The Chalice and the Blade

This Christmas I got lucky, as on my list of possible presents was the book by Riane Eisler The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. I’d seen references to this memorable title and author name in many other works. First published in 1987, this has been a hugely influential book. So what was all the fuss about?

I soon got stuck in and became entranced by a story of human development. It begins in Old Europe maybe 10000 years ago, a land of peace and plenty, well organised, with advanced technologies of the day. All people were equal, creativity and arts flourished, and peace reigned. The feminine was ‘worshipped’ as the source of new life. There was plenty for all. It was a veritable Garden of Eden, the source of the myth in the bible.

The residents were what we might call pastoralists, but around the edges of Old Europe were the nomads who move around from place to place. In hard times, perhaps climate change, they could not resist invading the land of peace. These people were shaped by hardship and became increasingly masculine and warlike. Women were secondary. When they took over an area with violence these people eventualy settled and were influenced themselves to adopt more peaceful ways.

Successive waves of invaders led, over the years to periods of war and hardship, followed by periods of peace and creativity as the invaders were absorbed. In the warlike years the masculine dominated; in the peaceful years the pendulum swang the other way and culture flourished. But the ‘equal’ civilisation of Old Europe effectively died out when Minoan Crete (‘Atlantis’) was destroyed by natural disaster (the flood) around 1400BC.

The undercurrent of the feminine always remained, underneath the masculine domination. Jesus Christ himself, and other prophets before him, came in warlike times and preached the other way. In the end, the mighty Roman Empire adopted Christianity and masculinised the religion, treating the true texts of old, such as the gnostic gospels, as heresies.

If you travel through Europe today, you see visual evidence of this process. So many towns, villages, bastides, fortresses, castles build on high land that can more easily be defended from invaders.

This lens represented by the symbols of the chalice and the blade helps us to understand our history and these two aspects of humanity. Throughout her book, Riane Eisler refers us to all the latest archeological research (at that time), giving convincing evidence.

The story is compelling, and we find ourselves still in masculine-dominated times, where the established order uses ‘culture wars’ to try to maintain this dominance, while invaders from the East again threaten a Europe that has been at peace since the last great war.

How the story will play out is anybody’s guess. But the essential challenge to each of us individually is clear – to reinstate the chalice on a par with the blade in our own lives.

The current paperback includes an epilogue where Eisler comments on developments over the last 30 years since the original publication. Eisler uses the example of the demise of the Soviet Union under Mikhael Gorbachov and the subsequent reinstatement of the old regime under Vladimir Putin to illustrate the struggle that is going on in the world. A key insight is that the various fundamentalisms at work today, both religious and political, and the related populisms, are all evidence of the dominant ‘masculine dominated’ ideology trying to maintain its control. Our desperate need today is to move from this ‘dominator’ mindset to one of ‘partnership’. If we cannot achieve this the dominator mindset appears to be impelling us to destruction.

The consonance of Eisler’s ideas with Iain McGilchrist’s much later Left Brain/Right Brain analysis in The Matter With Things is notable. The right brain of oneness and partnership has been usurped by the dominant left brain of rationality.

The Chalice and the Blade remains an important contribution to understanding where we are today. Do read it.

Featured image is of Ardagh Chalice in the National Museum of Ireland, via Wikimedia Commons

Extraordinary Awakenings

Steve Taylor‘s book Extraordinary Awakenings: When Trauma Leads to Transformation documents a remarkable piece of research which takes a thorough look at the subject of spiritual awakening, which Steve describes:

“Spiritual awakening is simply a shift into a more intense and expansive state of awareness. In awakening, it’s as if the filters or boundaries that limit normal human awareness fall away. At the same time, awakening is a higher-functioning psychological state — a state of enhanced well-being and freedom from psychological discord, in which people live more authentically and creatively.”

