Letting Go

Approaching the later years of life, I realise more and more that life is all about letting go. We spend the first part of life building up an ego, a bank of experiences, attitudes, habits, patterns of behaviour, traumas, relationships, material things. Over the second half of life, essentially we have to let go of our attachment to all of these, as we go through the process of preparing for our approaching death. If we do not, the ego dies with the sudden traumatic loss of all those attachments – surely the reason why death is so feared by many.

Why do I come up with this theme at this point in time? Because I have been touched by the experiences of those going through this very process, suffering illness, problems with memory, suffering from attachment to past relationships, suffering from anger, suffering from stress ‘because of’ the behaviour of others…

Of course, Letting Go is not just about dying, it’s about living life in the present, here and now, unencumbered by the past. This is the essence of life.

A little bit of web research came up with the following useful links.

In this post, Paula Stephens gives a Buddhist perspective on Letting Go – for this is an essential Buddhist teaching. Letting go of attachments is a necessary precursor to Presence – living in the present moment.

“Don’t let the darkness from your past block the light of joy in your present. What happened is done. Stop giving time to things which no longer exist, when there is so much joy to be found here and now.” ~Karen Salmansohn

Jack Kornfeld points out that the question of Letting Go is at the heart of spiritual practice, and compassion, forgiveness, grace are its handmaidens:

“These simple questions go to the very center of spiritual life. When we consider loving well and living fully, we can see the ways our attachments and fears have limited us, and we can see the many opportunities for our hearts to open. Have we let ourselves love the people around us, our family, our community, the earth upon which we live? And, did we also learn to let go? Did we learn to live through the changes of life with grace, wisdom, and compassion? Have we learned to forgive and live from the spirit of the heart instead of the spirit of judgment?”

I particularly like this post by LonerWolf on 42 Powerful Ways of Letting Go – full of examples and techniques for letting go. You will probably find your own bugbears within this list; we each have our own cross to bear. The material is grouped under the following headings, so something there is probably relevant for any reader:

  • letting go of anger,
  • letting go of anxiety and stress,
  • letting go of toxic relationships,
  • letting go of frustration and impatience,
  • letting go of depression and grief.

This post also gives sixty quotes related to Letting Go. Here are a couple with particular meaning for me.

“In the process of letting go you will lose many things from the past, but you will find yourself.” – Deepak Chopra

“The truth is, unless you let go, unless you forgive yourself, unless you forgive the situation, unless you realize that the situation is over, you cannot move forward.” – Steve Maraboli

Letting Go – essential for the good life and for the good death.

People of the Lie 2

“…the uncanny game of hide and seek in the obscurity of the soul, in which it, the single human soul, evades itself, avoids itself, hides from itself.”

Martin Buber

Recent direct encounter with evil has led me to republish this post, first published in 2017, with minor changes. The problem of evil and people of the lie is ever present in human societies, and we need to be aware of it. The original post was essentially a short review of psychotherapist M.Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie: The hope for healing human evil, published 1983, which I read many years ago now.

Peck’s book is actually about the psychology of evil. He gives a useful definition of evil:

  • Evil is that which kills or suppresses life or the life force.
  • Goodness is its opposite – that which promotes life and liveliness.

There is an element of such evil in all of us, but what matters is how we respond and evolve. If we invoke the mask of self righteousness, a self-image of perfection, and are not open to the evil that might be within then we deceive ourselves – the biggest lie.

I picked out three major characteristics which give warning signs of evil:

  • refusal to face the evil within, denial of one’s own guilt, often means projecting onto others and scapegoating or gaslighting.
  • an extreme narcissism, termed malignant narcissism by Erich Fromm.
  • a strong will to control others, leading to manipulative behaviours, demanding loyalty,…

Remind you of anyone?

Interestingly, Peck suggests that the most evil people are not found in prisons – these are mild cases compared to the ‘professionals’ around in society itself.

The most typical victim of evil is a child, thus evil can be conditioned onto the next generation. One task of education should be to raise the level of self awareness to provide a societal counter to this. Another victim would be the relative innocent who is not sufficiently aware of their own intuition and their manipulation by others.

In other terms, evil is driven by the rational ego and lack of empathy, left brain dominating over right brain, masculine over feminine.

Evil is real and anti-life. It can be conquered by confrontation, loving compassion, acceptance and growth. Paradoxically, evil can in some cases be the spur to psychological and even spiritual growth in its victims.

In the case of apparently entirely evil persons, they need to be opposed and confronted by the good – the strong will opposed by the good will, with love at its side.

