Posts Tagged ‘trauma’

‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212)

One evening, towards the end of last month, I gave a talk at Birmingham University, concerning a Bahá’í perspective on making sense of mental illness as derived from my own clinical experience. Even though I had two hours at my disposal, I still had more planned than I had time to say. This was partly because some of the comments and questions sparked a lengthier diversion than I had intended. Anyway, I thought I’d publish everything I intended to say on this blog.

The quote at the top defines what processes this sequence of posts will be exploring in more depth in terms of their positive impact upon helping people find meaning in their experiences when they are struggling to cope with psychotic phenomena.

But before we home in on those we need a helicopter view of the overall context of the problems and processes we’ll be examining here.

Trauma, Transliminality and Psychosis

Previous posts on this blog have explored the possible relationship between the factors captured by this diagram. The focus though right now will be on trauma and psychosis.

Hearing voices and strange but strongly held beliefs are two key supposedly correlated signs we will be looking at today. Thought disorder and extreme withdrawal from contact with other people are also taken to be signs. I don’t propose to delve into the validity of the label all too frequently attached when more two or more of these come together in distressing form. For anyone interested, see Mary Boyle’s Schizophrenia: a scientific delusion for a clear exposition of the sceptical case against the idea these form a real syndrome.

For an understanding of the evidence for a relationship between psychotic phenomena and trauma see Longden and Read’s The Role of Social Adversity in the Etiology of Psychosis. They deal extensively with this problem (pages 7-8):

Large-scale population studies have shown that associations between adversity and psychotic experience remain significant when controlling for possible confounders, including: family history of psychosis and other mental health problems (which negates the notion that psychosis only occurs in those genetically predisposed), age, sex, ethnicity, marital status, exposure to discrimination, other psychiatric diagnoses, education level, neuroticism, and substance use. Furthermore, the association has repeatedly demonstrated a dose-response relationship; that is, the likelihood of psychosis increases relative to the extent of adversity exposure.

Transliminality refers to the permeability of the filters surrounding our consciousness, whether that be from beneath (the brain’s subconscious) or above (some kind of transcendent level). Helpful analogies that illustrate the idea of such thresholds of access are our eye/brain system’s limited perception of light’s spectrum, a receiver such as a radio that only translates into intelligible sound the frequencies it is tuned into, or a transceiver such as a computer that can access and decode appropriate data stored in a cloud site as well on its own hard drive. Accessing outside those given ranges is taken to be impossible for the manmade devices. However whether the brain can access outside its normal range is a vex question. Good sources for evidence that this might be so can be found in Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain or in Irreducible Mind by the Kellys.

Ian’s Experiences of Psychosis

There are two people who were tormented by so-called psychotic phenomena from whom I learned a great deal more than they probably learned from me about what these are and how to deal with them. The lady in the poem above is one: Ian, whom I’ll consider in a moment, was another.

The lady had asked for help to deal with her childhood experiences of extreme abuse. Unlike with Ian, I do not have her permission to go into detail. However, what I can say to illustrate the depth of her problem is that the one-hour sessions dealing with her work on the abuse had to be divided into three roughly equal parts. The first part checked up on how things were going and that she wanted to continue the painful work. The second part looked at the abuse and her intensely painful memories of it, and the third part involved calming her down sufficiently after this to dispel the powerful and reactivated visual and auditory hallucinations of her father, the abuser.

I will look later in the sequence at one other indication of the painful and powerful hold the past abuse still had over her.

I can directly use Ian’s own words to convey the kinds of experiences he was grappling with. This is an extract from the transcript of a video interview which took place in late May 1993. Obviously P is me and I is Ian.

P. Could I ask you to describe at first how things were, say, a year ago before there was ever any question of our meeting and when things were not too good for you?

I.: Well, I’d got the voices nearly all the time. They used to wake me up at night, you know?

P.: Yeh. And can you say what kind of things they used to say, just as an example?

I.: `Get out of bed, you lazy bastard. Get up and wake up. Come flying with us. Go and jump in front of a train,’ you know?

P.: Right. And they were saying this to you constantly, were they?

I.: Constantly, yeh.

P.: Were they constant in the day?

I.: Yeh.

P.: Were they very loud?

I.: Yeh. They got loud when I was ill, you know, they got loud.

P.: Right. So, say last May, or last Spring, May, June, July, is this how it was with the voices . . .

I.: Yeh. They were pretty bad. They were loud, you know? They were right down in my ears. And – er – I was seeing things as well. I was seeing what I call the – the `Boss’, you know? He only come at night, yeh.

