Posts Tagged ‘Sigmund Freud’

De toda la memoria, solo vale
el don preclaro de evocar los sueños.

(For this alone is memory to be prized,
this signal gift of calling back old dreams.

(From Antonio Machado Selected Poems trans. By Alan Trueblood: pages 98-99)

What next?

In the last post we had reached a point in the process where the basic but all-important spade work had been done. We have the raw material. Now we must find a way of decoding the imagery to decipher what the dream might mean.

In the previous post we were looking at how we might consult with our dreams in order to discover different and more helpful ways of approaching our challenges in life, other than the two described by Daniel Kahneman as System 1 and System 2. We got part way through a description of a process, mostly derived from the work of Ann Faraday in her book The Dream Game, by which we could learn how to do this. The idea is that this represents a genuine third way of seeing, even a third kind of self through which to see. It is not the only such way but it is the focus here.

So we’re picking up the threads from where we left off – how do we decode the symbols in the dreams we have recorded.

Stage 2 – Decoding the Dream

  1. Defining the Dream Elements

This is a crucial part of the process and so easy to get wrong. It is vitally important to be completely objective in listing the elements. I had to be careful not to dismiss any that I felt were not promising or not sufficiently drenched in deep significance. Also elements, as I discovered, are not just objects and people. They are everything in the dream including actions, feelings, fragments of conversation: even my own thoughts as a dreamer need to be included.

  1. Decoding Dream Elements

There was an over-riding consideration I rapidly realised applied to all aspects of dreamwork. The most fruitful assumption to make, once I decided a dream was worth working on, was that all the dream elements were aspects of my mind at some level, even though I was neither familiar, nor likely to be comfortable with them.

There were two stages now to decoding the elements. If I had decided to work a dream then, even if some elements related to past or future events, this was unlikely to be all they meant, so I would have to work with them as seriously as any other element.

  1. Free Association

Carl Gustav Jung. For source of image see link.

Anyone who is as averse to key aspects of the Freudian model of psychoanalysis as I am, don’t worry. I used to use the Jungian method of association.

With the Freudian method, as I understood it, you were meant to start with the stimulus word and associate from it in a chain. ‘Radio,’ ‘waves,’ ‘ocean,’ ‘the Gulf Stream,’ ‘the Gulf War,’ ‘Syria,’ going back to the beginning again until all associations were exhausted. You can see the problem. I usually became exhausted well before the associations were. Whenever I tried it the chain never seemed to stop until each word had at least half a page of wide ranging associations from which I could not derive any coherent meaning at all.

Jung’s method was far more congenial. You provide an association then come back to the root word for the next. ‘Radio-waves,’ ‘radio-third programme,’ ‘radio-therapy,’ ‘radio-London,’ and so on. The process generally never created more than a paragraph of associations, and there was usually some kind of coherence to the way they grouped.

There is, of course, no need to be rigid about this. There have been times when allowing a string of connected ideas to flow from the one word has proved most fruitful. It’s just that I found the chain of associations method more confusing than helpful most of the time.

Sometimes, I did not need to go beyond this stage. The meaning of the dream became sufficiently clear for me to use what I had learned and move on, especially when you have freed your mind from the Freudian shackle of assuming all dreams are wish fulfillment of some kind.

An Interrogation Room

The most dramatic example of how an association can free the conscious mind from the prison of its self-deception, came from a patient I worked with who had been diagnosed as having an ‘endogenous’ depression, i.e. one that was not explicable in terms of her life situation. She was an articulate lady who gave clear descriptions of her history, which included a basically contented childhood, and of her current feelings, which were often suicidal, though she did not understand why. One day, she spoke of a recurrent dream she had. With variations, it was of being in a room with Hitler’s SS. They wanted information from her and were preparing to torture her.  Before the torture could begin she invariably woke in terror. Following the model I used for my own dreams I asked her to give me a full description of every aspect of her situation in the dream. She described not only the people, but also the size and shape of the room and the kind of furniture that was in it.

Naturally, we focused at first on the people, but, apart from the obvious link of her having been brought up in the aftermath of World War Two, there were no links with the SS officers who were threatening her. The room did not trigger any useful insights either. We were beginning to wonder whether this was simply a childhood nightmare of the war come back to haunt her, when I asked about her associations to the furniture. We were both instantly shocked by her first answer. It was exactly the same as the furniture in the kitchen of the house in which she had grown up.