Compassion is Great Intelligence

Beaautiful post by Tom on compassion, with superb photograph and ee cummings poem. Compassion – a symptom reflecting wholeness.

Tom's Nature-up-close Photography and Mindfulness Blog

One may ask, “Is compassion very significant in life?” Yes, compassion is immensely significant because it reflects and is a wonderful radiation of the whole. That whole has its own intrinsic, organic intelligence (of which compassion is a very big component). A fragmented, isolated consciousness, that merely perceives with self-idolizing boundaries and cold distance is, unfortunately, not of compassion. Such a debilitated mind is distorted and is not of the whole. Such a mind is isolated and apart. It may be intelligent in a very mechanical, crude, and limited way, but it is not intelligent in a living and wonderfully dynamic way. The isolated mind’s intelligence is — being limited — like that of a programmed, mechanical, robotic computer.

A mindful consciousness is of the whole. Such a dynamic, living mind sees beyond “learned distance” and learned isolating patterns. It is not like a left hand that is attacking the…

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Gaslighting

Although gas lighting was used in China 1700 years ago, the first gas lighting in England was on Westminster Bridge in 1813 (Wikipedia). By the 20th century gas street lighting was ubiqitous in England. We even still had gas street lamps in Lincoln when I was growing up in the 1950s – I remember each lamp cast a small circle of light, and there were huge gaps of darkness in between them. Today, gas street lamps no longer significantly exist and gaslighting has a totally new meaning.

In 1938, Alfred Hitchcock made the film Gas Light, where a manipulative husband makes his wife think she’s losing her mind by making subtle changes in her environment, including slowly dimming the flame on a gas lamp. He disrupts her environment, making her believe she’s insane, and controls her by cutting her off from family and friends.

Flash forward to the 2010s, and a new term ‘gaslighting’ starts to appear, inspired by this film. Here’s a good summary of its psychology. Basically this is emotional manipulation to control and undermine another person. It can be quite hard to spot, once sucked into its orbit – particularly in a relationship with strong positives as well as strong negatives.

Why do people gaslight others? The above website gives a good summary:

“The typical goal of the gaslighter is not just manipulation, but power and control—typically with the misguided cooperation of the manipulated victim.”

If you’re being gaslighted the website identifies steps you can take to protect yourself, including gaining distance, keeping a record, setting boundaries, getting an outside perspective, and ending the relationship. Of course, ending the relationship can lead to further problems, such as harassment and stalking, but that’s another story.

Gaslighting not just a person-to-person thing. You may have noticed that we’re being gaslighted by some of our politicians on a regular basis – for instance those who tell us the country cannot afford to provide support for a healthy life for each of its people, particularly those who have little, yet it can afford to be extremely generous to those people who have a lot. Indeed, it seems like party leaders in a democracy increasingly resort to gaslighting by conflicting narratives, rather than doing their real job of addressing real world problems in the most effective way for all concerned.

Gaslighting – worth knowing about.

Picture of gas lamp by Tulane Public Relations, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Messenger

Readers of this blog will know that I occasionally post poems by Steve Taylor, from his regular newsletter. Steve has a knack of getting to the heart of things, such as in the following poem, essentially about learning to trust our intuition, which is very consonant with James Hillman’s ‘acorn theory’ of the daimon (see this post).

The Messenger

It’s not for you to decide
the direction of your life.

It’s not for you to determine
whether your life has meaning.

It’s not for you to deliberate
over whether you’re following the right path.

It’s not for you to doubt
whether your efforts are worthwhile
then grow despondent and give up.

It’s when you deliberate and doubt
that you overrule your intuition
and confuse your inner compass
and lose touch with your purpose.

You have to step aside
and trust the wisdom that is guiding you
even if you can’t comprehend it.

You have to step aside
and let your purpose flow through you
even if you can’t see where it’s heading.

You have to step aside
and leave your channel empty and open
so that your message is clear and unbroken.

Then you have to remain open
through indifference and admiration
through failure and success
until the whole of your message is delivered.

Then your message will make sense
and your meaning will be manifest.  
 

Marcus Aurelius on today’s affairs

On impulse this morning, I reread parts of Marcus Aurelius’ wonderful classic book Meditations, which has sat on my shelves for many years. Marcus was of course one of the few ‘good’ Roman Emperors, but also at the same time a philosopher.

He actually has lots to say about matters that disturb us today. Fortunately, Goodreads has made an excellent selection of quotes from the book, so I was able to choose from these.