P.: Right. Where did you think these voices came from?

I.: The spirit world.

P.: So you thought they were ghosts of some kind, or . . .

I.: I thought they were spirits, come from the spirit world for me, you know? And that they wanted me to go with them. I didn’t think that I was going to hurt myself by killing myself, you see? But something inside me just wouldn’t let me do it, you know?

P.: Yeh. You held back?

I.: I think it was because I was afraid of hurting myself.

P.: Right. Because you did say at the time that unless you actually did it instantly it wouldn’t really count, would it?

I.: No.

P.: Right. So it was very important to you that you didn’t end up injured or in a worse state.

I.: Yeh. It was important not to get injured. It had to be a certain thing, you know? And the Express train looked the part.

P.: Right.

In an earlier exchange that month on audiotape, in response to my question as to whether his ‘experiences . . . were shutting [him] out from the world and shutting [him] out from the future,’ he replied, ‘Yeh. I was living in a dream world, you know.’ He also described it in the same interview as ‘brainwashing.’ He said:

They were so loud that I couldn’t hold a conversation, you know. And I couldn’t listen to the radio. They just blocked everything out. And I couldn’t think because they just sidetracked me, you know, saying the same thing over and over and over.

In an interview in September of the following year, he clarified further by saying that he no longer did what the voices told him to do, as he had in the beginning. He knew now they were not spirits but the products of his own head. Even so it was still hard work to keep them at bay.

In working with people experiencing psychotic phenomena, I found it important to distinguish the experience, with which I never sought to argue, from the explanation, which could be modified in helpful ways, for instance here in terms of the power of the voices. It is possible that this will lead, as in Ian’s case, to a recognition that the voices come from inside the person’s own head. This though is neither necessary nor inevitable. It is sufficient that a more benign explanation of the voices is arrived at that gives them far less power and, if possible, reduces any malignity.

Ian’s Life

For those interested in the full back ground to his psychotic experiences and how far back in his life traumatic events and situations began helping to shape his sensibility I have included at the end here a brief summary, which I helped him write, of his life up to the point I worked with him.  

By the time I was 14 months old my mother was dying of tuberculosis and I was failing to thrive. I was abandoned by my dad. My aunt rescued me and took me to live with her. She applied to the courts to adopt me. My dad, at the 11th hour, began to contest this. The proceedings dragged on until I’d started school. My situation with my aunt was not secure until I was six years old.

When I was seven my grandfather died suddenly. I was extremely close to him.  The pain of that still haunts me.

When I was nine I was walking to school through a farmyard, when I saw the farmer hanging in his barn. Shortly after that, the voices started, but they were nice and friendly, and kept me company as I walked the hills near home.

I went down the mines as soon as I left school. I wasn’t happy with that and joined the army. Within the first couple of years a bullying sergeant major triggered a psychotic episode. The voices turned nasty. I heard the voice of the sergeant major mocking and insulting me all the time. I faked my way out the army hospital by denying I was hearing voices any longer.

The army didn’t know what to do with me. As they reckoned people with schizophrenia were antisocial, they decided a solitary job within the army would be the best thing for me. They came up with what they felt was the ideal solution: they’d train me to be a sniper. You spend long periods alone and when anyone comes along to disturb you, you kill them – a great idea in their view. There’d be none of that stressful social contact!

At least two incidents in which I was involved in the army left me with strong feelings of guilt. The pain of the deaths I caused, I know now,underlay the later experiences of psychosis.

I was discharged from the army after I was seriously injured walking towards a bomb. I did this deliberately. It was part of a pattern. From time to time I felt I didn’t deserve to live so I put myself in danger. If I lived I felt I was meant to live and maybe I deserved to do so. When the feeling built up again, as it kept on doing even in civvy street because the guilt about the deaths never left me, I’d play the same kind of Russian Roulette.

Once out of the army I used to do this by lying down on a railway line in the early hours of the morning. If no train came within a certain period of time, I reckoned I deserved to continue living.

After leaving the army my marriage broke up and I ended up living with someone with a serious drink problem. I held down three jobs, working all hours, in order to make ends meet and finance her habit. Eventually, I got completely exhausted and depressed. I couldn’t cope any longer and threw her out.

That didn’t finish it though. I was so convinced that she would die on the streets, I felt like I’d killed her. I became tortured by guilt. I shut himself away in my room with my dog. I survived on frozen chips for six weeks, until my boss became so concerned he got the police to break in. They found me completely psychotic, they say. I think I was determined to die this way. They sectioned me. That began an eight year history of sections, medications, with long and frequent admissions, until I felt that life had nothing to offer me.

