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Posts Tagged ‘reflection’

Given my recent reminder from Bruce Greyson (see the next sequence of posts) of how frustrating a filter my brain is, blinding me so much of the time to my deepest self and our deepest reality, it seemed a good time to republish this poem with a similar theme.
Beneath the Debris

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At the end of the previous post, I raised an important question, given how divisive our attachment to the contents of our consciousness can be much of the time: would it not be easier for us to reflect, meaning step back from the contents of consciousness and connect with deeper and more authentic aspects of our being, if we believed that the mind is independent of the brain?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Son of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, describes reflection at one point as the ‘faculty of meditation’ which ‘frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.’[1]

By reflection what Koestenbaum seems to mean is something closely related to meditation in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s sense. Reflection, he says:[2] ‘. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.’ What he says at another point is even more intriguing:[3] ‘The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.’

If we believe that our minds are simply products of our brains, it will be very tempting to simply assume that brain-noise, the most vivid part of our inner experience, is virtually all there is. We’ll be convinced that we are just the constant stream of anger, fear, hate, love, joy and sadness, of thoughts and beliefs about others, ourselves and our world, and of the plans we make in consequence, which flows across the screen of consciousness and carries us away with it all too often, no matter how destructive it may be at the time.

So what other choice could we possibly have but to go with this flow for which we believe there is no substitute?

That many of us choose to gain more control over our minds than that, is admirable, but I can’t escape the feeling that we would find it easier if we could only believe that we are far more than our brains. My own experience strongly suggests that this will be the case. Before I took the plunge into the Bahá’í Faith, my meditative practice got me a long way – in fact it prepared me to recognise that the Bahá’í perspective was what I had been looking for all my life.

Since then I have more consistently tried to enact the same level of detached concentration across more areas of experience, a persistency that I feel stems at least in part from my having recognised that I must not continue to confuse the signals of my primate brain with the essence of my being if I am to fulfil as much of my potential as I can on this material plane.

So, would not the taking of that same step make it easier for others as well as me, not only to consult together more effectively in greater awareness of our interconnectedness, as I have argued elsewhere on this blog, but also to break out of what Ziya Tong describes as our ‘reality bubble’ and transcend what Tom Oliver argues is our ‘self delusion’?

For Ziya Tong, the sad truth is:[4]

Our food comes to us from places we do not see; our energy is produced in ways we don’t understand; and our waste disappears without us having to give it a thought. … humans are no longer in touch with the basics of their own system survival.

Tom Oliver is as intensely concerned to counteract our dangerous delusion that we are independent selves:[5]

. . . We have one . . . big myth dispel: that we exist as independent selves at the centre of a subjective universe.

He explains:[6]

We are seamlessly connected to one another and the world around us. Independence is simply an illusion that was once adaptive but now threatens our success as a species.

Surely it would be wiser, in the light of all the evidence pointing in that direction, to discard the misguided conclusions of promissory materialism, which is just as much an act of faith as theism is, embrace the idea that we are more than our limited brains and transcend the blind spots so forcefully flagged up by Tong and Oliver. It might even help us save the planet as well as ourselves.

This seems to me to be the foundation stone upon which I have built my own understanding of an effective spiritual psychology.  There are many other elements that I have drawn from the Bahá’í Revelation that have shaped my thoughts and practice. Consultation is one key example, which I have already mentioned.

When I have more time I hope to revisit some of those as well. I’m afraid this will have to do for now.

References:

[1]. Paris Talks – page 175.
[2]. The New Image of the Person – page 99.
[3]. Ibid.: page 49.
[4]. The Reality Bubble – page 172.
[5]. The Self Delusion – page 3.
[6]. Ibid.: page 4.

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. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)

Before Christmas I republished my sequence on Reality, Art and the Artist. This sequence is my somewhat unexpected attempt to dig deeply into this topic from a different angle.  It seemed useful to post this again in the New Year.

A Test

As I explained earlier in this sequence, I’m not contending that mapping consciousness is the sole criterion for judging a work of art but it is a key one for my purposes as a student of consciousness, as the mind map above illustrates. I’ll unpack what the mind map is about later.

My ability to apply to ongoing experience what I have learned in theory was about to be tested. How clearly could I catch hold of and write down an experience under pressure?

The day I sat planning at some point to work on this post proved interesting. Two letters plopped through our letterbox. They looked like the ones I had been expecting, telling me when my next hospital appointments were.