Steve has explored the stories of many individuals who have gone through such awakenings driven by traumatic circumstances, in all of the following categories:

  • on the Battlefield 
  • through Incarceration
  • bereavement
  • facing Death
  • depression, stress, suicidal
  • addiction

Many examples are given, such as that of Sri Aurobindo, who was imprisoned for a year for political activism. When Aurobindo was released:

“His political colleagues expected him to continue to fight for their cause, but now he was a different person. Political issues no longer seemed important. It no longer seemed enough to help liberate his country. Now he wanted to serve the whole human race, to help liberate all human beings from psychological suffering. Most of all, he wanted to help manifest the next stage in the evolution of human consciousness. And he devoted the rest of his life to this goal.”

Steve quotes many examples across the above categories of ‘transformation through trauma’. The most important attitude to deal with them is acceptance. We often go into a mode of resistance, such as when we talk about fighting a disease or struggling to overcome obstacles. But doing so blocks transformation. When we shift to acceptance, surrendering to the situation, letting go, then transformation becomes possible.

It is important to recognise that we have a choice about is how to respond to suffering. This was one of the insights of psychologist Viktor Frankl, gained during his three years as an inmate of Nazi concentration camps. Frankl was one of the 10 percent of inmates who survived Auschwitz, and attributed his survival to his strong sense of purpose. He watched others give up hope, losing their sense of purpose, noticing that soon afterward they would fall ill and die. This sense of purpose is the freedom that circumstances cannot take away from us.

In the final part of the book, Steve outlines a Four-Step Process of Responding to Challenges, aimed to help this transformatory process along, and help individuals in their process of response. First, it is essential to acknowledge your predicament, second is to acknowledge your negative thoughts and feelings about the situation, third is to explore them and how they are affecting you, and fourth is acknowledgement of your predicament and accepting and letting go of your own resistance. You’ll just have to read the book if you want to better understand this.

Steve then moves on to consider how this knowledge can help those of us not currently suffering from stress and trauma. The key message he draws out is that we should embrace challenge and expansion, also contemplate death and the change and dissolution of the body, a process that becomes inevitable as we age…

And we should cultivate non-attachment, through techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, letting go. Attachment is of the ego, and the spiritual path enjoins us to transcend our attachments to a state of greater involvement in the whole of life.

Steve’s book gives us the encouraging perspective, that whatever stress and trauma may occur in our lives, we can use this experience as a springboard to personal transformation, becoming more conscious and better human beings.

Our spiritual potential has always been real, and presaged by many wise forerunners. It is only in the material forgetfulness of the modern world that many are in denial of this fact.

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.

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.

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.

A modern pioneer

The life of Federico Faggin (born 1941 in Italy) is quite fascinating, as described in his book Silicon. He starts out in life as a red hot designer of newly emerging computer technologies, is one of the pioneers of the early years of the modern information revolution, lives his main career in Silicon Valley surfing the waves of new technologies, and yet ultimately comes to realise the limitations of these computer technologies, indeed of the modern materialistic world view. He forms a Foundation for the scientific study of consciousness, realising that it is consciousness that is fundamental, as opposed to the materialism of the prevailing paradigm.

Faggin splits his story into four parts, or lives.

The First Life covers his university education, technical career and marriage in Italy.

In the Second Life he moves to USA, Silicon Valley, and is a key player in SGS Fairchild’s development of silicon gate technology and the first integrated circuit Fairchild 3708. Then he works in the early days of Intel (1103 then 4004 in 1971), and the first single-chip microprocessor (8008 then 8080). After conflicts Federico leaves Intel in 1974.

In his Third Life Federico becomes an entrepreneur, founding Zilog with Ralph Ungermann, funded by Exxon Enterprises, in 1974. This led to the influential Z80 microcontroller. There followed periods with Cygnet Technologies and then Synaptics, where he becomes involved in neural networks and the development of touchpads (1994). Then there is a period with Foveon, developing image sensors – all this is leading edge technology at the time.

