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Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

Last time I explored a new realisation. On the back of a fleeting comment I made, in a recent conversation, that Iain McGilchrist, in his recent book The Matter with Things, was stating that art can serve as bridge between our consciousness and the ineffable aspects of reality, I came to see all too clearly a truth that I have been blind to all these years: art is not just a meaningful but subordinate domain to science and religion – it is of equal importance. We need all three if we are to mobilise all parts of our brain to enable our minds to grasp almost any important and complex truth more completely in all its aspects. One of these domains is in itself not enough for most of us, at least.

Now I need to try and pin why that insight is so important.

Why It Matters So Much to Me

Not everyone will jeopardise the balance I am about to describe by piling all the eggs of understanding into one basket, though there is an unhealthy drive in our culture towards specialization, as McGilchrist points out in The Matter with Things, and a contempt for what seems like a more superficial dilettante approach. While I have probably never gone to that extreme, I have had a tendency to let my enthusiasm for newly discovered lands carry me away for long periods of time.

For example, when I came to realise that my too exclusive focus on literature was motivated by what books taught me about people, and then shifted my attention to focusing on psychology, the same monochrome method induced me to neglect poetry as no longer relevant to my life. Novels, plays and films were acceptable as stories about people though I no longer trusted them to be reliable vehicles of truth. When, later still, psychology and psychotherapy triggered an interest in Buddhism because of its obvious deep understanding of the mind, rooted in centuries of meditation, the resulting blend of spirituality and psychology tended to even ease narrative forms of art out of focus.

Each time I got a dream reminder to recalibrate – first the Dancing Flames dream pointed me back towards poetry and diluted my obsession with psychology, then, after my decision to tread the Bahá’í path had to some degree reversed the correction, my Hearth dream not only reminded me about the value of art but also that of nature too. Both of these dreams are explored in some detail elsewhere on this blog.

Even so, in my conscious mind I still had this prejudicial sense that psychology and spirituality were somehow more trustworthy guides along the path towards truth than the arts, no matter how much (guilty) pleasure I derived especially from poems, songs and paintings.

Now, at last, I seem to have consciously realised that I must keep all three in balance.  Different people will privilege different domains at different times and in different places, as I have tried to illustrate in the three different diagrams fronted by different aspects of the STAR: what is critical is that discounting any of them reduces our ability to draw as close to the truth as we are able and desperately need to. Various forms of destructive dogmatism and fanaticism lurk in the shadows created by these discounts. When science disparages spirituality, for example, as I have explained many times on this blog, the mind gets reduced to the brain. When religion dismisses science we topple into fundamentalism. When either of them closes the door on the rich symbolism and metaphor of the arts, not only do they risk depriving themselves of the language by which their understanding can be more effectively conveyed, but they also impoverish their own ability to tune into aspects of the truths they are discovering. For this reason, not only are there three versions, each with a different domain at the front, but the colours of each domain are not primary colours, as that would suggest they do not overlap as much as they do.

Reductionisms

Such reductionisms must be avoided at all costs and ideally everyone should be open to and seek information and experiences from all three domains, or risk descending into illusion at best, or dangerous delusion at worst. If I hear anyone disparaging any of these domains as pointless, I’ll know not to trust a word they say. It is interesting to note here, as just one example, that metaphor, myth, symbolism, story and allegory, the tools of literature as an art form, are crucially important in Bahá’í and other religious scripture. Without parables where would the gospels be. Physics, confronted by its awareness of the role of consciousness, seems to be leading the sciences towards a more spiritual perspective and a felt need to use more metaphorical language.

Any form of reductionism or potentially toxic over-simplification is to be avoided at all costs in all three domains. The richness of artistic vehicles of understanding and communication can be a strong antidote. A reductionist ‘science’, a materialistic ‘art’ or fundamentalist ‘religion’ is neither art, science nor religion. I think with this model, if I am immersing myself in any kind of genuine manifestation of any one of those three domains, there is no need to feel guilty, or slag myself off for betraying the other two and wasting my time.

Imbalances

Because the Bahá’í Writings talk so much about the harmony of religion and science as paths towards the truth that, even though they praise the role of the arts in expressing spirituality, I failed to see that there is more to the arts than that. This is where my obtuse misunderstanding of the Bahá’í path in this respect did not quite get me to this new level of understanding, and has caused me to limp along more slowly in certain respects than I would have been able to do otherwise.

I think these insights might help me shed the burden of guilt that prevented me from spending more time enjoying and learning from literature, painting and song in the way I used to. Fortunately I haven’t got as close, as in my early days of my immersion in psychology, to the position McGilchrist reminds us that Darwin found himself in:

He draws from Charles Darwin’s Autobiography which speaks of the great pleasure he derived as a young man from poetry, music and art, something now almost completely lost to him (page 619):

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts . . . And if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through the use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

But still slightly too close for comfort.

Basically, I think I have come to a firm realisation that my path entails using an exploration of the arts, social sciences and spirituality, in an effectively balanced way, to help me enhance my understanding of reality and ease my own existential pain as well as lift the understanding and ease the pain of others. I think that has always been my unconscious priority, but my discounting of the arts tended to make my exploration of them feel like a stolen pleasure and reduce the efficacy of my search for deeper meanings both within experience and within the Bahá’í Writings.

Maybe the fact that ‘arts’ and ‘star’ are anagrams might make it easier for me to hold onto this insight now I’ve gained it. The cube below places sciences at the top because that is where our culture sees it as belonging, while religion has been sidelined. My hope is that this post will help redress that imbalance, and also bring the arts closer to the front in this dynamic.

