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So how exactly did Levine, in his book In an Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness, help me solve a mystery of such longstanding – the meaning of my pool of pain?

Nancy’s story, remarkable as it was, would not have been enough to help me solve my decades’ long mystery feelings of loss, exile and intense grief.

The first flag to attract my attention to something else, though its relevance did not fully become apparent as yet, was when Levine examines the medical treatment model:[1] ‘The “healthy” (“protected”) doctor treats the “ill” patient. This approach disempowers and marginalises the sufferer, adding to his or her sense of alienation and despair.’ I didn’t fully clock all the implications for me of that word, despair. It did suggest though that fear and anger, the main residues that I was aware of from my hospitalisations, were not the only possible emotions to be derived from this form of trauma.

While his later references[2] to ‘tingling vibrations’ and ‘waves of involuntary shaking and trembling’ clearly resonated they still did not close the explanatory gap that needed filling.

Even when he begins to discuss emotions[3] and refers to the spectrum including ‘fear, anger, sadness, joy and disgust,’ nothing clicked still, even though sadness was mentioned, because I interpreted that list as applying to our full range of emotions rather to the specific ones activated by trauma.

It was a footnote on page 173 that lowered the drawbridge across the moat separating me from a fuller understanding: ‘The sense of a foreshortened life, of wordless despair, is a central characteristic of severe trauma.’ The words wordless despair were the keys to unlocking this forbidding gate.

It’s not that I resonate to the idea of a ‘foreshortened  life,’ – far from it – but the feeling that I experienced when I came in contact with what I named my ‘pool of pain’ was so close to what those two words – wordless despair – describe. I suddenly realised that both experiences triggered by focused breathing while lying down referred back to exactly the same events in my early life. A Eureka moment again!

Unpacking some implications

What is also interesting is that on 22 September 1976, just two years after my Encounter Group revelation, as a member of a Transactional Analysis group, I felt strongly impelled, for some reason that I can’t remember, to work on my memories of my hospitalisations, but by a completely different method – psychodrama rather than focused breathing.

Initially the therapist tried to use hypnosis to put me in touch with my hospital experience. It didn’t work: my diary explanation is that I resisted it because ‘it was too close to chloroform.’ Only by using a fantasy of being safe on a raft on a sunlit sea was I able to step back into the nightmare:

Mum not there – then she was persuading me to stay – her going – my pained disbelief – the men’s ward – me watching the door ashamed of my tears among all these big people – the trolley coming – me wheeled away down shiny corridors – the sinister white coats and masks grouped round me – the pulling backwards – the holding down (two other members of the group enacted this) – the mask over my face (the therapist’s hand) – my surrender to my body’s anguished reaction – such deep sobs I could scarcely breath. The therapist holding me like a mother after the feeling had broken. Just what I needed. Such clarity in my eyes after.

(Incidentally, my aunt said to me later that she had been told that it took five people to hold me down the second time before they could chloroform me: I would’ve been about seven years old at the most at the time, and have no memory as specific as that myself.) Incredible as it may seem, even after this, the penny didn’t drop that the tears from the Encounter group were from the same source as these tears, and belonged with the anger and the fear: they were all to do with the same situation, but I still couldn’t make the link. Just as bizarre in a way is that I had no memory of having experienced this. If I hadn’t noted it in some detail in my diary I’d have been none the wiser now. The converse was true with my Wenlock Rebirthing experience: I wrote no details in my diary yet remember it vividly still. There’s probably an explanation for that but I don’t think it’s worth digging for right now.

More remarkably, and something I had completely forgotten until researching this situation to do a blog post decades later, was that I had written in my diary, on 17 September, just before the first tears I had ever cried for my father, and perhaps preparing myself for the TA group work I was going to request, ‘At the time when I fought the men who were trying to chloroform me, I needed my mother, but she hadn’t been there for me. That’s when I learnt it’s no use struggling, that when the chips are down you get left, that you’ve only yourself to rely on.’ Those words again.

There were other signs I didn’t understand.