It would not be right for me to go into any detail about where this led. I imagine everyone can see that the picture she had persuaded herself was real, of a contented childhood, was very wide of the mark. That she had no vivid memory of any one traumatic incident was because there were none to remember: her whole childhood, as we then gradually came to understand it, had been a subtle form of emotional starvation and neglect successfully disguised for her at least as normal parenting.

I was utterly persuaded then, if not before, of the heart’s power to use dreams to make us wiser when we are safe and ready, and of the truth of this not, just for me, but for everyone.

In terms of my own dreamwork, if I’d missed an important issue, either by using associations to decode the dream, or the Gestalt approach below, I usually got another dream reminder pretty quickly.

Sometimes, quite often in fact, associations did not work completely enough. For instance, the figure from the freezer elicited a few fruitful associations, not least to the monster created by Dr Frankenstein, to O’Neill’s powerful exploration of despair, and to the idea of the Iceman as a personification of Death, fears about which were part of the air I breathed in childhood as a result of my parents’ unassuageable grief at the death of my sister four years before I was born. Some of my poems testify to the powerful impact of this period on my mind.  However, not even these powerful links convinced me I’d completely decoded the dream.

  1. The Gestalt Method

This method was almost always the key to unlocking a code that associations could not decipher. As Ann Faraday explains in her Chapter 8, there are also ways for asking your dreams for help with decoding very resistant dreams (page 130):

Since the main problem in understanding the dream is to discover what issue on your mind or in your heart provoked the dream, you can take a shortcut by asking your dreams for help on a certain problem of emotional significance before falling sleep. . . . . Religious people to whom prayer comes naturally may like to ask God for enlightenment on the dream. However you frame your request, it is essential to have your recording equipment ready, since failure to do so is a sure sign that you’re not serious, and the unconscious mind is not fooled.

Before resorting to that, I generally tried the Gestalt approach. This involves role playing the dream element.

Take the figure from the freezer I described in the dream in the previous post. Once I spoke as the dream element (and you can also do this for inanimate objects – we will come back to this next time) its meaning became blindingly obvious fairly quickly. It is possible, and often necessary, to dialogue with the element as well. To do this you have to allocate different places in the room for the two or more elements to the dialogue to speak from. What follows is a reconstruction of work done many years ago.

The Iceman (from a kitchen chair): Why did you lock me away in here? What had I done? I have been shut away in the dark and the cold for I don’t know how long. Why are you so afraid of me? (Silence)

Me (from my armchair): I am scared of you, it’s true. But I swear I didn’t know I had done this to you. Can you promise me you mean me no harm?

The Iceman: I don’t want to harm you. I just want to be free. To be in the light and warm. I don’t know why you were so scared of me that you had to lock me up. (Silence)

Me: I’m not sure. There must have been something about you that scared me.  Can you guess what that might be? When did I lock you away?

The Iceman: I’m not sure. I’ve grown up in here. I was shut away when I was only a child.

To cut a long story short, it became clear that the pain and rage I felt as a child, when I was placed in hospital and operated on without really understanding why, had been unbearable. It also had associations with feelings of intense cold because of the way I experienced the chloroform they used as an anaesthetic. After cutting myself off from that part of me that felt the pain, I’d fed him with every subsequent unbearable pain or intolerable rage. In this way he became bigger and bigger and ever more scary. It became harder and harder to think of integrating that part of me again into my ordinary conscious experience.

Finally, in my imagination, there was a tearful reunion. I embraced the figure that had frightened me so much, welcomed him and brought him back into the warmth of my ordinary life. A key idea in dreamwork is to embrace what you fear and thereby reintegrate it. In that way we can gradually reclaim all our energy and all our powers. Even anger has a place in a constructive life. How else are we going to know how to mobilise ourselves to respond to evil and injustice when it crosses our path. I had repressed my pain and rage. Taking them out of the cage and reintegrating them is not the same as acting them out. Our culture is not good at treading the middle way between repression and disinhibition. The middle way is to remain aware of how you are feeling but to contain it, reflect upon it (something I’ve dealt with at length elsewhere) and decide how best to deal with and if appropriate express the feelings constructively.

We have reached the point where we are almost ready to tackle the possibility that dreams can give us access to the transcendent.