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Given the recent post taking another look at psychosis and trauma, it seemed worthwhile republishing this sequence.

So, as I asked at the end of the previous post, what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

I need to repeat the caveats I voiced at the start of this sequence about their book, The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency, so that I do not come across as easily taken in. It is not easy to tread the razor’s edge between the default positions of intransigent incredulity and irremediable gullibility, but here goes.

Their book 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, 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 which are currently dismissed as mere madness. It seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

I am going to focus on what I feel are their strongest points: concrete experiences that illustrate their perspective and their brave and, in my opinion, largely successful attempts to make a clear distinction between mystic and merely disturbed experiences, not that the latter are to be dismissed as meaningless. It’s just that their meaning is to be found in life events not in the transcendent.

First I’ll deal with their account of one person’s spiritual crisis. In the last post I’ll be looking at their scheme of diagnostic distinction.

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘Glory Be to God’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

A Concrete Example

What follows is a highly condensed summary of one person’s story. A key point to hold in mind is one the Grofs made earlier in the book (page 71):

Often, individuals benefit from their encounter with the divine but have problems with the environment. In some instances, people talk to those close to them about a powerful mystical state. If their family, friends, or therapists do not understand the healing potential of these dimensions, they may not treat them as valid or may automatically become concerned about the sanity of the loved one or client. If the person who has had the experience is at all hesitant about its validity or concerned about his or her state of mind, the concern of others may exaggerate these doubts, compromising, clouding, or obscuring the richness of the original feelings and sensations.

Karen’s Story

They begin by providing some background (pages 191-92):

[S]he had a difficult childhood; her mother committed suicide when she was three, and she grew up with an alcoholic father and his second wife. Leaving home in her late teens, she lived through periods of depression and struggled periodically with compulsive eating.

Assuming that her subsequent experiences were what they seem to be, and I do, then it is clear that just because there is trauma in someone’s background does mean that the unusual experiences they report are entirely reducible to some form of post-traumatic stress response any more than they can be explained satisfactorily simply in terms of brain malfunction. Whatever is going on in the brain is just a correlate but not a cause, and previous trauma may have rendered any filter susceptible to leaks from a transcendent reality. I am restraining myself from leaping too soon to that last and much desired conclusion.

Interestingly, it’s possible that there was an organic trigger to her spiritual crisis (page 192):

. . . [F]ive days before her episode, Karen had begun taking medication for an intestinal parasite, stopping as the daily experience started. . . . . It is difficult to accurately assess its role in the onset of this event. . . . Whatever the source, her crisis contained all the elements of a true spiritual emergency. It lasted three-and-a-half weeks and completely interrupted her ordinary functioning, necessitating twenty-four-hour attention.

Her friends asked the Grofs to become involved in her care so they were able to observe the whole situation as it unfolded.

That Karen was able to avoid being admitted to psychiatric hospital was down to the support of a wide circle of friends. That this meant that she did not have to take any medication is important, according to the Grofs and other sources. Anti-pychotic medication has the effect of blocking the very processes that a successful integration of the challenging experiences requires. They describe the lay nature of her support (pages 192-93):

[B]ecause of Karen’s obvious need and the reluctance of those around her to involve her in traditional psychiatric approaches, her care was largely improvised. Most of the people who became involved were not primarily dedicated to working with spiritual emergencies.

What were her experiences like during this period of what they call ‘spiritual emergency’?

Their description covers several pages (page 194-196). This is a very brief selection of some of the main aspects. To Karen her vision seemed clearer. She also ‘heard women’s voices telling her that she was entering a benign and important experience. . . .’ Observers noted that ‘heat radiated throughout Karen’s body and it was noted that ‘she saw visions of fire and fields of red, at times feeling herself consumed by flames. . . .’

What is also particularly interesting is her re-experience of previous life crises: ‘[S]he struggled through the physical and emotional pain of her own biological birth and repeatedly relived the delivery of her daughter,’ as well as confronting ‘death many times and in many forms, and her preoccupation with dying caused her sitters to become concerned about the possibility of a suicide attempt.’ She was too well protected for that to be a serious risk.

In the last post I will be linking a therapeutic technique the Grofs advocate, Holotropic Breathwork, with some of my own experiences. This makes their description of how this technique can uncover repressed memories of traumatic experiences all the more credible to me. More of that later. That Karen should have been triggered into such regressions is not therefore surprising to me.

By way of supporting her through this, ‘telling her that it was possible to experience death symbolically without actually dying physically, her sitters asked her to keep her eyes closed and encouraged her to fully experience the sequences of dying inwardly and to express the difficult emotions involved.’ It is significant for their model that encouragement and support in facing what we might otherwise be tempted to flee from helps. ‘She complied, and in a short time she moved past the intense confrontation with death to other experiences. . . .’

Given my interest in the relationship between apparently disturbed mental states and creativity, it was noteworthy that ‘[f]or several days, Karen tapped directly into a powerful stream of creativity, expressing many of her experiences in the form of songs. It was amazing to witness: after an inner theme would surface into awareness, she would either make up a song about it or recall one from memory, lustily singing herself through that phase of her process.’

They describe her during this period as ‘extremely psychic, highly sensitive, and acutely attuned to the world around her.’ For example she was ‘able to “see through” everyone around her, often anticipating their comments and actions.’

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘The Glory of the Lord’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

Things began to take a more positive turn (page 196):

After about two weeks, some of the difficult, painful states started to subside and Karen receive increasingly benevolent, light-filled experiences and felt more and more connected with a divine source.