One of the main ones was my fear of rage. As a child at junior school I was afraid of my own anger. I ran away from two fights I was winning, one against the railings at primary school and another, somewhat later, in the road just down from where I lived. I remember vividly feeling that if the fight continued I might do my opponent some serious harm. Levine points out how closely connected rage is to trauma,[4] and how much we fear this ‘rage and the associated hyper-intense sensations.’ He explains that ‘the fear of rage is also the fear of violence.’ It had never occurred to me, before reading Levine, to connect my fear of rage to the anger created by my being anaesthetised as a child alone in hospital. The question has come to my mind, since starting this sequence, as to whether I have dealt with the anger as persistently as I have dealt with the pain and fear. I may need to reflect on that more.

Further experiences in the encounter movement, which encouraged the acting out of anger, did nothing but convince me that repressing it was best. I developed an avoidance of confrontation because I was afraid it would trigger my anger and cause me to harm someone, not because I was afraid of other people’s reactions and any harm they might do to me.

However, as a blanket strategy, an absolute disowning of one’s anger is not good. We need to have access to our anger to help us protect ourselves, and others, from injustice and abuse. It was only later though that I came across containment as the alternative to acting out or swallowing my anger.

This is something Levine values as well:[5]

It is the ability to hold back, restrain and contain a powerful emotion that allows a person to creatively channel that energy.

How exactly might the hospitalisations link with a feeling of wordless despair in my case? Was it that once my connection with mum and dad was broken by my hospital admissions it never healed, so the loss became permanent? I say ‘admissions’ because I suspect, but cannot prove, that it was the second admission that was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Does my well of tears spring from that? Is all this why trust is so crucial for me before love or even any kind of close relationship is possible? Once trust is broken I can maintain a pleasant relationship but without trust, there is neither love nor closeness, only a guarded kindness at best.

Did my implicit trust in books begin after my second hospitalisation, after the first, or slightly precede them both? I loved them more than people at that time, I think. They never betrayed me. The splintered trust after my hospitalisations was like losing my home — all feeling of complete safety and deep connection was gone. I was in a kind of exile. Is this what inspired the poem at the foot of this post, one that I thought was purely satirical when I wrote it, and was the ‘suicide’ in the poem in fact a metaphor which acknowledged the unconscious shutting down of a huge part of my emotional self, placing it in a kind of deep freeze that I tried to capture in The Freezer?

I am phrasing so much of this as questions because my inner sceptic won’t let me reach closure. It still suspects I may be joining the dots into a misleading but plausible picture. Time will tell.

Anyhow, maybe a residual post-traumatic sense of exile explains why my first pilgrimage triggered such deep tears: it felt like coming home (see link). However, it puzzled me why the well of pain still came back some times. Now I think I know the reason why: it wasn’t exile from the source of my soul that caused me such pain. It was something far more mundane than that. It was the abrupt and complete loss of my childhood connection with my family home. I lived there till I left for university in my teens, but didn’t ever feel at home again and never hankered to return there after my departure. It was duty rather than love or longing that took me back.

Another question, which has often been in my mind, is whether all this was the source of one of my scripts, the one about enhancing understanding in order to reduce pain, not just mine but other people’s as well. I have also often wondered whether this is what drew me to clinical psychology as a profession. Less important and possibly less likely, is whether my attraction to murder mysteries was a substitute consolation for my failure to solve my inner mysteries?

I don’t feel any of this undermines the fact that being born into a household steeped in grief affected me deeply. The history of grief almost certainly prepared the soil for the seeds which the hospitalisations planted, but would not in itself have been sufficient to account for the depth and intensity of the felt emotional pain. I think it’s been a red herring in my search for answers.

Even now, I don’t allow myself to get too attached to any place I live: is this also rooted in my hospitalisations? Are my roots in something far more portable – in my interior, the life of the mind? Is this why the inscape features so strongly on this blog?

More questions rather than conclusions again.

My books of course are important in this respect, and they would be fairly portable if I didn’t have so many. Kindle doesn’t quite do the trick. In the modern world relationships fortunately are also more portable than they ever were, as long as you have a mobile phone at least. Still, virtual contact doesn’t completely compensate for the lack of real proximity.

Final Thoughts

Basically, the core point is that what never made sense to me till now was my experience of the Encounter Group and the well of pain.