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How to live: Peterson’s self-help book, 12 Rules for Life, is offered as ‘an antidote to chaos’. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

Last Monday I read about an intriguing interview with Jordan B Peterson on the Guardian website. Given that I have recently stated that spiritually oriented psychologists are almost as rare as the Phoenix, I may have to eat my words. Peterson may say some things I don’t quite agree with, but more often that not what he says about giving life meaning resonates strongly with me. I think I will have to buy his book. I can hear my shelves groaning with the weight of that thought. [I have now bought the book and my views are expressed in a short sequence starting in March.]  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

It is uncomfortable to be told to get in touch with your inner psychopath, that life is a catastrophe and that the aim of living is not to be happy. This is hardly the staple of most self-help books. And yet, superficially at least, a self-help book containing these messages is what the Canadian psychologist Jordan B Peterson has written.

His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is an ambitious, some would say hubristic, attempt to explain how an individual should live their life, ethically rather than in the service of self. It is informed by the Bible, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Dostoevsky – again, uncommon sources for the genre. . .

Peterson’s worldview is complex, although 12 Rules makes a heroic attempt to simplify it into digestible material. It might be encapsulated thus: “Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.

“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

. . . “It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

But how do we build meaning? By putting it before expediency. Which is quite close to simply “acting right”. Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.

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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

. . . . . every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever…

(`Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, section 137, page 157)

I closed the last post on the following points.

Through processes of reflection, which I have explored at length on this blog, we as individuals can step back from our default patterns of belief, thought and behaviour, including our unreflecting susceptibility to persuasion, and change them radically for the better. But first of course we first have to realise that something is badly wrong and that we need to change.

Through processes of consultation resolutely applied, again something I have explored on this blog, we can as groups, communities, nations, continents and beyond, reflect upon and modify our default patterns of belief, thought and behaviour, and change them radically for the better. Collectively recognising that something is badly wrong and that we need to change is even more difficult for collectives than it is for individuals.

In terms of altering patterns of behaviour that impact adversely on the climate, this is clearly a serious issue.  To clarify exactly how this works I need to take a slight diversion.

Three deadly Ds

At both levels, the individual and the community, this is where three interrelated deadly Ds kick in: denial, discounting and dissociation. I see these as usefully encapsulated for present purposes in the term ‘disowning,’ borrowed from Spinelli’s book on existential therapy. (There is also a fourth possibility – dissonance reduction – which is more complex so I’ll park that for now. I’ve discussed this in part before in the context of slave owning where the founding fathers of America resolved the dissonance between the principles they espoused of equality and their ownership of slaves by persuading themselves that Afro-Americans were not quite fully human – a convenient and profitable hypocrisy. I’m not sure whether it operates in terms of climate change.)

As Ernesto Spinelli explains it in his book Demystifying Therapy (pages 291-92) we have what he terms ‘sedimented’ perceptions of ‘being,’ of what we are and of what the world is like. A simple way of expressing that is to say that they tend to become fossilised. When a ‘novel, potentially meaning-extending experience’ comes along it is ‘disowned’ so that ‘the sedimented perspective’ can be upheld. Experience is ‘rejected or denied.’ He links this in other places to ‘dissociation’ in the sense of a radical splitting off of experience from current awareness (page 160) as well as here to denial.

‘Discounting’ is a term I’ve borrowed from Transactional Analysis and it means ignoring information relevant to the solution of a problem.

All of these terms seem to apply at different times and in different ways both to our individual and collective ways of dealing with unpalatable truths such a climate change, and death with its related problem of whether there is an afterlife or not.

When we disown aspects of our experience, they do not necessarily cease to influence what we feel, think and do. The disowned aspect of experience generally retains a strong influence over us while evading our influence in return. We dance to a tune we have made ourselves powerless to alter. The ‘return of the repressed,’ Freud called it.

We may sometimes disown experiences that would otherwise engulf us. We can disown conclusions experiences are forcing us to make when these conclusions conflict with deeply cherished beliefs we already hold. Disowned experiences, such as strong feelings of distrust implanted from childhood and of whose roots we remain blind, can be the breeding ground of other problems such as the defensive way we relate to others. Buried guilt for past actions, for instance, can bleed into a negative self-image that corrodes all our efforts to succeed in life.

By definition disowning is anything but obvious to the person who is doing the disowning.

