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Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

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

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the second of three. The first came out on Monday: the last will come out tomorrow.

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

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, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

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Fragrance in the Dust

For source of image see link

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O SON OF THE SUPREME! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendour. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom?

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No 32)

cafetiereCan it be true that if someone threatens your worldview it reminds you of your mortality? And the same with self-esteem? Does it explain why a sociopath could kill someone for not showing respect and why one society will seek to destroy another’s culture? Such extreme reactions seem to require an explanation at least as extreme.

Maybe I’ve found one – or maybe not.

A week or so ago I dropped the glass of my cafetière into the sink with predictable results. It died in pieces rather than in peace.

I wasn’t too upset. It was only the second time I’ve ever smashed a cafetière. I coped reasonably well for that week, making coffee in a plastic jug and trapping the grains in a tea strainer when I poured it into my mug. Not much grief there really. It would have been slightly embarrassing if we’d had guests, but none materialised in that time fortunately.

I kept popping into cook shops looking without success for a metal cafetière, until finally I picked up a cheap glass one – the kind that doesn’t let you take the glass out of the plastic frame. In fact there is a clear warning on the bottom telling you not to do so. My half-hearted effort to do exactly what I shouldn’t in the shop was fortunately unsuccessful.

I was standing in the kitchen making my first cup of coffee with this reincarnated cafetière when an explosion of relief and exhilaration burst inside my head. No, it was not because I had a working cafetière again. It was because a penny of insight, which had been dropping from a great height for what might well have been years, chose finally to hit the ground of consciousness. I was so relieved I was close to tears.

Why there and why then I have simply no idea, except that I have been reading constantly this last couple of weeks about death, psychosis and spirituality. Oh, and I had dreamt about my father the previous night: as much of my poetry shows this is something which could have helped trigger the insight that followed later in the day.

Reading in the Park

Put perhaps too simply, I not only continued to understand that most if not all mental health problems have crucially important spiritual dimensions, but that there is a core element of that which is particularly important. Maybe I was so moved because this core element has been a lifelong companion. Perhaps I was so blind to it for so long because I was too close to see it, or else it was too familiar to be noticed.

What is this element?

Death!

My lifelong companion and sometime muse.

It’s not the only factor behind these spiritual dimensions, but it’s a crucial one. An extreme inability to come to terms with death – and its children, trauma, pain and suffering – creates what Solomon et al call ‘cracks in [our] shields’ (The Worm at the Core – pp 185 passim). This in turn, as they unpack, brings all kinds of destruction in its wake.

I didn’t like their book much when I had finished reading it well over a week ago now. Too reductionist, I thought. But now something had changed. My unconscious had clearly been doing its own thinking since I finished reading it, and come to a very different assessment of their work.

Yes, they seem to rubbish religion at times, but – and it’s an important ‘but’ – they accurately capture an essential problem. They may see faith as a false fix, as in a way everything is in their eyes, but they pin down exactly one thing that needs fixing, almost above all else perhaps, and demonstrate that how we choose to fix it can lead to dire or delightful consequences.

We have ‘clumsy modes of dealing with terror,’ they quote Yalom as stating (page 190). Unless we establish a firm enough foundation of meaning and a strong enough platform of self to stand upon, death, or rather our fear of death, will always unground us, pathologise our minds – narcissism, anxiety, depression, psychosis, OCD, anorexia (and maybe psychopathy; I’ll have to ponder more on that) are according to them at least partially rooted in a failure of meaning and selfhood in the face of death.

Solomon et al insist on saying ‘self-esteem’ albeit in a healthy rather than an unhealthy sense: I wish they didn’t.

I prefer selfhood for reasons that will become fully apparent in subsequent posts, I hope. For now I’ll shorthand it by quoting a dictionary definition: ‘a complete sense of self.’ A complete sense of self, for me, has to go far beyond anything that makes me more important than anyone or anything else, and has to recognise how whatever I am is connected in some way to the universe as a whole and to all forms of life and life support within it. When I damage you or them, I damage me.