Consider our distress at the apparent downturn in world events (across many countries) and our circumstances:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

And what about our countries that appear to be descending into populism, lying politicians out on the make, even fascism.

“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.”

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”

Yes we need to witness what is going on, act where we can to mitigate against disturbing trends, but at the end of the day:

“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”

Featured image is young Marcus Aurelius from the Musei Capitolini.

We’ll figure it out

Jane Fritz recent post At this inflection point in history, compassion has to stand its ground set me thinking. The post highlights all the thing that are going wrong in todays world and goes on to highlight the need for connectedness, compassion, courage, authenticity, generosity – none of which I would disagree with.

The thing is, we are all exposed by constant media exposure to all the things that are going wrong in the world, and the trends that appear to be going the wrong way – many of which have featured in moments of exasperation on this blog. So much so, that many people I have spoken to in recent months have actually reduced their exposure to the news and media because it is just so dispiriting. And what is it doing to the minds and dispositions of today’s youngsters?

Two insights occur to me.

First, Einstein is frequently quoted as having said that you cannot solve today’s problems with the mindset of yesterday, or words to that effect. Equally, you cannot anticipate the solutions to today’s problems from yesterday’s mindset, which is what we all have, and are reflected in the media. Tomorrow’s world will emerge from the collective mindset of billions of people confronted with today’s world. Who knows what answers might emerge, and how those problems might be resolved, or evolve into different and maybe even more intractable problems, if that’s possible. So we shouldn’t dispair if we cannot see the answers; it’s a work in progress. As daughter says in her increasing wisdom ” We’ll figure it out…”!

Second, we ourselves are a work in progress. We have choices day in and day out in how we live our lives and the quality of those lives. I believe that we are each on a path of growth and learning – about ourselves and our place in the world, even the purpose of our existence – the soul or daimon. So the job is to fulfil our purpose here, to make the best contribution we can at this moment, from where we stand now. This has been highlighted innumerable times over the centuries by advanced human beings. The job is to move towards our soul purpose, our spirituality, or whatever terminology you wish to use.

Of course, the inevitable result is connectedness, compassion, courage, authenticity, generosity…

Featured image is evening sky over Knutsford 14.8.22

The daimon

Why are we born at a particular time and place? Is there any meaning to life? Materialism suggests not, we make the best we can of the random circumstances around us. 

But what if we live in a world of meaning, and the life we are born to calls us to an individual destiny or calling?  This is the possibility and challenge presented on James Hillmans’ book The Soul’s Code (1996). Hillman refers to Plato’s idea of the daimon:

“The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth…. The daimon is the carrier of your destiny.”

Hillman’s book is an exploration of this concept, known as the acorn theory for obvious reasons, and gives numerous examples of individuals who have realised specific destinies that came to them at particular times  or were evident from early life. The caution I would apply is that most of his examples are quite remarkable individuals, suggesting that only a subset of individuals are so driven.

It is also notable that the daimon is not necessarily a positive. Too many times do we see in history exceptional individuals driven by narcissism and the will to power over others, apparently driven by demons, a related word.

The dramatic effect of this theory is what many educationalists have always maintained – that the purpose of education is to facilitate the emergence of the child’s true potential, not to train them to conform in the jobs market. 

Hillman suggests that much of modern psychology has tended to treat emerging features of the daimon as psychological problems rather than as facets of the daimon, thus using standardised medication to suppress them. Cf the US Diagnostics and Statistics Manual. 

The daimon is llnked, from Hillman’s perspective, with the concept of character, which is the pattern of the daimon as presented to the world. As we look at todays political shinanegins in the UK Conservative Party we largely look in vain for exemplary characters fulfilling a daimon related to public service. The same is apparent across the pond.

The idea of the daimon fits perfectly with Bruno Huber’s astrological psychology, where the birth chart represents the pattern of energies in the universe at time of birth, and can be used to help in understanding the pattern of the person’s daimon, thus uncovering what has greatest meaning for them and their lives.

Featured islamic pattern by Maureen from Buffalo, USA,
CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

From role to soul?

I suppose that to some people the theme of Connie Zweig’s book The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul will have no meaning. If we take the view that all life is on the surface, with no interiors, then what could inner work mean for the materialist? If we take what seems to me the sensible viewpoint, that we live in parallel interior and exterior worlds, and that through experience and inner exploration we can become more perfect beings, even align to what it is that led us to be born, then this book could have a lot of meaning for you.