At the end of this eight year period our work together began. At the end of the first phase, the May 1993 video interview took place.

We are now at a point to move onto examining how far we were able to help Ian make sense of his psychotic experiences in terms of his life history. More of that next time.


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I found myself staring outside my window earlier today, but not the same day that triggered my recent poem on the death of trees. I looked past the silver birch immediately outside, with most of its green or golden leaves in place, to the bare branches of the denuded sycamore, left with only a handful of its leaves on this cold but sunny November day. As I looked the words of the sonnet penned 400 years ago came floating into my mind:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Shakespeare, of course: sonnet 73.

That led me to Don Paterson’s reflections from his book on ‘Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: a new commentary.’ A later line of the sonnet reads: ‘Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.’ Paterson observes (page 212) that ‘WS is referring to night, though Death’s brother has long been sleep, whom he’s also invoking indirectly.’ Inevitably, we go further yet. He adds, ‘Remember Macbeth’s Come seeling night,/Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.’ He reminds us that ‘seel’ is to ‘stitch the eyelids shut, as one would a hawk’s.’

The reference to Macbeth reminded me of the fascinating book that I had just finished reading: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.

He couldn’t resist wheeling out Macbeth either (page 108):

Ironically, most of the “new,” twenty-first-century discoveries regarding sleep were delightfully summarized in 1611 in Macbeth, act two, scene two, where Shakespeare prophetically states that sleep is “the chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

He argues that our industrialised society is chronically sleep deprived. And he harvests acres of evidence to prove (page 107) that sleep, amongst other things, ‘enhances memory,’ ‘makes [us] more creative,’ ‘protects from cancer and dementia,’ lowers our ‘risk of heart attacks and stroke,’ and leads to our feeling ‘happier, less depressed, and less anxious.’ We need to wake up to the danger we are in by not sleeping enough.

Three examples

Because I’m still a clinical psychologist at heart, to prove the value of the book I want to focus on his discussion of three problems: Autism, ‘Schizophrenia’ and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I have called them problems rather than illnesses or disorders because I am deeply sceptical, as I have explained elsewhere, about the value of such labeling.

But I can set aside such quibbling for now and focus on his demonstration of how much sleep can do to mitigate such problems and how much the lack of it makes them worse.


His link between autism and sleep abnormality is dramatically strong (page 82):

Autistic individuals show a 30 to 50 percent deficit in the amount of REM sleep they obtain relative to children without autism.

A word of explanation might be necessary here.

During waking hours, in terms of information, we are in reception mode, he argues. Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep performs a kind of reflective function (page 52) and stores and strengthens the ‘raw ingredients of new facts and skills’ whereas rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (dreaming sleep) integrates the information, ‘interconnecting the raw ingredients with each other, with all past experiences, and, in doing so, building an ever more accurate model of how the world works.’

He accepts that this correlation does not prove that the sleep problem in humans is the cause of autism or vice versa. However, research using animals suggests that when infant rats are deprived of REM sleep ‘aberrant patterns of neural connectivity, or synaptogenesis’ occur in the brain, and the rats affected ‘go on to become socially withdrawn and isolated.’

He adds that, since ‘alcohol is one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep that we know of’ it can ‘inflict the same selective removal of REM sleep.’ ‘Vibrant electrical activity’ is the detectable sign of REM sleep. The infants (page 83) ‘of heavy-drinking mothers showed a 200 percent reduction in this measure of vibrant electrical activity relative to the infants born of non-alcohol-consuming mothers.’ However, even when pregnant mothers consumed only two glasses of wine (pages 83-84), it ‘significantly reduced the amount of time that the unborn babies spent in REM sleep, relative to the non-alcohol condition.’

While he acknowledges that for humans (page 85) ‘we do not yet fully understand what the long-term effects are of fetal or neonate REM sleep disruption, alcohol-triggered or otherwise,’ the abnormalities caused in adult animals is clear.

I also feel that the evidence adduced by Raine in his masterly book The Anatomy of Violence may be partly explicable in these terms, though Walker makes no reference to it. In this study of violent offenders, Raine finds that foetal alcohol exposure is very much a factor needing to be taken into account, and not just with violent offenders, the main focus of his book, as it has implications for cognitive functioning including memory as well as impulse control in general (pages 163-164):

Part of the reason for this is its effects upon the hippocampus. The hippocampus patrols the dangerous waters of emotion. It is critically important in associating a specific place with punishment – something that helps fear conditioning. Criminals have clear deficits in these areas. The hippocampus is also a key structure in the limbic circuit that regulates emotional behaviour . . .

