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 495 ***** out of ***** ratings on U.S. iBooks.

Friday, 15 September 2017

The Psychological Function of Hell

Devils and seducers-Picture is from the Vision of hell by Dante Alighieri, popular edition, published in 1892, London-England. Illustration by Gustave Dore
Copyright: sebastiana2012 / 123RF Stock Photo

It can be useful to compare belief systems to home appliances and our mind to an electrical socket. As long as an appliance has a plug which will fit in the wall-socket it can draw power, regardless of whether it is an appliance which is in good running order and does something useful or a faulty appliance which shoots out sparks which cause the house to catch on fire and burn down. We will often come to believe something which conforms to some psychological need, regardless of whether it functions well to meet that need over the long term. It may be a false satisfier. When this is the case, trying to argue against the belief based on evidence can be futile. What is needed is less to understand the belief system as to understand the nature of the need which causes us to be attached to it. We want to understand the nature of the socket if we are going to find a better appliance to plug into it.

Reading religious texts has led me to contemplate the concept of Hell. Some texts spend a lot of time talking about who will go to Hell and graphically describing it’s torments.

Jordan Peterson, in his series of lectures on the psychological significance of the Bible stories, argues that religion has to be more than “the opiate of the masses,” because, if you just wanted something to make you feel good, you wouldn’t have the concept of Hell. 

There are strengths and weaknesses to this argument. Some see religion as a tool for controlling “the masses.” In this context perhaps the opium comparison fits. A drug dealer has the addict wrapped around his little finger. How? Because if the addict doesn’t get his dose, he suffers withdrawal symptoms. His heaven becomes a hell. Either way, it works as a pacifier. The addict is either too wasted or too sick to stand up for himself.

However, I agree with Peterson that religion is too complex and meaningful a phenomena to be dismissed in this way.

I agree with him that we can look on the concepts of Heaven and Hell as representing states of being in the world. If we go down the wrong path our life can certainly become a hell. Take a happily married man with children. One day he is tempted to have an affair. From that point on his life becomes dominated by the fear of being found out. When he is, his family breaks up and he sees his children growing bitter. He knows that his simple mistake may have negative consequences into future generations, when he had hoped he would be the rock on which his children would get their best start in life. That’s a common form of hell. For someone else it might be ending up in jail.

I experienced my own hell while in hospital for a breakdown - a time when my mental suffering was so great I begged for death. The mistakes I made that took me to that point were mistakes in thinking. It wasn’t a departure from moral behaviour, as far as I’m aware. And my aim in my writing has been to try to help others to avoid ending up where I did.

Peterson’s focus has been on how the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and Soviet Gulags occurred. What is it in us that makes us capable of turning our world into Hell? From this perspective, the religious texts make some sense. If such events occur because of the collective effect of individuals abandoning moral responsibility and honesty in their own lives, then it is not beyond the bounds of probability that we could make real the horrors of the Book of Revelations. We really could all go to Hell.

The problem is that the idea of Hell, as it occurs in religion, is often not functional. Sure there are real hells and potential hells, but does the concept that we might have our flesh burned off endlessly for eternity inspire in us the kind of behaviour which will prevent us from bringing them upon us?

If we take this idea literally, what kind of cosmic order does it speak of? If we lived in a state where order was maintained by the threat of torture, we would rightly consider it the most oppressive of dictatorships. And in such a state, it would be hard to achieve anything positive. Living in permanent fear doesn’t bring the best out of people. Imagine if someone pointed a gun at your head and told you to assemble a piece of Ikea furniture, telling you that if you didn’t have it successfully assembled in half an hour they would blow your brains out.

And belief in Hell is not a defence against becoming a participant in the kinds of atrocities seen in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. People who professed a belief in Hell have been known to burn people alive or crucify them. Hell could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So how might this idea have developed and what is the need which it satisfies, albeit in a pathological way?

First, lets look at another psychological phenomena which fits a similar pattern - the mental illness known as obsessive compulsive disorder. This is an anxiety disorder in which a link forms between an anxiety and a ritual. A person may be obsessed about the possibility of catching a deadly disease and feel that, in order to protect themselves, they have to keep washing their hands with fresh bars of soap, perhaps unwrapping and disposing of the paper wrapper around the soap while wearing rubber gloves. Or someone may feel that, if they don’t line all of the books on their bookshelves exactly straight, one of their children will die. This is a form of what David A. Kessler, M.D. calls “capture”. [Capture : Unravelling the Mystery of Mental Suffering, 2016]. The mind has a tendency to come back to anxious thoughts - in a field of neutral information, such thoughts have a charge of significance - and so the neural pathways to those thoughts become more well-developed. If there is something which soothes that anxiety then the mind will get into the habit of associating the anxiety to that which soothes it, and so what starts as the equivalent of a dirt track becomes a superhighway circling endless around between the anxiety and the soothing ritual. This individual condition gives an idea of the socket into which the religious belief appliance can be plugged.