I didn’t pick them up straightaway as I was keeping an eye on the pressure cooker as it built up a head of steam, ready to turn it down when the whistle hissed. No, I don’t mean my brain as it coped with all my deadlines. We were beginning to get the food ready for the celebration of the Bicentenary of the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh in two days time. The lentils apparently needed cooking well ahead of time.

Once pressure cooker duty was over, I dashed upstairs to tweak the slide presentation for the following day. I’d been enlisted to do the presentation at a friend’s celebration event. While the slide show notes were printing, I thought I’d better check the hospital letters out, not my favourite activity. The first one I opened was as I expected, an appointment for the ophthalmology department. I moved on to the second one. When I opened it I saw it was identical, same date, same time.

‘They’ve messed up,’ I groaned inwardly. ‘I was supposed to go for an MRI scan as well. I’d better give them a ring.’

I stapled the slide show notes together, picked up my iPhone and rang the number they had given me on the letter. A robot answered.

‘Thank you for calling the orthoptic department. We are currently dealing with a new electronic patient record system [I didn’t relish being seen as an electronic patient] and may be delayed in returning your call, [change of voice undermining the impression of caring that was to follow] but your call is important to us. Please leave your hospital number, the name of the patient, and a brief message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Thank you.’

I responded after the beep, fortunately also remembering to give them my number as I wasn’t convinced they’d pick that up automatically. Most robots check whether they have absorbed your number correctly.

Rather than waste time waiting, I got my laptop and brought it downstairs to rehearse my presentation. I set up AppleTV and was just about to set my timer and start, when my phone rang.

‘Orthoptic Department. How can I help?’ She sounded pleasant and surprisingly unstressed.

‘The new system must be taking some of the pressure off,’ I thought.

I explained that not only had I got double vision but I was also now getting my letters twice as well. Well, no not really. I told her I’d got two identical letters when I’d expected one to be for an MRI scan.

She checked out what I meant and then explained that the letter I’d got was for my routine appointment. The other was an error on their part. I should also be getting a letter for the MRI scan, I clarifed, but they did not know anything about that. I added that after that I should get an appointment from a consultant about the scan. She couldn’t help with that either, even though he was in her department.

She agreed to put me through to discuss the MRI.

‘Radiology here. How can I help?’

‘Is that where you do MRI scans?’ I asked, not being sure whether they counted as radiology or something else.

‘Yes, it is.’

I began my explanation.

‘I’m sorry. I need your name and date of birth.’

‘Will my hospital number do?’

‘Yes. That’s fine.’

Once she knew who I was, I told her my problem and asked when I could expect my scan to be as were we hoping to be away some time in December.

‘It’ll take 6-8 weeks from the time they sent the request.’

‘So when might that be?’

‘It’ll probably be the week beginning 27 November.’

‘And when will the consultant see me to discuss it after that.’

‘I can’t say because he wouldn’t send out appointments normally until he receives the scan.’

‘So how long is the gap likely to be then?’

‘We don’t deal with that. You’d have to speak to his secretary.’

She couldn’t put me through so I rang Ophthalmology again and got the robot. I hung up and rang the hospital switchboard and they put me through straightaway. Must remember that next time.

I spoke to the same person as before. She explained that she didn’t really know. She was just the receptionist. His secretary was off till next week. She’d leave a note for her and if I could ring back then she might help.

I hung up and made a note in my diary to ring next week.

Before this all happened, I’d jotted down in the notebook I always carry: ‘It doesn’t matter whether I’m enjoying myself or not, as long as I’m squeezing every drop of meaning out of the lemon of the present moment.’ The phone calls to the hospital where a particularly sour experience, so my note was intriguingly prophetic. I had managed to stay calm, and even found the whole experience slightly amusing with its many examples of ‘I don’t know. That’s not my department. You need to talk to…’

At last I was able to settle down and rehearse the presentation before finally returning to my plan to draft this post.

The whole episode highlighted for me the need not only to slow down and keep calm, but also to sharpen my focus. Not that I will ever be able to write as well as Virginia Woolf, but without that combination of skills I doubt that anyone would ever be able to capture consciousness in words on paper, or even in speech.

A Valid Criterion?

So now we come back to the critical question. Is its skill in conveying consciousness a valid criterion by which to judge a work of art? As I indicated earlier, I’m not arguing it is the only one, nor even necessarily the best. What I have come to realise is that it is a key one for me.

