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Posts Tagged ‘reflection’

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

From time to time it comes to seem appropriate to republish a much earlier sequence from 2009 on the Bahá’í approach to healing our wounded world. Recent events across many countries again makes it seem timely to revisit this sequence. The posts will appear over the next week or so.

Empowerment

To mistakenly identify Bahá’í community life with the mode of religious activity that characterises the general society — in which the believer is a member of a congregation, leadership comes from an individual or individuals presumed to be qualified for the purpose, and personal participation is fitted into a schedule dominated by concerns of a very different nature — can only have the effect of marginalising the Faith and robbing the community of the spiritual vitality available to it.

(Universal House of Justice, 22 August 2002)

Training is helping move us from a passive congregational culture to an actively empowered one.

Referred to as the “chief propellant” of the change in culture, the training institutes, with their ability to produce an expanding number of human resources, have fundamentally altered the approach of the Bahá’í community to the tasks at hand. More than ever the rank and file of the believers are involved in meaningful and vital service to the Cause. Whether by holding devotional meetings, facilitating study circles, or teaching children’s classes, a greater number of friends have found paths of service that do not depend on public-speaking prowess.

(Building Momentum: pages 18-19)

The three activities referred to in that last quotation have often been described as ‘core activities.’  Core does not, however, mean only. The analogy of the spear has also been used, with these activities, or some aspect of them, referred to as the spearhead. This metaphor points up (terrible unintended pun – sorry!) the  issue here. A spearhead without a  shaft is not much use. So, there are many other things that we need to do as well as those three important components of our plan if they are to have the impact we would like.

The House of Justice has remarked on this increase in empowered participation:

It is especially gratifying to note the high degree of participation of believers in the various aspects of the growth process.

(Building Momentum: pages 18-19)

People often refer to how, in most organisations, 20% of the people do 80% of the work. Bahá’ís are learning how to buck this trend.

A Sequence of Courses

A critical tool in this process is a sequence of courses devised by the Ruhi Institute in Colombia, tested in the field there and gradually improved in the light of experience. Certain principles underpin the components of this set of materials:

From among the various possibilities, the Ruhi institute has chosen ‘service to the Cause’ as the organising principle of its educational activities.

(Learning about Growth: page 50)

They describe this further in one of the modules of the course:

The purpose of our courses is to empower the friends spiritually and morally to serve the Faith . . .

(Book Seven: page 102)

Learning to implement these courses here and in other countries has not been without its problems of course:

Out of a desire to apply the guidance ‘correctly,’ there was a tendency in isolated cases to go to extremes: either everyone was to be a tutor or restrictions were imposed; people who had taught children for years were told they couldn’t continue unless they did Book Three; firesides [informal introductory meetings usually with an invited speaker] were abandoned in place of study circles; people were rushed through the courses without doing the practice.

(Paul Lample: Revelation and Social Reality, pages 64 and 92)

This pain and discomfort of learning by these mistakes is perhaps the inevitable accompaniment of creativity and enacting higher values. There is no doubt though that the basic methodology is sound and has proved itself in many places, in spite of these teething problems, to be a powerful means of giving people the confidence to act. People are also learning how to dovetail the activities connected with the sequence of training courses with previously existing patterns of action such as the fireside and courses designed to further deepen our understanding of the Writings of the Faith.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Refining What We Do

We are also learning not only to be more active in service of the community as a whole, but also to think about what we are doing in order to do it better. The methodology for this was part of the Colombian experience and draws on models of action research (see Peter Reason for example) undertaken in the wider community.

The most [the teachers and administrators] could expect from themselves was to engage wholeheartedly in an intensive plan of action and an accompanying process of reflection and consultation. This reflection and consultation had to be carried out in unshakeable unity and with a spirit of utmost humility. The main thrust of the consultation had to be the objective analysis of possible courses of action and the evaluation of methods and results, all carried out in the light of the Writings of the Faith.

(Learning About Growth: page 10)

Other posts on this blog examine in considerable detail what Bahá’ís mean by consultation and reflection. The key components of the process described here are study, consultation, action and reflection.

