This book is a Get Out of Jail Free card and a passport back into the playground.

The aim of this book is to set you free. But free from what? Free from neurosis. Free from the feeling that you have to obey authority. Free from emotional intimidation. Free from addiction. Free from inhibition.

The key to happiness, mental health and being the most that we can be is absolute and unconditional self-acceptance. The paradox is that many of our problems are caused by trying to improve ourselves, censor our thinking, make up for past misdeeds and struggling with our negative feelings whether of depression or aggression.

But if we consider ourselves in our entirety in this very moment, we know these things :

1. Anything we have done is in the past and cannot be changed, thus it is pointless to do anything else but accept it. No regrets or guilt.

2. While our actions can harm others, our thoughts and emotions, in and of themselves, never can. So we should accept them and allow them to be and go where they will. While emotions sometimes drive actions, those who completely accept their emotions and allow themselves to feel them fully, have more choice over how they act in the light of them.

Self-criticism never made anyone a better person. Anyone who does a “good deed” under pressure from their conscience or to gain the approval of others takes out the frustration involved in some other way. The basis for loving behaviour towards others is the ability to love ourselves. And loving ourselves unconditionally, means loving ourselves exactly as we are at this moment.

This might seem to be complacency, but in fact the natural activity of the individual is healthy growth, and what holds us back from it is fighting with those things we can’t change and the free thought and emotional experience which is the very substance of that growth.

How to Be Free is available as a free ebook from Smashwords, I-Tunes in some countries, Kobo and Barnes & Noble

It is also available in paperback from Lulu or Amazon for $10 US, plus postage.

The ebook version currently has received 361 ***** out of ***** ratings on U.S. I-Tunes.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Selfishness is Self-Denial

The key problem in human societies has always been selfishness. It puts us in the position of competing with each other when cooperation is the way to maximise our creativity and make sure that the needs of all are provided for.

But how well do we actually understand selfishness?

Selfishness is the natural self-directedness of the suffering or insecure individual. If you hit your thumb with a hammer you find it hard to think of anything else. It is a natural process that our attention focuses where there is a need or a threat.

Sometimes we are encouraged to feel guilty about being selfish. This doesn’t help. Guilt is a source of pain and pain makes us more selfish. It’s a negative feedback loop.

We may think that we have to chose between selfishness or self-denial. This is a false dichotomy. Selfishness is self-denial.

The fact that we want pleasure for ourselves is not a problem. It may very well be the solution. Selfishness consists less in the seeking of personal pleasure than it does in lacking the courage to truly maximise that pleasure.

Copyright: melnyk58 / 123RF Stock Photo

Think of the society within which we live as a garden. Each of us lives in a hut within that garden. The garden has run to seed. It is a tangle of weeds.

We can hide away in our huts most of the time. We can spend our time and resources putting up new wall-paper, shag-pile carpet, decorating with fancy adornments, buying a new 4K television… Our hut provides us with a place to hide from other people and from looking at the weeds. Sure we have our pleasures, but they are meagre.

With more courage we could learn to spend more time outside of our hut. Instead of decorating it we could be pulling weeds and planting flowers and fruit trees. Instead of being alone we could be doing this with others - talking and joking.

The more we transform the garden and the closer bonds we form with our fellow garden-dwellers, the longer we will want to spend outside.

Eventually we won’t want to return to our huts unless it is cold or rainy. We will wander around tending to the plants, eating the fruit, smelling the flowers, singing and dancing and making love with our neighbours.

And finally we realise that our selfishness was really a perverse form of asceticism. All we were doing was shutting ourselves out from paradise.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

A Non-Supernatural Interpretation of The Holy Trinity

Copyright: bernardojbp / 123RF Stock Photo

I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I have been greatly influenced by the ideas expressed by Jesus in the gospels. I’m a pantheist. For me God is a mythological or poetic way of referring to the creative principle of the universe which is intrinsic to all things, rather than extrinsic, i.e. supernatural - above nature. So I thought I would see if I can meet the challenge of interpreting a key aspect of Christian dogma - the Holy Trinity - in purely non-supernatural terms.

The Trinity consists of :

1. God the Father

2. God the Son

3. God the Holy Spirit (or Ghost)

God the Father

I’ve said that, for me, the term “God” is a poetic way of referring to the creative principle of the universe. Matter is structured energy and some forms of matter have a highly complex form of structure which allows them to grow and reproduce. And some of these highly complex forms have the capacity to use reason to aid their self management. Science is always advancing our knowledge of how this creative process of increasing organisation and complexity takes place. What is undeniable is that it does take place and thus there is a creative principle of some kind at work. This principle is one through which more complex wholes are formed from smaller and simpler wholes, e.g. our body is made up of cells, the cells are made up of molecules, the molecules are made up of atoms.

So all matter and all life comes about because of the agency of this creative principle. “God” created all things.