They bring various kinds of evidence into the mix, usually studies showing, for example, that exposure to death stimuli results in higher levels of intolerance for those who are ‘different’ in some way, or in greater use of alcohol or tobacco.

In their summary of ‘psychological disorders as terror mismanagement’ (page 190) the kind of evidence Solomon et al adduce includes a significant link at times between death-anxiety and psychosis (page 191):

One study of 205 hospitalised schizophrenic man found that 80 patients were overtly preoccupied with death, and that death fears coincided with the onset of the schizophrenic symptoms or with times when the symptoms were magnified.

They argue that ‘[s]ubject to bouts of overwhelming terror, schizophrenics construct imaginary worlds – which are as real to them as this book is to you – to counteract the dread.’

In spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I have to admit they are making an important point. More on that next Thursday.

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Pam reynold's surgeryIs it just a question of faith?

I ended the previous post with a question: why should the existence or not of an afterlife matter to you if you don’t believe it, even if it matters to me who does. Why on earth should you consider believing what I believe?

Let’s see if we can make some progress on that one.

Some people believe there is an afterlife and I am now one of them, though it was one of the more difficult things I had to accept when I investigated the spiritual life. After all why should beings so imperfect have an immortal soul? We hardly seemed entitled to such a privilege. To be honest, as a former atheist, I found it easier to believe in God than in an immortal soul.

The Bahá’í Faith is clear on the issue:

The soul is not a combination of elements, it is not composed of many atoms, it is of one indivisible substance and therefore eternal. It is entirely out of the order of the physical creation; it is immortal!

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks: pages 90-91)

It is also clear that how we live now will affect the kind of afterlife we have. This is to do with how well we have fed our souls. When our spirit goes from the narrow womb of this world to the vast expanses of the next we will need all our spiritual faculties in the best possible order if we are to cope.

And just as, if human life in the womb were limited to that uterine world, existence there would be nonsensical, irrelevant — so too if the life of this world, the deeds here done and their fruitage, did not come forth in the world beyond, the whole process would be irrational and foolish.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: No. 156)

I needed help with coming to terms with this improbable hypothesis and found it hard to take it simply on trust, though I did try.

I’m going to be basing a strong case to support the idea that beliefs in transcendence and the afterlife are the strongest possible motivators to building a better world. There is a problem with that though as an argument to defeat people who are sceptical. They could concede the point while still saying that there is no afterlife. There are many examples we could draw on to support the view that mistaken beliefs can be very motivating indeed. People have died and been killed for them – in fact are still dying and being killed. If the only difference is that one person’s belief wreaks havoc while the other one’s creed enhances life, we haven’t moved all that far in terms of truth value: just because a belief seems benign doesn’t make it true.

So if this pragmatic argument were the best one going in support of transcendence and the existence of an afterlife, we’d have to say that the case was at least one wing short of a complete aeroplane! Even high levels of positive usefulness, after all, do not prove truth.

So, before we move in more deeply to the implications for our society of a belief or lack of it in transcendence and the afterlife, it seems a good idea to tackle the evidence issue from another angle.

Black swan bookA Black Swan: the Case of Pam Reynolds

Is there really no evidence for an afterlife and/or the value of transcendence other than indirect and inconclusive notions of how it is better for our society if you believe it than if you don’t?

I think there is. We need to start with the black swan problem.

Taleb has used this as the title for his extremely relevant guide to the inevitability of the market crashes which continue to astonish us despite all the evidence confirming their eventual recurrence, but that is not the point for now.

It’s to Karl Popper that we need to turn. He originated the term in a discussion about falsifiability. If you assert that all swans are white, you cannot prove it even by discovering an extremely long sequence of white swans. You can though falsify it. One black swan will sink the theory.

The same can be said of mind/brain independence. I accept that a near death experience (NDE) which happens to involve the mind apparently functioning without any support at all from the brain does not absolutely prove there is life after death, but it is a necessary if not sufficient condition for maintaining that belief. I believe that this necessary condition has possibly been fulfilled at least once under completely controlled conditions. I think it may constitute a black swan for those that say an afterlife can be ruled out as completely impossible.