If we want to see how the religious conception of Hell originated we need to go back to another religious story, that of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is a symbolic way of acknowledging the birth of idealism. Idealism, in this context, means the idea that we should set a standard for our behaviour and try to maintain that standard through self-discipline and group discipline. This is the beginning of criticism. This is fine except that it gradually leads to an undermining of self-acceptance. Thus we come to resent some of the criticism. Eventually it lead to feelings of guilt, which turned our attention back towards ourselves making us more selfish and ego-embattled. It generates anger. So the story of humanity can be understood as a conflict between idealism and the wounded ego. This expresses itself as a battle between discipline and defiance, which at base is defiance of criticism.

For society to hold together we need to maintain discipline. This is what we mean by civilisation - it is our defiance we are attempting to civilise. But self-acceptance is always being eroded and the defiant impulse becomes increasingly strong.

We know that we need to restrain our defiance of moral principles so that the society on which we all depend can be maintained, but the more the pressure builds the harder that is.

I think this is where a concept such as Hell may have become perversely attractive. Normally we would think that beliefs motivate behaviour, but I think that, sometimes, behaviour can motivate a belief. You know that maintaining your discipline is important. You don’t want to suffer the individual consequences of misbehaviour. And you recognise that society is dependent on such discipline. But that is a rational motive, and what you are trying to restrain are some pretty powerful emotions or drives. Now what if someone told you that people who broke the law would suffer after they died? You might actually welcome that idea, because it might be just what you need to motivate you to maintain your discipline.

Unfortunately, this is liable to be a negative feedback loop. It helps to motivate restraint, but it doesn’t solve the problem of the erosion of self-acceptance which is driving the defiance which needs to be restrained. Thus, in order to be effective, the stories about how terrible Hell is have to get worse. And the worse they get, the more we are captured by them. And, of course, as with the person with obsessive compulsive disorder, reassuring rituals become locked in by this capture.

When we see people who place a high importance on the threat of brimstone and hellfire we can see that they are people who are having a hard battle restraining their appetites, or they are people who are cynically manipulating such people.

If we learn to cultivate unconditional self-acceptance we can heal the spirit of defiance at its source, live according to the necessary moral principles without internal struggle and discover our spiritual relationship to the universe and our fellows. Thus can we leave Hell behind us and know Heaven.

Copyright: stevanovicigor / 123RF Stock Photo

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

BOOK REVIEW : Holy Bible : New International Edition, 1978.

How does the Bible come to take up a central position in the life of someone who doesn’t believe in the supernatural?

It began in my adolescence. Someone gave me a pocket-sized copy of the New Testament, and, out of curiosity, I read The Gospel According to Matthew. It had a profound effect on me. I don’t remember the details of my response at that time. What stays with me was that the line “…I will make you fishers of men” brought tears to my eyes.

I had a very troubled adolescence, the beginnings of a tendency toward depression and anxiety which would plague me up until my mid-forties. I felt both ashamed and afraid of the strength of my sexual desires, desires I lacked the confidence to act on anyway. I developed obsessional thoughts. I was afraid I might gouge out my own eyes or that I might kill a baby.

I wondered what life was all about. I wondered why, if what we most want is to love and be loved, we don’t all just love each other. Why do we pursue things like wealth or fame or power, which are such poor substitutes for love? But then my own capacity to love was eaten up by my fear and guilt.

The gospel of Matthew dropped into this context. Did the thoughts about gouging out my eyes come before I read “…if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away…”, or after? Before, I think, but it wasn’t a conscious part of the obsession.

There was something in this gospel which attracted me, but there was something which stuck into my flesh like a thorn. If the truth hurts, does that mean that what hurts is necessarily true?

I was afraid of my sexual desires. Into that context comes the line “…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart…” But why would it matter to me that I was committing adultery in my heart? I wasn’t married and anyway I was agnostic about the existence of this God who disapproved of adultery.

I desperately wanted to be reassured that I was O.K. Here was a book telling me I was a sinner. But it was telling me this within the context of a poetically expressed vision of redemption.

Somehow I would need to learn how to resolve my inner conflicts, depressions and anxieties. Whether what I had read in that book would end up helping me with that was an open question.

My parents were Quakers. I was taken to the Quaker meeting house a few times and attended Sunday school there, and some form of religious education was a part of primary school in my time. I don’t remember much of that. It didn’t seem to change things much. I remained an agnostic. My parents were not really religious. Their attraction to the Quaker church, into which my mother was born, had more to do with their pacifist politics.

