Posts Tagged ‘reflection’
Posted in Autobiographical, Civilisation Building, Compassion & Empathy, tagged Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Alain Locke, Christopher Buck, feelings, goals, Kelly G. Wilson, Kirk D. Strosahl, plans, reflection, selves, Stephen C Hayes, Terry Eagleton, values on 27/03/2017| Leave a Comment »
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
‘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.’
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.
Now that I appear to have made some progress in developing a closer relationship with my Parliament of Selves, it seems a good time to try and talk to them in more detail about learning to reflect more effectively. The trouble is I can’t find them in dreamland anymore. Since they faded away after our encounter with Indira Pindance, they have been conspicuous by their absence, both in meditation and sleep. Part of the reason for this may be that my dreams in general are more elusive. On waking I seldom remember more than a rapidly evaporating fragment.
That’s why I have pulled my battered copy of The Dream Game by Ann Faraday off my dream book shelf. If Eknath Easwaran’s book is my Tao Te Ching on meditation, then The Dream Game is the Analects of my dream world. I decide to follow her advice (page 43):
People frequently complain that dreams are not coming to them as much as they would like, and when I ask are they writing them down, they plead that other obligations have been too pressing – to which I answer that your dreaming mind knows very well how seriously you are taking it and reacts accordingly.
She’s nailed it. I’ve been far too busy to pay attention to my dreams, let alone go to all the trouble of writing them down. Part of the problem is unavoidable. I have commitments to keep. But part of it is self-inflicted. I have so many interests. I am constantly beset by the fear that if I don’t keep reading new stuff on a favourite topic I’ll not KUTD – sorry, keep up to date – so not only do I fail to go deeply enough into what I’m reading about, but I also distract myself constantly from things that are probably more important.
So, straightaway, after reading Faraday’s words, I promise my dreaming mind I will really listen tonight, and write down what I see and hear. To help, as I settle in bed, I pick up my copy of The Ring & the Book, Robert Browning’s novel in verse, a breath-taking and brilliant exploration of a series of dramatic historical events in 17th century Rome.
The last time I was reading it some days ago, I had just finished Book VI of the twelve, which is Giuseppe Caponsacchi’s movingly sympathetic account of the events that led to the mortal wounding of Pompilia, and the stabbing to death of her adoptive parents. I have put off reading Book VII till now. It is the dying Pompilia’s version of events. I thought a bit of previously avoided heart-rending reading might stir me to pay more attention to my unconscious mind’s creativity.
I am just seventeen years and five months old,
And, if I live one day more, three full weeks.
As usual, right from the first words, Browning’s empathic magic has captured me in his narrative grip. Even so I eventually become too tired to read more. I switch off the light and remind my dreaming mind of my sincere intentions.
It doesn’t take long. Soon, I find I am walking with Frederick Mires, my psychology-mad alter ego, and William Wordless, my poet manqué persona. The others are nowhere in sight right now.
We’re on a path in Queen’s Wood, I think, near the stand of California Redwoods, except that their trunks are purple and the needles of their leaves orange. We’re heading for the cafe at the car park.
‘You’re looking a bit upset,’ I say to Mires who’s been walking silently with his face twisted into a two-year-old’s sulk.
‘You’re throwing books away again,’ he spits, facing me fiercely as he says it.
‘Why would that worry you,’ I ask. ‘You’re always rushing from one book to the next, never going back once you’ve squeezed all the juice you can find at the time into the blog.’
‘You never know when you might need to go back to a book again to check a point or fill out the argument.’
‘What are you going to do with your poetry books?’ Wordless asks with a worried expression on his face. ‘They’re the only ones worth keeping. You can read them over and over again and still find new meanings in them. Novels and text books – once read and completely digested, chuck ’em away.’
‘It’s hard going, but I am slowly working out which books are worth keeping because I really will need them again, and which books were a one-time only read. It’s often a question of whether there are any highlights or scribbled notes in the book at all. If not, and I’ve obviously read it, I’m not likely to read it again. I just don’t have the space to hold all my books accessibly. Some of them are double-stacked.’