I also need to clarify that capturing consciousness is not the same as conveying a world view or meaning system. So, you might argue that when Alice Neel is painting people that the art world usually ignores, just as I gather Cézanne also did, while the act of painting itself is sending a clear ideological message that these people matter, unless the portrait is more than a realistic rendering of the subject’s appearance we have not been capturing the artist’s consciousness. If any distortions of sensory experience merely serve to strengthen the message, these would be more like propaganda than maps of consciousness. Also the culture in which we are immersed, as well as our upbringing and individual life experiences, influence the meaning systems we adopt, or perhaps more accurately are induced into evolving.

Capturing consciousness is also a tad more demanding than simply conveying a state of mind or feeling, whether that be the artist’s own or their subject’s, something which music can also do perfectly well. That is something I value very much, but it’s not my focus right now.

Taking that into account, what am I expecting?

Woolf gives us a clue in her diaries ((page 259):

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – … (18.11.35):

I have quoted this already in an earlier post of this sequence. I also added the date on which she wrote it to emphasise that it was after the completion of both To the Lighthouse and The Waves, as if she sensed that her approach up to that point had been too inward looking. Her question mark after ‘four’ suggests she was entertaining the possibility of more dimensions.

The diagram maps what Woolf said very crudely. Most of To the Lighthouse and The Waves takes place in the top right hand quadrant. They are brave experiments. In places they work beautifully but are uneven and at times disappointing. She sensed that I suspect.

However, other novels she wrote take more account of the other quadrants except possibly the one on the bottom right, although there are places where she seems almost to be attempting to tune into the inscape of natural objects.

Clearly then it might be appropriate to judge a novel by how well it balances the three main quadrants, ie excepting the bottom right.

There is a catch here though. It all depends upon on what the prevailing culture defines as ‘outer.’ Is this to be confined only to the material realm? Mysticism is present in all cultures to some degree, though its legitimacy has been downgraded in the West. The critically endorsed novel has, with some rare exceptions such as John Cowper Powys and perhaps what is termed ‘magical realism,’ been seen as needing to focus on the world of the senses, the stream of consciousness and social interaction.

Is that enough?

Woolf expresses this whole dilemma with wry humour in To the Lighthouse (page 152):

The mystic, the visionary, walking the beach on a fine night, stirring a puddle, looking at a stone, asking themselves “What am I,” “What is this?” had suddenly an answer vouchsafed them: (they could not say what it was) so that they were warm in the frost and had comfort in the desert. But Mrs McNab continued to drink and gossip as before.

Should a work of art, could a work of art, express some kind of world consciousness, for example? Should mysticism be normalised and not be either excluded or presented as eccentric?

Given that I think expanding our consciousness is the key to enabling us to mend our world I am sceptical of any school of thought that would devalue and marginalise novels that attempt to treat outlying ways of thought and experience as of equal interest and legitimacy. It has already been demonstrated that the novel, in its present form, enhances empathy. It helps connect us in a more understanding way with the experiences of others very different from ourselves. Art in general is one of the most powerful means we have for lifting or debasing consciousness. It reaches more people in the West probably than religion does, especially if we include television, cinema, computer games etc.

I must add a word of warning here. Consciousness can be seen as expanding in all sorts of different ways.

Sometimes, though, I feel that just by pandering to our desire for exciting new experiences we might not be expanding our consciousness at all, but narrowing it rather.

Alex Danchev, in his biography of Cézanne, quotes an intriguing passage from Hyppolyte Taine (page 104):

In open country I would rather meet a sheep than a lion; behind the bars of a cage I would rather see a lion than a sheep. Art is exactly that sort of cage: by removing the terror, it preserves the interest. Hence, safely and painlessly, we may contemplate the glorious passions, the heartbreaks, the titanic struggles, all the sound and fury of human nature elevated by remorseless battles and unrestrained desires. . . . It takes us out of ourselves; we leave the commonplace in which we are mired by the weakness of our faculties and the timidity of their instincts.

I draw back instinctively from the elevation of the titanic, the fury, the remorseless and the unrestrained in human life. Exploring those aspects of our nature unbalanced by other more compassionate and humane considerations is potentially dangerous for reasons I have explored elsewhere. To express it as briefly as I can, it’s probably enough to say that I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. Suzy Klein’s recent brilliant BBC series on Tunes for Tyrants: Music and Power explores what can happen when the arts are harnessed to violent ends in the name of some dictator’s idea of progress.