Emma had rows with her husband and he beat her at times. She claimed to feel nothing as a result. She had provoked it, she felt. She was therefore responsible. There was nothing to feel. Shopping in town after one of these rows, she became convinced that a group of people in the shopping precinct were laughing at her and were part of a conspiracy against her. With her judgement already affected by tormenting voices, she was barely able to contain her feelings of anger and leave the vicinity before she physically attacked them. She was extremely distressed by the experience in town, in stark contrast to her indifference to the beating she had received at the hands of her husband. What she had disowned about her husband in her home appeared to be leaking destructively in a distorted shape onto the people in town.

What we have disowned is inaccessible to reflection: to that extent how much we can reflect depends upon the degree of our relatedness to our total experience. Without the capacity to own and reflect we frequently remain the helpless victim of our own inner life.


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

The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict and opens us up to new experiences: the adaptation and change that this makes possible enhances the potential usefulness of our models and their connected experiences. It enables us to contain in consciousness for further inspection what we were before too scared or repelled to hold in mind or too carried away to resist acting out.

Once this flexibility is created, then conversation, the next step up the social ladder, becomes possible.

Increasing our Leverage

Once conversation is possible two powerful tools, implied in all that has been said above, become available.

First, some further space can be 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, 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, can achieve remarkable results: Neil Mercer talks of the crucial function of language and says:

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

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.

By combining reflection, which makes us detached enough from our own views to think carefully about the perspectives of others, and consultation, which enables us to lift our models of reality to a higher level of accuracy and create better solutions to the problems we find, we avoid the mutually reinforcing traps of tunnel vision and groupthink.

Even if we come to accept that most of us are trapped in our simulations, created by early experience and powerful influences in the present, reflecting as an individual and consulting as a community are harder to do than we would like to think and need courage and perseverance in equal measure, courage to risk this shift in processing in the first place and perseverance if we are to learn how to master the skills in each case.

I’ll be exploring that more deeply next time.

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The previous post looked at the Grof’s account of Karen’s experience of a spiritual emergency and how it was dealt with. Now we need to look at some of the implications as well as other aspects of their approach.

The Context

I want to open this section with that part of Bahá’u’lláh’s Seven Valleys that has formed the focus of my morning meditations for the last few weeks. I have persisted so long in the hope that I will eventually understand it more fully. I believe that Shoghi Effendi, the great-grandson of Bahá’u’lláh and the one whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá appointed as His successor, was of the opinion that one needed to read at least ten books by writers who were not Bahá’ís in order to have any hope of understanding a Bahá’í text fully. I may have conveniently chosen to believe that factoid in order to justify my own bookaholic tendencies.

Setting that aside for now, what matters at the moment are the resonances between the words of Bahá’u’lláh and the topic I am exploring more deeply here.

I have touched on how materialistic assumptions about reality will dismiss as rubbish or even pathologise phenomena their paradigm excludes from possibility.

Bahá’u’lláh directly addresses this point (page 33):

God, the Exalted, hath placed these signs in men, to the end that philosophers may not deny the mysteries of the life beyond nor belittle that which hath been promised them. For some hold to reason and deny whatever the reason comprehendeth not, and yet weak minds can never grasp the matters which we have related, but only the Supreme, Divine Intelligence can comprehend them:

How can feeble reason encompass the Qur’án,
Or the spider snare a phoenix in his web?

Our deification of reason has stripped the world we believe in of God and made it difficult, even impossible, in some cases for some people, to entertain the possibility that God in some form does exist, though that would not be as some white-bearded chariot-riding figure in the sky.

This is the Grofs take on this issue (page 247):

A system of thinking that deliberately discards everything that cannot be weighed and measured does not leave any opening for the recognition of creative cosmic intelligence, spiritual realities, or such entities as transpersonal experiences or the collective unconscious. . . . . . While they are clearly incompatible with traditional Newtonian-Cartesian thinking, they are actually in basic resonance with the revolutionary developments in various disciplines of modern science that are often referred to as the new paradigm.

This world-view seriously demeans us (page 248):

Human beings are described as material objects with Newtonian properties, more specifically as highly developed animals and thinking biological machines. . .

We have taken this model or simulation as the truth (ibid.):

In addition, the above description of the nature of reality and of human beings has in the past been generally seen not for what it is – a useful model organising the observations and knowledge available at a certain time in the history of science – but as a definitive and accurate description of reality itself. From a logical point of view, this would be considered a serious confusion of the ‘map’ with the ‘territory.’

This reductionist dogmatism has serious implications for psychosis (page 249):

Since the concept of objective reality and accurate reality testing are the key factors in determining whether the individual is mentally healthy, the scientific understanding of the nature of reality is absolutely critical in this regard. Therefore, any fundamental change in the scientific world-view has to have far-reaching consequences for the definition of psychosis.