What is this black swan?

In Atlanta Georgia, the case of Pam Reynolds was investigated in the 1990s by Dr Michael Sabom (page 184 passim). His account is incorporated into a wider discussion of NDEs by David Fontana, a professor of psychology, in his book “Is There an Afterlife?”. Sabom states, and the surgical team corroborates it, that Pam was fully instrumented, under constant medical observation and completely unconscious as indicated for part of the time by the flatline EEG (a measure of brain activity: flatline would mean no brain activity at all that would support consciousness). It was as close to a controlled experiment as we are ever likely to get, he said on a television documentary on NDEs some time later. The surgical procedure she needed required a complete shut down of brain and heart activity in order safely to operate on an aneurysm at the base of the brain.

None the less, after being anaesthetised for 90 minutes but not as the video suggested when she was flatlined, she accurately observed aspects of the surgical procedure which were either a departure from what would have been the standard order of events or had unusual features, such as the bizarre appearance of the “saw” used, of which she could have had no prior knowledge. The surgeon in the case, and others who commented such as Peter Fenwick, felt that the usual methods of registering visual perceptions and memories in the brain would certainly have been  unavailable to her and could offer no explanation of how she could have subsequently had access to the experiences she described.

There is a huge literature on NDEs which many people with a materialist perspective refuse to inspect on the grounds that no amount of evidence can prove the impossible. This is scientism, not science, and I would urge everyone, no matter how sceptical, to investigate this thoroughly for themselves. The arguments parroted by so many that NDEs are the results of material causes such as anoxia or drugs just don’t stand up in this case (or in many others, according to Peter Fenwick).

What is of additional interest here is that the investigations of Ken Ring plainly indicate that NDEs are life transforming. His list of the changes they induce includes: appreciation for life, concern for others, reverence for life, antimaterialism, anticompetitiveness, spirituality, sense of purpose, and belief in God (pages 125-127). These are all things that we will hopefully come back to in more detail in the lifetime of this blog (though for some people it may already seem to have gone on far too long).

That list of Ring’s is a very significant one that paves the way for the next more pragmatic approach to the issue of why it should matter to everyone, why everyone needs to investigate carefully before they jump to the conclusion that an afterlife is impossible. A sense of the transcendent allied to a belief in life after death does seem to create a different more life- and community-enhancing pattern of behaviour in the individual who possesses them.

Time for a break, I think: more on that next time.

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Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) Image scanned from 'The Centenary Pessoa.

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) Image scanned from ‘The Centenary Pessoa.’

Gottfried Benn said: ‘No one, not even the greatest poets of our time, has left more than eight or ten perfect poems . . For six poems, thirty or fifty years’ asceticism, suffering, battle!’

(A Centenary Pessoa edited by Eugénio Lisboa & L. C. Taylor – page 18)

. . . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-BaháSection 36)

For the first time since I read him in the late 90s, this September I was triggered to go back to Fernando Pessoa by reference to his multiple personalities in Immortal Remains by Stephen E Braude (page 170):

Apparently, Pessoa considers the heteronyms to be expressions of an inherent and deeply divided self. In fact, one of the principal themes of Pessoa’s poetry is the obscure and fragmentary nature of personal identity.

I resonate strongly to much that Pessoa writes. I’m not sure I can explain this fully but this is my best attempt.

Pessoa himself clarifies exactly what he meant by heteronym (A Centenary Pessoa – page 133):

A pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; the heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama would be.

I occasionally notice that I am talking to myself as though I were somebody else, and I don’t mean the usual split second outburst of ‘You idiot!’ when I’ve made a stupid mistake. I mean a more measured tone. For instance, I was about to heat some milk in a cup with a metallic glaze.

‘Don’t do that, my friend,’ I said. ‘It’ll upset the microwave.’

It’s possible I do this more often than I notice. We’re probably all in the same boat to some extent.