Relating to Scripture

In using scripture as part of this process of empowerment certain aspects are emphasised:

. . . to reach true understanding . . . one must think deeply about the meaning of each statement and its applications in one’s own life and in the life of society. Three levels of comprehension are: basic understanding of the meaning of words and sentences, applying some of the concepts to one’s daily life, and thinking about the implications of a quotation for situations having no apparent or immediate connection with its theme.

(Learning about Growth: pages 30-31)

A good mnemonic for this is AIMs. The ‘A’ stands for applications, the ‘I’ for implications and the ‘M’ for meanings. The bedrock of the process of empowerment here is to enable us all to relate to the Word of God in a way that inspires us to put what we have understood into action for the betterment of the world.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

The Links to Civilisation-Building

It is important to have a brief look now at how the work of each book including its ‘service’ component links to the aim of building a better world for everyone.

This is made quite explicit at the beginning of the first book in the sequence (page 9):

The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct.

(The Advent of Divine Justice: pages 24-25)

The theme is continued in the other books, for example:

Book Two (page 46):

The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh encompasses all units of human society; integrates the spiritual, administrative and social processes of life; and canalises human expression in its various forms towards the construction of a new civilisation.

(Universal House of Justice: 1989)

Book Three (page 9):

Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education, alone, can cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.

(Gleanings: CXXIII)

Book Four (page 8):

It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness.

(Gleanings: IV)

It is perhaps worth stressing here that specific patterns of action are linked to the work of each book and are central to the purposes of that book. Book Three is designed for example to empower people to run children’s classes. Book Four encourages us to speak to people about the lives of the central figures of the faith as a way to inspire them to a new way of living. The lives of the Báb and His disciples, for example, unfold before our eyes a quality of moral heroism that  many profound thinkers lament is missing from modern life.  Zimbardo devotes the closing chapter of his book  The Lucifer Effect to describing ways of cultivating exactly that quality in the ordinary challenges of life. Susan Neiman describes examples of such heroism in her book Moral Clarity.

Civilisation-building is the underpinning purpose of the courses and it is seen to begin with small changes in our patterns of daily action. Again in a later book:

Book Six (page 11):

The world is in great turmoil, and its problems seem to become daily more acute. We should, therefore, not sit idle . . . Bahá’u’lláh has not given us His Teachings to treasure them and hide them for our personal delight and pleasure. He gave them to us that we may pass them from mouth to mouth, until all the world . . . . enjoys their blessings and uplifting influence.

(Shoghi Effendi, The Guardian: 27 March 1933)

Book Seven (page 67):

Children are the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future. They bear the seeds of the character of future society which is largely shaped by what the adults constituting the community do or fail to do with respect to children.

(Universal House of Justice: Ridván  2000)

The Purpose of the Core Activities

Many people has felt confused at times about the exact purpose of the ‘core activities.’ A member of the Universal House of Justice has reportedly offered the following clarification.

He gave the example of a glass. He said that while it is not inaccurate to say that the glass is transparent, it is evident that transparency is not the purpose of the glass. Transparency is one of the attributes of the glass, but its purpose is to hold liquid. Similarly, one of the attributes of our core activities is that they become instruments for teaching – but that is not their purpose. He stressed that the purpose of our core activities is to enable us to serve society and help “translate that which hath been written into reality and action”.

The primary purpose of our core activities is to raise our capacity to serve society, such that these activities become instruments for developing communities, and not merely instruments for teaching the Faith.

He encouraged the participants present at the seminar to re-look at the Ruhi Institute books from 1 – 7 with the eye of society and to reflect on how the concepts embedded in them could be used for social action and not just for the sake of bringing more people into the Faith.

He developed this further. It is clear that we need to imbue participants engaged in our core activities with a vision of social transformation as well as personal transformation. Now if someone were to ask us whether the purpose of our inviting them to join study circles is to make them Bahá’ís, we can confidently say ‘no’ and tell them that the purpose of our core activities is to assist in the transformation and betterment of society.

The next posts will look more closely at the nature and value of devotional meetings and the compelling need for the spiritual education and proper nurturing  of children.