I read the gospels of Mark, Luke and John a bit later, around the same time I read Sigmund Freud’s A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, where, with some relief, I read about his patients who, like me, suffered from obsessive thoughts about committing terrible acts.

Jesus’ words continued to float around in my mind, but what context could they have in the absence of a belief in a supernatural God or an after-life? The promises of Heaven were no use to me, because I didn’t believe, but the ethical principles were not easy to dismiss. Who could tell me how to live a meaningful life? And who could tell me how to relieve my suffering?

What gradually dawned on me was the idea that there might be another way to conceive of God. I read a biography of the psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich - a student of Freud - who viewed God as a cosmic life energy. According to him, emotional and social problems are caused by blockages in the flow of this energy. This I could related to. I could see that my psychological suffering was associated with fear-based blockages in the free flow of the life energy in my body. Reich associated the free flow of the life energy in the individual with love of others and enthusiasm for productive work.

Wilhelm Reich

Later I would encounter the ideas of Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith, who also provided a non-supernatural definition of God, saying that “God is integrative meaning,” by which he means :

1. The tendency in nature for smaller less complex wholes to integrate and thus form larger more complex wholes - e.g. single-celled organisms forming a community of single-celled organisms and then growing a membrane so that they become a multi-cellular organism with the capacity for increased complexity through specialisation of those cells.

2. The ability of truth to integrate items of data into a coherent framework which allows for the reconciliation of previously conflicting ideas.

3. The fact that love manifests social meaning through the integration of individuals into a functioning community.

Jeremy Griffith

That was over 25 years ago. Only recently I became aware of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who looks for psychological insight in the Bible and defines God as “the Logos - the spoken word which brings habitable order out of chaos”. This is compatible with, but less all encompassing than, Griffith’s definition.

Somehow, over the years a framework of belief grew in me which has enabled me to integrate the meaning I finding in the Gospels with the fact that I still have seen no evidence for the existence of the supernatural.

There is a kind of matrix of love which exists in the realm of possibility. This is the Kingdom of Heaven. God is the creative principle of the universe which brings order out of chaos and is expressed in us as love, the force which brings order out of chaos in the social realm. God in Heaven is an imagined possibility, but an possibility having force to change lives through the power of faith in his existence. When order comes out of chaos in the natural or social world, that is God making “his” presence felt in the real world. This is organically arising order, not imposed order.

What are we? We are the creative principle of the universe as expressed within the limitations imposed by a physical body and an individual personality. The physical body and the individual personality are temporary. The creative principle of the universe, which inhabits this temporary form, is eternal. Mortality or eternal life? It depends on your perspective. Identify with the eternal whole of which you are a part, and you are eternal. Identify with your body or your personality and you are mortal. In practise it is a question of whether one identifies more with one’s body and ego or more with the process one is engaged in. A mother who forgets herself in caring for her child, in doing so participates in God because her identification is with the eternal creative process of life itself rather than with her temporary body or personality.

What is love? Love is our awareness that, at base, we are one, all limited parcels of a single creative principle. Love is God. Through love God is made manifest. We can picture God sitting on a cloud in the heaven of our imagination, but when we feel love for others, God is real and active in the world through us. There is nothing supernatural about that, it’s the product of natural evolution. Our capacity for love arose because the nurturing of children is beneficial to a species’ survival.

It is only now that I’ve read the Bible as a whole. The story of Adam and Eve in the Old Testament had been important to me because an interpretation of it plays such an important part in the work of Jeremy Griffith. I was a supporter of Griffith for a while. Now I’m a critic of his ideas. Once I realised I couldn’t agree with the central precept of his theory - that we have a genetically-encoded conscience which is critical of the rational mind’s experiments in understanding - I had to come up with an alternative way to view the internal battle between good and evil.

Adam and Eve, woodcut, Germany, 1514, Metropolitan Museum of Art

If our problems are due to a blockage in the free flow of the life energy, then compromised self-acceptance is central to that blockage. The self-accepting individual looks outward and participates unselfconsciously with others in pleasure and in problem solving. A lack of self-acceptance cause us to look obsessively inward or to interpret the world around us in the light of our need to service our wounded ego. Guilt is a spanner in the works.

Where does guilt come from initially? From a mistake unforgiven or a demand for improved behaviour we find ourselves unable to accommodate. In a world full of angry and selfish behaviour, guilt may often seem justified. But how did our propensity for anger and selfishness grow?