Even so, and even including my Parliament of Selves problem, this is small beer compared with what Fernando Pessoa had to contend with or benefited from, depending on your point of view, but it helps explain at least part of his fascination for me. Apparently, over his entire life he created 72 characters in what he called (page 125) ‘the intimate theatre of the self,’ many of them ‘vividly alive and themselves creative.’

Michael Hamburger quotes him as saying (The Truth of Poetry – page 139):

Each group of imperceptibly related states of mind thus becomes a personality with a style of its own and feelings that may differ from the poet’s own typical emotional experiences, or may even be diametrically opposed to them.

Hamburger also tellingly points out (page 145) that ‘Fernando Pessoa’s disguises were assumed out of the conviction that poetry is more true than the poet.’ On this same theme he adds (page 147):

It is the feelings of the empirical self which poetry enlarges, complements or even replaces with fictitious ones, but only because the empirical self is not the whole self, cramped as it is in its shell of convention, habit and circumstance. Pessoa’s disguises did not impair his truthfulness because he uses them not to hoodwink others, but to explore reality and establish the full identity of his multiple, potential selves.

Image from 'The Centenary Pessoa'

Image from ‘The Centenary Pessoa’

There are other factors at work though in fuelling my interest.

Pessoa is a deeply unsettling poet, as his most powerful poems testify, and in a way that has echoes of my own disquiet with the dark side of existence.

He uses his heteronyms to say what might be otherwise unsayable for him. As Ricardo Reis, for example, he writes (page 69):

I have heard tell that once when Persia was
At war – I don’t know which –
As the invading City burnt its way
And all the women screamed,
There were two players at a game of chess
Who went on with their game.

And he makes absolutely sure that we know exactly what this means:

Houses were burnt, and brought to rack and ruin
Was every arch and wall,
Women were raped and then propped up against
Collapsing masonry
To be run through with spears, their children were
Pools of blood in the streets . . .

And the players carry on playing even though ‘the desert wind brought messages/To them of screams and cries’ that they knew for sure were from their wives and daughters. The poem appears to celebrate this callous preoccupation with the ‘useless joy. . . . of playing a good game.’

We know this is not Pessoa’s own view. It is one ‘diametrically opposed’ to what he really thinks. Octavio Paz, in his introduction to A Centenary Pessoa, lists what he feels are Pessoa’s particular contributions (page 17) to ‘spiritual understanding, the highest and most difficult form of understanding:’ these are ‘sympathy; intuition; intelligence; comprehension; and the most difficult, grace.’ Not then an attitude likely to agree with Reis and his chess players.

The freedom from the restraint of his own perspective that Reis gives him enables him to produce a deeply disturbing experience for the reader of a particularly conscious and deliberate variation of the callous indifference we see almost everywhere that colludes with atrocity by means of distraction. To write a sermonising polemic would not have been half as effective.

In the persona of Álvaro de Campos we see the same problem from quite another angle in Martial Ode, where he conveys how it feels to be implicated in atrocity even if only by our failure to prevent it (page 107):

Yes, I was to blame for it all, I was the soldier – all of them –
Who killed, raped, and smashed,
I and my shame and my remorse with a misshapen shadow
Walked all over the world like Ahasueros[1]

His sense of exile also resonates with me (page 94):

I go to the window and see the street as an absolute clarity.
I see the shops, I see the pavements, I see passing cars,
I see living beings in clothes in each other’s way,
I see dogs that also exist,
And all this weighs on me like being condemned to exile,
I know this is foreign, like everything.

This is rooted in different aspects of his life than mine, as he was twice uprooted during the crucial years of identity development and something so radical has never been my test, but even so I tend to stand emotionally at the edge of things and watch almost but not quite from the outside. My sister’s death before I was born, which haunted my earliest years, and the two hospitalisations before I went to school, were my prompts towards cautious alienation, which it has taken decades to undo, albeit partially.

Perhaps that’s why I also empathise strongly with the sense of emptiness he so powerfully conveys. His poems testify to the challenging problem for him of deciding who he was (page 94):

My heart is an empty bucket.
As those who call up spirits I call up
Myself and there is nothing there.