But what of we humans as individuals? Does the creative principle operate through us? A principle need not operate always by exactly the same means. What brings atoms together to form a molecule is not necessarily the same thing which brings a group of single-celled organisms together to form a community which may later become a single multi-cellular organism. The principle is a tendency for more complex organisations to develop where circumstances allow. The means by which that tendency is realised will change at each level of complexity reached. We humans can make a reasoned decision to come together as a cooperative group, whereas atoms don’t have the capacity of using reason as either a motivation or a means to an end in their formation of a molecule.

So how does the creative principle operate within us? Emotionally it is our capacity to feel love which motivates us to bond and cooperate with others and thus to become a part of a larger social whole. This is a biological process involving the production of the chemical messenger oxytocin. But our intellectual capacity for reason is also a manifestation of the creative principle. It is through this function that we are able to gain understanding of the world around us and bring into being new arrangements of matter which never existed before. Art and technology are expressions of the creative principle.

It has to be remembered that this principle is blind. It is improvisational not goal-directed. It creates an ecosystem the relative stability of which arises from balance. But it can give rise to something which upsets that balance and threatens the system. One of the perennial questions for religious people is : If God is all-powerful why does he allow evil? I think that this conception of the creative principle as God gives an explanation for this mystery. What do we mean by “all-powerful”? Do we mean “able to do anything which is possible” or do we expect this to also mean “able to do the impossible”? Someone who believes in a supernatural God will expect them to be able to do anything which can be imagined, but it may be possible to imagine many things which are impossible. If we don’t believe in the supernatural then “all-powerful” means able to do anything which is possible. If the universe is a deterministic system in which everything which happens is part of an interconnecting web of cause and effect and the creative principle is the process by which all of this happens then that process is “all-powerful”. And because this principle is blind it cannot predict or prevent the rise of destructive tendencies through its own agency. In fact destruction is an intrinsic part of its operation. Death for instance destroys one living being and thereby provides food to other living beings. As long as it occurs in a balanced way the system as a whole is maintained. What we identify as evil is usually destruction which does not seem to confer a benefit on the local system or the larger system. Generally we are thinking of human behaviour when you use the term. We don’t call a tsunami that kills hundreds of people “evil”. So how did human evil arise from the creative principle?

The creative principle gave rise to human intelligence and with this development a powerful new force came into play which had the power to unbalance the systems within which it arose. I’ve said that the creative principle is improvisatory rather than being orientated towards a more distant goal. Improvisation is characterised by spontaneous responsiveness to changes in the environment and therefore a system made up of improvisors is a system likely to maintain its sense of balance. On the other hand, if an individual sets their sights on some goal which is not directly based upon their current environment, then they are liable to act in a way which upsets the balance of the system. We can see this clearly in our time when our power is such that we can destroy whole ecosystems in order to achieve some economic purpose.

One factor in our becoming out of balance must have been the arrival of idealism. The idea that we should strive to pursue good behaviour and avoid bad behaviour and put pressure on others to do likewise is an example of well-intentioned goal-orientated behaviour, but it brings with it the problem that demanding high standards of behaviour from ourselves or others has a tendency to undermine self-acceptance, which is required for us to have the psychological security to sustain loving cooperative behaviour.

This is not to say that goal-orientated thinking and behaviour is to be avoided. Rather it needs to be grounded in an holistic awareness of what is needed to maintain the stability of the system within which we hope to attain that goal.

I’ve said that the creative principle of the universe is blind, but that is only true up until the arrival of human reason. To the extent that we are conscious agents of this creative principle it is not blind - it sees with our eyes and reasons with our mind. To carry creation forward in a sustainable way, however, we need to be released from our propensity for evil behaviour.

Why do we say “God the Father”? Is this simply a reflection of the patriarchal nature of the societies in which mono-theism arose? It seems to me that it does also have a degree of appropriateness as a poetic expression when we consider that it is the male agency which provides the vital ingredient for the life within a woman to be realised. There had been goddesses before this which represented nature itself, but the creative principle is not synonymous with nature. Rather it is a key that unlocks nature’s potential. Of course, in reality it is neither male nor female, these distinctions having been one of its later products. The other thing we have to acknowledge is that, in the Jewish religion God was personified as a stern disciplinarian. So, while an acknowledgement of the creative principle of the universe lies at the heart of the God concept, many people have projected onto this figure various forms of neurotic feelings arising in their childhood.

God the Son

Jesus is viewed both as “the Son of God” and as God himself. If God is the creative principle of the universe then clearly Jesus was a product of this process. In this way he was the Son of God in the same way that we are all sons and daughters of God. But, if love and reason are the manifestations within the human species of the creative principle (i.e. God), then, to the degree that someone loves and is a truthful reasoner, they are the creative principle (i.e. God) in human form.

We may not think of Jesus as a rational man because he spoke poetically, but what he expressed in this way was an insightful description of human psychology and interpersonal relations. He was a untrained but highly skilled psychologist, which explains his reputation as a healer. It seems unlikely that he literally cured the blind, but that he “cast out demons” (i.e. healed people of mental distress) seems perfectly credible.

For the intelligent individual the biggest impediment to effective thinking is dishonesty. Only if we can be completely honest can we think effectively about ourselves, others and the world generally. In Jesus we find an honest thinker, and thus a person in whom the power of reason was strong.