Idealism is the root of all evil. Somehow we arrived at the idea that we should make a strict division between good behaviour and bad behaviour and strive to promote the former and restrain the latter through both self-discipline and the imposition of social discipline on others. On the surface this seems reasonable, which is why our problems have persisted so long. The problem with it is that it tends to undermine self-acceptance. The individual pursuing self-discipline gradually accrues a feeling of guilt over his mistakes. And when he feels that others are being too strict in their demands for improved behaviour, he gets angry at the criticism. All of this begins small. We begin with give and take, with self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others. But overtime the love has trouble compensating for the corrosive effect of the idealism.

This is what the story of Adam and Eve is about. They eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, i.e. their experimenting minds arrive at the concept of idealism, and, as a result they become ashamed of their nakedness and clothe themselves. Nakedness is a symbol for honesty. In the absence of idealism we are happy to be honest, to let it all hang out, but once we feel that we may be judged for our imperfections we feel the need to cover our asses with a protective coat of lies. The devil is described as “the accuser” and also as “the father of lies”. Idealism accuses us of not being good enough and in so doing inspires us to lie. And the arrival of idealism also cast us out of Paradise, our unselfconscious existence in nature, and alienated us from God, because, when our self-acceptance is undermined it opens up a black hole in us which drains our ability to love others and thus to participate in God.

There is much in the early parts of the Old Testament which I had a hard time seeing in any kind of positive light. Why are these people killing all these cows and sheep and burning them? What good will that do? Who is this God who tells his followers to kill a man for gathering wood on the Sabbath? Why does he tell them to slaughter all those infants when they lay a town to waste?

Jordan Peterson helped me to see these things in a different light - to see the Old Testament as an account of how our concept of God evolved. We have a habit of approaching some problems by doing things and then asking ourselves why we are doing them afterwards. So we performed the idea of sacrifice before we came to really understand the practical nature of sacrifice. i.e. making a bargain with the future in the way that we sacrifice a few years at college in order to get a high paying job as a lawyer. Burning something valuable to us so that the universe could smell it seems primitive to us now, but we have the benefit of hindsight.

Jordan Peterson

As I came to the end of the Old Testament it occurred to me that it was really a story about the importance of maintaining integrity, personal and social. Some of the laws may seem unreasonable now, but the aim was to find a codified way to mediate conflicts and thus maintain the integrity of the society. If there were a prejudice prevalent at the time, that would be reflected in the laws. Most of us don’t believe in slavery, so owning slaves is against the law in our countries. At the time the books of the Old Testament was written, owning slaves was considered acceptable, so laws are about how to treat slaves. This is a problem for those who believe in a supernatural God who could have got Moses to tell people to release their slaves. It is not a problem for someone who sees the Bible as a human document recording our search for the divine.

If the Old Testament is treated like a novel in which integrity is presented as an all-too human figure, then it makes more sense. A jealous God sending out armies to attack cities and slaughter their inhabitants seems unworthy of worship, but if we see the moral of the story being - “If you don’t maintain your personal integrity and the integrity of your society, both will be laid waste utterly!” - then it makes sense. God is blood-thirsty and vengeful only because he is a fictional character representing realities which we ignore at our peril. He is also loving, because if we work with reality, we are liable to be blessed. A farmer who diligently tends to his fields is liable to prosper and eat well; one who sits under a tree drinking and forgets to sow his seeds is liable to starve. In this scenario, God’s nature is determined by our behaviour not by God’s will.

One of the ways individuals and societies come a cropper in the Old Testament is by worshipping idols. If God is a representation of integrity, to worship an idol is to value something else more highly than we value our integrity, to “sell our soul” for riches, fame, power, or whatever. When we do that, it doesn’t end well.

The emphasis in the Old Testament is on laws and the need to obey them. It is lots of “thou shalt not” and not much “it would be a good idea if we”. A stranger could come to your door fatally wounded and looking for help. If you turned them away and closed the door on them, you wouldn’t be breaking any of the Ten Commandments.

With Jesus we get the articulation of a positive way to live. Love your neighbour as yourself. Be non-judgemental. Be humble. Be generous. Be honest. Value human relationships over wealth.

His message was that “the Kingdom of Heaven” is close to us - the potential matrix of love is all around us and inside us, just waiting to be made manifest - and that we should repent of our sins. Sin is a religious word for selfishness. We are selfish because our compromised self-acceptance turns us inward so that we view the social world from the perspective of our need to reinforce our wounded ego. Feeling guilty about being selfish doesn’t help. If just makes us more selfish. The Greek word which is translated as “repent” apparently means, more literally, have a change of consciousness. He was telling us to change our consciousness in such a way that we could open up the Kingdom of Heaven. He assured us that God would forgive our sins. If God is the love which manifests when the guilt which blocks it is removed, then of course the sin is of no importance once the floodgates are opened.