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A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It leadeth the way and guideth.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Gleanings: CXXXII)

Picking up from where the last post left off, I need to explain how I am learning to balance the competing priorities of my life.

As I explained earlier, not only is there sometimes a conflict between my introverted preferences, such as for reading and writing, and my need to operate in the world outside my head, but there can also be a clash between my desire to read and my desire to write. The symbol I’m developing to express a way of balancing these needs is of the wheel I want my life to run on.

There is no way I can avoid an action of some kind. Even doing nothing is a form of action. So, action has to be the rim of the wheel, the surface in constant contact with the road my life is taking.

However, I have to recognise that constantly, unremittingly, huge swathes of time are being taken up with experiences of various kinds, whether internally generated or externally triggered. The bulk of them are processed unconsciously, and in addition most of what is conscious will be rapidly forgotten, possibly almost undigested.

However, as I see it, if I do not ruminate on the most precious parts of it I will fail to learn the crucially important lessons they can teach me. So, I must build firmly into the structure of my life’s wheel the reinforcing elements of reading, writing, meditation and consultation (I have dealt elsewhere with the mutually reinforcing power of consultation and meditation, so I won’t repeat it all here). The conclusion I arrived it was this:

It seems possible, at least in principle, to use meditation to improve our consultation skills and consultation perhaps to practise and refine our meditation. It also raises the question whether consultation, at least in the West, would benefit from more silence.

We know it requires detachment. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Paris Talks (page 174):

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

One possible way of conceptualising detachment, or at least a result of it, is freedom from our animal nature as described here. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote (Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 207):

Regarding the statement in ‘The Hidden Words’, that man must renounce his own self, the meaning, is that he must renounce his inordinate desires, his selfish purposes and the promptings of his human self, and seek out the holy breathings of the spirit . . . . ..

Meditation, then, might help us achieve the detachment necessary for consultation. Consultation will almost certainly strengthen our ability to be detached and thereby facilitate our meditation. They are clearly not unrelated disciplines sharing as they do this same outcome.

We also have to be open to the views of other people when we consult and, in my case, to the Bahá’í Scriptures when I meditate upon them or to the promptings of our higher self when we commune with it in meditation. So these two skills are not all that different either: they both enhance our understanding of reality.

In the end, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that meditation will help us consult and consulting will help us meditate.

Last but by no means least, the strong axle to which the spokes of this wheel are attached, and around which it revolves, is reflection, in all the various senses I have explored in detail on this blog, including its meditative aspect and its way of enhancing our detachment. With this in its proper place not only will I be able to balance my various priorities better, but I will also be able to deal more wisely with what happens when my scripts are triggered.

The forces that impelled me to formulate this particular recipe were: first of all in the present the need to escape from the still active counterproductive patterns I’ve described in the first post of this sequence; next, came what I have learned from the various approaches that helped me step back enough from them to think hard about them in the past, including the years of therapy and Buddhist meditation; and last of all, what still sets the seal on my current perspective is the combination of insights from existentialism and my life-changing encounter with the Bahá’í Faith, which has set my overall direction in life every since.

I have described my reasons for making this leap of faith in a sequence of posts. The short answer to the question, ‘Why did I make that choice?’ is this. I was bowled over by how closely everything I had understood in my exploration of the Bahá’í Faith mapped onto what I already believed. It was what I felt I had been searching for almost all my adult life: an egalitarian meaning system that combined activism with spirituality in a way that absolutely prohibited the use of force, or any other dubious means, to persuade others of its truth. When I was asked if I wanted to join the Bahá’í community, unless all I had protested that I believed was pure hypocrisy, I surely had to put my money where my mouth had been all those years. So I did. My closest friends predicted I’d be out again in six months. It was just another of my fads. Yet here I still am 35 years later.