We also have a loving individual, someone who showed unconditional acceptance of people, if not of their dishonesty. He talked honestly to people about their sinfulness (i.e. selfishness), but not in a condemning way. He told them that God forgave their sins because he realised that it was guilt about those sins which made them selfish. His aim was to return them to their capacity to love each other. He spoke harshly of the Scribes and Pharisees because he realised that they were too entrenched in their lies to liberate directly. The best he could do was to break the spell of authority they cast over those who could be helped.

Not only did Jesus speak poetically, but the stories which were handed down about him were mythologised before they reached the written page. Take the story of Lazarus. There may have been a man who was so depressed that he lay there doing nothing and his family said that it was as if he were dead. Jesus finds a way to release him from this state so that he becomes a happy productive member of society once more. The story travels down the grape vine and eventually you have Jesus literally raising a man from the dead.

What about his resurrection? Jesus would have been a very powerful presence, someone who changed those around him in a very profound way. At first the shock of his horrific death would have left his friends inoperable. But he still existed inside them. Who hasn’t experienced a sense that a dead friend or relative is still with them? With Jesus this effect must have been much more powerful. Maybe it was even so powerful that some experienced hallucinations of his physical appearance. What Jesus had given to them was still alive in them. It had a new life, one which made their own lives so meaningful that they did not fear death. What mattered to them was the creative principle. It had become their true self and it is eternal. Thus, for them, they had found the secret to eternal life.

God the Holy Spirit (or Ghost)

The word “holy” means “whole” or “of the whole” and the spirit of something is its essence. What is the essence of the whole? Truth. When we assemble facts coherently into an understandable whole we are perceiving the truth. The truth is the essence of that whole. And in the social sphere, truth holds the potential for cohesion. If we each believe something different we will be divided, but if we can all perceive the truth then it will provide us with a solid foundation for a loving cooperative society. Truth has the capacity to set us free. Science is our main tool for exposing the truth - it is the quest to lay bare the holy spirit. Sometimes the term “Holy Ghost” is used. Like a ghost, truth has an existence separate from the material phenomena it describes, but that existence is of a non-material nature.

The Three are One

How can three things be distinct and yet be one? That is the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

Jesus was an expression of the creative principle. Think of an animal. Take a dog. If I point at the dog and say “That is life” I am telling the truth. The dog is an example of life. Life and the dog are the same, but the word “dog” and the word “life” are not synonymous. Life refers to something more extensive than the dog, but it still does refer to the dog as well.

If Jesus was an expression of the creative principle of the universe who spoke truthfully, then when he spoke he spoke for the creative principle of the universe. He was an accurate mouthpiece for the principle. He spoke for God. When he spoke it was God speaking.

Only if he spoke the truth was his voice the voice of God. Truth is the holy spirit. If truth is the defining factor in the voice of a man being the voice of God, then God is Truth. Once again, in the factor of human speech God and Truth are the same thing, but they are not synonymous, because God describes something broader than truth. Truth is God in the same way that a dog is life.

God (the creative principle) is Jesus and Truth (but not just Jesus and Truth).

Jesus is God and Truth (in action) (but not just God or Truth, because he is also a human being).

Truth is God (in one form) and is a defining quality of Jesus (but not just God and Jesus).

The unity of the trinity is a key symbol because it forces us to acknowledge the interconnectedness of all things.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

BOOK REVIEW : Big Dreams : The Science of Dreaming & The Origins of Religion by Kelly Bulkeley

Can dreams have a meaning and purpose beyond that of our brains taking the garbage out each night? In this book, Kelly Bulkeley makes the case that the content of dreams is a worthy subject for scientific study. It is not necessarily easy to study something so personal and subjective, but with a combination of EEGs and fMRIs etc., which can give us insight into which parts of the brain are active during particular kinds of dreams, and dream databases, which gather descriptions of dreams from a wide range of individuals and organise them so they can be searched by keywords, it is possible to obtain some objective data to analyse.

As the title suggests, Bulkley’s ultimate aim is to look at the relationship between dreaming and religion, but, because both of these topics may be viewed as questionable areas for scientific study, he takes his time and works his way up to them progressively, beginning with an account of the role that sleep plays in the lives of animals generally and humans specifically. (We learn that dolphins sleep with one half of their brain at a time - one eye always open for possible dangers, and that bottle nose dolphin mothers and calfs remain awake and in visual contact for over two months straight after the calf’s birth.)

The outline of the book follows the example of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in that each chapter begins with a question followed by a brief account of an answer to that question which runs counter to that which Bulkeley will be making in the chapter itself. He then makes his detailed counter-argument and ends with a brief summary explaining why he thinks his answer is the more valid one.

A key idea which is introduced in the second section of the book, in which Bulkeley moves on to the topic of dreams themselves, is that dreaming is a form of play. In play we experiment freely with ideas and forms of behaviour in a safe environment. He explains that patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder have a tendency to experience rigidly repetitious nightmares reliving their trauma and that the process of recovery can be charted in the freeing up of the dream process. We can see in this a reflection of waking culture in which creativity and health arise from the ability to improvise rather than be restricted by fixed stereotypical forms of thought or expression.