Perhaps I need to clarify that I am not attempting to adduce this as evidence of the reality of the spiritual world. People like David Fontana and Leslie Kean have collated such evidence far better than I ever could, and sorted out the wheat from the chaff with honesty and discernment.

What I am hoping to do is use this as a demonstration that sometimes at least what could be written off as meaningless and irrational brain noise might not only be significantly related to early experiences in life, as the trauma work suggests, but also to a spiritual dimension whose reality our culture usually denies with the result that the experiences are pathologised. The outcome in this case strongly suggests that pathologising them needlessly prolongs them and blocks life-enhancing changes that would otherwise have resulted.

They go onto describe the end of the episode and its aftermath (ibid.):

. . . . As Karen began to come through her experience, she became less and less absorbed by her in the world and more interested in her daughter and the other people around her. She began to eat and sleep more regularly and was increasingly able to care for some of her daily needs. . . .

Rather as was the case with Fontana and his poltergeist investigation, as the vividness of the experiences receded, doubts beganset in (ibid.:)

As she became increasingly in touch with ordinary reality, Karen’s mind started to analyse her experiences, and she began to feel for the first time that she had been involved in a negative process. The only logical way of explaining these events to herself was that something had gone wrong, that perhaps she had truly lost her mind. Self-doubt is a common stage in spiritual emergencies, appearing when people begin to surface from the dramatic manifestations . . .

She was not blind to the positives in the end (page 197):

Two years later, when we discussed her experience with her, Karen said that she has mixed feelings about the episode. She is able to appreciate many aspects of what happened to her. She says that she has learnt a great deal of value about herself and her capacities, feeling that through her crisis she gained wisdom that she can tap any time. Karen has visited realms within herself that she previously had no idea were there, has felt enormous creativity flow through her, and has survived the previously frightening experiences of birth, death, and madness. Her depressions have disappeared, as well as her tendency toward compulsive overeating.

But her doubts persisted, and may have been to some extent fuelled by her family and friends’ reactions and the lack of informed support (page 198):

On the other hand, Karen also has some criticisms. Even though she could not have resisted the powerful states during her episode, she feels that she was unprepared for the hard, painful work involved. In spite of the fact that she received a great deal of assistance during the three weeks, she feels that she was not yet ready to venture forth into the daily world when she was required to do so by the exhaustion of the resources of those around her. Since that time, she has lacked contact with people with whom to further process her experiences. She considers herself somewhat “different” for having had the episode (an opinion also indirectly expressed by her family and some of her friends) and has tended to downgrade it by concentrating on its negative effects.

The support had to be reduced after the three-week peak period because the support network was burning out. The Grofs felt (ibid.:)

Many of these problems could have been avoided if Karen had had consistent and knowledgeable support immediately following her crisis, perhaps in a halfway house, and follow-up help – in the form of ongoing therapy, support groups, and spiritual practice – for a more extended period of time.

It is dangerous to extrapolate too wildly but I feel that in Karen’s story there are real grounds for hope. She recovered from an apparently devastating episode of mental disturbance without drugs. She demonstrated modest but lasting mental health gains in terms of no subsequent depression or compulsive eating. There is every reason to suppose given this experience and the evidence of Dr Sami Timimi’s study, adduced by James Davies in Cracked and described in the previous post, that an outcome like this could apply far more widely across the so-called psychotic spectrum. Yes, the intervention was time intensive, but it was brief and successful. This compares with long-term interventions involving medication resulting in symptoms that continue to simmer for years or even decades, blighting the whole life of the sufferer and the lives of close family.

The Grofs then explore models of help and aftercare, which I won’t go into now as the main focus I want to take is on their ideas of how to distinguish a spiritual emergency such as Karen’s from other forms of disturbance. This is clearly an important distinction to be able to make as the approaches taken when dealing with trauma-related disturbances and spiritual crises will be somewhat different, though Karen’s case implies there might well be an overlap.

However, all the evidence that has accumulated since they wrote suggests that all such so-called psychotic episodes are better dealt with in a non-diagnostic way, which is an issue that the Grofs do not fully address, probably because at the time of their writing placing spiritual emergency on the agenda seemed a more urgent issue, given that it was and still is doubly disparaged.

Now for the difficult distinction in the next post, along with a brief description of their recommended intervention.

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It seems worth republishing this sequence again, mainly because of my current sequence on The Matter with Things, to which it resonates strongly. The first four posts will appear this week: the last two next Tuesday and Wednesday.

I am sitting in a café reading a book.

‘Why are you bothering to tell us that?’ you may well ask, as you all know I read whenever I’m alone and there’s nothing else I’ve got to do.

Well, this book is a bit special.

As it happens, I’m in a café in a shopping centre, and through the glass shine the temptations of consumer heaven. Within less than 200 yards I could bejewel and reclothe myself, refurnish our house and replace all our electrical goods and gadgets, if I wished to and could afford it.

And that’s just for starters.

Instead, I am reading a short book, highlighting passage after passage as I do so, undistracted by the jangling music in the background. It’s a book that goes a considerable way towards explaining why the minarets of capitalism[1] have replaced cathedrals, churches, mosques, synagogues and temples as the must-go-to places for massive throngs of people in the Western world and beyond.

Many of us are already aware that organised religion is out of favour. As the book says it’s ‘an outdated conflict-causing and ritualistic, bad thing’[2] in many people’s eyes. The process of downgrading religion, which began with the so-called Enlightenment (almost everything has a dark side, including this), was given a boost at the end of First World War, because, as the Bahá’í World Centre explains, ‘fossilised religious dogmas that had lent moral endorsement to the forces of conflict and alienation were everywhere in question.’[3]

What we may not have been willing to realise so clearly is that there is a new religion on the block. It’s been hidden from us in plain sight. As the authors put it: ‘God is dead, but has been resurrected as capital. Shopping malls have become the new altars for worshipping the God of money.’[4] And the new religion is not all it’s cracked up to be, as well as not lacking its own serious disadvantages. It is costing lives as well as controlling them.