Towards the end of this period he has an ‘illumination experience’, which leads to his questioning the ‘hard problem of consciousness’. He comes to the realisation that the materialistic model is inadequate, and he outlines a perspective that is consistent with quantum physics, where consciousness is primary (panpsychism). This leads to the Fourth Life, where, with his wife, he forms the Federico and Elvia Faggin Foundation for the scientific study of consciousness (2011).

This is a fascinating story. But a warning is in order at this point. I sort of glazed over much of the technical material in this book, despite understanding a fair bit about the information revolution of the past 50 years. Without such a background you might struggle to make sense of this book.

Yet this is an important story. Ultimately, Federico’s insight into consciousness is the realisation that has come to many of the leading scientific thinkers of the past 100 years, including many of the quantum physicists. A peril for our times is that we embed ourselves ever further into the materialistic paradigm and even give away our free will to those very computers that Federico helped to come to fruition, because we become lost in the glamour of artificial intelligence (which he himself decries). Our very moral purpose and creativity are at stake.

Featured image of Z80 by Chris Whytehead, Chris’s Acorns, via Wikimedia Commons

V2

A fascist dictator is losing the war that he initiated. With one last throw of the dice, a brand new and unstoppable weapon, he aims to turn the tide, but it turns out to be one last defiant gesture.

November 1944, the Nazi armies are in retreat as the Allies advance across Europe. But the Germans under Werner von Braun have developed a rocket that can send bombs across the channel, but without accurate aim. A launch programme aims to terrorise the population of London.

In his book V2, Robert Harris tells the story of the ‘successes’ and failures, particularly from the point of view of an English woman trying to track down the launch sites, and a German man somewhat half-heartedly engaged in the launch processes. Their two stories are effectively interweaved in a compelling narrative – Harris is a great storyteller.

At the end of the war, the engineers under von Braun were of course transmitted to the USA, and became the core of the subsequent space programme, leading to the first Moon landing in 1969. They were always more interested in creating rockets to fly into space than they were in warfare.

The consequences of war are many and unpredictable.

Featured image is of a V2 rocket awaiting launch.

Sapiens

Daughter left a copy of Juval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) lying around. I finally got around to reading it. What a great history of humankind: from the early variants that led to Homo Sapiens, to the great flooding; from the nomadic life to agriculture, cities, pyramids and early civilisations; to the dominance of religions and empires; to banks and money, the renaissance; and the development of science and capitalism; the industrial revolution and its empires, and the modern world of ‘permanent revolution’.

It’s a rollicking, engaging and informative tale that runs apace. Harari tells a good story and clearly knows a lot about the subject.

Unfortunately his description is one of surfaces, rather than of the spiritual depths of humanity – in a word, materialistic. Try this quote from page 263:

“…a huge gulf is opening between the tenets of liberal humanism and the latest findings of the life sciences… our liberal… systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature… which gives meaning to the world… the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this belief… Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there.”

This is of course nonsense. Science explicity deals with what can be ‘objectively’ measured, which explicitly avoids any question of inner experience and the soul. By definition it cannot understand ‘the sacred inner nature’ of every individual.

This does somewhat question the validity of Harari’s later speculations about the relationship of machines to future intelligence and possible supplanting of homo sapiens.

That aside, this book is a great read, and his speculations are stimulating!

As he indicates at the end, humans have become almost like gods in their powers, and yet we are wreaking havoc on the earth. He ends with a salutary note:

“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

Could that be because we have lost touch with that sacred inner nature, and hence lack wisdom?

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.

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.

The White Ship

Charles Spencer’s book The White Ship tells the story of the first Norman kings of England, and the shattering effect that one event – the sinking of a ship – had on the course of English history.

Of course, 1066 is the one date burned into the mind of every English child – when the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror effectively turned England into a province of Normandy, and the land of England was shared out between William’s favoured knights.