And where does this leave me?

I am at a point where I have decided that I need to explore consciousness more consistently, perhaps more consistently than I have ever explored anything else in my life. It blends psychology, literature, faith as well as personal experience, and therefore makes use of most of my lifetime interests. This object of interest would give them a coherence they have so far lacked. Instead of flitting between them as though they had little real or deep connection, I could use them all as lenses of different kinds to focus on the one thing that fascinates me most.

I have ended up with the completely revised diagram of my priorities at the head of this post, repeated just to the left above in smaller size. The blurring at the edges represents its unfinished nature. It seems to express an interesting challenge. It shows that I am on a quest, still, to understand consciousness. Does the diagram suggest the idea that consciousness is both the driving force and destination of this quest? It looks as though consciousness is seeking to understand itself, in my case at least: that makes it both the archer and the target. Mmmmm! Not sure where that leads!

What is clear is that my mnemonic of the 3Rs needs expanding. It has to include a fourth R: relating. In the diagram I have spelt out what the key components are of each important R.

Relating

This involves consultation (something I have dwelt on at length elsewhere). It also entails opening up to a sense of the real interconnectedness of all forms of life, not just humanity as a whole. It has to entail some form of action as well, which I have labelled service, by which I mean seeking to take care of others.

Reflecting

How well a group can consult, as I have explained elsewhere, depends upon how well the individuals within it can reflect. My recent delving into Goleman and Davidson’s excellent book The Science of Meditation suggests that there is more than one form of meditation that would help me develop my reflective processes more efficiently (page 264): mindfulness I have tried to practice (see links for some examples), focusing I do everyday, using Alláh-u-Abhá as my mantra, and loving kindness or compassionate meditation is something I need to tackle, as it relates very much to becoming more motivated to act. I have baulked at it so far because it relies, as far as I can tell, upon being able to visualise, something I am not good at.

They also describe another pattern, which I’ve not been aware of before (ibid.): ‘Deconstructive. As with insight practice, these methods use self-observation to pierce the nature of experience. They include “non-dual” approaches that shift into a mode where ordinary cognition no longer dominates.’

Reading & Writing

Readers of this blog, or even just this sequence of posts, will be aware of how I use writing and reading in my quest for understanding so I don’t think I need to bang on about that here.

The Science of Meditation deals with the idea that long-term meditation turns transient states of mind into more permanent traits of character. I have placed altruism in the central space as for me, having read Matthieu Ricard’s book on the subject, altruism is compassion turned to trait: it is a disposition not a passing feeling. I am hopeful that insight may similarly turn to wisdom, but as I am not sure of that as yet, I just called it insight.

I am already aware that the diagram inadequately accounts for such things as the exact relationship between the 4Rs, understanding and effective and useful action. It does not emphasise enough that my desire to understand consciousness better is not purely academic. It is also fuelled by a strong desire to put what I have come to understand to good use.

I am also aware that I failed to register in my discussion as a whole that there are distinctions to be made between capturing consciousness in art and other closely related scenarios, such as describing experience in terms of its remembered emotional impact (conveying a state of mind) or giving an account of what happened through the lens of one’s meaning system (evaluating an event). It is perhaps also possible to attempt to convey only the basic details of what happened with all subjective elements removed (a ‘factual’ account).

I can’t take this exploration any further than this right now but hope to come back to the topic again soon. I also said in an earlier post that I might delve more deeply into the soul, mind, imagination issue. However, this post has gone on long enough, I think, so that will have to wait for another time.

Rita and Hubert 1954 (scanned from Alice Neel: painter of modern life edited by Jeremy Lewison)

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Towards the end of the previous post I noted that the Transactional Analysis concept of the Somatic Child[1] whose being is largely confined to ‘bodily functions and reactions’ maps closely onto aspects of Assagioli’s Lower Unconscious[2] with its focus on ‘fundamental drives and primitive urges.’ However, there is far more to say about the way our bodies shape and influence our minds. Peter Levine’s book on trauma, In an Unspoken Voice explores some of the most telling aspects of this relationship, spelling out its important implications. So, let us have a closer look at the implications of a slightly expanded version of the diagram.

Levine on the Body

I have dealt, albeit briefly, with some aspects of how understanding our bodies better helps us heal our traumatic wounds, so I won’t be dwelling on that here. My focus will be more on giving a sense of Levine’s more general perspective on the body-mind relationship.