What of the Book of Revelations? I don’t pretend that I can make sense of its complex symbolism. I’m no Jordan Peterson. But this is the gist of it as I see it. The social world is built on lies and delusions. The apocalypse, or revelation, is what happens when this becomes apparent because humanity arrives at a framework of understanding which exposes all others. This is the point at which the little boy points out that the emperor is naked. Jeremy Griffith thinks he has that framework of understanding. He’s wrong. But it is on its way. Wherever there is earnest dialogue amongst the informed, it is coming into being.

Copyright: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo

What about the judgement and the “lake of fire”?

One of the things that happened on my journey was that I faced a crisis where the bottom dropped out of everything for me. I lost all faith in myself. I ended up strapped to a hospital bed begging doctors and nurses to kill me because I felt that the whole of human history, all the suffering of the countless millions and the effort they had put in, was all going to come to nothing, to be rendered worthless, all because of my weakness.

When the bottom drops out of your world and you find yourself naked in the face of the unknown, it feels a lot like hell. So I don’t see it as a matter of judgement and condemnation. The warning is to follow the path of truth, so that there is always something dependable under your feet. But if I can come back from hell, anyone can.

“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged accord to what they had done as recorded in the books.” Revelations 20:12

If we achieve a full understanding of our psychology and how it relates to the rest of the natural world, it stands to reason this will change our attitude to people who are now dead. Some will be revealed to be closer to the truth and others further from the truth than we had generally believed. I think this is the kind of judgement being described, but we shouldn’t underestimate how disturbing this may be for many of us. Our ego gets very bound up with our beliefs and to find that we were wrong in a very profound way is disturbing.

I would like to believe that, if this massive shake-up is on the way, carrying with it the likelihood of intense and widespread existential crisis, maybe the ideas which helped me to repair the damage brought on by my own crisis of this sort, expressed in my book How to Be Free, will also be a help to some others.

Of course there is so much more which is worth saying about the Bible, but this will have to do for the time being. 

Friday, 4 August 2017

BOOK REVIEW : DMT - The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman, M.D.

What if we could trace the biochemistry of mystical or religious experiences? Materialists might see this as a way to explain away such events as aberrations arising from physiological disfunction, much as they sometimes tend to see depression as nothing more than a shortage of serotonin, as if the happiness of a dog were produced by a sufficient amount of tail-wagging. This would be no more rational than to think that our understanding of how the eye works lessons the size and magnificence of the galaxies we can see with it. The reality of such experiences can best be assessed by the effect they have on the lives of the experiencers. This says nothing about whether anything experienced as existing in an external physical sense actually has that independent existence. Think of it this way. If you read Hamlet, you are reading a work of fiction, but the play actually exists as a coherent creation which has the power to effect how you live your life. If someone has an experience which is far richer and more powerful than that, but of which there is no identifiable author, then that is something real, the mysterious nature of which is not so easy to explain away.

N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a powerful, fast-acting psychedelic drug, the active ingredient in the ayahuasca brew used by Amazonian tribes for their shamanistic rituals. It is very similar in structure to serotonin, and occurs naturally in many plants and animals, including humans. Between 1990 and 1995, Dr. Rick Strassman administered this drug intravenously to 60 volunteers. This was the first psychedelic drug research on human volunteers to be performed in the United States in over 20 years. While the avowed aim of the research was to test the physical effects of the drug at different dosages, Strassman was hoping to explore his theory that such altered states of consciousness as near-death experiences, dreams and psychotic hallucinations might be mediated by the body’s production of DMT. He calls the substance “the spirit molecule” and believes that it may be produced by the pineal gland. (In 2013 researchers reported finding DMT in the pineal gland of rodents.) DMT is very fast acting when injected. The trip would begin almost instantly and be completely over in half an hour.

Some of Strassman’s volunteers did describe mystical states or something akin to a near-death experience. But the hardest thing to explain was that a significant number had encounters with alien beings, some of whom performed probes or other surgical procedures on them. The similarity to reports of alien abduction couldn’t be ignored. Strassman initially tried to use the conventional psychoanalytic approach to dreams, looking for some symbolic relationship between the drug experience and the key current issues in the volunteers life. This was not productive. The volunteers insisted that these were not dreams, but something more real than everyday reality. So Strassman was forced to adopt the strategy of viewing these creatures as something which might actually exist in some sense. The best hypothesis he has been able to come up with is that they are the inhabitants of some kind of parallel universe or some realm of dark matter. This is a troubling idea, especially since one poor man was pack raped by alien alligators in this DMT realm.