A Holographic Approach

They contend that the paradigm is shifting (ibid.:)

. . . The physical universe has come to be viewed as a unified web of paradoxical, statistically determined events in which consciousness and creative intelligence play a critical role. . . This approach has become known as holographic because some of its remarkable features can be demonstrated with use of optical holograms as conceptual tools.

Their explanation of the holographic model is clear and straightforward (page 250):

The information in holographic systems is distributed in such a way that all of it is contained and available in each of its parts. . . .

It’s implications are profound:

If the individual and the brain are not isolated entities but integral parts of a universe with holographic properties – if they are in some way microcosms of a much larger system – then it is conceivable that they can have direct and immediate access to information outside themselves.

This resonates with what Bahá’u’lláh writes in the same section of the Seven Valleys:

Likewise, reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

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

Then we must labor to destroy the animal condition, till the meaning of humanity shall come to light.

It is crucial for us all as well as for those labelled psychotic that we cease to reduce the mind to a machine. The Grofs spell out the implications for psychosis when we refuse to take the more transcendent perspective (page 252):

The discoveries of the last few decades strongly suggest that the psyche is not limited to postnatal biography and to the Freudian individual unconscious and confirm the perennial truth, found in many mystical traditions, that human beings might be commensurate with all there is. Transpersonal experiences and their extraordinary potential certainly attest to this fact.

. . . In traditional psychiatry, all holotropic experiences have been interpreted as pathological phenomena, in spite of the fact that the alleged disease process has never been identified; this reflects the fact that the old paradigm did not have an adequate explanation for these experiences and was not able to account for them in any other way.

Assuming that we do accept that possibility of a spiritual reality, what follows? They spell it out:

. . . . two important and frequently asked questions are how one can diagnose spiritual emergency and how it is possible to differentiate transformational crises from spiritual emergence and from mental illness.

This is only possible up to a point (page 253):

The psychological symptoms of… organic psychoses are clearly distinguishable from functional psychoses by means of psychiatric examination and psychological tests.

. . . . When the appropriate examinations and tests have excluded the possibility that the problem we are dealing with is organic in nature, the next task is to find out whether the client fits into the category of spiritual emergency – in other words, differentiate this state from functional psychoses. There is no way of establishing absolutely clear criteria for differentiation between spiritual emergency and psychosis or mental disease, since such terms themselves lack objective scientific validity. One should not confuse categories of this kind with such precisely defined disease entities as diabetes mellitus or pernicious anaemia. Functional psychoses are not diseases in a strictly medical sense and cannot be identified with the degree of accuracy that is required in medicine when establishing a differential diagnosis.

What they say next blends nicely with the points made in my recent posts about where the dubious basis of diagnosis takes us (page 256):

Since traditional psychiatry makes no distinction between psychotic reactions and mystical states, not the only crises of spiritual opening but also uncomplicated transpersonal experiences often receive a pathological label.

This has paved the way to dealing with their approach to intervention and their criteria for distinguishing spiritual emergencies that can be helped from other states.

Holotropic Breathwork

Before we look briefly at their attempt to create criteria by which we might distinguish spiritual from purely functional phenomena I want to look at their recommended method for helping people work through inner crises. This method applies what the non-organic origin. This technique they call Holotropic Breathwork.

First they define what they mean by holotropic (page 258):

We use the term holotropic in two different ways – the therapeutic technique we have developed and for the mode of consciousness it induces. The use of the word holotropic in relation to therapy suggests that the goal is to overcome inner fragmentation as well as the sense of separation between the individual and the environment. The relationship between wholeness and healing is reflected in the English language, since both words have the same root.

They then look at its components and their effects (page 259):

The reaction to [a] combination of accelerated reading, music, and introspective focus of attention varies from person to person. After a period of about fifteen minutes to half an hour, most of the participants show strong active response. Some experience a buildup of intense emotions, such as sadness, joy, anger, fear, or sexual arousal.

They feel that this approach unlocks blocks between our awareness and the contents of the unconscious:

. . . .  It seems that the nonordinary state of consciousness induced by holotropic breathing is associated with biochemical changes in the brain that make it possible for the contents of the unconscious to surface, to be consciously experienced, and – if necessary – to be physically expressed. In our bodies and in our psyches we carry imprints of various traumatic events that we have not fully digested and assimilated psychologically. Holographic breathing makes them available, so that we can fully experience them and release the emotions that are associated with them.