He understands and accepts the top-down aspect:[3]

In the final analysis, for better or for worse, we cannot escape the fact that we are constrained by our brain’s influences and operations on our bodies.

However, he is also keen to point out that this is in fact a two-way street:[4]

Less flattering to our egocentrism, [a] (r)evolutionary “bottom-up” perspective focuses on an archaic, homeostatic, survival function as the template of neural organisation and consciousness.

In the same way as McGilchrist’s book The Master & his Emissary argues cogently for a coherent and properly balanced relationship between the two halves of the brain, Levine is arguing, in a degree of detail I am not going to attempt to reproduce here, for a similar constructive balance between three different parts of the brain. He explains, in all the evidence he quotes at this point, (page 206 – my inserts in italics) that when ‘the brain stem’s reptilian and rhythmic needs (brain system 1), the limbic system’s need for emotional connection (brain system 2), and the neocortex’s need to hear consistent calming words converge (brain system 3), [are] all met’ we are in balance.

If there is a significant breakdown in this inter-relationship, massive disruptions to rational behaviour can occur.

He makes an interesting observation that I didn’t see coming:[5]

Our tendency is to identify with our thoughts to such an extent that we confuse them with reality; we believe that we are our thoughts.

This sounds so close to the idea of disidentification, explored in the previous post, that it seems inevitable he would now start talking about separating consciousness from its contents by a process some call reflection. However, he sees the solution instead as lying in developing a greater awareness of our body, and describes an exercise which seeks to do precisely that. It’s a kind of kinaesthetic mindfulness, involving for example[6] ‘[w]hile keeping your eyes closed, slowly contract the hand… into a fist; then once again open it. With the eyes still closed, focus all your attention on this opening and closing as you repeat the movement.’

He feels that[7] ‘rather than automatically reacting to . . . our instincts, we can explore them mindfully, through the vehicle of sensate awareness. To be embodied… means that we are guided by our instincts, while simultaneously having the opportunity to be self-aware of that guidance.’

Without this awareness we will continue to do violence not just to ourselves but to the planet:[8]

Without access to the sentient body nature becomes something out there to be controlled and dominated. Disembodied, we are not a part of nature, graciously finding our humble place within its embrace.

Interestingly, this idea of the need for more humility in our relationship with nature is also forcefully endorsed by Bahá’u’lláh (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Wilmette, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988, page 44):

Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men. There can be no doubt that whoever is cognizant of this truth, is cleansed and sanctified from all pride, arrogance, and vainglory….

In the end, for Levine,[9] ‘[t]he balanced attention to sensation, feeling, cognition and an élan vital (life energy) remains the emergent therapeutic future for transforming the whole person.’

There is much of value in the case he puts for an appropriate and balanced awareness of the body as well as the mind. His arguments enrich our understanding of experience. However, for me he takes a step in the wrong direction by discounting the spiritual as a transcendent force to be reckoned with at the other end of our mind’s spectrum. While he accepts that people have spiritual experiences, he sees them as essentially bi-products of our embodiment: as one of his chapters puts it ‘we’re just a bunch of animals.’

A Spiritual Dimension

There are many posts on his blog that point towards the evidence for a spiritual dimension to reality. I won’t be rehearsing all of that just now. Here I’m going to remain focused on the life enhancing value of a strong transcendent spiritual perspective. Before I look in more detail at Assagioli’s take on this, it’s perhaps worth quoting a different source from the literature on Near Death Experiences (NDEs).

Kenneth Ring and Evelyn Valarino, in their book, Lessons from the Light[10] describe the impact of an NDE as leading to ‘an increased sense of self worth, the loss of the fear of death, an unshakable awareness of the unity of all life, a commitment to environmental activism on behalf of the earth, a thirst for knowledge, and… the importance of helping others.’

Of equal interest is their analysis of what they consider to be the three categories into which an NDE’s impacts on a person’s life divide.[11] The first category is what they term ‘the beatific vision.’ It is through this that the person ‘realises the perfection of the universe and, because one is not separate from the universe but an indispensable and integral part of it, one’s own perfection as well.’ What struck me immediately upon re-reading this was how it mirrored our deep connection with the earth at the lower physical level, as described by Levine.

Their second category is comprised of ‘earthly realisations.’ Most of this list was mentioned in my quotation from page 9, but also now includes, on the basis of a consideration of all the NDE’s on file, ‘expressing empathic love and concern for others,’ and ‘the need to turn away from a competitive lifestyle or one based on material acquisition.’