The job of every king at the time was to produce a male heir. If there was more than one boy, there was often conflict between the brothers. William had three sons, so there were years of conflict after his death in 1087, complicated by the fact that the English Channel split the ‘nation’ or empire.

Eventually William’s youngest son prevailed to become the dominant monarch, King Henry I, of the re-integrated country. After the final battles on the continent that assured his dominance, Henry returned to England from Barfleur in Normandy in late November 1120.

Henry and his wife Matilda had just one son, William Ætheling, and a daughter Matilda. There were also a number of illegitimate sons. Henry left for England early evening, on a favourable tide. William was to follow Henry back later in the evening, on a faster, White Ship, along with many of Henry’s supporters and heroes of the campaign. The story tells how drunkenness and revelry led to the ship running aground on rocks off Barfleur, losing all but one on board.

Henry I now had no male heir. The rest of the book details the contortions as he tried to get his daughter Matilda accepted as the next monarch, and the ensuing conflict and anarchy after Henry’s death in 1135, between his nephew, Stephen of Blois, who actually became king of England, and Matilda based on the continent. When Matilda’s son Henry took on the battle, Stephen was eventually forced to concede that this Henry should become the next king, Henry II, who became a dominant monarch in 1154 in the same mold as William and Henry I.

Similar tales have been recorded over the ages – the problems of succession, the intervening of natural disaster or folly. This one has a particular ring about it, at a key point in the history of England, Normandy and associated territories. It is well told by Charles Spencer in this book.

Featured image of the White Ship was produced in 1321, public domain.

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell is on my mind, having just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the last of her award-winning trilogy on his life.

Born around 1485, of humble origins in London, Cromwell rose to become an MP, then in 1524 an advisor to Chancellor Thomas Wolsey, right hand man of King Henry VIII. Somehow Cromwell survived the fall of Wolsey in 1529, when King Henry blamed Wolsey for the failure to get the pope to agree with annulling his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon, who had not produced a son and heir.

In 1530 the King appointed Cromwell to the Privy Council and over the following years gave him many other titles, including Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Privy Seal and Great Chamberlain. Thomas Cromwell became the second most powerful man in England, second to King Henry of course, but always resented by the traditional aristocracy. He always had jealous enemies.

In 1532 the supremacy of the king over the church in England was confirmed, the Lord Chancellor and anti-protestant Sir Thomas More resigned and was subsequently executed. The marriage to Catherine was annulled at Dunstable Priory, delegitimising her daughter Mary as heir. Henry married Anne Boleyn in 1533. All was orchestrated by Cromwell. In 1534 he was formally confirmed as first minister (compare today’s prime minister).

In 1536 came the act for the suppression of the lesser monasteries, Cromwell’s scheme to seize the wealth and lands of the monasteries, which provoked rebellion in the north of England with first the Lincolnshire Rising and followed by the Pilgrimage of Grace. These rebellions were seen off by Henry and those loyal. Those responsible were first persuaded to delay and later pursued and executed.

Anne Boleyn had not agreed with the religious changes, there were rumours of affairs, and she had also not produced a male heir. Cromwell was instrumental in her trial, fall and execution and the annulment of this marriage, delegitimising her daughter Elizabeth as heir. Henry married Jane Seymour.

Queen Jane died in 1537, after the birth of her son Edward, the longed-for male heir.

In 1538 the religious reform extended to the larger monasteries, which were invited to surrender, a process completed by 1540. Those that resisted, such as Richard Whiting at Glastonbury, were executed. The wealth and lands went to the King and his favoured lords. But the king resisted further religious reform.

Also in 1540 Cromwell had succeeded in arranging a ‘political’ marriage of Henry with Anne of Cleves, which was never consummated as neither party seemed to regard the other with any favour. But political winds were changing on the continent and it is believed that Henry blamed Cromwell for this alliance and the failure to extricate him from the marriage. Conservative forces briefed against Cromwell and the king allowed him to be arrested, tried and executed by July. At the same time, Anne agreed to annulment of the marriage and Henry married Catherine Howard.