The book I am reading, Selling Spirituality by Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, argues a strong case for the value of seeing the modern world through this lens. If you have the patience to follow me through my explanation, I think your journey will be well worthwhile. At the very least it will hopefully convey why the loss of the positive side of religion has not been compensated for by the prevalence of what has been misleadingly termed spirituality.

The writers’ main focus is to account for how a deracinated spirituality has been commandeered to help consolidate capitalism’s hold on our minds. In their view this has been made possible in the first place because the word is capable of so many possible meanings it can be harnessed to support an incalculable number of purposes. They argue that, ‘There is no essence or definitive meaning to terms like spirituality or religion’[5] and, as a result, ‘The very ambiguity of the term means that it can operate across different social and interest groups and in capitalist terms, function to establish a market niche.’[6]

It is worth noting at this point that the so-called benefits, which this synthetic brand of spirituality brings to the table, are not universally accessible. The authors describe how ‘[t]he wisdom of spiritual classics like the Tao Te Ching become reduced to a philosophy of worldly accommodationism, tailored to reduce the stress and strain of modern urban life for relatively affluent westerners.’[7] In fact, as they put it more bluntly later, ‘it is feel-good spirituality for the urban and the affluent and it has nothing to say to the poor and the marginalised in society, other than offering them a regime of compliance, a new “opiate for the masses.”’[8]

Before I move on to consider in more detail how exactly that might be said to work, it’s important to spell out the way that capitalism has become not simply a way of doing business, but an ideology that justifies it. Carrette and King describe that as follows, drawing a clear and important distinction between economic liberalism and its political progenitor[9]:

The new economic and political orthodoxy in this emerging world order is known as neoliberalism and it puts profits before people, promotes privatisation of public utilities, services and resources, and is in the process of eroding many of the individual civil liberties that were established under its forerunner– political liberalism.

This shift required being legitimised widely in a credible way. Spirituality has played a significant role in this, they feel:[10]

In contemporary society the discourse of ‘spirituality’ often promotes the ideology of neoliberalism… it does this by providing an aura of authenticity, morality and humanity that mediates the increasingly pernicious social effects of neoliberal policies.

The lack of effective opposition, even from the religions whose convenient concepts were borrowed, enabled its anodyne effect to spread:

. . . traditions are becoming subject to a takeover precisely because members of these traditions have failed to see the increasingly religious quality of capitalism in the modern world.

And this was what, in their view, enabled neoliberal capitalism to morph into what is effectively a religion: [11]

. . . the economic theology of neoliberalism.… corporate capitalism – the new religion of the Market. Its God is ‘Capital’ and its ethics highly questionable.

They feel we are speaking here of a powerful form of thought-control. I will be examining the way that works in more detail next time, but for now I will simply flag up that one of the reasons this pervasive and persuasive influence continues to operate so effectively is our lack of awareness that it exists:[12]

The institutions increasingly exerting their influence upon us are multinational corporations, big business and the mass media. . . . As human beings we are able to challenge regimes of thought control, but only if we become aware of them, and of the possibility of alternatives.

Because this is a book written for the general reader, it would be all too easy to dismiss their argument here as a facile simplification introduced simply to support their main line of argument. While it will not be possible to explore in depth comparable perceptions shared by professionals in the field of economics rather than religion, I will nonetheless share quotes from two different economists who are clearly on a parallel track.

First there is Wolfgang Streeck, in his book How Will Capitalism End? In his introduction he writes:[13]

The problem with [the] neoliberal narrative is, of course, that it neglects the very unequal distribution of risks, opportunities, gains and losses that comes with de-socialised capitalism . . . This raises the question why the neoliberal life associated with the post-capitalist interregnum is not more powerfully opposed, indeed how it can enjoy as much apparent support as it does . . .

By ‘post-capitalist interregnum’ he means the ‘long and indecisive transition’ we are currently experiencing.

He answers his question in a way that overlaps with what I will be describing later:

It is here that ‘culture’ comes in . . . The behavioural programme of the post-social society during the post-capitalist interregnum is governed by a neoliberal ethos of competitive self-improvement, of untiring cultivation of one’s marketable human capital, enthusiastic dedication to work, and cheerfully optimistic, playful acceptance of the risks in a world that has outgrown government.

That he does not include the mortar of pulverised spirituality that Carrette and King argue holds together the bricks Streeck lists in his inventory, does not disguise the fact that he detects the same kind of counterintuitive compliance they go onto describe.

Secondly, there’s Kate Raworth in her mind expanding Doughnut Economics. She uses the metaphor of a theatre production to capture the way that neoliberalism has orchestrated ‘the economic debate of the past thirty years’ in a script promising that ‘the market . . .is the road to freedom, and who could be against that? But putting blind faith in markets – while ignoring the living world, society, and the power of banks – has taken us to the brink of ecological, social and financial collapse.’[14]

In terms of where I’m heading with this, faith is the key word.

Next time I will begin to examine in more detail whether a distorted spirituality is all there is that helps keep most of us quiescent and compliant most of the time, before addressing in a subsequent post some of the ways in which capitalism can fairly be described as the new religion on the block. Much later I will be examining whether a better balance is possible, where a pure and undiluted spirituality combined with greater coherence could help us provide a more effective resistance to an increasingly unbridled market.