Personal revelation’ is their third category, where the lessons learned are ‘particularised to the needs and circumstances of the NDEr.’

This last is interesting for a group of reasons. People are inspired ‘to live more authentic lives, more in keeping with their previously dormant gifts and propensities.’ Each individual is able to ‘glimpse something of his or her true self and its vocation in the world.’ Ring and Valarino believe ‘that this authentic or true self’ is ‘something that is the Light’s function to disclose to the individual.’ They also speak of a ‘false self.’ These two selves may correspond at least in part to the Higher Self and the Conscious Self of Psychosynthesis.

When I read this I was reminded of the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when he explained how dark the consequences can be if we fail to follow the promptings of our soul:[12]

. . . if the spiritual qualities of the soul, open to the breath of the Divine Spirit, are never used, they become atrophied, enfeebled, and at last incapable; whilst the soul’s material qualities alone being exercised, they become terribly powerful.

Ring and Valarino describe the false self as ‘socially constructed.’ Again the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá were ringing in my ears at this point. In Some Answered Questions (Chapter 57) He describes us as possessing three kinds of character: ‘ the innate character, the inherited character, and the acquired character.’ The inherited character is morally neutral and has its main impact upon our health. Not so the other two. He said our ‘capacity is of two kinds: natural capacity and acquired capacity. The first, which is the creation of God, is purely good—in the creation of God there is no evil; but the acquired capacity has become the cause of the appearance of evil.’

Time to pause for a moment. Next time I will be exploring Assagioli’s perspective in more detail, as well as looking at the three levels of body, mind and spirit along with Jenny Wade’s levels of consciousness in the context of interconnectedness. I’ll need also to explain why the heart symbol is labelled ‘understanding heart,’ the meaning of which I struggled to decode in my first months as a Bahá’í.

Complicated enough for you?

References

[1]. TA: the Total Handbook of Transactional Analysis by Woollams and Brown – page 11.
[2]. Psychosynthesis – page 17.
[3]. In an Unspoken Voice – page 249.
[4]. Op cit: page 254.
[5]. Op. cit.: page 274.
[6]. Op. cit.: page 273.
[7]. Op. cit.: page 278.
[8]. Op. cit.: page 286.
[9]. Op. cit.: page 309.
[10] Lessons from the Light – page 9.
[11] Op. cit.: pages 49-52.
[12] Paris Talks, p. 97.

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My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

Vincent to Theo – March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh page 272)

Before Christmas I republished my sequence on Reality, Art and the Artist. This sequence is my somewhat unexpected attempt to dig deeply into this topic from a different angle.  It seemed useful to post this again in the New Year.

Distraction

Last Monday was not my best meditation day.

I was doing quite well till my mind got hooked by my shirt. I found myself suddenly remembering how I thought twice before letting its red corduroy comfort go to the charity shop as part of our current declutter. Red shirt led to blue shirt, which led to blue jacket, blue trousers and Crewe Station. I was there again. Just as I was boarding the train, one foot on the platform and one foot in the air above the step, carrying luggage that should have made it clear I was a passenger, someone tapped me on the shoulder thinking I was a guard and asked me what platform the Liverpool train was leaving from. I turned to look at them and put my foot down between the platform and the train, scraping the skin neatly off my shin as I did so. Fortunately I dropped my bags on the platform and not on the line. I used a tissue to staunch the blood between Crewe and Hereford. Rather than go straight home, I called in on a friend who got out the TCP and Elastoplast. I still remember the sting to this day. I remembered that this was the friend I’d called on once before 20 years earlier, when – and this came vividly back to me despite the span of time – driving home tired down the Callow at the end of a long week, I was overtaking (legally at the time) in the middle lane (they’ve blocked that option since for downhill traffic), when I saw a car coming up the hill doing the same thing. The long lorry I was halfway past was picking up speed. All I could do was brake. As I tried to pull in slightly too soon, I caught the Lada on the back end of the truck. Fortunately the Lada was made of sterner stuff than most cars at the time and didn’t completely cave in or get derailed, but it was pulled out of shape and the near side front tyre was blown. I pulled into the side of the road and, with the help of the lorry driver who had stopped to check I was OK, changed the tyre. The car was slightly wobbly as I drove off and I knew it was not a good idea to drive it all the way home. I was amazed to pass a parked police car on the way with no interest shown on their part. So, I drove to my friend’s and parked the car on his front lawn, the only safe space off the road. He had a bit of a shock when he got home from work. At this point I snapped out of my trance of associations and brought my mind back to the focus of my meditations, shaking of my irritation with myself and my slight reactivation of the Lada-on-the-lawn stress as best I could.

