examples in the NDE literature that in those states of consciousness people have access to levels of understanding far beyond those accessible in ordinary consciousness. For example, a respondent to Raymond Moody wrote (quoted in Ken Ring’s Lessons from the Light – page 177):

One big thing I learned when I died was that we are all part of one big, living universe. If we think we can hurt another person or another living thing without hurting ourselves, we are sadly mistaken. I look at a forest are a flower or a bird now, and say, ‘That is me, part of me.’ We are connected with all things and if we send love along these connections, then we are happy.

Right now in this post, though, I am looking for any evidence that suggests there are people who have connected with that transcendent aspect of themselves outside the NDE context and that this is something the rest of us might be able to achieve at least momentarily and possibly at will in our ordinary lives. I also would like to examine evidence that might indicate that by experiencing this Mind we can access levels of wiser understanding than are available in ordinary consciousness.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, out-of-body experiences, while sometimes giving access to factual information at least anecdotally, do not seem to bring moments of deep insight. Experimentation is largely focused on seeking examples that will point towards mind/brain independence but not I think towards wisdom and ‘illumination.’

NDE

For source of adapted image see link

Mysticism

The lives and experiences of the great mystics provide inspiring examples of direct access to a transcendent realm and the wisdom it enshrines. Evelyn Underhill, in her book Mysticism, summarises it as follows (page 23-24):

Of all those forms of life and thought with which humanity has fed its craving for truth, mysticism alone postulates, and in the persons of its great initiates proves, the existence of the Absolute, but also this link: this possibility first of knowing, finally of attaining it. It denies that possible knowledge is to be limited (a) to sense impressions, (b) to any process of intellection, and (c) to the unfolding of the content of normal consciousness. The mystics find the basis of their method not in logic but in life: in the existence of a discoverable ‘real,’ a spark of true being, within the seeking subject, which can, in that ineffable experience which they call ‘the act of union,’ fuse itself with and thus apprehend the reality of the sought Object. In theological language, their theory of knowledge is that the spirit of man, itself essentially divine, is capable of immediate communion with God, the One Reality.

The quote from the Bahá’í Writings at the head of this post suggests that something like this is possible, though Bahá’í Scripture also points out that the Great Being we refer to as ‘God’ is not in fact reducible to what we can experience, no matter how advanced we are spiritually, even though that experience can give us a sense of what the Great Being is like – the attributes, to use a Bahá’í expression.

Unfortunately, systematic scientifically acceptable studies confirming the objective validity of such mystical moments are as rare as hen’s teeth. Even when claims are made for replicable brain changes that correlate, for example, with deeply stable and focused attention, it’s usually on the back of something like 19,000 hours of practice (see Matthieu Ricard’s Altruism – page 251). Such a person is described as ‘relatively experienced.’ To be really good at effortlessly sustaining such focused attention an average of 44,000 hours is required.

As I generally manage to meditate for something like 20-30 minutes only each day, to reach those larger numbers would take me 241 years. So, it’s a relief to read (pages 252-53) that even ‘eight weeks of meditation on altruistic love, at a rate of thirty minutes per day, increased positive emotions and one’s degree of satisfaction with existence.’

Silence participants

Participants in ‘The Big Silence‘ (see my comment)

Silence

At this late stage of an imperfect life, I consider my chances of attaining anything remotely close to that kind of effortless attention, let alone contact with the divine within, to be vanishingly small, so I think it more realistic to focus on a more modest objective.

A good and accessible source of guidance for me is to be found in books about Psychosynthesis – take Piero Ferrucci for example. In Chapter 20 of his book What We May Be, in a discussion of Silence (pages 217-226) there are many useful insights that confirm my own experience so far, make me feel less guilty about my interrupted meditations and perhaps point a way further forwards. He writes about the ‘state of intense and at the same time relaxed alertness,’ which comes with silence. He speaks of how ‘insights flow into this receptive space we have created.’ He goes onto explain what might be going on here:

While the mind [in my terms intellect] grasps knowledge in a mediated way . . . and analytically, intuition seizes truth in a more immediate and global manner. For this to happen, the mind becomes at least temporarily silent. As the intuition is activated, the mind is gradually transformed . . . .

He unpacks the kinds of intuition to which we may come to have access: about people and about problems, but beyond that also at ‘the superconscious level’ we can have ‘a direct intuitive realisation of a psychological quality, of a universal law, of the interconnectedness of everything with everything else, of the oneness of all reality, of eternity, and so on.’

Then he makes a key point, which resonates strongly with Iain McGilchrist’s position in The Master & his Emissary, which I touched on in the second post:

Intuition perceives wholes, while our everyday analytical mind is used to dealing with parts and therefore finds the synthesising grasp of the intuition unfamiliar

Intuitions are ‘surprisingly wider than the mental categories [we] would usually like to capture them with.’

He provides a useful list of facilitators of intuition over and above the role of silence. We need to give it attention, as I have already discovered in my own experience. Intuitions often come in symbolic form, as I have found in both dreamwork and in poetry. We have to be prepared to learn the code or language of our intuitive mind and there are no manuals for this: everybody’s intuitive self speaks a different dialect. Last of all we have to keep ‘an intuition workbook.’ Writing an insight down facilitates the emergence of others, and insights often come in clusters if we encourage them in this way.

There is one more priceless potential outcome of this kind of process:

There is, however, one higher goal – higher even then the flower of intuition – to which the cultivation of silence can bring us. While it is rarely reached, it is of such importance that no discussion of silence can be complete without it. I refer to illumination. While intuition can be thought of as giving us a glimpse of the world in which the Self lives, illumination can best be conceived as a complete view of that world. In fact, illumination is the act of reaching the Self and contacting it fully.

So, maybe I am on the right track after all, just not very consistent in my treading of it. I’m encouraged enough by all this to persist and hope that one day, before I move on from this body, I will connect with my true Self and deepen my felt understanding of my purpose here before it’s too late, of what interconnectedness is, and of how to develop a greater depth of more consistent altruism than has been in my power so far.

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Edmundson

Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The first part came out yesterday.

Yesterday 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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