After setting the scene with the first two sections of the book which deal with the topics of sleep and dreams generally, he moves on to his main subject - “big dreams.” The term comes from Carl Jung. A “big dream” is one which is very memorable and leaves a significant emotional reaction after waking. These dreams are relatively rare, so to study them is a “black swan” approach. The argument here is similar to that of William James when, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, he argued that the best way to increase our understanding of religious experiences was to examine the more extraordinary examples in which defining qualities were exaggerated and thus could be more easily observed.

Bulkeley divides these big dreams into four kinds - aggressive, sexual, gravitational and mystical. His contention is that our ability to experience these kinds of dreams has arisen via natural selection because each of them may convey upon the dreamer a survival advantage. Aggressive nightmares in which we may have to battle against or run from frightening creatures can act as an emotional preparation for dealing with real life dangers. Sexual dreams may help to increase our breeding potential by whetting our appetite for sex and allowing us to mentally rehearse sexual activities. Gravitational dreams - such as nightmares about falling - may have helped our tree-dwelling ancestors to maintain a necessary habit of wariness about the danger of falling out of the tree at night, but they may also act as a metaphor for failure of any kind, thus encouraging wariness generally.

It is with the evolutionary advantage of mystical dreams - such as dreams of flying and visitations from people who are dead - that we get to the heart of the thesis which will feed into the examination of religion. Here the evolutionary advantage is that such dreams stimulate our capacity for hope and imagination. These kinds of dreams may have been the origin of religious beliefs in other plains of existence and the survival of the soul beyond the body, but this is not the only effect that they can have. Bulkeley gives an example of a composer who had a dream about musical composition which continued to inspire him over 25 years after he had it. Perhaps the same lack of inhibitions which allows us to have very “inappropriate” sexual dreams can also set free our creative intuition.

When he gets to the topic of religious dreams in the final section of the book, he discusses four different kinds - those involving : demonic seduction, prophetic vision, ritual healing, and contemplative practice. Here again he takes a leaf out of William James’ book and points out that we can only study what happens in the mind of the individual having a religious experience, we cannot, on the basis of such a study, say anything about the existence or non-existence of the supernatural beings with whom the individual claims to have had contact.

Bulkeley’s approach in this part of the book is not to try to assess in any particular case whether a dream or approach to dreaming had a beneficial effect, but rather to look at whether the idea that it could is credible scientifically. 

When it comes to dreams of demonic seduction he uses a similar approach to that he used with aggressive nightmares and sexual dreams generally. Just as sexual dreams can prepare us to breed successfully, dreams about demonic seduction can prepare us to be suitably wary about the dangers which may occur in the breeding process.

The essential argument with prophetic dreams is that our mind has access to a lot of information about the important things going on in our lives and the dreaming process is one in which our mind is freed up to play around with the possibilities inherent in that information, so it is possible that we might make a better prediction of what lies ahead for us during a dream than we have while awake. This may not happen very often at all, but the fact that it can and that correct predictions are remembered while incorrect ones are forgotten, could explain why we have developed a cultural belief in the existence of dream prophecy.

The concept of dream incubation is central to the discussion of ritual healing through dreams. Many cultures believe that dreams can have a healing influence and there are practices and locations which can help to bring on such healing dreams. Sleep itself is central to the health of the body and the mind, so anything which reassures the individual and thus helps them to sleep more deeply and restfully is going to help the healing process, but the other factor Bulkeley discusses is the placebo effect. There are certain kinds of physical or mental ailment which have been shown to improve significantly simply because the sufferer believed that they would. If we combine these two factors then it is possible that someone going through a process of dream incubation may experience a noticeable improvement in their health because of a reassuring belief in the process, and a feature of that experience may be hopeful dreams or dreams which give good advice (making use of information absorbed but not previously activated). Once again, he is not saying that it works, but that it could conceivably work in some instances.

In the chapter on contemplative practice the emphasis is on pointing out the link between what happens in the brain during dreaming and what happens during meditation. There is also a discussion of lucid dreaming, in which the dreamer can become aware of the fact that they are dreaming and engage in all of the forms of conscious thinking which are accessible in the waking state. Thus dreaming can be a gateway to exploring alternate states of consciousness.

And for anyone who thinks he is too much of a dreamer, Bulkeley makes the following point :

“Dreaming is not opposed to skepticism. On the contrary, dreaming gives birth to skeptical consciousness. When people awaken from a dream (particularly a big dream), they immediately face a profound metaphysical question, one that has puzzled philosophers for ages: How does the reality of the dream relate to the reality of the waking world? This question echoes throughout human life as a conceptual template for critical thought and reflection.”

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Hammer or The Key : Exposing the Dictatorship of the Imagined

Copyright: bee32 / 123RF Stock Photo

All of us maintain some kind of relationship between the world as we can perceive it with our five senses and that which we can only imagine.

The approach of science is to study what we can perceive with our senses and deduce from this evidence the laws of nature which cannot be directly perceived but only imagined.