Not surprisingly the most interesting part of this book is the account of the psychedelic experiences of the volunteers. The book as a whole is tantalising and fascinating but a little unsatisfying, because there is still so little data on which to assess Strassman’s hypotheses. This is hardly his fault. He explains in great detail how hard it was to organise his study, how many things went wrong and why he wasn’t able to go on to further studies. By honestly and clearly describing the struggles, the risks and the mistakes, along with his inspirational vision of what could be in the future if enough people support psychedelic research, he has provided an indispensable resource.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

A Big "What If?"

Copyright: alexmit / 123RF Stock Photo

What if there were a framework of understanding which could unite the perceptions of the mystic, the fundamentalist and the atheist into a single whole?

This is very much a “what if” experiment. Ride with it and see where it leads. For simplicity’s sake I’ll state speculations as if they were fact.

The universe is made up of energy. Matter is a structured form of that energy. Energy is eternal. It changes form, but it never ceases to exist. 

Energy is conscious, but it is a formless consciousness, lacking the kinds of limitation needed for the structured consciousness we call thought or sensation.

The universe is a place where structure arises from formless energy. The ways in which this happens may be mysterious to us, but our existence is evidence of just how complex and meaningful the products of that process can be. Apparently there are more connections in our brain than there are atoms in the universe. We’re pretty complex.

We are highly structured systems of energy which persist for an average of about seventy years. We have bodies which shape raw consciousness in a way we experience as physical sensations, ranging from pleasure to pain. And we have a brain which shapes raw consciousness into images and words.

The universe is a meaningful place. Complexity arises through relationship and meaning lies in relationship. The meaning of any part is defined by its relationship to the whole.

As individuals we sometimes identify with our separateness and sometimes with our connectedness to the whole. When we are in a loving relationship we identify more with the bond we share with the other person than we do with our seperate existence. Or an artist may think more of the meaning which is coming into the world through his art than he does of where his next meal is coming from.

We are not just our body. We are also meaning. We are not just the instrument, but also the music which plays on that instrument.

But we have a problem. To a significant degree we have become cut off from our source of meaning.

The creative principle of the universe is manifested by the emergence of more complex wholes from a meaningful relationship between less complex parts. This looks like the part selflessly surrendering to the needs of the whole.

We know that we are selfish, not selfless, so are we in a state of rebellion against the theme of the universe, against that which created us?

It is within the context of this question that religion arose.

Aware of our sinful, i.e. selfish, nature we could not look upon the face of God, i.e. acknowledge the theme of the universe which gave birth to us. We feared God and sought redemption through sacrifice and prayer.

To the degree that we were insecure, we needed the comfort provided by picturing a God with a human face.

ROME, ITALY - MARCH 12, 2016: The fresco God the Creator by unknown artist from end of 19. cent. in the church Chiesa di Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore. Copyright: sedmak / 123RF Stock Photo

In the Old Testament there is an emphasis on laws. If selfishness were not to lead to the collapse of the society there needed to be laws. Such laws are a compromise. They don’t solve the underlying problem, and they are based on the prejudices prevalent in the society, hence the absence of such current day laws as : “Thou shalt not own slaves.”

The New Testament seeks to address the underlying problem of the need for redemption from the selfish state into a state in which we love our neighbour as our self. That is to end the separation of humans and God.

The Bible relates stories. Our state of insecurity determines our relationship to those stories. Just as our insecurity may require God to have a human face, so it may require the stories related in the Bible to be literally true.

What matters in a story is its meaning. We read fictional stories and respond to them as if they were real. Do we weep for Little Nell? Or do we weep for ourselves, because we know what loss is like? We fear Dracula, not because vampires are real, but because we fear death, or something worse than death.

The stories we read in the Bible are profoundly meaningful, because they are stories about what we fear and about what we crave most deeply. We fear that we may lose that which makes the suffering of life bearable, and we hope to find that which redeems us from our state of fear and trembling in the face of the absolute.

We could argue forever about whether or not a story is literally true. A fundamentalist will insist that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. An atheist will insist that all of these things are impossible.

Meaning is to a story what the soul is to the body. If we get too caught up in the worldly - and whether or not something happened literally is a worldly question - then we can lose that which has a higher value. In meaning we find the transcendent. Through meaning we participate in the eternal.

Having separated ourselves from the worldly to find the meaning, we then come back to the world to make it real. What matters is not whether Jesus fed the hungry with seven loaves and a fish, but whether we ourselves feed the hungry.