This impairment then interacts with early experiences of attachment, and disruptions to attachment make the likelihood of later personality problems much higher. Sleep strongly impacts upon the functioning of the hippocampus as Walker explains (page 155):

The very latest work in this area has revealed that sleep deprivation even impacts the DNA and the learning-related genes in the brain cells of the hippocampus itself.

So, whatever the exact direction of causation, and regardless of what other factors may or may not be involved, REM sleep disruption and autism are undoubtedly linked.


Even though I worked in mental health over thirty years, until I read his book I never realised fully the important role of sleep in the problems I was looking at, even though I used to explain to lay audiences that psychosis, as it is termed, was a kind of waking dream, which, I used to say, meant that we all became psychotic at night, whether we remembered our dreams or not.

There is an additional twist to the role of NREM sleep here (page 89): ‘Of the many functions carried out by deep NREM sleep… it is that of synaptic pruning that features prominently during adolescence.’

He goes on to explain how important adequate sleep is for the adolescent brain, given that it is critically involved in determining what synapses (neuronal connections) are removed to mature the brain appropriately. Then he makes his key point early on in the book (page 92):

Individuals who developed schizophrenia had an abnormal pattern of brain maturation that was associated with synaptic pruning, especially in the frontal lobe regions where rational, logical thoughts are controlled – the inability to do so being a major symptom of schizophrenia. In a separate series of studies, we have also observed that in young individuals who are at a high risk of developing schizophrenia, and in teenagers and young adults with schizophrenia, there is a two- to three-fold reduction in deep NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. . . . Faulty pruning of brain connections in schizophrenia caused by sleep abnormalities is now one of the most exciting areas of investigation in psychiatric illness.

He does not deal with this here except in terms of correlation. This therefore does not exclude the possibility that there are other causative elements at work.

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

I am well aware, for example, of the strong evidence for the role of trauma in the development of so-called schizophrenia. His treatment of trauma is quite separate from his discussion of schizophrenia, as he is content to term it, and he relates the persistence of nightmares in the aftermath of trauma to the failure of the brain to suppress noradrenaline, a failure that keeps the terror alive. Normally the brain suppresses noradrenaline in sleep so that dream experiences do not create strong feelings of fear and the mind is desensitised to the terror by the calming dreams – a very different process from the NREM one he is describing here.

None the less, the correlation is significant and potentially valuable therapeutically. I would hope that future research is less diagnostically naïve and includes other potentially relevant factors in the mix.

Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

His exposure of the way in which sleep deprivation is ignored as a fundamental factor in ADHD was music to my ears. He launches it by saying (page 314):

An added reason for making sleep a top priority in the education and lives of our children concerns the link between sleep deficiency and the epidemic of ADHD. … If you make a composite of the symptoms (unable to maintain focus and attention, deficient learning, behaviourally difficult, with mental health instability), and then strip away the label of ADHD, the symptoms are nearly identical to those caused by a lack of sleep.

The drugs we prescribe to treat it further prevent sleep.

He is not claiming there is no such thing as ADHD, simply that many people to whom the diagnosis has been attached are simply sleep deprived. The treatment makes it worse not better. He quotes the figures (page 316):

Based on recent surveys and clinical evaluations, we estimate that more than 50 percent of all children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have a sleep disorder, yet a small fraction know of their sleep condition and its ramifications.

And more than that. Because our society undervalues sleep (ibid.):

Well over 70 percent of parents [believe] their child gets enough sleep, when in reality, less than 25 percent of children aged 11 to 18 actually obtain the necessary amount.

He points to early starting times in schools as one of the culprits and late bedtimes as another. This blind spot in our culture is damaging lives, he argues. We have to change.


I can’t resist a quick postscript on dreams. Oliver Burkeman, in a recent Guardian article, nails the difficulty I have with Walker’s reductionist approach, which he describes accurately: ‘recent work by researchers including Matthew Walker, author of the new book Why We Sleep, strongly suggests dreams are a kind of “overnight therapy”: in REM sleep, we get to reprocess emotionally trying experiences, but without the presence of the anxiety-inducing neurotransmitter noradrenaline. In experiments, people exposed to emotional images reacted much more calmly to seeing them again after a good night’s dreaming.