So, I am aware that to complete the context in which the wheel operates, I need a compass and a map. In a previous post I explained my model of the compass of compassion. This was my conclusion:

Because the earth has a magnetic field that helps us find our right direction it wasn’t hard to see that a compass, already more than half-way to compassion in its spelling, was a good way of remembering the key value that underpins every other spiritual value in all faiths, and which in Bahá’í terms emanates from the three unities of the essential oneness of God, religion and humanity, blurred as our perception of those may sometimes be. The other meaning of the word ‘compass’ is also a reminder, as is the image of our world from space, to widen the embrace of my compassion to include all life and perhaps even the earth itself, an imperative need as Robert Wright describes it.

Bahá’u’lláh also has a most interesting way of linking a compass with kindness that suggests I might be on the right lines here (Gleanings: CXXXII):

A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It leadeth the way and guideth.

I am not going to pretend that the compass we have chosen will always make it easy to decide what is the right thing to do and provide us with a strong enough motivation to do it. We are human and sometimes our moral energy flags. Also a moral compass built on a system of values is more complex than a material compass. Values are arranged in a hierarchy. On occasions we need to decide that a higher value trumps a lower one. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gives a simple example of this (Bahá’í World Faith, page 320):

If a doctor consoles a sick man by saying: “Thank God you are better, and there is hope of your recovery,” though these words are contrary to the truth, yet they may become the consolation of the patient and the turning-point of the illness. This is not blameworthy.

He says this even though lying is condemned outright by Him in other quotes to be found at the same link.

Now for the map.

It should also be obvious that the map I have chosen is that drawn up by the Divine Cartographer, Bahá’u’lláh, whose organising principle is unity. One of the most challenging statements relating to the need to live the principle of oneness comes in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the Arc project there on 24th May 2001:

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 Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

I have faith that this compass and that map will lead me to generate enough wisdom by the processes I describe to help me climb as high as I am able up the mountain of truth so that, God willing, I can more fully recognise our interconnectedness and act accordingly, helping to build a better world in the process, I trust.

Good luck to you all in your search for your compass and your map. Don’t forget to use a trustworthy wheel for the wagon of your life as you journey on.

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In the area of values, this means that we must learn to value even when we don’t feel like it. We must learn to love even when we are angry, to care even when we are exasperated.

(Steven Hayes et al in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: an experiential approach to behaviour change — page 210)

Picking up on a closing point from the last post, as time went on I came to realise that the bookworm in me had value as part of my 3Rs – reading, writing and reflection. Again this has been explained before, for example in Rings of Self:

For my own purposes I have developed a mock equation as a mnemonic for my preferred approach to deepening my understanding of an issue. This approach, in interaction with experience, involves using meditation as a means of accessing the products of my subliminal thought processes in combination with reading and writing. So, I move in and out of active/passive  engagement with experience through reading, writing and reflection, my three Rs.

Reflection is a term that cuts both ways: it can be used to describe the workings of the intellect – labeled deliberation, in the previous post, to avoid confusion –  or the process of meditation, in which we pull back from identifying with the usual contents of our consciousness. Both processes of reflection and their product are very different from the knee-jerk reactions of instinct described in the first post of this sequence.

So, E + 3R = I, where I = Insight and E stands for Experience. This is one of the roles the writing of this blog is meant to execute.

This led onto the idea, which I’m about to explore, of reflection as a filter and as the core of my process.

Recent developments in my thinking have produced the simple diagram at the head of this post as the most straightforward way of capturing the main issue as I see it when it comes to using reflection as a guide to wise and compassionate action. This acknowledges implicitly that feelings can have complex origins, as explained last time, but it would complicate the diagram too much for present purposes to bring those into the mix now.

This is a different process than the gathering of pollen and nectar from the flowers of experience. What we preserve in terms of our learning about love and wisdom is stored in our hearts and therefore not always explicitly accessible to our heads unless we press the pause button for long enough to quieten our passions down. This is why it is not usually appropriate to act when in the grip of negative or scripted feelings. Negative feelings are more easily identified: rage, pain, fear can be identified as dark and potentially destructive without too much trouble. Apparently positive ones, which can also be scripted, such as the warmth of our attraction to a dangerous person or life path, are harder to detect.

That’s why we need to press the pause button, step back and give ourselves time to reflect.