KRAKOW, POLAND - DECEMBER 19, 2010; Christmas Eve for poor and homeless on the Central Market in Cracow. Every year the group Kosciuszko prepares the greatest eve in the open air in Poland. Copyright: praszkiewicz / 123RF Stock Photo

Selfishness is the knot that needs to be untied for us to feel at home in the universe that gave birth to us, for us to be re-united with God. Selfishness is the natural self-directedness of the insecure or otherwise suffering individual. Hit your thumb with a hammer and you’ll have trouble thinking about anything else but your thumb. In the same way, our insecurity turns us inwards. It can be a negative feedback loop. We behave selfishly. We feel guilty about behaving selfishly. The pain of the guilt directs our attention even more strongly toward our self. This makes us even more selfish. Thus the knot tightens.

Assurances that God forgives our sins may ease the problem, but they are founded on faith rather than rational understanding.

If we try cultivating unconditional self-acceptance and find that it produces a better result than trying to force ourselves to be less selfish, or punishing ourselves, then we learn through our own direct experience what it means to find redemption.

The relationship between Hell and Heaven can be understood in the relationship between the body and meaning. 

The body makes suffering possible. Meaning makes that suffering bearable. Pleasure is experienced in the satisfaction of bodily needs or the easing of bodily suffering.  The psychological insecurity which comes from being cut off from meaning may interfere with our ability to feel satiated by the satisfaction of these needs.

What is bliss? It isn’t a thought, though it may accompany a thought. It isn’t a physical sensation, though it may accompany a physical sensation. Bliss is loss of self-consciousness. Bliss is when we are so enraptured by something that we forget ourselves.

If the universe is conscious energy, perhaps bliss is it’s default state. The limitation provided by a body and mind increases its ability to manifest meaning, but carries with it the price tag of suffering, something which can be increased or decreased depending on the thoughts that form in that mind. So, from bliss we come and to bliss we will go. And while we are alive, the secret to bliss is love, the meaningful connection that allows us to forget ourselves in a union like that from which we came. This may be love with another person or love of an activity.

So the concept of eternal life is one of identification. Do we identify with the body or ego, which are temporary, or with the process in which we participate? If our consciousness is that of the universe limited by a temporary form, then we are at least as much the eternal as we are the temporal.

Concepts of life after death often revolve around the idea of the persistence of the personalty into a post-death realm, either of punishment or reward. Like the focus on stories being literally true, this is an indication of how insecurity makes us cling to what we know. We fixate on that which we can’t fully accept, and so, not truly accepting our personality we can’t imagine leaving it behind.

So let’s cultivate unconditional self-acceptance and find out whether doing so blissfully realigns us with the creative principle of the universe.

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Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Why Do We Have a Dark Side?

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What produces the dark side of we humans?

Some think that we are instinctively competitive and that the roots of our dark side can be found in our underlying animal tendency to form a dominance hierarchy.

We are biological entities with biological needs. It makes sense that a shortage of something we need might lead to conflict in the absence of a very strong cultural structure to restrain that tendency. If there is a shortage of food we might fight over what is available because our desire to remain alive overrides any disinclination to deprive others.

Among other animals there is often a breeding imperative which leads to competition for a mate. Does this apply on a biological level for humans? That’s hard to say. As intelligent beings with imagination we don’t have to follow our instincts. If we don’t listen to what our instincts would tell us about what food is healthy to eat, why would we think that we listen to our instincts when it comes to striving to win the most biologically healthy mate we come in contact with? Of course we often do put a great deal of effort into winning a particular kind of mate, but is it for biological reasons or psychological reasons? A millionaire’s trophy wife will win him the envy of his peers, but she may not necessarily be the best breeding prospect.

One of the factors which has given us the power to dominate the global environment as a species is our ability to cooperate and to override our instincts with the use of our intelligence and imagination. When faced with a food crisis, I imagine that chimpanzees don’t have much option but to fight it out. We humans can come up with a strategy for rationing the food and setting off in search of a new home where food is more plentiful.

We are less likely to compete for biological reasons than other animals, and yet, as a species, we have been far more brutally destructive for reasons which are not immediately obvious.

We follow the pleasure principle and the pleasure principle, in the absence of the kinds of dominating biological factors which lead to conflict amongst other animals, fosters love. The most pleasant form of life for us is to live in a close community, easing the burdens of life through cooperative strategies and sharing the sensual pleasure that comes through affectionate interaction of all kinds.

So what is the darkness that plagues us, standing in the way of such a blissful existence?

Psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich points out that the stifling of natural drives channels that energy into malignant symptoms. Our instincts are to love, to engage in productive activity, to learn, and to enjoy an erotic relationship with another individual. Hatred is generated by the frustration of the instinct to love. This can be the self-hatred characterised by depression and other forms of mental illness or hatred felt towards others.