Connie Zweig suggests that in the later part of life we have the opportunity to realise what our whole life process has been about, potentially becoming Elders and mentors for others. The process of building ego, that constituted the first part of life, evolves into a learning process, an uncovering of the strong ego that we built, to transcend its fundamental selfishness and in the light of our new understanding make a positive contribution aligned with our unique destiny.

This is, of course, aligned with the messages underlying transpersonal psychologies and all the world’s major religions and spiritual teachers, extensively quoted by Connie. She suggests that there are two major processes that we go through – psychological reconciliation with the Shadow (and, I would suggest, any traumas accumulated there), and the movement from dominance by ego to being led by our inner soul/spirit.

For me this was like a revision of many approaches to psychological and spiritual growth that I have become aware of over a lifetime,  and important reminders they are.

Becoming reconciled with our own failures and ultimate death are of course a part of this process – death being the great taboo in a surface-oriented culture, death being the end of ego.

Important to me was the emphasis on achieving wisdom, and moving towards the role of the wise Elder, and the importance of this role in society – a role forgotten in many countries including my own – where the upper house of Parliament is apparently misused to reward those giving money to Parties, rather than being the place for the most wise members of society to reflect on new developments.

An important book on an important subject, which is of course outside the current mainstream, but no less important for that.

What can we know?

What can we know about life? Start with what we might all agree on.

Look inside. I am a conscious subject.

Look outside. There appears to be an objective material world in which I experience. I have a body that operates in this external world.

There also appear to be in this world other conscious subjects, including those who conditioned me from birth, and including animals and other creatures. I recognise their interiority.

Much of that interiority is shared across humans (at least) – my surrounding culture.

Summary. Basic dualities.

Basic dualities
  • Interior/exterior or subject/object or conscious/material.
  • Individual/collective or me/society + culture.

Quadrants

We can express this as four quadrants; none is reducible to the others.

Wilber quadrants

These are the Four Quadrants of Ken Wilber’s Integral Psychology, and Ken and others have done a great job of mapping all human knowledge onto these four quadrants. See for example his Integral Psychology or his magnum opus Sex, Ecology and Spirituality.

For example,

  • modern science belongs on the right, as it is concerned with objectivity and, axiomatically, excludes the subject.
  • psychology and spirituality belong on the left, although scientific psychology and institutional religion attempt to reduce this to the right, or control it from the right.
  • culture belongs in the bottom left, and social and government systems in the bottom right.
Huber quadrants

These are also the four quadrants of the modern astrological birth chart. Astrology and astrological psychology have long encompassed all aspects of our being in the world. See for example Bruno & Louise Huber’s The Astrological Houses or Life Clock.

Limitations

Remember that the quadrants are an analytical breakdown, and can only represent suggestive truth. In reality we know that all is interconnected; models such as this may help, but always have their limitations.

What this does imply is that one-dimensional approaches to life cannot work. Materialism is a dead end; it cannot deal with interiors and ends up being inhuman. Control of people’s innermost thoughts through religious or political systems is another dead end; it cannot effectively deal with exteriors through science. Humanity has tried all of these through history.

We just have to embrace the complexity, and ultimately the mystery, of life.

Featured image licensed via Shutterstock.

Never Enough

Here’s another of Steve Taylor‘s poems, expressing aptly the accumulative tendency of the ego. The rich man never has enough money, always tries to make more; he wants the biggest yacht, or to get to Mars, or to control another company. The tyrant at the centre of Empire always wants more land, more people under his personal control. The espoused lover of freedom wants no obligation, no attachment to others, no rules, no common good. You know who you are, and who they are. But it will never be enough…

Steve’s poem expresses it so well.

Never Enough

All the possessions that you collect
and all the wealth that you accumulate 
will never be enough. 

All the success that you achieve
and all the attention that you attract
will never be enough. 

No matter how far your empire stretches 
no matter how absolute your power grows
it will never be enough.

Desires never sleep for long. 
Once they’re satisfied, they rise again, like waves,
faster and stronger than before. 

Every new desire is more difficult to meet
and brings more shallow, more short-lived fulfilment 
until eventually we become numb to happiness
and feel nothing but a raging frustration 
that consumes us inside and makes us hate the world. 

It will never be enough
until you give up the outer search for happiness 
and turn inside yourself. 

Beneath the restless surface of your mind
there is a natural harmony –
the radiance of pure consciousness 
softly vibrating, glowing with warm vitality 
like the freshness of a forest in spring. 