But how are we to use that reflection time? Part of that is obvious enough. When we have stepped back from scripted feelings we can think about them, almost interrogate them. Where do they come from? When have we felt like this before? What happened next? What do they remind us of? And so on. These can lead us to the kind of understanding of deep-rooted causes we discussed last time.

The answers may help us judge more clearly whether we can trust these reactions in the current situation. The answer is probably that we shouldn’t – or at least not blindly or completely. We need a better compass.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) places great emphasis on the importance of our values as a guide to action. In their book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Hayes et al describe an important distinction between two kinds of valuing (page 208-09):

Among the most important [distinctions] is distinguishing valuing as feeling versus valuing as an action. These two aspects are often thoroughly confused for the client. The example of valuing a loving relationship with one spouse is instructive. One’s feelings of love may wax and wane across time and situations. To behave lovingly (e.g., respectfully, thoughtfully, etc.) only when one has feelings of love, and to behave in opposite ways when the opposite feelings emerge, would be very likely to have problematic effects on a marriage. Yet this is precisely the pickle we are in when values are confused with feelings, because feelings are not fully under voluntary control and tend to come and go. . . . .

In the area of values, this means that we must learn to value even when we don’t feel like it. We must learn to love even when we are angry, to care even when we are exasperated.

There are other aspects of this which are less directly relevant to my current purpose but none the less important. For example, one of the most useful insights I gleaned from Hayes et al’s book concerned their clear definition of a trap you can fall into when you firmly believe you are enacting your values. It’s when you confuse values with goals (page 231).

A value is a direction, a quality of action. By definition, values cannot be achieved and maintained in a static state, they must be lived out.

It is important therefore not to confuse values (why we do things) with the steps we have decided to take to enact them (the what) or even the outcomes that we hope to achieve as a result of those steps. We have to be open to the possibility that this step or that outcome, as we experience working in that way, comes to seem at odds with the value we are seeking to give expression to or with a value we come to realise is more fundamentally important to us than the one we thought we wanted to express.

Also, we cannot always trust the words we think in let alone the feelings we are attempting to describe. This sceptical attitude towards descriptions has to be maintained equally if not more strongly in relation to descriptions of the self (page 182):

. . . when a person identifies with a particular conceptualisation, alternatives to that conceptualisation can seem almost life-threatening. The . . . frame here seems to be “Me = conceptualisation” [i.e. I am exactly what I think I am] and its entailed derivative “Eliminate conceptualisation = eliminate me” [i.e. If you destroy my idea of myself you destroy me]. [Thus], we are drawn into protecting our conceptualized self as if it were our physical self.

To help people step back from such identifications the authors liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board (page 192):

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

A Plan in the Mind’s Mirror

This relates to the point I made towards the end of the previous post, that sometimes we have to learn to step back from who we think we are to find our True Self. Personally, while I find their analogy helpful, I prefer the idea of a mirror and its reflections. Our mind or consciousness is the mirror and all our experiences, inside and out, are simply reflections in that mirror: they are not who we are, not even the most intense feelings, our most important plans, or the strongest sense of self. We have to learn to see them as simply the contents of consciousness. Only that way can we tune into deeper and wiser levels of our being.

In terms of the issue of enacting our values rather than our feelings, the mind has many tricks it can play to undermine our intentions in this respect. For instance, there is the hypocrisy argument that keeps cropping up. ‘If I’m furious with somebody, it’s just not honest to be nice. I’m just being a hypocrite.’ This neatly lines up fury with principle, and can justify the idea that Oscar Wilde deflates with a skilful pinprick, that there are times when speaking one’s mind is not only a pleasure but a duty.

My strongest response to this mistaken line of reasoning is that it is based on a false identification with the lower self. If all I am convinced I am is my cluster of reptilian emotional residues, then the logic is irrefutable. I must attack viciously or else betray who I really am. But we are not only, or even mainly or most deeply, our reptilian selves.

Even if we only look at this in terms of the material brain, we have higher centres that conform to higher norms. The frontal lobes aren’t there in our heads simply to rubber stamp our animal side: they don’t just stand back and say, ‘You’re right! He insulted you. You’re angry enough. Kill him!’ Well, not unless you are one of those narcissistic sociopaths in prison for murdering the man who drank their Coke without their permission.