This may not be entirely my fault.

Levine has strong reservations about some of the methods used to connect people with the powerful emotions related to a traumatic event. They can culminate ‘in a therapeutic dead end.’[6] Included in his list, unfortunately, are the ones I sampled – Janov’s primal therapy, neo-Reichian encounter groups, and rebirthing. He is more positive about experiential therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which I discovered much later and only read about and tested on my own, rather than signing up for the real process.

Anyway, I owe Levine for the important insights I’ve described, for which I am grateful, even though I recoil from his resolute reductionism, his insistence that we are only an animal and nothing more. On the whole that means less than the insights I have derived from reading this book.

Perhaps it would be fitting to close with brief quotations from towards the end of his book,[7] quotes which resonate with much of what I had learned already on my journey towards the insights I’ve shared in these two posts. That my beliefs and Levine’s are so close in many of these respects and so far apart when it comes to spirituality is another mystery, one which I don’t have the energy to engage with right now.

The ability to effectively contain and process extreme emotional states is one of the linchpins both of effective, truly dynamical trauma therapy and of living a vital, robust life. . . . Rather than feeling our emotions, we become them; we are swallowed up by these emotions. . . . [B]eing informed by our emotions, not domineered by them, is crucial in directing our lives.

References

[1]. Page 34.
[2]. Page 91.
[3]. Page 150.
[4]. Page 88.
[5]. Page 322.
[6]. Page 312.
[7]. Ibid.

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Given the current sequence taking another look at 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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Given the current sequence taking another look at trauma, it seemed worthwhile republishing this sequence.

In the last post I ended up exploring James Davies’ perspective in his recent book Cracked. I was focusing upon his emphasis on relationships rather then medication as the more effective way to help those with psychotic experiences.

Pseudo-Science

It’s where he goes next that I found most unexpected but most welcome to my heart. He leads into it with an interview with Thomas Sasz just before his death at the age of 92 (page 276). He asks Szasz, ‘why do we believe as a culture that suffering must be removed chemically rather than understood in many cases as a natural human phenomenon, and possibly something from which we can learn and grow if worked through productively?’

Szasz’s response is fascinating:

Our age has replaced a religious point of view with a pseudo-scientific point of view. . .   Now everything is explained in terms of molecules and atoms and brain scans. It is a reduction of the human being to a biological machine. We don’t have existential or religious or mental suffering any more. Instead we have brain disorders.

This resonates strongly with the Bahá’í position as expressed, for instance, in Century of Light (page 136):

What [Bahá’ís]  find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science“, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

Davies summarises Szasz’s position on psychiatry (page 277): ‘It had become deluded in its belief that its physical technologies, its ECT machines and laboratory-manufactured molecules, could solve the deeper dilemmas of the soul, society and self.’

He quotes Bracken’s view on how this brings in capitalism (page 278):

What complicates things more is that we also live in a capitalist society, where there is always going to be someone trying to sell you something… In fact, some people would argue that capitalism can only continue by constantly making us dissatisfied with our lives.… You know, if everybody said I am very happy with my television, my car and everything else I’ve got, and I’m perfectly content with my lifestyle, the whole economy would come shattering down around our ears.

He continues (page 279):

What we customarily call mental illness is not always illness in the medical sense. It’s often a natural outcome of struggling to make our way in a world where the traditional guides, props and understandings are rapidly disappearing… Not all mental strife is therefore due to an internal malfunction but often to the outcome of living in a malfunctioning world. The solution is not yet more medicalisation, but an overhaul of our cultural beliefs, a reinfusing of life with spiritual, religious or humanistic meaning with emphasis on the essential involvement of community, and with whatever helps bring us greater direction, understanding, courage and purpose.

Instinctive Incredulity

However, we are even further away from generally accepting that some experiences labelled psychotic may have spiritual dimensions.

Christina and Stefan Grof’s indictment of our civilisation in their book The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency sings from essentially the same hymn sheet as Davies (page 235):

Though the problems in the world have many different forms, they are nothing but symptoms of one underlying condition: the emotional, moral, and spiritual state of modern humanity. In the last analysis, they are the collective result of the present level of consciousness of individual human beings. The only effective and lasting solution to these problems would, therefore, be a radical inner transformation of humanity on a large scale and its consequent rise to a higher level of awareness and maturity.