Incidentally, I don’t wear blue anymore when I’m travelling.

Reflection

For this and other reasons I am revisiting an all-too familiar theme: reflection. To bring on board those who might not have read all my earlier posts on this issue I’ll pull in now a brief quotation from some time ago. It comes from a book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Hayes et al. It is attempting to explain that transient states of mind and mere self-descriptions are all too often mistaken for our true 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.

Peter Koestenbaum makes essentially the same point more abstractly in his excellent book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. Reflection, he says (page 99):

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

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

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

Personally, while I find the ACT analogy helpful, I prefer the idea of a mirror and its reflections, partly I suppose because it uses the same word in a different but helpful sense. 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. Mindfulness at its best can enable us to identify with pure awareness rather than with whatever transient trigger has grabbed our attention.

I have been working fairly hard (not hard enough probably, as the derailed meditation at the start of this post suggests) to put the insights explored in that sequence of posts into action.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 (for source of image see link)

Capturing Consciousness

It has led into me into some interesting territory.

While I was exploring the concept of transliminality even further back in time I came across A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf edited by her husband Leonard after her death by suicide. I was drawn to examine what she wrote in case it shed light on my attempt to link creativity, thresholds of consciousness and so-called psychotic experiences together.

Long before I could integrate what I found there into my model, my focus of interest had typically moved on: my mind is still more of a butterfly than a bee, despite my best efforts so far.

However, the Woolf issue was still stalking the door of my consciousness, whether I was aware of it or not.

As part of my decluttering, I am in the process, as I have mentioned elsewhere, of checking whether I still need all the books I have bought over the years. I take a book off its shelf at random from time to time, open it and see if I have read it or not. Sometimes there are highlighter pen marks within and I put it back, at least for the time being. Sometimes there aren’t and occasionally it’s not even got my name signed on the flyleaf. In which case I dip into it and read a few random pages. I reported on having done that recently with a biography of Hardy. I repeated the same process with Julia Briggs’ account of the creative life of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf: an inner life.

Same outcome: no way that was going to the Oxfam bookshop.

Why not?

Basically her book was a brilliant tour of the writer’s mind. Within that there were a host of insights into aspects of the creative process related to mental health and reflection, or perhaps more accurately in Woolf’s case, creative introspection. Whatever the right term is, part of her genius lies in her capacity to capture in words the subtleties and complexity of consciousness, including the rambling associative networks that can hijack attention at any moment.

Before we tackle that head on, in the next post I’m going to make a detour via some paintings.

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If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá from The Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 181)

I have been triggered to revisit books I have hoarded which deal with levels of consciousness. This all started with another rapidly abandoned look at Ken Wilber’s model. With moderate enthusiasm I had picked off my shelves Wilber’s Up from Eden, which had lurked up there unread since 1996. I felt that Fontana’s references to his work in Psychology, Religion and Spirituality warranted another look to help me overcome the reservations triggered in my mind by John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, where he takes issue with what he feels is Wilber’s arrogant implication that it is impossible for someone in a lower level society to leap to a higher level of consciousness (page 136):

. . . integral theorists actually support the idea that, out of the entire human population in the world, only an elite cadre of Westerners presently has the capacity to achieve the highest levels of human development.

I was not sure this criticism was entirely warranted but it did create reservations in my mind about some aspects of Wilber’s approach.

This was not what put me off this time.

I got as far as page 73 before the feeling that this was not the approach I wanted to immerse myself in right now grew so strong I couldn’t turn another page. His approach in this book was too mythological for my taste. I’ve so far been completely incapable of finishing any of Joseph Campbell’s work for this same reason. My distaste may be irrational but it remains insuperable.

As I sat and stared at my shelves aching for inspiration I remembered how much I had resonated to a book that explored in illuminating ways the split-brain culture we inhabit. No, not Iain McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary this time, much as I value that book and always will. There’s a clue in a comment I left on my blog more than a month ago, about a text that I have now re-read for the third time, but have not yet blogged about. I’ve probably never really attempted to integrate this account into my other explorations of levels of consciousness because the model presented does not easily map onto numerically coded versions such as those of Jenny Wade, Piaget, Wilber, Dabrowski  and Koestenbaum.