This obviously relates to the multiple identities he created to express aspects of his being. It also foreshadows the increasing awareness as the century progressed of the uncertainty that surrounds our identity, how multifaceted it seems and yet how elusive is any sense of a core Self, a ground of being, upon which we can stand more securely to confront the tests of experience.

My exploration of psychosis and spirituality may be shedding further light on this problem (Neil Douglas Klotz in Psychosis and Spirituality edited by Isabel Clarke – page 60):

Without [a] gathering or witnessing awareness, which is intimately tied up with the body’s proprioceptive awareness, the subconscious self . . . splits into a multiplicity of discordant voices forgetful of the divine Unity (the source of all ‘I am-ness’).

I am still only a short way into my re-exploration of this complex and powerful poet, whose lonely existence, rendered tolerable but also significantly shortened by alcohol, echoes so hauntingly across the decades between us.

I may return to this theme after I have gone further in my exploration of psychosis. I’ve tried not to let this interest in Pessoa distract me too much from that task and it may be more closely linked than I had at first suspected. It’s hard to keep so many keen interests in balance!

Footnote:

[1] Ahasueros: biblical tyrant, husband of Esther.

He wasn’t there again today v3

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Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is Distinct for Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is Distinct from Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

The British Psychological Society (BPS) has stated that ‘clients and the general public are negatively affected by the continued and continuous medicalisation of their natural and normal responses to their experiences; responses which undoubtedly have distressing consequences … but which do not reflect illnesses so much as normal individual variation… This misses the relational context of problems and the undeniable social causation of many such problems’. The BPS Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP) has explicitly criticised the current systems of psychiatric diagnosis such as DSM–5 and ICD–10. It has suggested that we need ‘a paradigm shift in relation to the experiences that these diagnoses refer to, towards a conceptual system not based on a ‘disease’ model’.

(From Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia published by the BPS – page 28)

What has this to do with EMS?

EMS stands for Everybody Means Something. My work as a clinical psychologist was with people who were experiencing what our culture calls a psychosis. When I started work in the NHS most people felt that these experiences were meaningless. I disagreed. I found myself using those three words as a kind of mantra to remind myself of my conviction. It was a no-brainer to use them as the title for my blog.

Various experiences reinforced my scepticism about the medical model with its prevailing assumption that such experiences are largely biologically determined. I came increasingly to believe it was significantly incomplete, possibly seriously flawed.

Before I move onto psychosis in particular there is a story from my earlier experiences in clinical psychology, which served to reinforce my scepticism and which clearly illustrates how this default assumption can operate as a potentially damaging blinker.

Laura had been given a diagnosis of endogenous depression, ie one that was not explicable in terms of her life situation. She used to believe that her parents were more or less perfect. The work we were doing became very stuck and seemed to be going nowhere.

We had plateaued on bleak and distressing terrain, more tolerable than her previous habitat but too unwelcoming to live on comfortably for the rest of her life, and yet with no detectable path towards more hospitable ground.

Frustrated by the protracted lack of movement, I began to see discharge as a very attractive option. I discussed this with my peer supervision group. We decided that I should continue with the processes of exploration but make sure that I did not continue my habit of stepping in relatively early to rescue her in sessions from her frequent experiences of intense distress. I continued to see her, having agreed with Laura that I would allow her to sink right into the “heart of darkness” in order to explore it more fully and understand it more clearly. The very next session, when we first put this plan into action, after I had left her alone in her silence for something like half an hour, Laura came to a powerful realisation at the heart of a very intense darkness. She said: “I think my mother threw me away even before I was born.”

This paved the way for deeper and more fruitful explorations of the reality of her childhood, the nature of which I will come back to later in this sequence of posts.

Since I started this blog almost eight years ago now, my interests have ranged widely across many topics, and psychosis has only featured in a relatively small number of posts. Decluttering has triggered me back into my fascination with ‘psychosis’ as the recent posts on out-of-the-ordinary-experiences illustrates.