Religious belief often takes the opposite approach. Through our culture we absorb beliefs about something we cannot directly perceive and then allow these beliefs to shape our interpretation of what we can perceive. 

I say “often” because religious belief doesn’t always work this way. Some observe the physical world of nature and from its orderly creativity deduce the existence of a deity of some kind. They may add to this perception moral principles derived from observation of nature or society - a direct assessment based on sensory evidence of what produces a harmonious and creative society and what does not.

The relationship between the real and the imagined is a key issue for all of us regardless of our belief system. Every day we make decisions which mediate between the world we can perceive with our senses and that which we can only imagine. If I’m saving up my money to go on a holiday, something imaginary is effecting how I manage my real physical environment. My holiday will be purely imaginary until it occurs.

The imagination is crucial to our existence as creative beings. A healthy relationship to it is one in which it grows like a plant from the soil of our sensory perception of reality. Let it be as wild and prolific in its growth as it wants to be as long as it doesn’t enter into a relationship of hostility to the world of perceptible reality which gave birth to it.

In the extreme, some insist on the submission of the human individual and society generally to the will of a deity who can only be perceived through the use of the imagination. Yet we can all be prone to just such a tendency - trying to make ourselves or others conform to an imaginary vision of how we think things should be.

Love is the alternative to such an approach. Love arises from the forging of connections within perceivable reality. It is improvisational in its nature. It is the creative process through which the potential intrinsic to any social situation realises itself. Thus it cannot be imposed on the basis of a belief in something imagined, but it can be the key to the realisation of that which has previously only been imagined.

When we attempt to make ourselves or others submit to something imagined - be it a deity or a personal ambition or a utopian concept of how the world should be - it is if we are taking a hammer to reality. We are engaging in an act of violence. This is idealism. It is the root of all evil.

What we need is not a hammer with which to shape reality but a key to unlock its intrinsic potential.

When we gather information and seek understanding we are using a key. When we open ourselves up to listen to those with whom we have been in conflict and engage in civilised debate with them we are using a key. When we accept ourselves as we are as a basis for healthy growth, rather than trying to force ourselves to conform to something we imagine, we are using a key. The path of the open mind is the path of the key. The path of  equal communication is the path of the key. Love is the path of the key.

It is easy to become confused by all of the conflict in the world. The tendency is to chose sides. By so doing we can find ourselves committing complimentary mistakes. We can end up becoming more like that against which we fight.

A wiser approach is not to look for right or wrong sides in a conflict but to look for creative or destructive strategies. On either side of any conflict we might find those who use the hammer and those who use the key. If we seek the people of the key and shun the people of the hammer, regardless of their allegiance, then we will be moving towards real solutions to the problems we face.

Copyright: anyka / 123RF Stock Photo


Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Will Policing Our Cultural Expressions Discourage Violence?

Promotional material for X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) (dir. Bryan Singer) (20th Century Fox/Marvel)

Why does violence occur in our society? Clearly the reasons are complex and variable, but by asking ourselves a few questions we may be able to assess the best strategies to tackle the problem.

What has got me thinking about this issue are some recent examples of a particular strategy to fighting the problem of violence - particularly violence against women - in our society. This strategy argues that visual depictions of such violence and jokes about such violence are likely to be seen as condoning this behaviour. The strategy gives birth not just to censure of free expression but the production of media campaigns which try to convince us that this violence occurs in our society because we are too tolerant of it.

Our culture tells us that violence - except in self-defence - is wrong and that violence by men against women and by adults generally against children is especially heinous. As a general rule we no longer condone corporal punishment.

So the problem of violence in our society is not due to moral ignorance - it isn’t because we don’t know that violence of this kind is wrong. Or, at the very least, we know that society generally believes that it is wrong, even if we do not.

For most of us there are two reasons to obey a socially shared moral principle - to have a clear conscience and to avoid the censure of others. A psychopath might have no conscience, but even they might benefit from avoiding social censure.

Violence may occur where a subculture gives the individual greater acceptance because of this behaviour, for instance in a criminal gang. The social censure motive is then working in the opposite direction and overriding the conscience, if there is one.

A powerful physical or psychological need can override moral principles as well, e.g. the need to obtain the next fix of a drug.

And the generation of destructive impulses in the ego through a breakdown in its healthy functioning can propel the individual to act violently towards others, just as, if the impulses are directed against the self, the individual may commit suicide.

There is a great deal of speculation about Omar Mateen - the man who killed 49 people in an Orlando gay nightclub. He may or may not have been bisexual or homosexual himself. But his progressive radicalisation and eventual violent behaviour would make more sense if he were, because it would indicate the presence of a double bind - he can’t let go of his religion (which condemns homosexuality) but he can’t rid himself of the desires which are so condemned. His fear of his desires causes him to cling more tightly to the religion which cause him to feel an increasing fear of his desires which causes him to cling to the religion… It’s an untenable situation. Double binds can lead to insanity or suicide. They can also lead to murder. If one interpretation of the religion is that homosexuals should be killed (this is the interpretation given by the religious rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran) then killing as many homosexuals as possible is one way out of his double bind. On the one hand it lets him express his anger against those who have a happiness he can never have. Secondly it becomes a way for him to atone for his sinfulness. “I may desire to commit sodomy but I can make up for this by ridding the world of more acts of sodomy than I could ever have committed.” If life in the double bind is intolerable then this provides a way out which can be viewed as something other than suicide, because the final shot is not self-inflicted. Of course this is all speculation, but it is a theory which has explanatory power.