There are centres of consciousness in almost all of us that identify with principles of self-control and consideration, and these centres are as much who we are as the animal impulses, if not more so. It takes more effort to enact them, but that doesn’t make them lies. When we behave well no matter how we feel, we are being true to them and they are truly who we are. That is not hypocrisy.

This is where investing our energy into mastering the art of reflection is so important. Without that filter through which to purify our thinking, ridding it of the distracting debris of our conditioning, we will continue to betray our higher self and its transcendent ideals for a downward but easier and enticing path into deeper and more destructive delusions.

It is also probably the key to the skill that I read about many years ago in a book by a Jungian therapist, but can no longer track down. He argued that our society, and perhaps many others as well, offer only two main alternatives when we experience strong feelings: we can either act them out or we can repress them. Neither of these courses of action is usually advisable. Most of us most of the time are not aware that there is a third possibility: to contain the feelings in consciousness. This allows us to use the feelings as information about the situation in which we find ourselves, and also to consider whether we can use them to motivate us to more constructive action than simply venting them would allow for. Containment of this kind, it seems to me, depends upon our capacity to reflect. It may even be an aspect of reflection.

Table of Value Types – Alain Locke. (From ‘Alain Locke and Cultural Pluralism’  – page 105 – by Christopher Buck in Search for Values edited by John Danesh & Seena Fazel)

This all leads me onto the next major issue: how do we best define our values?

We can choose to draw our values from various sources. Alain Locke’s perspective on values theory is as good a way as any to illustrate this. For him, the first African American Rhodes scholar,  ‘human values are central in determining the course of social life’ and the table above illustrates their various possible types or points of origin.

Not only that, but it also may not be as easy as we think to distinguish our feelings from our values. Terry Eagleton touches on some reasons for this in his book Culture and the Death of God (page 41):

The kind of morality [Richard] Price has in his sights can stir men and women to action, but is perilously reliant on sentiment, intuition or moral sense. By contrast, a morality based on Reason is solidly founded, but lacks the power to motivate.

I don’t share his suspicion of intuition, as many previous posts of mine testify, because I don’t equate it with instinct, but I do agree that values are almost always going to have an emotional dimension, or else we would not wish to keep enacting them. Reflection is what helps us check whether we can trust the emotion that is making the value attractive.

Obviously, this act of choosing our values is something we can only do each for ourselves, albeit drawing on ideas from elsewhere possibly in consultation with others. An inescapable criterion which must apply to us all though, it seems to me, is that what we value must not harm others and in fact it should promote the well-being of all life forms.

Apart from that it’s up to us.

What I will describe in the next post briefly is simply what determined my own choices, but along the way I need to explain how I am learning to balance the competing priorities of my life. And this is what brings me to the wheel of life – well, of mine at least: my latest way of holding onto the insights I need to draw on when I’m being triggered, and at other times as well.

Hopefully it will help others devise their own method of doing the same.

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Beneath the Debris

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script is a personal life plan which each individual forms by a series of decisions early in her life in reaction to her interpretation of the important things happening in her world.

(Woollams and Brown: TA: the total handbook of Transactional Analysis – page 139)

Some six years ago I was struggling to come to terms with a very testing situation. I don’t want to go into detail. Things have moved on now and, in any case, I never wanted to reveal the details on this blog. The nearest I came was to translate them into a piece of fiction by way of illustration. Hence the cafe dilemma I described in 2013, after a couple of years of intense reflection and self-work.

As time went on, my thinking deepened and I did a sequence on what I called the threebrain issue. It should come as no surprise that my thinking did not stop there.

Life has caused me to take yet another look at the powerful tool/process of reflection, partly in the light of my sequence ending on the idea of the mind’s hive and reflection as collecting the nectar of love and the pollen of wisdom from experience as it flowers, but from a slightly different angle and digging somewhat deeper into the sources of the dark emotions we need to step back from. I am sharing this in the hope that my experiences will be of use to others.