I don’t mention my feelings of guilt at being a bookaholic hoarder.
‘You’ll live to regret it,’ Mires warns. ‘You’ve done this before remember, and wished you hadn’t when you needed a book you’d discarded.’
‘The point is,’ I insist, ‘that even if I live another 15 years or more, with over a thousand books, I’d have to read at the rate of over a book a week, just to savour all my old ones all over again. And many of them would take more than a week to read. And what about the new books I’ll find that I want to read?’
‘You’re not understanding my point.’ Mires has the bit between his teeth. ‘You won’t need to re-read the whole book if all you require is to check out a reference in it. But if you haven’t got it you’ll waste a lot of time chasing it up again.’
‘Why don’t you simplify things and just do what I suggest. Keep all your poetry books and throw away the rest.’ A massive grin spread over Wordless’s face. ‘My gift for rhyme is returning!’
‘Now you’re the one who is missing the point. Look, both of you. The issue is this. I have a broad range of interests – mind, nature, science, literature, art, history, religion, mysticism, near death experiences, politics, biography, music, to name only the most obvious. It’s almost too broad, as I want to explore most of these topics in depth. To really go deep I have to narrow my focus and specialise. To cover a broad area of interest, which is what I really want to do, I have to be relatively shallow. So, I keep rushing from book to book most of the time, never really taking the time to savour any of them properly. But I don’t like narrow or shallow. I want broad and deep. I want to have the best of both worlds. I want to have my cake and eat it too, I guess.’
‘The days when that was possible are long gone,’ Mires retorts. ‘Goethe was probably the last great poet who could also be a real scientist. Knowledge has expanded too much. There’ll be no more Renaissance minds from now on, I think. If you try, you just end up a Jack of all trades and master of none. And let’s face it Goethe was a genius, and you’re not. That’s one of the many reasons I keep focused on psychology and try to forget the rest.’
‘And why I concentrate only on poetry,’ Wordless can’t resist chipping in.
‘But you’re both a part of me and that’s the problem, don’t you see?’
They glumly have to agree and they don’t like it. To please them both, I have to spread myself too thin and do broad and shallow. Very frustrating!
‘And when we finally meet up with Emma and Chris it’ll only get worse. She’s into social action and politics, and Chris is fixated on mystical states. I’m not sure about Indira. I don’t know her too well as yet.’
I pause for breath, trying to let my mouth catch up with my mind. ‘This is why we need to find another way of experiencing things. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to learn how to reflect better, so I can extract every possible drop of meaning from every moment, whether it’s from a book, a conversation, a new place or whatever.’
‘Here we go again. Back on the reflection bandwagon,’ Mires mocks.
Just at that point we join 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 a cold day for the picnic area, which must be populated only by those with Scandinavian ancestry. As we look ahead we see Indira Pindance, our vulnerable new friend, and Emma Pancake, activist and pamphleteer, huddled at a table near the cafe wall, out of the wind, using steaming cups to warm their hands. They appear to be waiting for us.
(To be continued next Monday)
Posted in Civilisation Building, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, consultation, Harlene Andersen, John Kolstoe, Karen Wilson, Meditation, Neil Mercer, Peter Senge, reflection on 26/07/2016| Leave a Comment »
Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.’
When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing the week before last, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This second sequence is about the need to draw on deeper powers than instinct or intellect: this is the second part of the fifth post.
It has taken me much longer than usual to reach the end of the journey undertaken by this series of posts. Jack has been swinging from the pendulum of his dilemma more than long enough to see him killed or cured. Some of you were probably wondering whether this would still be a work in progress in 2014.
Anyhow, for those of you who are still with me, this is going to be the journey’s end – whether it results in lovers meeting or Jack making his mind up, we will have to see. Frankly, at this point, I’m not quite sure myself.
Combining Reflection with Consultation
I ended the previous post after examining the process of reflection as an individual experience and preparing myself to consider whether reflection might be possible in some way for a group of people.
Reflection, as an inner process of consulting with our deepest essence, seems to require silence. Reflecting with others demands words, either spoken or written. How are we to reconcile that apparent contradiction?