He rightly argues that Jung would not have agreed that this was all there was to it, and neither would I. He even provides a counteracting argument that retains the magic of dreams even while conceding they might be random:

So you wrote down a dream, then studied it, with or without a therapist, trying out different interpretations, and if one rang true – if it gave you goosebumps or triggered strong emotions – you pursued it further. What’s striking, you may have noticed, is that this approach would work even if Jung were wrong, and dreams were just random. If you treat them as potentially meaningful, retaining only those interpretations that really “click”, you’re going to end up with meaningful insights anyway. I’ve dabbled in this, and highly recommend it. To ask what your dreams might be trying to tell you is to ask deep and difficult questions you’d otherwise avoid – even if, in reality, they weren’t trying to tell you anything at all.

Walker’s disappointing take on dreams does not for me diminish one jot the fundamental importance of his book. Sleep really matters and he marshals convincing evidence to prove just how vital it is that we recognise this and act accordingly. It’s a compelling, accessible, credible and critically important read.

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

We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(Shoghi Effendi, Letter to an individual Bahá’í, through his secretary, 17 February 1933.)

The previous post ended with the following point.

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

For the impact of destructive processes within the individual there is a wealth of evidence, both social and clinical, which I look at straightaway. I will look at the impact on groups and communities later using the work of Zimbardo as a powerful example.

Processes such as the ones I am about to outline are simply examples of the kind of invisible obstacles we might have to deal with when we are trying to shift our perspectives to integrate experiences and evidence against the grain of our programming. Breaking out of our individual or collective trance is not easy. When the evidence is complex, as with climate change, or collides head on with prevailing dogma, as with the reality of the soul, it’s particularly difficult.

Culture and the Individual

First, let’s take a look at some of the negative influences that operate under the surface within the individual. These do overlap with aspects of the wider culture but are worth considering here given their impact upon every single one of us as an individual.

As adults we may often find ourselves behaving in completely counterproductive or even destructive ways in our everyday lives and haven’t a clue why we do so, or even sometimes that we are doing so.

There are all sorts of ways that our culture subliminally shapes our reactions in ways that would shock our conscious mind. A recent study, for example, looked at the reactions of Americans from all parts of the racial spectrum. One of the experiments involved determining how quickly subjects would shoot at a target person in a risk situation. Pictures of different people were flashed up on the screen, some from a white European heritage, some from a black African heritage. It was no surprise that white subjects would take less time to shoot a black person than a white one. What was shocking was that the same was true for black subjects, so deeply had the toxin of racism infected them as well. What none of the subjects would have been aware of was that they were behaving in this way.

Even prominent people within a culture, those with access to the most information and with the most power to change things, succumb to the insidious influences of their society. Many of the founding figures of the United States were slave owners. Their personal investment in slavery conflicted with their avowed principles such as the equality of all men. John Fitzgerald Medina in his excellent book Faith, Physics & Psychology quotes the explanation given by historian Richard Thomas (iBook page 280):

Since America was not about to abandon slave labor or its policy of dispossessing the native peoples of their land, the only real and practical choice was to minimise the nature of its sins: blacks and native peoples (Indians) were not to be considered on the same level of humanity as whites; blacks were heathen and amoral, next to the apes in the scale of evolution. . . .

The technical term for this is resolving cognitive dissonance, and is a process that I was tempted to include in my earlier discussion of disowning, but wasn’t sure it applied directly to climate change. As Saul McLeod explains:

Leon Festinger (1957) proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.

According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consonance (i.e. agreement).

This of course only works if we can successfully blind ourselves to the fact that we are doing it.

It’s obvious now to most people that the Americans and the British, in terms of race, hoodwinked themselves with this self-deceptive but profitable ploy. What we may not all fully appreciate is how far the toxic ideology of racism that thus developed spread its poison, for how long, and with how much resulting damage.

When John Fitzgerald Medina claimed in his book that Hitler was influenced by American eugenicists to develop aspects of his genocidal agenda, I had to check this idea out further.

I read Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning in tandem with Ricard’s Altruism, quoted earlier in this sequence. He confirms the extent to which the Nazi vision of extermination to gain land was inspired by America (pages 15-16):

Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonisation of North America and Africa. . . .

In the late nineteenth century, Germans tended to see the fate of Native Americans as a natural precedent for the fate of native Africans under their control. . . . . For the German general who pursued these policies, the historical justice was self-evident. ‘The natives must give way,’ he said. ‘Look at America.’

. . . . When Hitler wrote in My Struggle that Germany’s only opportunity for colonisation was Europe, he discarded as impractical the possibility of a return to Africa. The search for racial inferiors to dominate required no long voyages by sea, since they were present in Eastern Europe as well.

Hitler saw the Soviet Union as a Jewish project and felt (page 20):

[a] second America could be created in Europe, after Germans learned to see other Europeans as they saw indigenous Americans or Africans, and learned to regard Europe’s largest state as a fragile Jewish colony.