The harmony of your deep being 
never fades or slips out of reach. 
The more you attune to it, the more intense it grows.
The more you touch into it, the closer it moves. 

It can’t be exhausted because it’s immaterial
as intangible as air or light.
It can’t be exhausted because it’s eternal
and endlessly renews and refreshes itself.

Be still, and rest inside yourself.
Let your mind settle, and your thoughts slow down
until desires and fears dissolve away.

Then you’ll enter the deep space of being
and harmony will immerse you –
always present, and always enough.

Unconditional love and forgiveness

Edith Stauffer was greatly influenced by the teaching of the Essenes (2nd century BC to 1st century AD), and by Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis. The Essene Code of Conduct, which first came to prominence with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1945, bears striking resemblances to the principles of psychosynthesis. This little book Unconditional Love and Forgiveness (1987) explores some of the most important aspects of these teachings and this lived psychology.

The first essential is to retain and reinforce our connection to the inner Source of all things, or soul, Self, spirit, God as you prefer – through practice such as meditation. As a transpersonal psychology, psychosynthesis recognises this inner connection, which is the souce of wholeness with all beings, and is necessary for correct alignment of our will.

A vital concept is understanding of the brain’s filters – attitudes, which determine the mindset through which we address the world. Assagioli suggested that we can use our will to set goals and change our attitudes, and thus change our lives.

The Essenes gave out a Law of Attitudes, which is essentially to love the Source, love ourselves, and love other beings. The eight attitudes were their rules for living, aiming to bring into consciousness transpersonal attitudes. Roughly, these attitudes are: living in connection with the Source, awareness of self and deficiencies, humility, aiming for justice and fairness, loving without condition, without personal fault, serving peace, inner peace and serenity.

The correspondence with the teachings of Jesus Christ is apparent. Impossible in the modern world, you may say. Yet this is psychologically what will give you peace and alignment with the world.

The later part of the book focuses specifically on forgiveness. I have previously blogged on the subject of forgiveness, so will not repeat that here. What specifically struck me from the Essene Code was the idea that

“To forgive is to cancel all demands, conditions, and expectations held in your mind that block the Attitude of Love…”

Forgiveness does not depend on external circumstances. This is something we do for our own psychological health, enabling us to stay in tune with our surroundings. I am reminded of then-draper Gordon Wilson‘s immediate forgiveness of the IRA bomb in Enniskillen that killed his daughter (November 1987). His reaction is said to have changed the course of the confllict in Northen Ireland, leading eventually to the Peace Process.

“I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge”

Gordon Wilson, 2008

Powerful stuff, this.

Featured image of Enniskillen bombing from the Belfast Telegraph.

Spooky

I was musing on the German word ‘geist’, which seemed to mean both spirit and mind. How could that be? Do German speakers actually perceive the world differently? So, off to geist in Wikipedia, which reveals:

German Geist… translation of Latin spiritus… originally referred to frightening apparitions or ghosts… acquired a Christian meaning from an early time, notably in reference to the Holy Spirit/ Holy Ghost… could refer to spooks or ghostly apparitions, to the religious… Holy Spirit, as well as to the “spirit of wine”…

… its special meaning of “mind, intellect” never shared by English ghost is acquired only in the 18th century, under the influence of French espritGeist could now refer to the quality of intellectual brilliance, to wit, innovation, erudition, etc. It is also in this time that the adjectival distinction of geistlich “spiritual, pertaining to religion” vs. geistig “intellectual, pertaining to the mind”… also geisterhaft “ghostly, spectral”.

German Geist in this particular sense of “mind, wit, erudition; intangible essence, spirit” has no precise English-language equivalent, for which reason translators sometimes retain Geist as a German loanword.

That pretty well sums it up. English took both Latin/French and Saxon/Germanic origins and mashed them around a bit, never quite staying in step with either (cf Brexit). And that’s why we still talk about the ‘holy ghost’, rather than the ‘holy spirit’. Hence friend Alf‘s characterisation of the holy trinity as: Big Daddy, Our Kid and Spooky.

And that’s also why we don’t have a word for ‘zeitgeist’.

Featured image cropped from Depiction of the Christian Holy Spirit as a dove,
by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in the apse of Saint Peter’s Basilica, c. 1660,
via Wikimedia Commons

The Deep Self 

Many today seem to have ‘forgotten’ the essential truth that, within us, behind the surface world of the ego, there is a deeper self that is connected to the whole – the essential spiritual approach to life, the source of our morality and creativity. Steve Taylor‘s recent poem expresses this beautifully.