The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, "Whoever you find doing the action of the people of Loot, execute the one who does it and the one to whom it is done.". Abu Dawud (4462)

This is a very dramatic example, but something similar happens in less dramatic ways all the time. I’ve experienced it. In my case the double bind led to me being self-destructive, but I can understand how it could so easily go the opposite way and does. A man whose self-acceptance is inextricably linked to being a provider to his family who then loses his job may express his frustration - his self-hatred - in the form of violence against his wife or his children. If he can’t escape his situation by getting another job, then he is stuck with the irreconcilable dilemma that he is unemployed and unacceptable to himself because he is unemployed. The continued love and faithfulness of a sexual partner can very often become an absolute requirement for someone's self-acceptance, leading many men and women to violently attack someone who cheats on them or breaks up with them.

So the issue underlying the problem of violence in our society is one of self-acceptance. The problem to be addressed is anything which undermines self-acceptance. If a philosophy or religion says we should not accept our sexuality, then that is a potential source of problems. If we promote the idea that anyone who does not meet a particular ideal of success or physical appearance or mental health should feel ashamed, then this could be a source of problems. (This doesn’t mean not celebrating people’s success or physical appearance or whatever. It is not a problem to have positive aspirations, the problem lies in backing them up with the threat of shame.) A lack of self-acceptance can lead to each of the problems outlined above - addiction, conformity to a violent subculture or a tendency for the ego to temporarily break down in the form of an violent outburst, something which can also become habitual.

We are presented with public service advertisements which tell us that domestic violence is a terrible problem. If this helps us to have the political commitment to support better methods of early intervention and policing of protection orders and providing more therapy services to both victims and perpetrators, then this is a good thing. But the key issue is the one not dealt with. What are the psychological factors which drive a person to violence and what can we do to help to free people from this compulsion? It isn’t simply a matter of us being too tolerant. At the moment someone lifts their fist or picks up a knife, they don’t care if we approve or not. The key to helping their potential victims is helping them. If the ads were telling us what we should do when we feel like hitting someone they might do more good.

In our impotence we turn to attempts to police culture. A poster for the movie X-Men : Apocalypse (2016) (dir. Bryan Singer) which shows the villain attempting to strangle one of the female superheroes was criticised as something which might promote violence against women. The studio apologised. It is clear that the big guy is the villain and thus his behaviour is not being validated. Big guys who pick on women who are smaller than them are not the heroes in super-hero movies. So critics are saying that to even depict bullying behaviour is to promote bullying behaviour.

This is an important issue because culture - from high art to popular entertainment - is the space in which we give free play to our imagination and by doing so allow our culture to evolve in more creative and effective ways. This is an improvisatory process which requires freedom. If we try to control culture to produce a specific end we will kill it. We will kill what gave us Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Hemingway. And we won’t end violence by doing so, because nobody hits someone just because they saw a picture of someone hitting someone. No-one kills someone simply because they saw someone kill someone in a movie. No-one kills people just because they played a video game where people killed people. Cultural representations may be imitated by someone who is propelled by some deeper motivation, but as long as those motivations remain we will not be made any safer by ridding ourselves of violent imagery.

An image like the one on the movie poster may be disturbing to some people. To someone who has been a victim of violence and is still suffering trauma as a result, such an image may be triggering. And those of us who may have a lot of generalised anger or specifically misogynistic feelings which we are trying to keep repressed may find such an image a disturbing challenge to our repressive strategy. So a major part of defending artistic freedom is addressing the problem of psychological insecurity. If the traumatised don’t find healing for their trauma and the repressed don’t find liberation from their neurosis, then we will continue to have a conflict between the desire to provide them with protection and the need of the rest of us to be free in our expression. Acceptance is the source of such healing. Avoidance, while it may be desirable as a temporary strategy, is not the solution. If something produces anxiety the answer is to expose ourselves to it and wait until the anxiety dies down. For the repressed individual it is important to learn that it is O.K. to have hostile and misogynistic feelings. It is O.K. to have any kind of feelings at all. That realisation that they are O.K. and that there is no need to fight against them as feelings will lead to a drastic decrease in their severity. It is when we don’t accept something negative about ourselves that that thing increases. So the irony is that, by over-reacting to images we feel are misogynistic, we may actually be increasing the hold of misogynistic feelings on many individuals.

Another example of this strategy is an increasing tendency for media personalities to be heavily censured for making jokes about violence towards women, etc. Again the argument seems to be that someone who hears such a joke is going to be more likely to be violent towards a woman or be tolerant of someone else being violent towards a woman.