Well, there is the model of a Quaker meeting where silence, as a group experience, is punctuated by the occasional utterance, when the spirit moves someone to speak. Given that the focus of this sequence of posts has been on decision making, it would not make sense to advocate that model for this purpose, whatever its value might be when harnessed to other aims.
The faith I follow has at the heart if its community and family life a spiritual process which Bahá’ís call ‘consultation.’ It’s important not to confuse this with the common meanings of this word in our society as a whole, for example when we speak of a ‘consultation document’ where all that happens is the canvassing of views prior to some agency deciding on a line of action.
Crucial to factor in is the point that consultation in a Bahá’í sense is rooted in the same detachment that underlies the kind of effective reflection we looked at before.
For those who follow a theistic religious path, while this may prove difficult to do, at least they have decided on what compass and map to use to give them a sense of where to look for God. It’s not so easy for those without such a belief to see the relevance of this advice for them. However, I do believe it is relevant.
We are all capable over sufficient time and with sufficient sincere and dedicated thought to develop an idea of what for us is the highest good, something greater than our own limited values and projects, which are all too often self-interest in disguise. For example, there are those who see the earth in the form of Gaia perhaps, or humanity as an idea transcending arbitrary divisions derived from race, nation, religion or ideology, as the highest good to nurture for which they would be prepared to sacrifice a great deal, maybe everything. Having a credible self-transcending Good to hold in mind in place of a god we can’t believe in, helps us all, theists and atheists alike, let go of our unhelpful attachments in service of the greater good, whether that process takes shape within inner meditation or takes place as part of outward consultation.
Mutually Reinforcing Processes
The purpose is to emphasize the statement that consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion . . .
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 72)
We need to remember what we learned last time about meditation before looking more closely at how the two processes work together. They may be mutually reinforcing: they may even effectively be the same thing!
Meditation, for an individual, seems to be equivalent to consultation for the group. It serves the same purposes and requires and creates the same personal qualities. We want to draw closer to the truth which demands and reinforces detachment. Both meditation and consultation grow from and result in unity, either within the individual or within the group, and in detachment, which may in any case be one and the same process and end-state. Bahá’u’lláh speaks of ‘the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment’ as though they are deeply interconnected if not identical.
When we suspend our assumptions in reflection, separating consciousness from its contents, we receive intimations of a higher and more accurate kind. This sounds remarkably similar to the understanding achieved in consultation. 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.
It’s fairly clear that a reliable awareness of the remedial and active presence in our mind of the Highest Good we are capable of apprehending will entail a great deal of practice, whether we call it God or not. If we can maintain such a sense of this Presence then it is extremely unlikely that we would be inclined pig-headedly to bludgeon our friends, family, colleagues and neighbours into submission with our own opinions when that so clearly interferes with wiser states of mind and spaces for decision making.
There are ways, it needs to be said, in which we can become so over-identified with our limited understanding of that Good, that we are prepared to torture and kill other people in our attempts to bring that understanding into reality. That is the kind of idealism that Jonathan Haidt has pilloried as the trigger for more murders than any individual psychopath could perpetrate in several life times. I am talking here, though, of our ability to generate an idea of the good that widens what Robert Wright calls the ‘expansion of the moral imagination’ or what we could term ‘our compass of compassion’ rather than the narrowing of it in a way that creates a tyrant and torturer.
It may feel like a lifetime’s work to get to the point where we have grasped such an idea and have truly become capable of holding its essence in mind most of the time.
We also have to remain mindful, though we often forget, that investigating the truth is a goal whose pursuit does not guarantee that we will always find it. What we can do though is be resolute in developing increasing levels of humility about the value of our opinions, so that the consensus becomes richer and an ever closer approximation to the particular truth under investigation. Developing that kind of humility in such an opinionated world is easier said than done. Processes of disidentification described in the previous post, if we have practised them in a disciplined way will clearly help us step back from our opinions once we have shared them, and help us listen more objectively to the views of others even when they differ widely from our own.