Ten years was all it took for the once-humble Thomas Cromwell to dissolve the great monasteries of England and be instrumental in the king undertaking his second, third and fourth marriages, and for others to follow through with the fifth. Whatever we think of his dissolution of the monasteries, he seems not to have deserved the fate of beheading eloquently described by Hilary Mantel.

In fact Mantel’s books tell the whole story of Cromwell’s period in power, from the imagined perspective of the man himself. The whole trilogy is a tour de force, requiring great stamina for a complete reading, but very rewarding.

At the end of the day, Thomas Cromwell was a mere pawn on the European chessboard, in the game being played out by the English, French and Holy Roman kings/emperor, the Protestants and the popes of the Roman Catholic Church. He was dispensable when no longer convenient for his master.

King Henry VIII was a monster ego, who manipulated all to his own perceived personal advantage. We have not a jot of sympathy for him. Just beware today’s monster egos that seek similar over-arching power.

Featured image: Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein

Hilary Mantel trilogy: Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, The Mirror and the Light

An Exploration of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”

I was drawn to Martin Buber’s ideas of I-Thou while at unversity in the 1960s. Here is a great post by Andrew on the subject. How often do we treat others as objects rather than as other subjects with whom we can empathise?

Of course, much modern politics is all about I-It, treating people as objects. Those who seek empathy and treating others humanely, as opposed to cold hearted objectivity, are tarred as woolly hearted liberals.

Similarly, I-It dominates many people’s attitude to the natural world, rather than being embedded in the wonder. Which is of course why we have a global ecological crisis.

A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life

Martin Buber’s book “I and Thou” is an inquiry into how our relationships with others shape our reality. His main thesis, which runs throughout the course of the book, is that there are two different modes in which we encounter the world, namely through ‘I-It’ or ‘I-Thou’ relationships.

Let’s take a closer look at these concepts in more detail.

I-IT

I-It relationships are entered into to achieve some sort of external goal or purpose. Through these type of encounters we engage others with the intent and expectation of attaining some gain or benefit. For those familiar with the language of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, people are treated as means to achieve an end.

With the rise of political and economic bureaucracies, shift towards urbanization and the proliferation of global corporations of the modern era, I-IT relationships have become the predominant mode of interaction in our day to day lives.

They…

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Spiritual science

Can science and spirituality be reconciled? Is there a way of looking at things that brings them into alignment? Of course, the answer is ‘yes’. In his book Spiritual Science, published 2018, Steve Taylor gives a convincing answer. His subtitle is ‘why science needs spirituality to make sense of the world’. Steve gives the reasons and, from my perspective, comprehensively demolishes the arguments for the recently dominant paradigms of materialism and scientism.

Steve looks at the origins of materialism. Science originally developed alongside religion through pioneers such as Descartes, Kepler and Newton. They were not seen as incompatible. it was around the second half of the 19C that Darwin’s theory of evolution came to put into question whether the biblical stories could actually be true; there came a theory that religion was not necessary to explain the world. TH Huxley was a leading proponent of what became the materialistic viewpoint. The inner content of experience and consciousness itself were mysterious elided. After the world wars further discredited religions, materialism gradually took hold, and there came about a new faith that materialism could explain everything. As Steve points out this has denigrated the experience of the spiritual/religious life, and indeed has become a new religion. The result has become increasingly clear as humanity in the large degrades the natural world, and even imperils its own existence.

Steve then goes on to ask the simple question ‘What if the primary reality of the universe is not matter? What if there is another quality, which is so fundamental that it actually pervades matter, and matter is actually a manifestation of it? What if this othe quality also pervades living beings, and all non-living things, so that they are always interconnected?’ Of course, this sort of idea has been adopted by many cultures in history, and is similar to the perspective of the ageless wisdom propagated by Helena Blavatsky. Steve refers back to the ancient Greek philosophy, to the world’s religions, to indigenous cultures, all of whihc had similar viewpoints. It is the modern materialism that is the aberration.