It is deeply ironic therefore that the nation who saw themselves as liberators of Europe at the end of the Second World War should have been part of Hitler’s inspiration in the first place. So do destructive subliminal processes wreak havoc on a massive scale in our world, especially when potentiated by self-interest. Climate change denial should come as no surprise therefore, given the complexity of the issue and the power of the vested interests who would lose out if something really effective were ever done to address the problem.

It’s a moot point in both cases whether those pulling the levers of persuasion, the propagandists, are as unaware of their reality distortion as many of those who come to believe them.

There are many more examples of this kind to illustrate the way that culture warps and biases our perceptions to devastating effect and I won’t attempt to list them here. We’ll come back to the cultural scale later.

Trauma and the Individual

What is also true is that our personal history has a powerful subliminal effect on us as individuals and can wreck our lives and those of the people closest to us. Trauma is the easiest example to use to illustrate this.

We may be completely unaware of the still active impact of early trauma, to whose current significance we are almost completely blind even if we remember anything at all about it.

Many different models of therapy have developed way to explain how this works.

That there is such an effect and that it is relatively widespread can be demonstrated in many ways. In a study carried out in 2010 and quoted by Koenen et al in The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health & Disease: the Hidden Epidemic (page 13-15), out of a sample of 5692 English speaking Americans 2190 (38.48%) reported some kind of traumatic experience prior to the age of 13.

A recent sequence of posts on this blog looked at the work of a Jungian therapist, Joy Schaverian, with people who had been traumatised by their experiences at Boarding School. She graphically explores through case histories the damage that has been done as well as the repressive mechanisms, with their consequences, that had been mobilised to cope.

To give a brief example, Schaverian explains, when she discusses one of her patient’s difficulties dealing with the time a teacher hit him in the face with a cricket bat, how hard it was for him to fully accept what he was saying (page 57):

Theo first told of this incident early in analysis. Then, a few months later, he retold it, this time with more depth of feeling. It was as though he was at first incredulous but then, as I took it seriously, he began to believe himself and to take seriously how abusive this had been. As Theo recounted it for the second time the feelings associated with the event became live in the session. Theo went white; he felt sick; he had trouble breathing and physically regressed.… The emotional impact of this was fully present in the room. Theo was overwhelmed and speechless.

The benefits of revisiting traumatic events in this way , even when they have possibly been forgotten between sessions are priceless (page 118):

. . . if [traumatic events] can be told they are gradually detoxified, thus eventually accepted as part of the person’s personal history. It is then an accessible narrative and no longer unconsciously dominates their life. When there is no such witness the trauma may become embodied, leading to conversion symptoms such as digestive problems, migraines, chronic pain, poor energy and a large number of other physiological indicators. This may be because the event that caused it is remembered in an embodied sense, but not recalled cognitively and so it cannot be consigned to the past.

We’ll be coming back to the idea of embodied memories in a moment.

Other concepts from different traditions are scripts in Transactional Analysis, which I’ve explored elsewhere, archetypes from Jungian therapy, constructs from Personal Construct Therapy, schema etc. the formation and experience of all of which are shaped by early experience as well as culture.

The examples I want to focus on right now I’ve chosen both because they provide dramatic and detailed illustrations of the invisible impact of childhood trauma on adults and are part of my recent reading around trauma and psychosis.

A recent post includes a detailed example, from their 1991 book The Stormy Search for the Self, of what Christina and Stansislav Grof term a spiritual emergency. Those interested in knowing more detail should click the link above. Basically it explores how a traumatised person was helped through her crisis without standard psychiatric treatment and later in the book how what they call Holotropic Breathwork helps people gain access to embodied memories.

They feel that this approach unlocks blocks between our awareness and the contents of the unconscious (page 259):

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

I want to focus on a couple of examples from their earlier work – Realms of the Human Unconscious: observations from LSD research. The use of LSD in this way has come to seem controversial, so much so it was made illegal 1981, six years after this book was published. Some researchers are recently beginning to think more positively about its potential benefits, but we are a long way from repealing the laws that ban it.

Why the Grofs’ research is worth drawing on in this context is for what it seems to reveal about the accuracy with which inaccessible traumatic memories are stored in the brain. LSD helps a person regain lucid and detailed memories, which can then be integrated.

More than that, the Grofs developed a strong sense of the sequence in which such memories can be retrieved and the way they group into a mutually reinforcing layered networks which they call (page 46) ‘systems of condensed experience,’ COEX systems for short.