Humour is a safety valve. It has the ability to release the kinds of tension which, if they build up too much, as in the examples above, can lead to violence. Everyone who knows me would say that i’m a very peaceful person. But I make jokes about killing children, raping women, torturing animals… Taboo humour is a great release of tension and thus a great aid to remaining peaceful. And it is a way to own our own dark side. It isn’t everyone’s way of dealing with things and I wouldn’t argue that it should be. But we should not make the assumption that tolerance of bad taste jokes will promote what they joke about, because the opposite may be true.

Happy Tree Friends (1999- ) (creators Rhode Montijo, Aubrey Ankrum) (Mondo Media)

The problem of violence in our society is a symptom of too little psychological freedom. An individual who has a lot of psychological room will tend not to want to harm another or will be restrained by his conscience or the threat of social censure in those situations where he is. The more an individual is backed into a tight psychological corner by an inability to accept themselves as they are, the more likely they are to do violence to others or to themselves.

So the deeper answer to violence in our society is to promote the philosophy of unconditional self-acceptance and to recognise that cultural freedom is not the problem but part of the solution.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

A Performance Review of Religion

Copyright: print2d / 123RF Stock Photo

Can we identify a purpose to religious belief and practice and assess for each individual believer the degree to which that purpose is being met at any particular time?

There are three key elements of religion - spiritual experience or perception, dogma and ritual.

What do we mean by the spiritual? Some may see this as something supernatural. I don’t believe in the supernatural. Spiritual perception is perception of connectedness. To recognise that acts of kindness and generosity to those around us are beneficial to us all because our lives are intimately connected is a key spiritual perception. When John Donne said “No man is an island” that was the key spiritual insight. An awareness of our connectedness gives us the wisdom to sow that which we wish to reap.

Jesus gave a particularly powerful expression of this spiritual perception when he said : Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” [Matthew 10:37] Clearly he doesn’t mean himself personally. He is speaking as a mouthpiece for universal love - the force he referred to poetically as “God” or “the Father.” Let’s leave aside the issue of whether he actually believed in universal love as something literally personified by a supernatural being. The point being made is that, whenever we make a division within humanity between “us” and “them” and place the interests of “us” above the interests of “them,” we participate in the generation of war and injustice. When the achievement of harmony and love within the whole becomes a secondary consideration then we set ourselves against what Jesus called “God.” This is not to say we shouldn’t love ourselves and our family and those of our own community. We can’t truly love anyone if we don’t love ourselves. But the more we truly love ourselves the more we love those around us, and if we love ourselves in our entirety then we become capable of loving also our enemies. This, as I see it, is the central perception of Jesus’s philosophy.

Dogma is rigid, unquestioning belief. An example of dogma might be the rules in the Old Testament about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath. You are not supposed to ask why you can’t do something. You are simply supposed to show your respect by blind obedience.

Ritual can include praying to Mecca at certain times of the day, counting rosary beads or lighting candles, etc.

It can be very instructive to compare religion to obsessive compulsive disorder. In both there is a tendency for anxiety to lead to rigid thinking (dogma/obsessions) and rigid adherence to repetitious behaviour (compulsions/rituals). Obsessive compulsive disorder represents a loss of faith in ourselves and/or in the processes of life. We fear a threat which comes either from ourselves (“I might do something terrible”, “I might have forgotten to turn off the gas”) or from the world around us (“There are germs on everything”.) The state of health is one in which we have a reasonable level of faith in ourselves and a rational perception of external dangers which is free from exaggeration.

In religion adherence to dogma and ritual is evidence of a fear of God. This is generally not seen as a negative. It is considered a compliment to call someone “God-fearing.”

But you can’t love that which you fear. Fear produces one of two responses. We either fight back against that which we fear or we cower back away from it. We embrace that which we love. How can someone who fears their God embrace that God?

Just as anxiety and the obsessions and rituals it leads to are signs of the obsessive compulsive’s pathological lack of faith, so fear of God and the resultant tendency to cling tightly to dogma and ritual is evidence of poverty of spirit in the religious individual.

We can assess wealth of spirit by such characteristics as the ease with which someone can forgive trespasses against them and the inclusiveness of their circle of generosity. It isn’t about what one believes, but about what one feels in their heart and the behaviour which is an expression of that feeling. An atheist can be extremely rich in spirit.

If the aim of religion is to increase wealth of spirit then we can use these simple indicators to assess where religion is succeeding in this purpose and where it is failing. Of course, there are other factors which need to be taken into account. Circumstances unrelated to religion can eat away at our wealth of spirit. But we can make some assessment of the degree to which a person’s experience of religion serves to heal those other wounds or tear them open wider.

Belief in an after-life is often important to religious individuals. The tendency to place a heavy importance on this could also be considered evidence of poverty of spirit. It is all about needing something more for ourselves. If the meal of one’s life is truly rich and satisfying then there is no need to worry about whether or not there will be dessert. But, once again, we need to ask ourselves whether this belief in an after-life has the effect of increasing one’s capacity for forgiveness and widening the circle of one’s generosity. If heaven is a reward, we have to ask ourselves whether God would reward with eternal life those who don’t honour with love the world he created and the people with which he peopled it. To what degree does the belief act as an incentive to forgiving and generous behaviour towards others?