Footnotes:

[1] I have adapted this from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s description as his ship approached New York harbour in 1912: on seeing the Wall Street skyscrapers ‘He had laughed and said, “Those are the minarets of the West.”’ (Diary of Juliet Thompson – page 233).
[2] Page 179. All page references in the footnotes, unless otherwise specified, refer to Carrette and King’s Selling Spirituality.
[3] Century of Light – page 43.
[4] Page 23.
[5] Page 3.
[6] Page 31.
[7] Page 90.
[8] Page 107.
[9] Page 7.
[10] Page 134.
[11] Page 178.
[12] Page 12.
[13] Streeck – pages 37-38.
[14] Raworth – pages 67-70.

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Given my plan to explain more fully what prepared my mind for my encounter with the Bahá’í Faith in 1982 it seems appropriate to republish this poem which tried to capture at least part of how it felt at the time.

Thief in the Night

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butterfly

. . . [T]he civilisation that beckons humanity will not be attained through the efforts of the Bahá’í community alone.  Numerous groups and organisations, animated by the spirit of world solidarity that is an indirect manifestation of Bahá’u’lláh’s conception of the principle of the oneness of humankind, will contribute to the civilisation destined to emerge out of the welter and chaos of present-day society.

(Universal House of Justice: 21 April 2010 – para 26)

Given that the latest sequence on this blog dealt with the expectation effect and its impact on the our future state of being, it seemed worth republishing this short sequence from 2014. Below is the first of four posts, the next comes out tomorrow.

It must have been a couple of years before I retired. We were interviewing for people to take up the post of Clinical Psychologist in a Community Mental Health Service. I specialised in the rehabilitation and recovery of people with severe and enduring mental health problems but was also Head of the Psychology Service at the time and therefore part of this interview panel.

She was, I think, the last candidate of the afternoon – small, dark-haired and softly spoken. We were sitting in an upstairs room flooded with honey-coloured sunlight and uncomfortably warm as a result. I was beginning to wilt. In fact, I had probably wilted and was just hoping nobody had noticed.

She was about to say something that would wake me up in more senses than one.

We went through the usual polite formalities. We weren’t sure whether she would be suitable for so generic a post as she also had chosen, some time previously, to specialise, as it happened in my own area of expertise – rehabilitation and recovery. I asked her some formulaic question about her orientation, sleepily convinced in advance that I would have heard it all before. She’d only been specialised for three years or so after all. She mentioned ACT in the course of a long answer about something else.

During the time we got the something else out of the way, I debated with myself whether to show my ignorance and ask her what ACT was or whether to forget about it as it was not really important, probably, from the point of view of the post currently in question. It would have been so easy to look smart and learn nothing, but something wouldn’t let me. I just had to ask.

‘What’s A.C.T. exactly?’ I enquired as casually as I could, trying to sound as though I really knew but just wanted her to explain. She didn’t look fooled for a minute.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,’ she replied helpfully. She knew what I was doing all right.

Silence.

‘Could you say a bit more about it?’ My follow up after quite a long pause triggered a flurry of foot and paper shuffling among my fellow panellists who were clearly not at all sure where this was going. They’d obviously expected a swift ‘I thought so’ kind of response, followed by some searching expert question.

She gave me a thumbnail sketch which blew me away. How could I not have heard of this before? –  a therapy that combined some of my pet obsessions – existentialism, meditation, metaphor, the nature and effects of suffering, to name but the most obvious that burst like Exocets into my brain as she explained.

She spoke very briefly on each aspect, just enough to press the button that fired the Exocet. The key point for the work we both had in common was the focus of this therapy on getting people unstuck from disabling patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour that were keeping them paralysed.

I couldn’t wait for the interview to get over and check it out on the net and find a book to buy about it. (She didn’t get the job, by the way, but I owe her a lot and she almost certainly doesn’t know that.)

ACT ManualThe book I bought was ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: an experiential approach to behaviour change’ by Hayes, Strohsahl and Wilson. I can’t give the writers a prize for clarity, and they chose to start the book in the thick of a conceptual fog which would have caused anyone less motivated than I was to slip into a coma. However, the ideas I did understand were life-changing and I read the book twice within a week, bored anyone who would listen with its wonders, and bemoaned the fact that it was too late in my career to train in this form of therapy myself. (The manual shown in the picture is a much better starting point for most people.)

Why does this book matter now when I have been retired for nearly three years?

Well, for a start it’s a gateway to some very powerful insights that help me understand my own spiritual tradition more deeply, particularly when we are contemplating the daunting task of community-, society– and civilisationbuilding to which we, as Bahá’ís, are committed in our way along with every other like-minded person on the planet in his or hers. It deals head on with the problems of how to get started and how to keep going in any long-term enactment of values. It’s both wise and practical, draws on both left-brain and right-brain processes, and shows us how we might combine ‘efficiency and love’ in the way our Bahá’í mode of operation requires us to. What it says is rooted in experience and confirms age-old insights from the East that Westerners have found it hard to see as credible. It marries ‘science and soul,’ to adapt Ken Wilber‘s phrasing. Need I go on?

One concept in the book was spot on for the people I worked with. ‘I’ll tackle this stuff when I’m feeling better,’ was a frequent justification for doing nothing. The book makes it very clear that most of the time we won’t feel better until we do something.

How do they arrive at that conclusion and how do they justify the idea that action is in itself transformative and that waiting to transform before you act is not an option?