As Fontana makes clear in his book Is there an Afterlife?, experience is the most compelling way to confirm the validity of a paradigm of reality, so my experience of continuous conscious breathing in the 70s and 80s gives me a strong sense that what the Grofs are saying about Holotropic Breathwork had validity. My experience in the mid-70s confirms the dramatic power of some of the possible effects: my experience in the mid-80s confirms their sense that the body stores memories to which breathwork can give access. I will not repeat these accounts in full as I have explored them elsewhere. I’ve consigned brief accounts to the footnotes.[1]

They go on to explain the possible advantages of Holotropic Breathwork over alternative therapies (pages 261-263):

The technique of Holotropic Breathwork is extremely simple in comparison with traditional forms of verbal psychotherapy, which emphasise the therapist’s understanding of the process, correct and properly timed interpretations, and work with transference . . . . It has a much less technical emphasis than many of the new experiential methods, such as Gestalt therapy, Rolfing, and bioenergetics. . . . . .

In the holotropic model, the client is seen as the real source of healing and is encouraged to realise that and to develop a sense of mastery and independence.

. . . . . In a certain sense, he or she is ultimately the only real expert because of his or her immediate access to the experiential process that provides all the clues.

Distinguishing Criteria

Below is the table they devised to differentiate between the two categories of spiritual emergence and what they term psychiatric disorder. They explain the purpose of the criteria (page 253):

The task of deciding whether we are dealing with a spiritual emergency in a particular case means in practical terms that we must assess whether the client could benefit from the strategies described in this book or should be treated in traditional ways. This is their table of criteria.

They are certainly not claiming that they have an unerring way of distinguishing between these states, nor that some of those who are placed in the ‘psychiatric’ have no aspects of spiritual emergency in the phenomena they are experiencing. Readers will also know by now that I am a strong advocate of more enlightened ways of managing any such problems than those which are implied in the term ‘traditional.’


This last post turned out to  be much longer than I planned. I hope it conveys my sense of the value of their approach and of the validity of their concept of a spiritual emergency.

My feeling that their approach is a good one derives largely from my own dramatic experience of what was an almost identical method involving breathwork. In a previous sequence I have dealt with the way the breakthrough I experienced in the 70s had lasting beneficial effects on my my life, first of all in terms of opening my mind so I was able to take advantage of other therapeutic interventions. Perhaps most importantly though in the first instance was the way that the first breakthrough loosened the grip of my previous pattern of anaesthetising myself against earlier grief and pain mostly by cigarettes, gambling and heavy social drinking, so that I could realise that I needed to undertake more mindwork.

I also find it reinforcing of my trust in the basic validity of their perspective that it has led them to draw much the same conclusions as I have about the dangers of materialism and its negative impact upon the way we deal with mental health problems

It doesn’t end my quest though for more evidence to support my sense that psychosis can and often does have a spiritual dimension. Hopefully you will be hearing more on this.


[1] Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition.  These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning.  Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

After three hours I was trembling all over. I was resisting letting go and ‘embracing’ the experience. When I eventually did the quaking literally dissolved in an instant into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time. I had always known that something like it happened. What was new was that I had 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.

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.’

The earlier experience had been more confusing, with no specific experience to explain it by.

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

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Readers of this blog will remember that I was struggling recently to find more detailed discussion of the possibility that some severe mental disturbances have spiritual aspects. Isabel Clarke’s Spirituality & Psychosis left me frustrated by its lack of such detail.

Recently I came across a second hand copy of Christina and Stanislav Grof’s The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency. It was published in 1991 at a less than universally receptive time so it is hard to determine from the book itself how far things might have moved on since. This is something I will have to investigate further.

It has echoes for me of Hillman’s The Soul’s Code in that it combines deep insights with what read like wild flights of fancy and carefully substantiated accounts of concrete experience with vague waves at unspecified bodies of invisible evidence. Even so, much of it is clearly derived from careful observation and direct experience, and goes a long way towards defining what look convincingly like spiritual manifestations within mental disturbances which are currently dismissed as mere madness. So, it seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

Before I go into more detail I think I need to place its thesis in perspective. We need to understand how much of an uphill battle it is going to be to get the spiritual dimensions of the experiences currently labelled psychosis accepted in mainstream psychiatry and psychology. To do so we need to look back at the history of the way the effects of trauma have been treated.