Those of us who wish to increase our wealth of spirit can use this method as a way of determining where to go for guidance. Those like myself who don’t believe in the supernatural might yet find philosophical beliefs or techniques in the systems of those who do which are useful in our quest. And some believers, recognising the shortcomings of their current strategy, may come to an atheist to learn something while not surrendering their beliefs in the supernatural.

While I don’t believe in the supernatural, I don’t think it is any less rational for someone to do so than it is for some physicists to believe in the multi-verse - a series of alternative universes which are as invisible to us as any religious person’s God. Arguing over the existence or non-existence of God is a distraction from the imperative to find ways to open up to our true creative potential as a species - something which requires both the courage to assimilate the truths revealed to us by science and the generosity of spirit to heal all human conflict and injustice.

Copyright: niserin / 123RF Stock Photo

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

BOOK REVIEW : Capture : Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Illness by David A. Kessler, M.D.

It means a lot for one’s life experience to be understood - to be able to read a book like this one and say, “Yes, that is what happened to me.”

I’ve written about the way we can get caught up in cognitive negative feedback loops, for instance if we feel guilty about being selfish then the suffering brought on by the guilt causes an increase in our focus on our own situation and thus we become more selfish which leads to more guilt… And we can become fixated on those aspects of our own psyche which we find impossible to accept in the same way that our tongue keeps finding its way back to that sore tooth. I’ve written about these things base on my own experience, but this book puts this kind of phenomenon - that of being captured by something which won’t let go of us because we can’t let go of it - into a broader and deeper framework of understanding.

David A. Kessler, M.D. worked for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in which capacity he studied the problem of cigarette addiction. Later he made a similar study of over-eating. Gradually he realised that there is a mechanism which underlies these forms of addiction which is also present in depression, mania, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and the kind of obsession which can lead to horrific acts of violence. He calls this mechanism “capture.”

When it comes to the subject of mental illness there is often controversy as to whether a condition is the result of an imbalance in brain chemistry, unhelpful patterns of cognition or an oppressive social environment. What Kessler has done is to bring all of these factors together into a coherent holistic framework.

The neurons in our brain respond to stimuli in our environment on the basis of the emotional charge which those stimuli carry for us. A single spot of colour in a grey landscape will attract our attention by its novelty. Our attention will be drawn quickly to a snake because we feel it may pose us a danger. A hungry person’s attention will be drawn to a chocolate bar more strongly than will be the case for someone who is satiated. And our neural pathways record the connections between experiences and the more often we revisit them the more they are reinforced. So if a particular song was playing the first time we set eyes on someone with whom we fell in love, it is likely that we will think of them every time we hear it.

These natural and helpful processes can turn against us in an insidious way. If a particular kind of thinking has a powerful emotional charge because it makes us feel very bad we may find it hard to turn our attention to anything else when some aspect of our experience brings it back to mind. When we talk about triggering, this is what we mean - our brain makes an association between something in our environment and the memory of an experience which was traumatic to us. Because the memory is more emotionally powerful than the other things which could be the focus of our attention, we travel back down that well-worn groove. The same kind of thing can happen with self-condemning thoughts or thoughts of committing acts of violence. The emotional charge captures our attention and the more our thoughts go back down that path the more the habit is reinforced. Or it could be something we powerfully associate with relief from suffering, such as alcohol or food, which captures us in a self-defeating way.

So we can see that the chemical processes of the brain, unhelpful patterns of cognition and responses to environmental stresses are all involved, often feeding back upon each other. According to Kessler, studies show that antidepressants work by inhibiting emotional reactivity to the cues which bring a depressive reaction. In other words, when we are depressed we hang onto negative thoughts because they hurt so much we can’t tear our attention away from them.

An explanation of what capture is and how it works takes up only a small part of the book. The rest consists of case studies of people - famous or anonymous - who have been in the grip of some form of capture. The key example is the novelist David Foster Wallace, who was tortured by self-criticism to the extent that he was driven to take his own life. He is not alone. The lives and obsessions of other writers who went the same way - Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway - are also examined. There are tales of those captured by alcoholism, self-harm, gambling, making obscene phone calls, delusions of grandeur, etc. And then there are those whose capture led to violence, including the murders of John Lennon and Robert Kennedy and the mass killings at Columbine and Sandy Hook, amongst others. A section is also devoted to those captured by Islamic extremist ideology.

Capture needn’t always be a negative though. Kessler profiles some individuals who have been inspired by a spiritual form of capture - Simone Weill, Howard Thurman, William Wordsworth and Martin Luther, etc.

This eloquent and compassionate journey through the inner battles of all these individuals gives the science of capture, drawn from masses of scientific papers cited in the notes, a human face to which we can all relate. There is some discussion at the end of the book on how we might be able to loosen the bonds of capture, taking some inspiration from Buddhism’s techniques of mindfulness and Alcoholics Anonymous’s philosophy of fostering a sense of unity with others, but perhaps the most powerful tool is knowledge itself. If we know what is happening and why it is happening and we can put a name to it, the power dynamic between us and it has shifted.