Steve’s panspiritism, and the similar panpsychism, have much greater explanatory power than materialism, which tends to reject the numerous phenomena that it cannot explain, not least the question of consciousness itself, which tends to be ‘explained away’ from the materialist viewpoint (the ‘hard problem’). In the panspiritist vew, consciousness exists everywhere and in everything, and the brain acts as some sort of receiver which channels it. And of course this view allows for the possibility of ‘spiritual experiences’, which are well understood and documented.

Steve goes on to explore the correlates between mind, brain and body, near-death and awakening (spiritual) experiences, psychic phenomena, an alternative view of evolution, the puzzle of altruism, and the problems of quantum physics, which has long been known to be inconsistent with simple materialism. Finally he outlines key tenets of panspiritism and the significance of the expansion of consciousness in the evolution of our universe. This is what it’s all about!

Steve’s book is a genuine tour de force, expressed in language that is not deeply technical. Well worth reading.

All doomed?

“A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

Will Durant

To make up for a significant gap in my scientific/technological education, I once waded through Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History (abridged version, a mere 1003 pages summarising the original 12 volumes), with significant help from a large Webster’s Dictionary. The ebb and flow of humanity and its civilisations was indeed fascinating. But always there was the question at the back of my mind ‘Why do civilisations fail? This has inspired many historians to produce their own stories and analyses. William Ophuls is familiar with many of these and has produced this short book Immoderate Greatness in which he summarises the conclusions, not the stories.

So why do civilisations fail? Ophuls suggest there are six fundamental reasons:

  1. Ecological exhaustion through systematic exhaustion of the civilisation’s periphery and nature. The money economy tends to become an abstraction disconnected from the real world.
  2. Exponential growth. Essentially the future is valued at a great discount to the present. Decisions are taken for now, not for future generations.
  3. The law of Entropy, disorder tends to increase despite technological advances. Technologies tend to require more energy than they can generate. The natural system based on living processes does not have this problem.
  4. Excessive complexity. Eventually the level of problems created exhausts the capacity of people to manage them.
  5. Moral decay. Glubb identified that civilisations pass through natural ages: pioneers, commerce, affluence, intellect, then decadence. Over a period of around 250 years. In the latter age politics is increasingly corrupt and life unjust with huge wealth discrepancies – with bread and circuses to distract the people.
  6. Practical failure. The previous problems inevitably lead to increasing failure. Inflation,  debasing currency and wars have been the desperate paths historically taken. Reform and revival is possible, but is not the path most taken.

Now we have a global civilisation that has been around for about 250 years. It exhibits many of the symptoms mentioned. Collapse is possible, are we all doomed? Not necessarily.

What is clear is that fundamental change is needed – not least re global warming, catastrophic decline of the natural world, pandemics and global security. All require global cooperation.

The evident reversion of some countries to populism and posturing nationalism are moving in the wrong direction – that of moral decay, privileged elites, bread and circuses. This is the last thing that is needed.

Entangled Life

I’ve always known that there are mushrooms and fungi and yeasts and strange underground things called truffles. And I’ve increasingly become aware of just how interconnected is all life on earth, which shows through as one of the themes in this blog. What I had not fully realised is that fungi are fundamental building blocks of this interconnected life, even to the extent that plants could not exist without them,  and live in symbiosis with them. Of course this also applies to animals, including human beings. Indeed, some of the largest beings on the planet are fungi.

The actual fungal body is the mycelium of threads (hyphae) that runs through the earth, the compost heap, the rotting corpse, the living being. The mushroom and truffle are the fruit, which provides the mechanism to facilitate spreading of the spores.