When I trawled through my backlog of journals I found no other article dealing with that topic. On the web as a whole my most important find is a book edited by Isabel Clarke titled Spirituality & Psychosis which touches on it in places. I will need to buy a copy of that and read it carefully before I can even begin to comment, but the Chapter headings and their authors on the Google version certainly whetted my appetite. How could I resist a book dealing with two of my favourite obessions?

I have found a few other titles on related themes via the British Psychological Society website and it is on three key papers from among those that I wish to focus now.

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is on a continuum with Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

Graph of the Model that states Psychosis is on a continuum with Normal Functioning (Source: The route to psychosis by Dr Emmanuelle Peters)

We’re on a Continuum

Bethany L. Leonhardt et al, right from the beginning of their article[1] arguing that psychosis is understandable as a human experience (page 36), ask us to regard the symptoms of psychosis ‘as part an active meaning-making process, regardless of whether or not that meaning is adaptive.’

They explore how the use of literature, particularly novels, can help those who work with people who are having psychotic experiences tune into their predicament more empathetically. As a result of their use of this method, they offer some interesting perspectives.

For example, (page 47) they ‘suggest that exposure to novels and related literary genres may help prevent therapists from surrendering to the view that psychosis is not understandable as anything other than a collection of abstract symptoms or from infantilizing patients by offering of paternalistic direction or protection from life demands.’

As we have seen in the previous sequence on out-of-the-ordinary experiences (OOEs), the attitudes of others has a powerful effect upon how well or how badly a person is able to deal with their bizarre and often frightening experiences. An assumption that what people have experienced is meaningless is at best patronising and at worst confrontational and undermining. One of my own early observations was that most of the clients I saw were expecting me to dismiss everything they were saying, either by ignoring it, refusing to discuss it in any way that resembles their own terms or by frankly rubbishing and pathologising it. They seemed both surprised and relieved when I did my best to engage with them in an attempt to understand it, which is of course not the same as endorsing everything they told me as objectively true. It was though a way of taking what they said seriously and respectfully. For a fuller explanation of my approach click on the posts listed below.

On the occasions where I was unable to sustain this at a sufficiently high level I risked damaging the relationship. I can remember one such occasion. A client was convinced that the devil was plotting against him and kept bringing forward the evidence he thought proved it. My approach clearly aroused his suspicions as to my beliefs about the devil, and he repeatedly pushed me to disclose what my own beliefs were. After several repetitions of this over a number of sessions I concluded that my holding back was blocking further progress. I made the mistake of letting him know that I thought that the devil had no objective existence but was a metaphor to explain evil. He discontinued therapy at that point.

In retrospect I realised that I could have given a more authentic response from a deeper level of my thinking and stated that, while for practical purposes in my own life I did not operate on the assumption that the devil existed, I had to admit that there was no way I could dogmatically state or absolutely prove that he didn’t: agnosticism on that point would have been a better and perhaps more honest answer. Though I may have failed this client, I learnt something very helpful for future interactions.

Equally importantly, Leonhardt et (ibid) ‘acknowledge that our views largely draw on the idea that psychosis can be understood as existing along the continuum of human experience. Our use of novels and related literary genres indeed seems predicated on the idea that individuals experiencing psychosis are not inherently different from anyone else, and that some of the strangest and most bewildering experiences can be made sense of while reading literature and engaging in other reflective activities.’

This ability to find ways of empathically recognising that psychosis is a point on a dimension we all share in some way is a key requirement of a true understanding of what psychosis is in my view.

Next time I will explore the role of trauma in the formation of psychosis.

Related Posts

An Approach to Psychosis (1/6): Mind-Work & Trust
An Approach to Psychosis (2/6): Surfaces & Depths
An Approach to Psychosis (3/6): Complicating Factors
An Approach to Psychosis (4/6): The Mind-Work Process (a)
An Approach to Psychosis (5/6): The Mind-Work Process (b)
An Approach to Psychosis (6/6): Fitting It All Together

References:

[1] The article was published in the American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 69, No. 1, 2015.