The Deep Self

There is another self inside you –
not the restless self that always ruminates 
about the future and the past 
not the fragile self that craves for attention 
and is wounded so easily by disrespect
not the anxious self that can’t live inside itself 
and is always reaching outside for distractions. 

There is another self inside you 
that doesn’t consist of concepts 
that isn’t sustained by thought 
that isn’t enclosed inside your body 
and doesn’t feel separate to the world.

There is a deeper self that rests 
quietly, almost imperceptibly
behind the tumult of your thoughts 
like the still blue sky behind dense, swift-moving clouds. 

And your deep self is always ready to emerge 
whenever you release your attention from thoughts 
and let your awareness spread gently around you
opening your senses to the world. 

Then your surface self grows softer, more porous.
Spaces appear between thoughts 
and the deep self slowly seeps through
like sunlight through dissipating clouds.

As you become your deep self
you sense a shift of perspective 
as if dust is falling from your eyes 
and a landscape is becoming more distinct –
brighter, more spacious, less dangerous.

You feel relieved, as if you’ve woken from an anxious dream. 
The problems of your surface self
and the dramas of your surface life 
seem trivial, almost comical. 

Now you feel connected to the world –
not an observer, but a participant
as if your being is fluid and permeable
flowing back and forth between you and the world 
sharing the essence of everything you see. 

You’re no longer restless and anxious
now that natural harmony flows through you. 
You’re no longer fragile and incomplete
now that the wholeness of the world includes you. 

And you feel the joy of self-recognition 
of becoming who you always were  
since your deep self is not another self –
it is simply you.

Seeking Jean Gebser

“We partake every moment of our lives in the originary powers of an ultimately spiritual nature.”

Jean Gebser

Jean Gebser, philosopher, linguist, poet, who described the structures of human consciousness. Born Hans Gebser in Poznan, then Germany, 1905. Left in 1929 for Italy/Spain/France, changing name to Jean. Escaped to Switzerland at the outbreak of WW2. Died 1973.

Having seen many references to the work of Jean Gebser, I wanted to find out more about the man himself and his ideas. His main book The Ever Present Origin seemed difficult to get hold of, and is reputed to be ‘difficult ‘, so I tried the summary of the man and his ideas in Seeing Through the World: Jean Gebser and Integral Consciousness, by Jeremy Johnson (2019).

Basically, Gebser’s work is about human consciousness and how it has evolved and is evolving. He categorises five stages of its evolution, which I roughly describe in the following gross over-simplification.

  • Archaic – original consciousness of the whole, without differentiation.
  • Magical – perfect identification of man with the universe, without separation, all appears magical, a part of ‘the dreaming’.
  • Mythical – becoming conscious of the universe and others through stories and myths.
  • Rational – mental, logical. Man is separated from the world and reasons about it.
  • Integral – becoming aware of, transcending and yet benefiting from the perspectives of all the previous levels.

As stressed by Johnson, this is not intended to be a developmental schema, although it clearly describes the stages of development of humanity to date. But then, neither Johnson’s book nor Gebser’s work are easily read or understood – Gebser has his own specific terminology that I will not attempt to go into here. Johnson has made a heroic attempt to lead us into the thinking of Gebser, and his book is well worth reading, if you are so inclined. Each effort to understand helps us to get in touch with the inspirational quality of this work. He quotes Gebser, giving an indication of the true poetic scope of this work.

“The simple is in us. It is participation—participation in that which is unknown yet evident to us: a tiny seed in us, which contains all transparency—the diaphanous world, the most irradiated and most sober beatitude. It is so completely comprehensive and whole that neither our intelligent, super-clever, caged-in thought nor our pitiable-pitiful and needy-strong longing—how much poverty it renders visible!—can even divine it. And yet, it is within us.”

Jean Gebser April 26 1973

Of course, there are parallels between Gebser’s analysis and the work of Iain McGilchrist, referred to in other posts. The current left-brain-dominant mode of being is the equivalent of the rational stage, and the co-operating left and right brains that McGilchrist envisages are the equivalent of the integral stage. See Scott Preston’s post Gebser and McGilchrist for more insight.

Jean Gebser is also referred to extensively in Ken Wilber‘s work, such as in the lengthy masterwork Sex, Ecology and Spirituality. All these guys are on to something fundamental about what it means to be human, and the direction of any New Renaissance of the human spirit.