Detachment as the Key Process
Is this becoming one of those counsels of despair which can seem so characteristic of the spiritual life? Can we only consult if we are completely detached? If not shouldn’t we bother?
Perhaps though detachment is more of a process than an end-state at least in this life.
We need to consider the possibility that consultation is also a process that can help us become more detached. If so, it’s goal is clearly more than simply the investigation of truth. It is a spiritual discipline in itself and leads to personal as well as group transformation. It perhaps could rightly be called a Bahá’í yoga from which everyone, whether Bahá’í or not, could benefit from practising – even an accomplished meditator.
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 to the Bahá’í Scriptures when we meditate upon them or to the promptings of our higher self when we commune with it in meditation. So these skills are clearly not all that different: they similarly 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. It certainly seems to me that meditation and consultation used in conjunction as the Bahá’í Faith recommends would constitute a wrecking ball of sufficient power to bring even the most obdurate of our dividing walls crashing to the ground and pave the way for greater unity within and between us. Such a degree of unity is imperative if we are to become capable of solving the problems that currently confront us.
Consultation has links with justice, too complex to go into now, which add further strength to this position:
To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.
(From Section II: The Prosperity of Humankind)
Increasing our Leverage
Where does all this leave us?
Once conversation between reflective minds is possible two powerful tools, implied in all that has been said above, can become available. First, some space will have been created between consciousness and its contents, and secondly there is a chance for more than one mind to be brought to bear upon the experiences. The space can be used for people to compare notes as equals – as two human beings, both with imperfect simulations of reality at their disposal, humbly and tentatively exchanging ideas about what is going on, with no one’s version being arbitrarily privileged from the start. There is a wealth of information that suggests most strongly that this process of collaborative conversation (Andersen and Swim), of consultation in the Bahá’í sense (see John Kolstoe), of inquiry (see Senge), of interthinking (see Mercer), can achieve remarkable results: Neil Mercer talks of the crucial function of language and says:
[I]t 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.
I’d like to slightly alter the wording of one sentence there to capture the essence of what I think I’m describing:
We are able not only to influence the actions of one another, but also to alter one another’s understandings.
I feel that the conditions that I have sought to describe in this sequence of posts go a long way towards making effective interthinking possible. Effective interthinking and meditation as a spiritual practice are closely related activities. Perhaps neither can unfold in their best and most constructive form in the absence of the other.
Where does all this leave Jack?
It’s hard to imagine that he would take easily to dream work. However he has been practising meditation. This could give him a head start in the sense that he should have an excellent platform from which to move towards more effective reflection. He might find the Disidentification exercise both attractive and useful as he moves towards finding other perspectives on his conflicted ideas.
If he were to begin to achieve some skill in stepping back to some degree even from his most cherished beliefs, he might be ready to consider approaching his brother Sam for a consultation on the question of a loan for a new business. Whether that gets him anywhere will depend not only on how well he has mastered the new skills but also on whether Sam is prepared to get on board with them to his best ability as well. If they got stuck consulting alone they might be able to move forwards in consultation with a trusted and objective third person. Mediation is a widely used model that builds on this possibility – an interesting word that looks like meditation if you’re reading too fast,
In a way we are all in the same boat. We are none of us experts in or masters of these new techniques. Even skilled practitioners of meditation may find it testing to exercise the skills they’ve learnt in a new way involving interaction with others. That’s no reason not to try of course.
So perhaps we ought to leave Jack to apply these principles as best he can and worry instead about how we can practice and make use of them ourselves.
If it helps, it might be a good idea to have a listen to Neil Mercer should you have skipped the video above. What he says both endorses the value of true consultation in the sense I have been discussing it and suggests that it probably should be taught in schools. In my view, the same is true of meditation.
I am very aware that there are some puzzling issues, particularly around the question of the ‘heart,’ that I have skated over in this sequence because of the main theme I wanted to explore, which was where and why in my view Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 model breaks down. (I am aware, though, that consultation with its dependence on language must draw on System 2 as well as upon the heart in the sense I have been exploring it.)