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A particularly shocking demonstration of the limitations of the genetic argument is an epidemiological analysis of the prevalence and incidence of schizophrenia in Nazi Germany, wherein it is estimated between 220,000 and 269,500 citizens with the diagnosis were forcibly sterilized or murdered by the Nazi regime (Read & Masson, 2013; Torrey & Yolken, 2010). Contrary to everything that is known about genetic, heritable conditions, the rates of schizophrenia diagnoses in Germany did not diminish after the war but increased. The analysis showed this atrocity provided proof against the very reasoning used to instigate it.

(The Role of Social Adversity in the Etiology of Psychosis by
Eleanor Longden and John Read – page 11)

schwartzSome time ago on this blog I addressed the issue of neuroplasticity. I shared my frustration at how the neuroscientific community’s resistance to the idea that the mature brain could change had been a damaging doctrine for decades.

As I wrote in 2012, even if you only date the start of a belief in neuroplasticity at 1962 – and there is some evidence it could fairly be backdated earlier than that – 34 years seems a long time to wait for such a clinically vital concept to surface into general practice.

I can testify to that from personal experience. From when I first studied psychology in 1975 until I qualified as a clinical psychologist in 1982, the conventional wisdom was that the adult brain had virtually no capacity to change itself. I cannot exactly remember when it became respectable to doubt that dogma, but I am fairly sure it was well into the 90s. And even then it was a qualified scepticism only. We were into the new century before I became aware of the wide-ranging and radical possibilities that people like Schwartz have written about.

It is horrifying to contemplate the human cost of such resolute intransigence in the face of compelling data.

I have expressed equal frustration, if not more, at the obdurate dogmatism with which mainstream materialistic science denies validity to spiritual experiences of almost any kind.

Not even once in my entire experience of being taught psychology did I ever hear of Frederick William Henry Myers, a resolute explorer of the borderland between mind and spirit. The closest encounter I ever had of this kind was with William James. He was mentioned in asides with a dismissive and grudging kind of respect. The implication was that he was an amazing thinker for his time but nowadays very much old hat. I gave him a quick glance and moved on.

Looking back now I realise I was robbed.

Irreducible MindKelly and Kelly capture it neatly and clearly in the introduction to their brave, thorough and well-researched book, Irreducible Mind (pages xvii-xviii):

[William] James’s person-centered and synoptic approach was soon largely abandoned . . . in favour of a much narrower conception of scientific psychology. Deeply rooted in earlier 19th-century thought, this approach advocated deliberate emulation of the presuppositions and methods – and thus, it was hoped, the stunning success – of the “hard” sciences especially physics. . . . Psychology was no longer to be the science of mental life, as James had defined it. Rather it was to be the science of behaviour, “a purely objective experimental branch of natural science”. It should “never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like.”

And, sadly, in some senses nothing much has changed. Too many psychologists are still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind.

I have a comparable, perhaps even greater, sense of frustration about a similarly destructive dogmatism that bedevils the clinical/psychiatric approach to so-called psychotic experiences. This is far more damaging, for reasons that will become clear in a moment, than the a priori rubbishing of psi or near death experiences, unhealthy as that undoubtedly is.

My recent decluttering process triggered the feeling all over again. I’ve been sorting through back issues of my psychology journals. In the process, I found one article of particular interest on this theme. Sadly it was the only one I found in the dozens of journals I have checked through for items of interest before deciding whether to discard them. (As I later discovered through trawling the web and my British Psychological Society website in particular, there are others sailing against the hitherto prevailing current of dogmatic biodeterminism, but they are still the exception rather than the rule. The BPS as a body, to its credit, is getting on board as well, as quotes I use in later posts will testify.)

The journal[1] was dated 2012 and contained a paper by Charles Heriot-Maitland, Matthew Knight and Emmanuelle Peters on the subject of what they call Out-of-the-Ordinary-Experiences or OOEs. The focus of the study was to use a phenomenological interview process that enabled them to compare the experiences of two small groups of people, one group who had been diagnosed as psychotic, labelled the clinical (C) group, and other who had not, labelled the non-clinical (NC) group.