For millennia fungi have provided the means for human relaxation and psychological transcendence, through psychedelic mushrooms and the alcoholic beverages that come from fermentation through yeasts, which are also simple fungi. Who knows what role they played in the visions of prophets and mystics, and the evolution of the human psyche.

All this and more is the subject of Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life. It is a very readable story of the discoveries of modern science related to fungi, woven with Merlin’s own personal journey. Well worthy reading for a better insight into the ever-increasing complexity of our understanding of the natural world, which is just about keeping pace with our ignorant destruction of it.

I should perhaps declare a minor bias, in that Merlin’s  illustrious father Rupert Sheldrake stayed overnight at our house in the early 90s, in order to give his Knutsford Lecture on Visions of a New Renaissance. Rupert’s innovative approach to science, that led to his theory of morphic resonance, appears to have rubbed off well onto his son Merlin, who is proving to be another great communicator of science.

Featured image of edible fungi in a basket is by George Chernilevsky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mystical scientists

The greatest scientists are also mystics. They recognise that their science is just producing mathematical models of the real world, and there is always a mystery beyond that. The model is a map, not the territory.

In one of his early books Quantum Questions (1984), American philosopher Ken Wilber collated mystical writings of some of the main physicists who created the 20th century revolution in physics, including relativity and quantum theory. This effectively shows that those pioneers were, each in their own way, also mystics.

I recently got hold of a secondhand copy of the book to check it out. These are the scientific mystics included:

  • Werner Heisenberg, who gave his name to the famous ‘uncertainty principle’
  • Erwin Schrödinger, who developed wave mechanics
  • Albert Einstein, famous for his special and general relativity and contributions in quantum theory and Brownian movement
  • Prince Louise de Broglie, who developed the theory of matter waves
  • James Jeans, who made numerous contributions to the theory of gases, electromagnetism, the evolution of stars and galaxies…
  • Max Planck, father of quantum theory
  • Wolfgang Pauli, whose numerous contributions included the ‘exclusion principle’ and forecasting the existence of the neutrino
  • Arthur Eddington, leading exponent of relativity theory, who led the expedition leading to its first ‘proof’

As Wilber points out, they were following in the tradition of predecessors such as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton.

All these great scientists recognised the philosophical nature of the work they were doing, and what was not within its scope. It’s a great shame that modern practioners of the strange faith of scientism and materialism did not have that same recognition and came to reject any concept of mysticism or spirituality.

Is the book worth reading? Only if it’s of particular interest for you. But it’s good to know of its existence!

Featured image shows attendees at the famous 1927 Solvay Conference, including
Front Row: Planck (2), Einstein (5),
Middle Row: de Broglie (7),
Back Row: Schrödinger (6), Pauli (8), Heisenberg (9).

by Benjamin Couprie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Creativity and Humour

One of my themes in this blog has been the over-dominance of left brain as against right brain in current Western societies. This was the subject of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary, reviewed here in 2016. So I was delighted to come across this video of McGilchrist in conversation with John Cleese (of Fawlty Towers fame) on the subject of Creativity, Humour and The Meaning of Life, and their essential relationship with the right brain.

To pick just two points that it inspired for me:

  • Comedy is essentially ‘right brain’, and is not ‘politically correct’ or ‘woke’. Comedy depends on irreverence, and being able to laugh at things that are potentially forbidden subjects. Just think of those TV images of masses of men leading the Soviet Politburo or the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Not much comedy in those solemn faces.
  • Meaning, imagination and inspiration are very much related to right brain. Have you noticed just how boring politicians are on the media when they are in the process of spouting some ‘party line’ that the left brain is following? The only interesting speakers on programmes such as the BBC’s Question Time are those with the freedom to speak out from their own life experience.

You will have your own takeaways from listening to this fascinating conversation between an outstanding academic/psychiatrist and a top class comedian. The video is in 3 parts of around 20 minutes each. The first part follows, and will naturally lead you on to the others..