David Fontana also writes from direct experience of this painful level of materialism and its default stance of resolute incredulity when faced with any evidence, no matter how compelling, in favour of a spiritual dimension to reality. He had to combat it at almost every turn of his investigations. He even bravely admits to being contaminated by it himself. In the in-depth survey of his book Is there an afterlife? he writes (page 335):

My difficulty in writing about Scole [a long and detailed exploration of psychic phenomena including material effects] is not because the experiences we had with a group have faded. They are as clear as if they happened only weeks ago. The difficulty is to make them sound believable. It is a strange fact of life that whereas most psychical researchers interested in fieldwork are able to accept – or at least greet with open minds – the events of many years ago connected with the mediumship of physical mediums such as Home, Palladino, and Florence Cook, a strain of scepticism fostered by scientific training makes it much harder for them to accept that similar events may happen today, and may even be witnessed by those of us fortunate enough to be there when they occur. I mentioned in my discussion of the Cardiff poltergeist case… the struggle I had with my own belief system after seeing the phenomena concerned. When in the room while they were taking place I had no doubt they were genuine, but as soon as I began to drive home I started to doubt. . . . . The whole thing seemed simply unbelievable.

He adds:

It took a lengthy investigation, including one occasion when I witnessed phenomena while I was on my own in one of the rooms where the disturbances took place and the owners were two hundred miles away on holiday, before I could fully accept that poltergeist phenomena can indeed be genuine, and provide evidence not only of paranormality but, at least in some cases, of survival.

The Grofs articulate the challenge exactly (page 236)

The task of creating an entirely different set of values and tendencies for humanity might appear to be too unrealistic and utopian to offer any hope. What would it take to transform contemporary mankind into a species of individuals capable of peaceful coexistence with their fellow men and women regardless of colour, language, or political conviction – much less with other species?

They list our current characteristics in detail including violence, greed, habitual dissatisfaction and a severe lack of awareness that we are connected with nature. They conclude, ‘In the last analysis, all these characteristics seem to be symptomatic of severe alienation from inner life and loss of spiritual values.’

To describe it as an uphill struggle would be an understatement. Climbing Everest alone and unequipped seems closer to the mark.

They see at least one window through which the light of hope shines (page 237)

[M]any researchers in the field of transpersonal psychology believe that the growing interest in spirituality and the increasing incidence of spontaneous mystical experiences represent an evolutionary trend toward an entirely new level of human consciousness.

As we will see in the final two posts, our medicalisation of schizophrenia and psychosis might well be slowing this process down. If so there is all the more reason to give the Grofs’ case a fair and careful hearing. This will not be easy for the reasons that Fontana has explained.

Incidentally, after acknowledging that absolutely convincing proof of the paranormal seems permanently elusive, after all his years of meticulous investigation Fontana reaches a conclusion very close to that put forward by John Hick (op. cit.: page 327):

Professor William James may have been right when he lamented that it rather looks as if the Almighty has decreed that this area should forever retain its mystery. If this is indeed the case, then I assume it is because the Almighty has decreed that the personal search for meaning and purpose in life and in death are of more value than having meaning and purpose handed down as certainties from others.

In his book The Fifth Dimension, John Hick contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

More of that next time.

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Given the current sequence taking another look at trauma, it seemed worthwhile republishing this sequence.

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

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

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

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

Attitudes to Trauma in the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“I’ll bet,” she mused, ‘that if the shaking that often occurs after surgery were allowed rather than suppressed, recovery would be quicker and maybe even postoperative pain would be reduced.”

“That’s right,” I say, smiling in agreement.

Peter Levine – In an Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness (page 8)

Is it possible that I have at last solved a mystery that has been haunting me for 46 years?

It is extremely tempting to believe I have, but my inner sceptic is urging caution.

So, what on earth am I talking about?

Drowning in Pain

The basic problem dates from 1974. I’ve blogged at length about this already so I’ll deal with it briefly here.