It is Margaret Donaldson’s Human Minds: an exploration. On page 135 she writes of what she calls ‘the value-sensing transcendent mode,’ something which our materialistic culture does not cultivate. She describes experiences in this mode as surging up ‘still in spite of the power of other modes which have threatened to exclude them.’ These experiences ‘come occasionally, unexpectedly, like marvellous accidents.’ Her book is partly about our need as a society to learn how to encourage us to access them more consistently. My own such encounters have been extremely rare indeed. Her insightful book also considers, though in less detail, the role of the novel and poetry in enhancing consciousness.

It also focuses on both the need to balance head and heart, science and religion, and on the ways we might get closer to achieving that.

I will deal fairly quickly with her discussion of her more basic modes of experiencing the world, then I will move on to the next highest levels in a bit more detail, before dwelling at greater length on her in depth exploration of the transcendent modes, both intellectual and value-sensing. In all probability this fairly rapid flight over the complex terrain of her richly informative model will fail to do it justice, but, if it at least brings her important work to your attention, that might just be enough.

Basic Modes

Margaret Donaldson deals first of all with the basic modes, the first of which concerns itself purely with the present moment, and begins in our infancy. She calls it point mode.[1] She goes on to add, ‘Later other loci become possible. For example, the second mode, which is called the line mode, has a locus of concern that includes the personal past and the personal future.’ More specific detail on the line mode next time.

Then our capacity expands to ‘the impersonal’ enabling us to think beyond our ‘personal goals.’[2] When this relates to thinking, that fits with our preconceptions about what it should be like. ‘But,’ she asks, ‘what about emotion? Can we take steps towards impersonality in respect of our emotions also?’

This is an issue we will come back to in more detail. For now I’ll just mention that she adds that ‘The process of “opening out” in those two directions is the one that I have previously called disembedding, in an earlier book, Children’s Minds.[3] This relates to some degree to concepts such as reflection and disidentification, dealt with at length elsewhere on this blog.

She emphasises that we modify our perceptions of the world ‘to suit our purposes.’[4] She was particularly taken with some of Freud’s descriptions of how we do that and expresses them in an effective metaphor:[5]

In talking of the defences Freud uses one image which I find illuminating. He likened the activities of a mind shaping its own consciousness to those of an editor revising a text, working towards an acceptable final draft.  The various mechanisms that have different editorial counterparts. For example, amnesic repression is equivalent to complete removal of parts of the text… likewise denial is equivalent to the insertion of ‘not:’… Projection is equivalent to changing the subject of a sentence: ‘He is I am evil, lazy, useless.’ Displacement amounts to changing the sentence object: ‘ I hate my father enemy.’ . . . In this way, we write for ourselves an authorised version of our lives.

In short, ‘. . . our experience of the world is experience of an interpretation.’[6] This maps closely onto my own sense of my perception of the world as a simulation. However, Donaldson explains, this tendency is balanced ‘by another more austere aim: the aim of understanding, of getting at the truth.’ The Bahá’í approach to this stresses the importance of an ‘independent investigation of the truth.’

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

There is another factor she mentions that again resonates with the Bahá’í Faith: ‘The second corrective is to consider shared experience.’ This sounds closely linked to the value attached to consultation, which is central to many processes of interaction encouraged in the Bahá’í community. Obviously these resonances partly explain my attraction to Donaldson’s model of consciousness, but it is not the only reason.

She argues that the foundations for our modes of consciousness are laid down very early.[7]  ‘At what point in life’ she asks, ‘does a child have a mind capable of concerning itself with things in some sort of controlled and organised way?’ and her answer is, ‘We can at least now confidently reply: “Very early, certainly by the end of the first two or three months, possibly sooner. (Stern terms it an emergent self.)’

She amplifies her comment by saying:[8]

There follows, from two to around eight months, the development of the ‘core self’ – a sense of self that is coherent, firmly distinguished from what is other, but not yet informed by an awareness of other minds.

. . . the point mode begins as the core self is established.

In the next post I will be exploring what follows on from that. It’s probably worth pointing out straightaway that, even later in life, as we shall see, point mode is not pointless.

References:

[1]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 11.
[2]. Human Minds: an exploration – page  16.
[3]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 16-17.
[4]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 24.
[5]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 25.
[6]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 27.
[7]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 46.
[8]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 46-47.

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