Their operating assumption from the start was that voice-hearing prevalence, which runs at 10-15%, (page 38) ‘suggests that OOEs do not inevitably lead to psychiatric conditions, and that people can experience psychotic-like phenomena whilst continuing to function effectively.’

They also refer to two other pieces of research from this sparsely populated field of investigation.

First of all, they quote Brett et al (2007) as finding that ‘while [their Diagnosed] group were more likely to appraise their experiences as external and caused by other people, the [Undiagnosed] group made more psychological, spiritual and normalising appraisals, and reported higher perceived understanding from others. . . . . They . . . did find trauma levels in both groups to be higher than in the general population.’

Jackson and Fulford (1997), which they describe as the only known published qualitative study of clinical and nonclinical populations with OOEs, also found that psychotic-like experiences were triggered in both groups by intense stress in the context of existential crises, and that the subsequent group distinction depended on ‘the way in which psychotic phenomena are embedded in the values and beliefs of the person concerned.’

Later work has expanded on this. For instance, Eleanor Longden and John Read in their review of the evidence concerning the role of social adversity in the etiology of psychosis (American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 70, No. 1, 2016: pages 21-22) summarise a wealth of data that suggests that, not only is trauma a clear factor in the incidence of psychosis, but also psychotic experiences relate strongly to the nature of the trauma experienced. For example, work with 41 patients experiencing a first episode of psychosis found that attributes of stressful events in the year preceding psychosis onset were significantly associated with core themes of both delusions and hallucinations (Raune, Bebbington, Dunn, & Kuipers, 2006).

Where the OOE work is particularly significant is in the emphasis it places on the potentially positive function of the psychotic experience in and of itself, a rare perspective indeed. Even a paper on the existential approach (Grant S Shields – Existential Analysis 25.1: January 2014 – page 143) takes a somewhat darker view of such experiences, seeing psychosis as ‘a mechanism for coping with existential distress – a way of being that allows an individual to escape existential realities when that individual cannot avoid these things otherwise.’ I will be returning to a more detailed consideration of his valuable but different position in a later post.

ooe-table

Later in this sequence I will refer back to other thinking and data that expand on the relationship between levels of consciousness or understanding, and the stress caused by experiences that challenge the models of reality we have so far developed. I’ll just focus in the reminder of this first post in the sequence on the basics of what this study found (pages 41-49). Please bear in mind as you read that we should do our best to see the experiences labelled ‘psychotic’ not as some alien state remote from anything we might ever have to undergo ourselves, but as simply part of a continuum, a dimension, along which we all are placed and therefore could at some point also be thrust to a similar extreme, given the wrong circumstances. I’ll be retiring to they theme in a later sequence as well.

Nearly all participants in both groups reported a period of emotional suffering before their first OOE. There was a sense, therefore, that the first OOE was a direct expression of emotional concerns at the time. For details of what some of the OOEs were like, see the table above.

A process of existential questioning came into the mix. Similar to the emotional suffering, there also seemed to be some direct relevance of OOEs to the context of participants’ existential questioning. From this, it could be interpreted that the OOE actually emerged as a direct expression of, or indeed solution to, some kind of psychological crisis.

Isolation, which was reported equally across both groups, was either caused by intentional social withdrawal, or by private pre-occupation with other activities. It may therefore be that isolation has more of a causal role in triggering the experience itself, perhaps because it encourages introspective focus on the kinds of emotional and/or existential concerns mentioned above.

At first I thought the authors might be operating on an implicit assumption that isolation is generally undesirable, but revised that view in the light of the paper as a whole.

One of their most striking findings was the powerful language used by participants to describe the emotionally fulfilling and euphoric qualities of their experiences.

Next Monday I’ll be looking more directly at the spiritual implications of this.

Footnote:

[1] British Journal of Clinical Psychology (2012) 51, pages 37-52.

 

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