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Sinking

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On the Edge

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An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing . . .

(W.B.Yeats: ‘Sailing to Byzantium’)

An Undiscovered Fraud?

Last March I retired from my job as a Clinical Psychologist in the NHS. I felt a great sense of relief, but not for the obvious reason, I think. I was relieved not to have been found out.

In a job such as mine was, it is so difficult to know whether you personally are making a real difference. You work as part of a team. You deal with complex problems. People take a long time to get their lives back together. So, how can you be sure it was you that helped in that process, and not time or someone else?

I think this kind of scepticism about one’s own effectiveness is better than the arrogant assumption that you are God’s gift to the afflicted. While it brings its own special challenges, self-doubt for instance, it also makes it easier to feel a sense of common humanity with those around you. A sense of superiority can still sneak up on you, but it’s a bubble that usually bursts pretty fast under these conditions.

So, that was why I felt relief, even though I missed working with a supportive team and with the brave people we were hopefully helping overcome extreme and complex difficulties.

Out of the Frying Pan?

Since I retired I’ve faced a different challenge. What am I supposed to be doing now?

You’d think that would be an easy question for me. I love, not in any particular order, reading, walking, films, food, conversation (especially about trivialities like the meaning of life, the uncertain nature of death, the existence of the soul and so on), writing, and my family and friends. I’m active in my faith community, though perhaps not over-active, and derive, as well as hopefully providing,  sustenance from that involvement, in addition to what I glean from my periods of meditation and reflection (I’m not so good at prayer – I don’t know why).

Something was bugging me though. Out of all this welter of interests and activities, what was I especially meant to be doing and in what way?

I had a strong sense that this must involve building relationships with other people that would be spiritually enriching for all parties to the process. What I couldn’t get clear about was how I could develop my own authentic and particular way of doing that: it was no good just going through the motions shallowly.  Just out of the corner of my mind’s eye, when the weather of my inscape was unusually kind, sunlit and temperate, I’d catch a glimpse of a ghost of an idea of it, which I could never quite pin down. (For those who are wondering what on earth if anywhere an inscape is, let me just say, for now, that it’s the landscape inside us, which is vast and mostly unexplored.)

Haifa

A month after I retired, at the beginning of this inner quest, standing on new ground in my mind’s forested interior with a useless map of the old pre-retirement terrain and a compass bent out of shape by the force of my landing, I arrived in Haifa for International Convention. I’m not going to use any adjectives, like ‘awesome’, ‘mind-blowing’ or ‘amazing’, to describe this because the experience is beyond all adjectives to capture. And here, in any case, I’m only going to mention my times in the Shrines where I used my paltry powers of prayer to seek for guidance, get a new map and mend my compass. Towards the end of my time in the Holy Land I had my last visit to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith: this was the last of several visits to the various shrines, none of which had so far given me the sense of clear direction I was craving.Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh

Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh

I came out of the quiet Shrine, which had been packed tight with other delegates to Convention from every corner of the world, communing with the spirit in this holiest of places. I was disappointed that its crowded feel had made prayer more difficult than usual for me and that I still had not received some clear and unequivocal sign to point me in exactly or even approximately the right direction. I walked down the path towards the Pilgrim House to the crunching sound of my own footsteps on its broken stones. Just as I got to the benches on either side the path in sight of the Pilgrim House, I found myself in tears. I sat down.

The first faint intimation of an answer to my prayers was slowly dawning but it left me still confused. I felt that my heart, at the deepest level I had access to, was whispering to me that I must give up the persona, the efficient mask, that I use to hide my vulnerability and dare to be myself at a deeper riskier level. The tears came as I was reconnecting more fully with  a deeper self that I had kept exiled out of consciousness most of the time. I still wasn’t clear how to use this new awareness, but at least it felt like a step in the right direction.

It was becoming slightly clearer to me that if I was ever going to  be able to relate to others heart to heart, which is what I yearned to do and what I would need to do if I were to become able to connect with them about the issues I most cared about, I’d have to climb down further from my head when I was with them than I’d so far ever managed to do. What I wanted to be engaged in was not my usual mouth-to-mind conversation, but genuinely heart-to-heart resuscitation.

This does not mean an emotional interaction, at least not in the usual sense of those words. In the Bahá’í Writings the phrase ‘understanding heart’ is used over and over again indicating that this is more to do with insight than feeling, and also, it must be a spiritual process since

[the] heart . . .  is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God.

(Book of Certitude: paragraph 213)

Trance-breaker

It took months of reading, reflection, writing, prayer, experience and experimentation for me slowly to understand what all this meant in a way that enabled me to know what I might do.

It also, sadly, took the death of a close friend and, joyfully, an extraordinary conference of more than 3000 Bahá’ís in London, to get me to the point I am at now, and I still don’t think I’ve reached the end of the journey by any means.

Until the first of those events I was dithering in doubt about my real priorities; my prayers, as I felt it, had been incompletely answered,  my compass was in only slightly better shape and my map still eons out-of-date. It felt like I was using Hereford Cathedral’s medieval Mappa Mundi to sail single-handed to Africa in bad weather.

A Message came on the 20th October from the Bahá’í World Centre which had, and still has, huge implications for the Bahá’ís and the way we work in the world. I was still coming to terms with its implications when the unexpected completely broke my stride yet in the end, to my astonishment, helped me find a truer path.

I saw my good friend in fine fettle at a meeting on the Tuesday. I saw him unconscious in hospital after a massive cerebral bleed on the Friday. A week later he was dead. His family were obviously shocked and distressed. My own feelings were only a pale shadow of their pain and who knows whether, if I had been suffering as much as they were, and still are, this experience of loss would have had so positive a result in the end — or at least achieved it so quickly, even though Bahá’u’lláh does assure us that death is indeed a ‘messenger of joy’ (Hidden Words: No. 32 from the Arabic).

Charles Tart sees pain and suffering as a potential trance breaker. We all become hypnotised by our culture into a trance state that determines our experience of the world. We are blinded by this trance to the true state of reality, particularly social and spiritual reality.  In the end the relatively manageable levels of pain and shock I experienced at my friend’s death, because it helped break down my trance-state further, quickly became more of a blessing than a curse. And Bahá’ís believe that souls who have moved on into this higher realm can and do assist those of us who are left behind.

All I know for sure is I have been a different person in some ways since that event, a better one I hope. I’d never have had the guts to write a blog before, and courage is something my friend had in abundance – how much of a good thing this blog will be remains to be seen, of course. It definitely marks a change though.

I’ll try to explain in a later post more about how that change came about, even though I doubt that I’ll succeed.

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