I attended an Encounter Group weekend in the summer of that year. It was a fusion of Reichian Breathwork and Janov’s Primal Therapy. Both of them use controlled breathing to gain access, in their different ways, to deeper levels of what I will call here somatic memory. The encounter weekend’s aim was to reconnect attenders with ‘primal’ pain by focused breathing. My earlier account reads like this:

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

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

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

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

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

This process went on for what seemed hours. The theory was that the more deeply you went into the experience, the more likely your were to connect with its cause. Many years later I did have a successful integration of this kind with a different set of feelings (see link). That didn’t happen this first time, nor was I ever able to connect this pool of tears with any specific event or determine its meaning. When I discovered it, I realised it had always been there. Decades later it seems that it always will be, as long as I live in this body at least.

I puzzled over where this sense of loss and pain stemmed from. Was it from my being carried in the womb of a woman grieving for her dead daughter, from my being born into a house steeped in an atmosphere of grief from which my arrival did nothing to rescue it, from my being born at a time of war and experiencing trauma I couldn’t even remember, and/or from having a father re-experiencing war for the second time in civil defence after serving for the first time at the front line?

Rebirthing

A key sentence for present purposes from the account of my 1974 encounter experience is this one: ‘Many years later I did have a successful integration of this kind with a different set of feelings.’

This was when, on 11 July 1985, I went to see a therapist in Shropshire who used a similar breathing model to the previous one called Rebirthing. It was my last session with her.

The breathing had gone well as usual but this time, after less than half and hour, I began to tremble, then shiver, then shake uncontrollably. This was not a result of hyperventilation: I’d got past that trap long ago. She quietly reminded me that I simply needed to watch the experience and let go. Watching was no problem. Letting go was quite another matter. I couldn’t do it. I knew that it must be fear by now, but the fear remained nameless, purely physical. And this was the case for more than two hours of breathing. Eventually, we agreed that, in terms that made sense for me, Bahá’u’lláh was with me at this moment and no harm could befall me. There could be no damage to my soul and almost certainly no damage to my body.

And at that moment I let go.

First, the quaking literally dissolved in an instant – the instant I let go – into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. My experience of the energy had been completely transformed.

Secondly, I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time.

This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts.

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

This was more like a preverbal injunction to myself for which my adult mind seemed to find words instantly. For the child I was at the time, it had been a white-hot blend of intolerable pain and unshakable determination. It shaped a creed that had been branded on my heart at that traumatic moment, and its continuing but invisible hold on me till the explosion of insight was why it had taken me so long to let go.

Two such different experiences, eleven years apart, using the same technique, the first I had no explanation for and the meaning of the second was all to plain to see.

Only now, 35 years later, have I come to see a possible explanation for the first inexplicable encounter with my well of pain. And that is thanks to a completely unpredictable piece of synchronicity.

A close friend in Australia had stumbled across a book in her local library and, knowing my interest in trauma, thought it worth bringing it to my attention. I read a positive review on The Psychologist website (you’ll need to scan down to find it), and decided it was worth a look. It’s synchronicity, not because of the close correspondence of the patterns I’m about to describe, which would apply regardless of the time at which I encountered the book, but because I came across it just after I finished revisiting Donaldson and particularly Covey, something which had prepared my mind to be especially receptive to absorbing its significance.

And that’s what brings us to In an Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness.

Nancy

The case example of Nancy, which Levine uses in this book,[1] rang so many powerful bells for me. During his session with her she had reported seeing ‘nightmarish images of herself as a four-year-old child struggling, to escape the grasp of the doctors who held her down in order to administer ether anaesthesia for a ‘routine’ tonsillectomy.’ He goes onto to explain that ‘[t]he shaking and trembling, occurring in the warm and reassuring presence of a reliable other person, and allowed to continue to completion, helped [her] to restore equilibrium and wholeness, and to be freed from trauma’s grip.’

A key sentence that seems to me to mirror my own transition from terror to warmth comes on page 23: ‘She was overpowered and held down against her will by all-powerful masked and gowned giants. In our hour together Nancy’s body contradicted her panicky feelings of being overwhelmed and trapped.’

More of this next time, to unpack how this helped solve the mystery of my pool of pain.