To answer that we need to look separately at the three components of the name the authors have given to their approach: acceptance, and commitment and the acronym ‘act.’ They decode it as accept, choose and take action (page 81). If I am also going to relate what they say to the processes of community-building I have referred to I will need to save much of this for another post or three.

Hopefully by the time I tackle those posts I will have moved forward even further in my understanding of the most recent message from our central body, from which I quote below in the Commitment section. It is a complex and richly interconnected exposition of what is required of the Bahá’í community at this point. I have, in addition to my own reading and some informal discussion, spent three whole days over two weekends consulting in depth over what it implies about what we should be doing now. I need all the help I can get at unpacking its riches.

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What I will do for now is briefly describe the three central aspects, which won’t even begin to address the major questions adequately.

Acceptance:

What exactly is it that has to be accepted?

They summarise their view as follows on page 78-79:

Reflecting the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous, ACT aims to teach clients how to accept the things that cannot or need not change, and how to change the things that can be changed. Unlike this prayer, ACT provides specific guidance on how to know the difference. . . . . ACT therapists recognise that in the context of making choices and taking actions, automatic reactions will appear. The client who must avoid these reactions must also avoid change. What dignifies acceptance is that it is done in the service of valued change in the client’s external world, not in the world of private experiences.

There will be more to say about the hows, whys and wherefores of that when we look at the specifics in later posts.

Commitment:

Commitment, their model states, determines the choices we make. It is inseparable from our values (page 210):

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

Helping people become clearer about their values is a key component of their therapeutic process. Helping people understand that the enacting of what they value is more conducive to their feeling fulfilled than the achievement of any specific goal is another: this emphasis on process is one that is becoming evermore explicit in the Bahá’í approach.

. . . . a significant advance in culture, one which we have followed with particular interest, is marked by the rise in capacity to think in terms of process. That, from the outset, the believers have been asked to be ever conscious of the broad processes that define their work is apparent from a careful reading of even the earliest communications of the Guardian related to the first national plans of the Faith. However, in a world focused increasingly on the promotion of events, or at best projects, with a mindset that derives satisfaction from the sense of expectation and excitement they generate, maintaining the level of dedication required for long-term action demands considerable effort.

(Universal House of Justice: 28 December 2010)

This leads to a willingness to accept, rather than fight or flee from, the challenging, uncomfortable and often protracted experiences that lead to enduring and significant change – an all-important skill in their view.

Action:

Even making strong commitments to action does not guarantee action (page 245). The values you have decided to commit to may not be truly yours but ones imposed from outside by society. You may be holding onto and rationalising a block that needs to be worked through.  Maybe it’s too big a step at this point and you need to practice the skills you need on something smaller. In the end, though, there has to be a willingness to overcome obstacles (page 247):

Many clients have long-standing and strongly reinforced avoidance repertoires that can be expected to reappear. . . . . . [T]he client’s job is not just to determine a direction but to reaffirm that direction when obstacles appear. . . . . [W]hen we are travelling in a particular direction, the journey can take us across difficult ground. . . . [W]e don’t walk into pain because we like pain. We walk through the pain in the service of taking a valued direction.

Spirituality:

Before we leave this lightning overview it’s perhaps worth mentioning how ACT sees spirituality (page 275):

Spirituality as a mode of intervention is highly valued in ACT. Spirituality does not necessarily imply the use of organised religion or even theistic beliefs, but rather a view of the world that recognises a transcendent quality to human experience, acknowledges the universal aspects of the human condition, and respects the client’s values and choices.

The rest will have to wait.

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In the spirit of what I wrote in the previous post I needed to check with my holistic self whether I was on the right track with this next post. I got the cryptic hint ‘diaries.’ Again I was tempted to bin the suggestion. After a short period of reflection I decided to take a look at my oldest diary to see if there was anything worth remembering there. There was a lot – too much for now – so I’ll just share one relevant insight. Good advice though from my right brain.

In December 1975 I wrote in that diary, ‘Violence and lies[1] are the twin pillars of our temple of exploitation, power, inhumanity, barbarism and self-destruction. Only without lies and without violence, can we win a free society against an enslaved one – the best in our civilisation derives from truth and charity. But in a world of power and wealth how does truth win without murder and charity prevail without deceit? What are our weapons?’

These kinds of questions haunted me almost completely unanswered until December 1982 when I discovered the Bahá’í perspective which helped me make sense of the fragmented insights I had stumbled across until then, and to find further gems of understanding that strengthened my grip on the value of the path I had chosen to tread from that point on.

This, the final post in this sequence, will attempt to convey some of the most important of those insights in terms of achieving the inner unity essential to our being able to work effectively towards healing the divisions in the society surrounding us. It’s not going to be easy.

Why is inner unity so important?

While I may resonate strongly to the exhortation of Bahá’u’lláh in the Hidden Words, which convey to me the imperative necessity of becoming united within ourselves, not all may see them as so powerfully compelling. He wrote:

Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.

Jean Hardy in her excellent book A Psychology with a Soul helps move some way towards understanding why this truth matters. She refers[2] to Roberto Assagioli’s key concept as synthesis:

This is the understanding that at the individual level, at the level of the group, society and the world as a whole, we are fragmented socially and spiritually.

However, quoting Martin Buber and then U Thant, she explains that[3] ‘The world of humanity is meant to become a single body,’ and ‘we cannot end the war between nations unless we end the war in the hearts of man.’

Towards the end of her book she expresses the core truth succinctly:[4]

. . . the possibility of redemption for the world and the possibility of redemption for each person were part of the same process; one could not happen without the other.