Both the detail and the interconnectedness of the memories go a long way to explain their power to shape our experience and behaviour in the present in spite of our routine oblivion to their existence. That such interconnected detail coexists with such intransigent forgetfulness explains the power the past experiences have to impact upon us outside our awareness. The examples I’m giving go a long way towards proving how much changing this impact depends upon bringing the whole network of experiences into consciousness.

The work they report on in this book was done in Prague in the decade leading up to 1965.

The layering effect can be illustrated by Richard’s history (page 57-60). The first layer related to his expulsion from university because of his conflict with the communist orthodoxy of the time. A ‘deeper layer . . . . related to Richard’s experiences with his brutal, despotic, and autocratic father.’ Deeper still were earlier memories from childhood such as a strong electric shock at about age seven. A comically horrific encounter with a cow at about one year old was from the next level down. Finally (page 59), he encountered his birth trauma, which he concluded was ‘the fundamental prototype of all the situations in which he felt absolutely helpless and at the mercy of a destructive force.’

The Grofs later explain that, as a general rule, each more superficial level has to be explored before the deeper levels can be accessed (page 71):

The . . . . most important reason for thinking in terms of memory constellations rather than individual memories is based on the content analysis of consecutive sessions of a psycholytic series. Before the subject can approach and relive a traumatic memory from early childhood (core experience), he usually has to face and work through many situations in later life that have a similar theme and involve the same basic elements.

The final result of this LSD facilitated mental archaeology was positive in Richard’s case (page 60):

After the experiences of rebirth, positive ecstatic feelings of long duration occur in Richard’s sessions. They brought about a far-reaching improvement of the clinical condition. His depressions, anxieties, and psychosomatic symptoms completely disappeared and he felt full of activity and optimism.

The Grofs are keen to substantiate that most of these memories are rooted in reality. They quote case examples. For example, the mother of another patient, Dana, (pages 65-66) ‘was absolutely astonished by the accuracy of the account concerning the traumatic event as well as its physical setting. . . . . The description of the room was photographically accurate, even in the most minute detail, and its authenticity was unquestionable because of the very unusual character of some of the objects involved. . . In this case, there did not seem to exist a possibility that this information could have been transmitted by some other means. Before the patient was two years old, the family left this house; shortly afterward, it was condemned and torn down. . . . Dana’s mother gave away many of the things that formed the setting of the relived incident. There were no photographs of the room or of any of the described pieces, and the mother did not remember ever having mentioned any of the objects in front of the patient.’

So that’s what can happen to an individual.

Group Processes

It may seem a step too far to use examples of this kind, drawn from clinical work with individuals, and imply that group processes are similarly potentially pathological and operate all too often outside our awareness and conscious control.

One dramatic body of evidence will have to suffice for now to illustrate how this comparison might not be so far fetched. Philip Zimbardo provides the evidence in his brilliant analysis, The Lucifer Effect. His perspective is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University.

Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behavior of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations which steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

Earlier work lends considerable weight to this latter point. For example, 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.

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).

What may seem baffling is how apparently decent people go along with toxic patterns of behavior. The forces that coerce conformity are astonishingly compelling. Haidt talks of the hive effect. In The Righteous Mind (page 247) he asks ‘Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game?’ For him, ‘It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”’ Other experiments such as those by Solomon Asch, have shown how, when the majority in a group identify the wrong line as the matching one, the lone subject of the experiment tends to go long with the majority view at least some of the time: ‘To Asch’s surprise, 37 of the 50 subjects conformed themselves to the ‘obviously erroneous’ answers given by the other group members at least once, and 14 of them conformed on more than 6 of the ‘staged’ trials. When faced with a unanimous wrong answer by the other group members, the mean [ie average not stingy] subject conformed on 4 of the ‘staged’ trials.’

This video below by Melanie Joy conveys an attempt to unpack some of the detail about how this might work at a cultural level in a context meat eaters may find bizarre. As a vegetarian the validity of her explanation of how collusion is induced is compelling. Meat eaters may have to temporarily suspend their disbelief and step back from their investment in carnism in order to see how her explanation could easily be mapped onto such social toxins as racism and sexism.

Hopefully this helicopter survey of a vast field has done enough to convey clearly my sense that as individuals and communities we are locked into unconsciously determined and potentially destructive patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour, until, in my view, we are either painfully jolted out of our trance by a spiritual emergency or we painstakingly discover for ourselves the keys of reflection for individuals and consultation for groups. Only then do we have an opportunity to see what is working on our minds and change it.