Psychological disorders, power and the future of humanity

Steve Taylor has written a great post in Psychology Today on The Danger of Dark Triad Leaders: The link between psychological disorders and power. So what are dark triad leaders? Steve explains:

While some psychologists like to think in terms of specific disorders like psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder, I prefer — like many psychologists nowadays — to think in terms of a “dark triad” of three personality traits that appear together: psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. This makes sense because these traits almost always overlap and are difficult to distinguish from one another.

Dark triad personalities crave power and find powerful positions easy to attain, because of their ruthlessness and manipulative skills. Since they lack empathy and conscience, they have no qualms against deceiving and exploiting other people in their rise to the top. Since they are often charismatic and charming, they often gain the support of ordinary people, who are impressed by their apparent confidence and decisiveness.

Sounds familiar? This psychological abnormality attracts to itself others of similar mindset, forming a pathocracy:

Of course, such leaders don’t work alone. Once dark triad leaders gain power, moral and responsible people rapidly fall away, and other dark triad personalities collect around them. The government quickly becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrew Lobaczewski referred to as a “pathocracy” — a government made of individuals with personality disorders.

The history of the last 200 years shows too many examples of such pathocracies across the world; there are many today, with Putin’s Russia currently the most evident. There is an urgent need for the world to work out how to manage human affairs without such individuals and pathocracies gaining further hold. They bring out the worst in humanity, such as what is now happening in Ukraine. There will be little prospect for humanity for many thousands of years if one of these dysfunctonal cabals unleashes nuclear or biological terror across the world.

Photo of Himmler, Hitler et al: Newsweek

Megalomaniac and lost soul?

One could argue that my posts about Iain McGilchrist’s books (see eg The Matter With Things) and the problem of today’s left brain dominance are of mere academic interest, or to do with the long term environmental threat. Yet suddenly it is upon us, threatening the world we know, live and love, in the form of Vladimir Putin. Putin is one of many leaders who exhibit a pathologically extreme form of left brain domination, where left brain rationality and abstract ideas override any consideration of the people and environment involved, whether in Russia, in Ukraine, or in the rest of the world. There is a lack of connection with reality – the death, destruction and psychological trauma being inflicted on millions of people. Only a person who has lost touch with the real lived world and their own moral sense could do such a thing. Putin has literally decided that the map is more important than the territory.

I’m not sure if this recognition helps us much in dealing with the inhuman threat represented by Putin, but it is useful to see where this person is coming from. There is only abstract rationality without compassion or recognition of common humanity, let alone community with nature. It is evident from clips in the media that he rules by fear, also evident from his threats to the rest of the world.

Can we have compassion for a lost soul, when he threatens us all?

The Matter With Things

I have spent many happy hours reading Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Matter With Things. This is probably the largest and most expensive book (in two volumes) that I have ever read or bought, at 1578 pages, including appendices and an extensive bibliography, and a cost in the region £75-£90 (hardback), although there is apparently a cheaper Kindle edition. Why did I do this? Because I was inspired by his previous book The Master and His Emissary, which seemed to capture something very important about the predicament we find ourselves in today. See my review of that book here.

Also, I was inspired by hearing the man himself speaking in some of the videos produced by the Scientific & Medical Network. You can see some of these yourself on the website Channel McGilchrist. This man inspires by the depth of his erudition and the lengths to which he has gone to make his case. The Matter With Things took ten years of his life and provides a comprehensive justification and amplification of the theory in that earlier book. It speaks with equal erudition on neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, physics…

This is not really a book for the general reader; it does require interested effort and perseverance to complete, but I found the effort well repaid. When Iain presented his first draft to his publisher, the reaction was that it needed major editing and perhaps removal of references. He refused and chose to publish it himself. All the research and references were of importance.

I have no intention of trying any sort of summary. Perhaps the important point remains that first presented in The Master and his Emissary. We have these two modes of knowing about things: essentially rational and intuitive, which correspond strongly with left brain and right brain respectively. The proper mode of working of the human being involves both modes: initiation with intuition, working it through with rationality, and validating again with intuition.

Today’s problem is that the rational left brain has in many people significantly lost touch with the intuitive right, which is what grounds us in reality. The left tries to go its own way and ignore the right (the Emissary usurps the Master). We see the results all around in massive narcissism, and lost participation in the natural world, to the degree that we are apparently rather rapidly degrading it. The abstraction of the map has become more important than the reality of the territory.

In marshalling the evidence the book ranges widely over many fields. The first part considers the means to truth – attention, perception, judgement, intelligence (emotional social and cognitive) and creativity. The second part considers the paths to truth related to the brain hemispheres – science, reason and intuition. The third and final part considers the nature of reality, including the significance of opposites, the one and the many – parts and wholes, time, space, matter and consciousness, value, purpose of life and the nature of the cosmos, and the sense of the sacred. Wow.