For her and Assagioli these are reciprocally reinforcing and absolutely essential processes concerned with[5] ‘recognizing and working with the fragmented parts of the great whole, whether they are subpersonalities or nations, and working with these parts in the context of [a] larger perspective.’ As a result ‘it becomes increasingly clear… that we are part of a personal, social and spiritual whole and how lethal the present fragmentation is.’

The Genuine Value of the Higher Self

When I was exploring Jeremy Rifkin’s brilliant exposure of the destructive dynamics of our civilisation I was made very aware of how crucial it is that we have some source of inspiration that will enable us to make the prolonged and arduous efforts required to transcend our divisive limitations and work in as sufficiently sustained way to save ourselves from self-destruction. Rifkin’s solution to meeting this need is outlined when he begins to explain his full model:[6]

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

If we could extend our compassion of compassion and our sense of identity to embrace the planet earth and all the life forms that inhabit it, he feels, we would have the necessary motivation to do what is needed for long enough and diligently enough to rescue our selves and all life on earth.

It might possibly enable us to transcend our inner and outer divisions sufficiently to save the planet.

I am still left with two questions:

  • Would we be even more effective if we believed in a transcendent reality of which this world is just a pale reflection?
  • Is our Western mind’s denial of this possibility, rooted as it is in a dogmatic materialism that embraces competition rather than co-operation and acquisition rather than sharing, more likely to undermine such efforts, delaying their efficacy and prolonging the agony, if it is not uprooted and replaced by a deeper warrant for protracted sacrifice and service than the planet can provide?

Some people, but only too small a minority in my view, would be sufficiently empowered by the idea of Gaia alone. Most of us wouldn’t. We need something more, but does something more exist?

The Mind/Brain issue

Unfortunately, it is impossible to prove (or disprove, as well of course) the existence of a God. Fortunately, though, there is strong evidence, for those who can be bothered to examine it dispassionately, that should be sufficient to convince most of us that the mind is not reducible to the brain, and that life is possible after the death of the brain.

There are many posts on this theme throughout this blog. I’ll just quote briefly here from the most recent one, focusing on the work of Bruce Greyson.

First there is his wake up call.

Fifty years ago, at the start of his career in psychiatry, Greyson’s default scepticism received a resounding blow. A patient called Holly had seen a conversation he’d had with her flat mate, Susan, in another room while she was still unconscious after a probable overdose. The torpedo point, in terms of his scepticism about such phenomena, was that she had seen a stain on his tie from the spaghetti he’d splashed in his haste to respond to the emergency call he’d received in the staff canteen.

The impact of this improbable incident wouldn’t relinquish its grip on his mind:[7]

. . . through all those years, in the back of my mind, were the nagging questions about the mind and the brain that Holly raised with her knowledge of that stain on my tie. My personal need as a sceptic to follow the evidence kept me from closing my eyes to events like that – events that seemed impossible – and led me on a journey to study them scientifically.

In the end, he managed to move from denial to a kind of scepticism more conducive to a genuinely scientific approach. He explains the reasoning behind that shift:[8]

Far from leading us away from science and into superstition, NDE research actually shows that by applying the methods of science to the non-physical aspects of our world, we can describe reality much more accurately than if we limit our science to nothing but physical matter and energy.

The purpose of his book is[9] ‘to show that science and spirituality are compatible, that being spiritual doesn’t require you to abandon science.’ And he defends himself against the a priori attack that some scientists make on the very idea of exploring such a topic by arguing that[10] ‘what makes an investigation scientific is not the topic being studied. What makes an investigation scientific is whether it’s based on rigorous observations, on evidence, and on sound reasoning. In support of that he quotes the neuroscientist Mark Leary: “The fact that some people do not believe that a phenomenon is real does not make research on that phenomenon pseudoscientific.”

The shift in his position is clear,[11] ‘I knew that immersing myself in near-death experiences was pushing me to grow and changing my view of the mind and the brain and who we really are as human beings.’ He ended up in a very different place from where he started:[12]

I don’t have any alternative explanation of the evidence. We may eventually come up with another explanation, but until then, minds and brains as separate things, with brains acting to filter our thoughts and feelings, seems to be the most plausible working model.

Jean Hardy seems to feel that such possibilities might be enough. She quotes Peter Russell in support of this:[13]

The problem of the person is the problem of evil and suffering on the earth. If we lived from our souls rather than from our personalities, ‘we would begin to feel for the rest of the world in much the same way as we feel for our bodies. This would almost certainly have a profound effect on how we treat the environment.’

John Rowan appears to be singing from much the same hymn sheet, quoting Frances Vaughan (née Clark – 1977):[14]

The concept of the transpersonal self as that centre of pure awareness which simultaneously transcends and observes conflicts at the level of ego and personality is useful here in giving a point of reference for the newly awakened sense of self (1977).

Before I begin to address the challenge of how we might access our ‘transpersonal self’ I need to briefly address what I suspect may be what causes some readers to stop reading. An eloquent exponent of the kind of scepticism that might trigger such a reaction is  Guy Claxton, for example in his book The Wayward Mind. He has a lot to share about the mind that is valuable, but not ideas like this, I think:[15]

This figment of the human imagination – the immortal, animating, conscious soul – neatly mops up quite a few of the core mysteries of human existence, and provides a measure of reassurance, in the midst of all kinds of seemingly chaotic and senseless events. Not least, the fear of death is mitigated by the belief that it is not, after all, The End. Immortality also helps with the blatant conundrum of inequity. The vicissitudes of life make a mockery of any simplistic belief in fairness. Bad deeds go unpunished; tyrants frequently prosper; the virtuous get cancer and their children go off the rails for no apparent reason.… Life after death helps to even up the score: to preserve faith in ultimate fairness – in two ways. It holds out the promise that virtue will be rewarded, and evil punished, in the ‘afterlife’.