In a complex world it is easy to hide from the wider but more distant impact of our individual and collective actions. Because the damage is potentially so great, so much greater than it ever was is the need now for our awareness to widen and embrace not just the daunting complexity within us but also that which stands between and outside us.

I have been considering the implications of this in the context of climate change and the afterlife but it also applies to many other areas of human behavior such as deregulation which removes safeguards in the interests of profit, extractivism that aggressively exploits the earth’s resources without sufficient care for the consequences, and a global economic system that harms not just the environment but the workforce to whose country cheaper production has been exported.

Where we might go next is dealt with slightly more briefly in the final two posts.

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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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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.


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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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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Emily, Anne and Charlotte in To Walk Invisible. Ann is seated in the middle. Photograph: BBC/Michael Prince

I am slowly picking myself up after a busy festive season. At the end of it I found myself wondering what themes were calling me, as I’d rather dropped the ball over the last few weeks. 

I find I am being drawn to the Brontës by a number of hints including Sally Wainwright’s recent excellent documentary drama, To Walk Invisible (it’s available for another 19 days), and this excellent Guardian article of last Friday  by Samantha Ellis, which redresses the balance in terms of Anne.

The Brontës’s combination of trauma and creativity suggests that trauma can elevate a person to a higher level of understanding which is a form of transcendence, even in the absence of transliminality, unlike my rather glib conclusion in an earlier post’s diagram. 

So, I’ve added another substantial clutch of books to my list. Heaven knows when I will be able to read them all, let alone pull what I have learned into a coherent perspective. I guess I’ll not be keeping up my previous pace of posts for a few days or even weeks yet. I hope your patience with me will prove worth it in the end. 

Anyhow, here is a short extract from the Ellis post – how intriguing to have as a surname Emily’s pseudonym! Click the link for the full post.

Seen as less passionate than Emily, less accomplished than Charlotte, Anne is often overlooked. But her governess Agnes Grey is a clear model for Jane Eyre.

Anne Brontë started writing her first novel some time between 1840 and 1845 while she was working as a governess for the Robinson family, at Thorp Green near York. I imagine she must have made her excuses in the evenings, and escaped the drawing room, where she had to do the boring bits of her pupils’ sewing, and often felt awkward and humiliated – excluded from the conversation because she was not considered a lady, yet not allowed to sit with the servants either, because governesses had to be something of a lady, or how could they teach their pupils to be ladies?

Anne must have stolen away to her room and pulled out her small, portable writing desk. Leaning on the desk’s writing slope (which was decadently lined in pink velvet), Anne could go on with her novel. She had to write in secret because she was skewering her haughty employers and her peremptory pupils on the page. Although her job was difficult and thankless, she had realised that it was providing her with excellent material, that she was telling a story no one else was telling. As she laboured away in her neat, elegant handwriting, Anne must have felt that she was writing a novel that would go off like a bomb.

Agnes Grey sticks close to the facts of Anne’s life. The eponymous heroine is a clergyman’s daughter, just as Anne’s father, Patrick Brontë, was the perpetual curate of Haworth in Yorkshire. Anne doesn’t specify where Agnes grows up, but she does say she was “born and nurtured among … rugged hills”, so when I read the novel, I imagine the Yorkshire moors. Both Anne and Agnes were originally one of six children. Anne lost her two eldest sisters when she was five. Agnes has lost even more siblings; she and her older sister Mary are the only two who have “survived the perils of infancy”. Both Agnes and Anne are the youngest. When Agnes says she is frustrated because she is “always regarded as the child, and the pet of the family”, considered “too helpless and dependent – too unfit for buffeting with the cares and turmoils of life”, it feels like Anne talking. She always chafed at being patronised.

. . . . Agnes turns to one of the only other jobs open to middle-class women: she decides to become a governess. . . .  instead of an adventure, Agnes gets a crash course in how cruel the world can be, and how it got that way.

One of Agnes’s pupils, Tom Bloomfield, enjoys torturing birds. One day his vile uncle, who encourages Tom’s cruelty, gives him a nest of baby birds. When Agnes sees him “laying the nest on the ground, and standing over it with his legs wide apart, his hands thrust into his breeches-pockets, his body bent forward, and his face twisted into all manner of contortions in the ecstasy of his delight” and he won’t be reasoned with, something rises within her. She grabs a large flat stone and crushes the birds flat.

This brutal mercy killing is almost too violent to read. Agnes Grey’s first critics thought it went too far, but Anne insisted that “Agnes Grey was accused of extravagant overcolouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life, with a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration”.

 A new Vintage Classics edition of Agnes Grey is published on 12 January. Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis is published by Chatto & Windus on the same date.

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