Reference:

[1]. Pages 20-25.

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Had the life and growth of the child in the womb been confined to that condition, then the existence of the child in the womb would have proved utterly abortive and unintelligible; as would the life of this world, were its deeds, actions and their results not to appear in the world to come.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í World Faith: page 393)

This is the last of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014, 2015 and 2016. It seems appropriate to publish them yet again, because I have been pondering on the issue of theodicy in preparation from my talk in May at a humanist group. They will be interwoven another sequence over a three week period. 

In the previous two posts, I have been looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD) most particularly for what it has to say about suffering.

Both TPD and a rich and interesting approach to psychotherapy – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – owe much to existentialism. Mendaglio acknowledges his debt in the last chapter of the book he edited on this subject (page 251):

However, there is a great deal of similarity between existential psychology and the theory of positive disintegration. Both emphasise similar key concepts such as values, autonomy, authenticity, and existential emotions such as anxiety and depression. A more fundamental similarity is seen in the philosophical underpinnings of TPD, which is in large measure existentialism.

In spite of my own immense debt to existentialist thinking, only rivalled by my debts to Buddhism and to the Bahá’í Faith, I have certain reservations about Dabrowski’s take on the degree of choice we are able to exercise.

Crucial Caveats

His take on suffering is truly inspiring. Care needs to be taken though that we do not adopt this view in a way that assumes that those who are crushed by their sufferings are somehow to blame.

It is true that his model presupposes that each of us will probably meet a challenging choice point sometime in our lives, where we can either cling to the familiar comfortable half-truths that have failed us or strive to rise about them to higher levels of understanding. It is also true that he feels that many of us are capable of choosing the second option, if we only would.

However, not everyone is so lucky. I include here a brief summary of the life history of Ian – the man whose interview I have quoted extensively in the first three posts on An Approach to Psychosis.

His history shows very clearly that he could only make the second choice at times and then meet the pain and work through it to alleviate his tormenting voices. At other times the voices were preferable to experiencing the guilt and he chose what we might call madness rather than lucidity. Given the horrors he had faced it was clear that he should not be thought a failure. I would probably have done the same had I gone through what he had experienced in his life, from his earliest days.

Dabrowski seems to feel that our capacity to choose is genetically determined. Mendaglio explains (page 250):

Dabrowski . . . . postulated the existence of a third factor of development, representing a powerful autonomous inner force which is rooted in the biological endowment of individuals.

It seems to me that it would have taken a truly exceptional individual to make the choice to experience Ian’s level of pain in order to progress. If that does not seem quite convincing, there is another case history I would like to share very briefly.

Among the sequence of posts related to mental health there is a poem called ‘Voices.’ The woman upon whose experiences that poem is based, was brutally abused by her father, sexually, and by her mother, physically, from her earliest years through her mid-teens.

She came to us to work on her father’s abuse. We developed a safe way of working which involved starting with 15 minutes exploring how things had been since we last met. Then we moved on to 15-20 minutes of carefully calibrated work on the abuse. Then the last half hour of the session was spent helping her regain her ordinary state after mind after the work on her early experiences had intensified her hallucinations.

After almost a year of this work things seemed to be going well. Then came the unexpected. She found herself in a building that closely resembled the building strongly connected with the worst episode of abuse she had experienced at the hands of her father. Just being there was more than she could cope with. She became retraumatised in a way we none of us could have anticipated or prevented. The next time we met she could not stop sobbing.

We discussed what she might do. There were two main options.

She could, if she wished, continue on her current low levels of medication and move into a social services hostel where she would be well supported while we continued our work together, or she could be admitted onto the ward and given higher levels of medication in order to tranquillise her out of all awareness of her pain.

She chose the second option and I could not blame her in any way for doing so. It would be a betrayal of the word’s meaning to suppose she had any real choice at that point but to remain psychotic while the medication kicked in rather than deal with the toxic emotions in which she felt herself to be drowning.

It is when I consider these kinds of situation at my current level of understanding of his theory, that I feel it could leave the door open to destructive attitudes.