He speaks with an unwarranted level of certainty bordering on arrogance. If that was all that could be said in favour of an afterlife then wish fulfilment might be a fair description of the attempt.

Theodicy, I admit, is a problem for believers in a compassionate and omnipotent God. I’ve struggled with it myself in An Angle on Suffering. My conclusion partly maps onto the position he mocks:

In the end though . . . any consideration of suffering that fails to include a reality beyond the material leaves us appalled at what would seem the pointless horror of the pain humanity endures not only from nature but also from its own hands

What Claxton fails to even begin to address is the wealth of carefully collected evidence that calls into question any purely material explanation for consciousness. The mind is simply not reducible to the brain, as the excellent collection of evidence testifies in Irreducible Mind and also in Bruce Greyson’s book, to which I have already referred. While this does not constitute absolute proof for the existence of an immortal soul it certainly requires any materialist with genuine scientific credentials to admit that uncertainty is in this case the best policy by far. To believe there is no soul is as much an act of faith as to believe there definitely is one.

I’ve inserted this preamble at this point in the hope that sceptics will be encouraged to continue reading what might seem an unforgivably flaky conclusion to this sequence.

So let’s pick up the threads.

This newly awakened self, described by Frances Vaughan, enables us to lift ourselves to higher levels of understanding and action. The question then becomes how do we bypass the filter of the brain, how do we learn to wake up?

How to Gain Greater Access to the Higher Self

We’ve been here before many times on this blog, so I don’t intend to labour it here.

John Rowan roots the best means of beginning to access our higher selves in a form of meditation. In the first edition of his book he terms it ‘the Facilitative Way’[16] which ‘both Wilber and Southgate say [is where] real change and development can take place.’ It is basically Vipassana meditation, the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices, which involves observing your thoughts and emotions as they are, without judging or dwelling on them.

In his second edition he quotes Frances Vaughan again (1977) to explain the stages of development that begin with the Facilitative Way:[17]

Three distinct stages can be distinguished in the process of awakening to one’s transpersonal identity. The first stage could be called the stage of identification, characterised by the development of self-awareness… The second stage of transpersonal awakening, in contrast to the first stage of self identification, is one of disidentification… [. . . Psychosynthesis has a good deal to say about this.] The third stage of transpersonal awakening is one of self transcendence… At this stage the concept of a transpersonal self or witness may also be dropped.

Which in effect brings us back to what I have already dealt with in some detail in this sequence (link) so I won’t rehearse it all again. The only other point I feel is worth adding to the insights is derived from my understanding of the quote I’ve previously used from Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words:

Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.

Without the kind of detachment that disidentification/reflection can help us to achieve we will be unable to connect with others constructively enough to fix the problems that we face collectively at this challenging time. Even at the most basic level, without this capacity to reflect, we cannot set aside our prejudices sufficiently to consult effectively. We can’t creatively compare our different understandings in a way that will enable us to enhance our collective understanding. We’ll be too attached to our own perspective to listen carefully enough to any point of view that differs significantly from it.

Paul Lample explains it like this:[18]

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.

Then, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, this will show us ‘that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’[19] He also emphasises that detachment, of the kind I have attempted to describe, is one of the essential prerequisites to the effective use of consultation. Which is why, as Lample explains, ‘‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’[20]

In the end, the purpose of this sequence has been to try and convey that the road to a better self is also the road to a better world for everyone, for every living creature and for every plant as well in fact. The more people climb on board the better the chance we will have of turning things round in time and saving the earth which is our home.

Heaven only knows whether or not it has succeeded!

Footnote and References

[1]. This reference to ‘violence and lies’ may seem to have been inspired by a remark by Chekhov in a letter of October 1888 to Aleksey Nikolayevich when he included in his list of ‘my holy of holies’, ‘freedom from force and falsehood.’ However, this seemed unlikely because it was a few days later in my diary that I expressed my perplexity at reading such a closely related sentiment for the first time in my recently purchased copy of Avrahm Yarmolinsky’s Letters of Anton Chekhov. Just now, I tracked down a New York Times article of 1973 reviewing two editions of his letters – the one I had by Yarmolinsky and the other by Michael Henry Heim, edited by Simon Karlinsky. The quote from the latter text reads in the immediate context, ‘Chekhov mistrusted abstractions, rejected stereotypes, hated fanaticism and loved life. As he said in a letter dated Oct. 4, 1888: “My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter to take.”’ I’m now fairly sure I must have come across that exact phrasing somewhat earlier than 1975.
[2]. A Psychology with a Soul – page 86.
[3]. Op. cit. – page 92.
[4]. Op. cit. – page 209.
[5]. Op. cit. – pages 209-11.
[6]. The Empathic Civilization – page 154.
[7]. After – page 9.
[8]. Op. cit. – page 11.
[9]. Op. cit. – page 12.
[10]. Op. cit. – page 91.
[11]. Op. cit. – page 207.
[12]. Op. cit. – page 220.
[13]. A Psychology with a Soul – page 215.
[14] The Transpersonal (First Edition) – page 89.
[15] The Wayward Mind – page 68.
[16]. The Transpersonal (First Edition) – pages 82-83.
[17]. The Transpersonal (Second Edition) – page 115.
[18]. Revelation and Social Realitypage 215.
[19]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá cited in a letter written by Shoghi Effendi, to the National Spiritual Assembly of Persia, 15 February 1922.
[20]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 212.

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