Having seen various videos of the man in conversation, I found the experience of reading these volumes to be like having an ongoing conversation with an erudite and wise man – an enjoyable and educational experience.

McGilchrist sees this culmination of his life’s work to be the presentation and ‘proving’ of his theories, in an academic sense – there are just so many references, all beautifully laid out near the relevant text. Who can say that this is not a vital endeavour for humanity? These ideas are important!

Trauma and the body

In the early 1980s I read the then-popular book Bodymind by Ken Dychtwald, on how the psychological/emotional effect of events in our lives are reflected in the body, and increasing body awareness can help in addressing the residue of these. It all made sense.

Science, and particularly neuroscience, has move a long way since those days, so it was interesting to come back to this scene with Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score – the title says it all. The subtitle gives the particular focus of the book: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma.

Over the years I’ve been involved in various ways with counselling and had an interest in the talking therapies, but it has been evident that there are problems that these simply cannot reach, trauma being a major one of these. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk has specialised in helping people with trauma over a long career, and it is fascinating to see his perspective on it, and how the professional view has evolved over that time.

I do recall from my own experiences growing up, that various uncles who had served in World War II never talked about their experiences – whether in Burma, or as a prisoner of war in Germany, or in active combat. It was in the box of their past, and they just did not want to open up that box. I suspect that each had his own trauma that was just too difficult to resolve in any conscious way.

It was the traumas of war that were first recognised in USA in 1980, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. PTSD was then first described as a condition in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) of the American Psychiatric Association. Van der Kolk gives insight into the fight there has been since then to introduce into the DSM more general traumas that come out of lived experience due to domestic/child abuse, physical circumstances such as poverty, neglect, working conditions, hunger, racism, oppression by unfair policing and so on. This has proved very difficult. Might one suggest that those in power might not wish it to be recognised that the conditions they were imposing on members of society are actually causing traumatic injury to those in their ‘care’.

Even so, there has been great progress in the understanding and treatment of trauma, and the book outlines many approaches that have proved helpful, and the underpinning advances in neuroscience. It is impossible to summarise the wise words and stories emerging in these pages – engaging psyche, emotions and the body with techniques, therapies bodywork etc. Of course, drugs may help, but they are not the ultimate answer.

Van der Kolk is a great storyteller, so the material is fully engaging. We can all learn a lot, even in dealing with the minor ‘traumas’ of everyday life. Even more, we can see how the generation of trauma is built in to some of our governmental and social systems. He ends the book with this statement:

Trauma is now our most urgent public health issue, and we have the knowledge necessary to respond effectively. The choice is ours to act on what we know.

Well worth reading.

Fundamentalism

My post Modes of knowing highlighted that we have two modes of knowing: rationality, corresponding to left brain function; and intuition, corresponding to right brain function. The human being operates at best when these two modes of knowing operate in tandem, and there is great danger when the rational/left brain function takes over and ignores or denies the right brain/intuition. This is the root cause of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism appears in many guises in the modern world.

  • Religious fundamentalism. We all know about that. The word in the holy books is taken as a statement of fact, rather than as metaphor. We see these fundamentalists all over the world – Islamic Christian, Hindhu, Buddhist… The effect is to deny the basic truths that were initially espoused by the founding spiritual teachers – Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha…
  • Political fundamentalism. The dedication to a particular ideology, which is often the cover for a privileged class, even an individual, to stay in control of society.
  • Economic fundamentalism. The dedication to particular ideas about how an economy is run, such as that private is always good, public spending is always bad, of many modern right wingers – or indeed the very opposite from many modern left wingers.
  • Scientific materialist fundamentalism. The belief that objective science and the materialist paradigm can explain everything, and that subjective life – religion/spirituality, morality, values etc – are somehow unimportant as without foundation.

I’m sure you could add further examples. Yes, fundamentalism abounds wherever there is human thought and endeavour – particularly, I would suggest, in these days of significant left-brain domination. The task of human development is, as ever, to tread the path between the extremes that lead to fundamentalism, to respond to life with the full subjectivity of those very subjective values that fundamentalism is inherently unable to take into consideration. To be human beings, not the machines that various fundamentalisms would seek to turn us into.

Inspired by Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things.
Featured image by Stiller Beobachter from Ansbach, Germany, via Wikimedia Commons