To explain what I’m getting at I need to recapitulate briefly some points made in earlier blogs.

From the mid-70s to the mid-80s, my life morphed at least three times into very different shapes, the gems of transformation being held together by the threads of self-work and meditation. I went from teacher to psychologist, atheist to believer, and single to married. It was a bumpy road at times especially in the 12 months from December 1981 to November 1982.

My diary shows how I was struggling with my personal priorities. Just before Christmas 1981 I’m writing:

People whose lifestyle I wish to copy are Jung, Henry Moore and others who seemed to have vast tracts of time at their disposal to read, discuss, think, and explore their own and others’ minds and feelings. . . . . My lifestyle may be incompatible with any partner’s happiness. I am not prepared to give it up so I must either find a partner with the same priorities or live alone. I do not want to see my preferred way of living bring misery to people that I care for.

Behind these insights was a history of two broken relationships which I refer to later in slightly more detail.

What’s more, even within the context of my priorities, I am clearly at war with myself, as I state on Christmas Day:

I find myself again at Christmas having resolved again upon a new way of living, but my resolve dissolves into confusion. My urge to meditate, my urge to read and my urge to write, all compete. And I am eventually immobilised between these equal and contradictory forces. . . . When I read I hanker to be writing or reflecting and so on. If I slump in front of the television to escape the tension I become tenser than ever.

Some things don’t change – well, not that easily at least. My blog posts testify to how my core interests still conflict. I have not written as much about how the demands of a practical, religious, social and family life also pull me in opposite directions. It’s the same for many of us, I know. Finding the right balance is difficult. What I perhaps had failed to give sufficient weight to, at the beginning of this six year period, was that patterns of feeling, thought and behaviour that I had worked on many times, both before and after the stresses of 1982, had not lost all their power to disrupt my life and my relationships.

What follows in this first post is a description of my later steps along this same journey before looking back again at aspects of 1982.

Previously on this blog I have not gone too deeply into the personal specifics at the root of my gut reactions. Partly I did not want to be boringly narcissistic: partly I was just plain chicken. However, it is not possible to unpack exactly how the present triggers patterns of destructive feeling, thought and action without looking at one’s own past in some detail.

One of the clearest explanations of how our past shapes our present in this way comes in a book on Transactional Analysis, a form of therapy that was of enormous benefit to me in my early days of working in mental health. Woollams and Brown write in their book – TA: the total handbook of Transactional Analysis (page 139):

A script is a personal life plan which each individual forms by a series of decisions early in her life in reaction to her interpretation of the important things happening in her world. The most important decisions determine a person’s character structure and are usually decided upon by age two or three. Most of the rest occur by about age six, while others may be made through adolescence and some even later.

I’ll use the simplified diagram above to illustrate one of my scripts. I am aware that this does not include a whole host of things that also helped shape my character, such as my sister’s death before I was born, my parents’ grief, and their very different ways of impacting upon me as a child – my father modelling the stiff upper lip approach to the point of rigidity until his last moments, as the poem at the top of this post attempts to capture, and my mother racked with anxiety and unremitting grief. No surprise really then that I chose to copy dad’s frozen stoicism, something it took nearly three decades to melt down.

So we are shaped by a multitude of factors and devise several interacting scripts in response. For clarity’s sake I’ve stuck to only one script in its simplest form.

This schema attempts to incorporate the roots of some of the insights that were facilitated by breakthroughs via rebirthing, Gestalt and TA in an evolving process. Recent experiences definitely confirmed that scripts travel with us to the grave. We can resolve them each time they are triggered, and they may never be triggered in exactly that way again. But that does not mean that a different event later cannot trigger them in a different way. Previous work can help weaken them somewhat, but they can still slide under our guard.

So, I had to dig this one out again for another look.

I have always known that I had had two difficult experiences in hospital sometime between the ages of four and seven. I knew I needed to work out what that had meant to me. The Primal Scream approach to therapy broke me through to an inexplicable pain but shed no more light on the content of any connected experience. Rebirthing, another breathing therapy, which came much later finally pulled the connections together in a way that TA and Gestalt hadn’t quite managed to do. As I was reconnected with the moments before being anaesthetised a second time, what was new was that I vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts. And yet I had no difficulty retaining it and explaining it to the therapist. And I remember it still without having taken any notes at all at the time that I can now find. The journal entry recording the event is a single line – no more.