He believes, if I have understood him correctly, that some people’s genetic endowment is so robust they will ultimately choose the harder option regardless of the environment in which they grew up. Most of us are in the middle and with an environment that is not too extreme we will do quite well. The endowment of some is so poor, he seems to be saying, that it requires an optimal environment if they are to choose to grow even in a modest way.

This approach, if I have got it right, has two problems. The first, which is less central to the theme of this post, is that it is perhaps unduly deterministic because of the power that is given to inherited ‘endowment’ to determine the life course of any individual. The second problem is more relevant to current considerations in this post, though related to the first point. By placing such a determining role upon heredity, the force of the environment may be unduly discounted.

I am not claiming that he attaches no importance to environment. In fact, education for example is much emphasised in his work and he is clearly aware that limited societies will be limiting most people’s development – and he would include the greedy materialism of Western cultures in that equation. I’m not sure where he would place the impact of natural disasters in his scheme of things.

He may though be minimising the crushing impact of such experiences as the two people I worked with had undergone, in the second case throughout almost all her formative years. Could a strong genetic endowment have endured such hardship and come through significantly less damaged? If you feel so, you may end up not so much thinking ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I!’ but more ‘They broke because they were weak.’ Empathy, which Dobrawski values so much, would be impaired because we can start to define people as essentially different from us, not quite part of the same superior species.

More Complexities

This is a truly complex area to consider though, and I will have to restrict myself at this point to a very brief examination of one approach to it which does justice to that complexity.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his description of the various components of our character, suggests that what we inherit is a source of either strength or weakness (Some Answered Questions: page 213):

The variety of inherited qualities comes from strength and weakness of constitution—that is to say, when the two parents are weak, the children will be weak; if they are strong, the children will be robust. . . . . . For example, you see that children born from a weak and feeble father and mother will naturally have a feeble constitution and weak nerves; they will be afflicted and will have neither patience, nor endurance, nor resolution, nor perseverance, and will be hasty; for the children inherit the weakness and debility of their parents.

However, this is not quite the end of the matter. He does not conclude from this that moral qualities, good or bad, stem directly from the inherited temperament of an individual (pages 214-215):

But this is not so, for capacity is of two kinds: natural capacity and acquired capacity. The first, which is the creation of God, is purely good—in the creation of God there is no evil; but the acquired capacity has become the cause of the appearance of evil. For example, God has created all men in such a manner and has given them such a constitution and such capacities that they are benefited by sugar and honey and harmed and destroyed by poison. This nature and constitution is innate, and God has given it equally to all mankind. But man begins little by little to accustom himself to poison by taking a small quantity each day, and gradually increasing it, until he reaches such a point that he cannot live without a gram of opium every day. The natural capacities are thus completely perverted. Observe how much the natural capacity and constitution can be changed, until by different habits and training they become entirely perverted. One does not criticize vicious people because of their innate capacities and nature, but rather for their acquired capacities and nature.

Our habits and choices have a crucial part to play. Due weight though has also to be given to the power of upbringing and the environment (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 95, pp. 124–25):

It is not, however, permissible to strike a child, or vilify him, for the child’s character will be totally perverted if he be subjected to blows or verbal abuse.

This theme is taken up most powerfully by the central body of the Bahá’í Faith ((Universal House of Justice: April 2000):

In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate. Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially. Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty. This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere. The social dislocation of children in our time is a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition–it cuts across them all. It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are employed as soldiers, exploited as labourers, sold into virtual slavery, forced into prostitution, made the objects of pornography, abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention. Many such horrors are inflicted by the parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

This position allows for the fact that we need to take responsibility for our own development while at the same time acknowledging that we may be too damaged by the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous’ upbringing to do so to any great extent without a huge amount of help from other people. And most of us are the other people who need to exert ourselves to protect all children and nurture every damaged adult who crosses our path to the very best of our ability. Maybe Dabrowski is also saying this, but I haven’t read it yet. Even so his thought-provoking message is well worth studying.

In the end though, as the quote at the beginning of this post suggests, 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. I may have to come back to this topic yet again. (I did in fact return to a deeper consideration of Dabrowski’s model in a sequence of posts focused on Jenny Wade’s theory of human consciousness: see embedded links.)

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