Attitudes to Trauma in the Past

It has taken a century or more for the work on trauma and its basic consequences to be properly understood.

This struggle involved swimming against the strong tide of dismissive opinion.

There are many places to look for evidence of the slow progress towards an acceptance and understanding of the role of trauma in mental disturbance. There are few better than Judith Herman’s book Trauma & Recovery. I have covered her account in more detail elsewhere on this blog so I’ll just summarise it here.

Herman rightly emphasises that only if the social context facilitates, can trauma and its impacts be studied (page 9):

The study war trauma becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the sacrifice of young men in war. The study of trauma in sexual and domestic life becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the subordination of women and children.

She lists, in her historical review, three forms of trauma (ibid.): hysteria, shell shock/combat neurosis and sexual and domestic violence. She looks at the work of Charcot, Janet, Freud and Breuer. The fruit of their extensive collaborative interactions with female patients was Freud’s The Aetiology of Hysteria, in which he wrote (page 13):

I therefore put forward the thesis that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood, but which can be reproduced through the work of psychoanalysis in spite of the intervening decades.

There was a massive backlash which caused a backtrack. Experiences were dismissed as fantasies or interpreted as subliminally desired. As Herman puts it (page 14): ‘The dominant psychological theory (psychoanalysis) of the next century was founded in the denial of women’s reality.’

Herman recognises how impossible it would have been for Freud to fight successfully to get his authentic theory recognised (page 18):

No matter how cogent his arguments or how valid his observations, Freud’s discovery could not gain acceptance in the absence of a political and social context that would support the investigation of hysteria, wherever it might lead.

Soldiers in the First World War triggered a similarly divisive debate. Lewis Yelland used shaming, threat and punishment as a ‘remedy’, for example treating the mutism that sometimes resulted from combat neurosis with electric shocks, in one case to the throat – it seemed the best was to get a traumatised soul quickly back to the trenches that had traumatised him in the first place.

The Second World War resurrected the issue with some progress. Even so (page 26), ‘systematic, large-scale investigation of the long-term psychological effects of combat was not undertaken until after the Vietnam War.’

This took an altogether different form from the expert-dominated approaches of the past (ibid.):

The antiwar veterans organised what they called “rap groups.” In these intimate meetings of their peers, Vietnam veterans retold and relived the traumatic experiences of war. They invited sympathetic psychiatrists to offer them professional assistance.

Their activism ultimately led to (op.cit. page 27):

. . . comprehensive studies tracing the impact of wartime experiences on the lives of returning veterans. A five-volume study on the legacies of Vietnam delineated the syndrome of post-traumatic stress disorder and demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt its direct relationship to combat exposure.

Activism remained a vital element in the further development of a proper understanding of trauma and its true prevalence (page 28):

For most of the twentieth century it was the study of combat veterans that led to the development of a body of knowledge about traumatic disorder. Not until the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s was it recognised that the most common post traumatic disorders are not those of men in war but of women into civilian life.

The incidence figures were as staggering then as they had been when Freud decided they could not be credible and backed off. A rigorous study of 900 randomly selected women in the 1980s revealed that one in four women had been raped, and one in three had been sexually abused in childhood.

Herman describes the way that research into rape led investigators from the street more deeply into the family (page 31):

The initial focus on street rape, committed by strangers, led step by step to the exploration of acquaintance rape, date rape, and rape in marriage. The initial focus on rape as a form of violence against women lead to the exploration of domestic battery and other forms of private coercion. And the initial focus on the rape of adults led inevitably to a rediscovery of the sexual abuse of children.

Later in the book they explore in detail how accepting relationships are usually critical to the fully effective treatment of trauma. I may come back to that in more detail in later posts but for now it is important to signpost that point for future reference when we come to look at trauma and psychosis in the next post. Herman writes:

. . . . group treatment complements the intensive, individual exploration of the trauma story, but does not necessarily replace it. The social, relational dimensions of the traumatic syndrome are more fully addressed in a group than in an individual setting, while the physioneurosis of the former requires a highly specific, individualised focus on desensitising the traumatic memory.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How, though, can the man that wrote,

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

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


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

(Venus & Adonis lines 1033-36)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Webster takes this a step further (ibid.):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

before he delivers the coup-de-grace:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

He writes:

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

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

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

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

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


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Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The second part comes out tomorrow.

As I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.


Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. 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. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)


In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan



Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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