And what were the thoughts?

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

Once I could build this insight firmly into the picture of my script I could more fully understand how it made sense of other aspects of my behaviour. My reading wasn’t only to do with my childhood illnesses, my need to do something with the time I spent in bed, and my desire to escape from my mother’s fear that I would die young as her daughter had.

The diagram attempts to map how that scripted decision shaped my reactions to events within relationships with people later in life. It’s simply here to illustrate what kinds of patterns are buried in all of us, triggering feelings that we must filter through reflection, as I will be explaining in a later post, before we act. As we will see, this is why acting on deeply held, tried and tested values rather than feelings is so important.

The stressors I referred to at the start of this post, and which I illustrated with the cafe story I linked to, reactivated aspects of the script particularly relating to trust and  keeping my distance which in turn began to trigger action patterns that would break a relationship or at least test it to breaking point.

I had not noticed this link at first because I was assuming my reactions were all perfectly natural under the circumstances, or else explicable in terms of other less sensitive areas of my scripts. In the end the penny dropped. Here I go again. Only later still did I realise this reactivation did not, as in the past, apply simply to the person who had pressed the button: it also affected my feelings about other people as well. This was an important realisation to keep hold of and reflect upon.

A simple imaginary example will illustrate how this might work. There are three brothers. They’re close but one of them, Jim, has a similar script to mine.  Chris, his younger brother, betrays his trust by stealing money from his desk. Not only does this cause Jim to cut all contact with Chris, but he starts to wonder whether he can trust his older brother, John. He begins to pull back somewhat from their original closeness just in case. John notices and gets a bit upset. Jim picks up on this and sees it as confirming what he thought and pulls back even more.

Once I cottoned on to this tendency for the trigger’s impact to generalise in this way, it helped me put potentially damaging reactions on hold so I did no further harm to other relationships in addition to the triggering one.

Putting these ideas outside me in this way eventually began to enable me to escape even further than I already had from the clutches of my scripts and drivers, but was not enough to release me more completely to reconnect more consistently with my deepest self.

Even so, this whole experience taught me that life is not a smooth ascent but a series of climbs and falls as tests come in different shapes and sizes.

The ideas also helped explain with hindsight why an early close relationship in my life splintered completely once trust was broken, and goes some way to explain why I retreated from a second when I feared it might go the same way because of our incompatibility. Books and meditation helped sustain me through the next difficult year of 1982 in the aftermath, even though I felt my fixation on books was not entirely healthy, as a poem I completed a few years later tried to express in a tongue-in-cheek take on the matter via a persona created for the purpose.

In the next post I’ll go on to describe how I developed a more positive take on my bookworm tendencies.

After that, even more reflection about reflection was required before I could disentangle myself more satisfactorily from the still smouldering scripts that I thought I had left behind. A critical skill that I have struggled to master for many years now is to recognise, right at the time it is triggered, that this pattern of reactions that I am calling a script is not who I am: it is simply a pattern of behaviour I have learned and can unlearn. I can spot it, step back and stop it, before deciding to put something more constructive in its place.

This goes somewhat beyond the simple traffic light system I discussed in the Three-Brains Revisited sequence. I’m not just disidentifying from a simple feeling but rather from a complex constellation of characteristics that I had previously mistaken for a self. This is how reflection can take us to increasingly higher levels of understanding and transformation. I needed to find a way of consolidating even more firmly my hold upon this truth.

More on that later.

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Autumn Garden

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

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

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

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

‘Arguing as usual,’ Mires sours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Anyone else want a drink I ask?’

‘Coffee for me,’ says Wordless.

‘Tea for me,’ says Mires.

‘D’you need a hand?’ Pancake asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘They have.’

‘So, what do you think?’

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

‘Well, fill me in anyway, Chris.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m not sure what you mean, Indie.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

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

That definitely focuses our minds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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