But it is not simple barriers which impede the loving instinct in this way. We can see plenty of evidence that love is able to stand firm in the face of the obstacles life throws at it. It is when the loving instinct is frustrated at it’s very base that it gives rise to toxic secondary drives.

Love is a form of communication characterised by openness, honesty, spontaneity and generosity. Only if we are capable of being open, honest, spontaneous and generous in our relationship with our own self can we interact lovingly with others. Any lack of honesty with self will compromise our honesty with others. When we fear aspects of our self this compromises our capacity for spontaneity. We don’t trust ourselves to be spontaneous. And if we are not generous towards our self, then we won’t be able to be generous toward others without resenting the fact that we are treating them better than we treat our self. The ability to love our self is central to the ability to love anyone else.

So what threatens our ability to love our self? To love our self is to accept our self. Why would we fail to accept our self? What makes us feel that we are not worthy of acceptance?

From The Function of the Orgasm by Wilhelm Reich

I think the answer is idealism. It’s necessary for us to have some kind of system of thought to guide our behaviour. We need to understand that some forms of behaviour will lead to bad results for us, either directly or because they lead to bad results for others, which will be disadvantageous to us as well. But it is possible for such a system to be so strict or so harshly imposed that it comes to oppress us. It is one thing to be guided by a gentle hand and it is another to be kicked and shoved and berated by the one who would direct our behaviour. There are times when doing what is right is intrinsically very difficult. The question is whether our guidance system helps to foster courage or leaves us weak by undermining our capacity to feel good about ourselves at all. If idealistic expectations, either personal or from peers, are too strict, they will tend to engender in us increasing levels of resentment towards them. This resentment will then spill over into our behaviour towards others, and, in the extreme, can manifest as a drive to inflict suffering or death upon the innocent and defenceless.

How does this work? Well, if you feel oppressed by the demand that you be good, if you experience this demand as something which gradually erodes the self-acceptance which is, metaphorically speaking, the floor of the house in which you live, so that you just get angrier and angrier as you are backed further and further into the only remaining corner, the one thing which might give you some temporary relief is to rebel against that demand, to respond to its demand that you do the best thing by deliberately doing the very worst thing.

How did I come to this conclusion? I looked into myself, into the heart of my own darkness. I remember once seeing footage of a group of men attacking a pod of dolphins with machetes. They hacked and hacked and hacked and the bay was filled with blood. Everyone was saying : “How horrible! What monsters those men are!” I was thinking : “Hacking dolphins to death might provide a kind of relief.” This was at a time when I was prone to depression. When we are depressed we don’t love ourselves and we don’t get any consolation from the love of others. It’s almost worse to be loved when we feel we don’t deserve it. Either the other person is a fool for not realising how unworthy of love we are, or we are a fraud for not disabusing them.

I could have identified with the dolphins. Many, including many depressed people, probably would. I don’t know why I’ve always had a tendency to identify with victimisers rather than victims when confronted with these kinds of scenarios. But this tendency has an advantage for someone who wants to understand human problems. If our imagination tends to take us into the position of a victim then we may have the basis for extrapolating what is going on in their mind when they are being victimised. But if we want to understand why it is happening we have to understand what is going on in the mind of the victimiser.

I don’t think that this impulse toward defiance of the good is the only reason for the victimisation of the innocent. Another element is the resentment of the unlovable for the loved. The individual whose self-acceptance has been eaten away until they are backed into that final corner, cut off from all capacity for joy, hounded by condemnation on all sides, unable to defend themselves because their behaviour has been genuinely destructive, is the rejected of the world. How are they going to feel when people talk about how much they love the cute dolphins? What about when they see the devoted mothers dropping their children off to the pre-school? Isn’t that the darkest point to which a human can sink? The point at which a young man may take a bunch of guns to that pre-school.

We can say that the school shooter, the terrorist, the child molester, is a individual starved of love. So what are we to do? We have barely enough love for ourselves and those closest to us. We can’t go throwing our precious love into the black hole at the heart of the sociopath. It wouldn’t do any good if we did.

So what can we do about the problem of evil?

If we understand the roots of the problem in the tendency of idealistic demands to undermine self-acceptance, then we can develop a culture of unconditional self-acceptance in our own lives. If such a culture really does foster love, courage, creativity and an enhanced capacity for problem solving, then it will spread quickly. Eventually it will spread even into humanity’s heart of darkness, bringing the redemption which is urgently needed to free us from our capacity for evil.

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Monday, 22 May 2017

Can We Assess The Effectiveness of Religion in Containing the Impulse Toward "Sin"?

Copyright : Katarzyna Białasiewicz :

I’ve been thinking about religion as a form of discipline. For some people a central part of their religion is rules and regulations and a strong belief in reward or punishment to help them abide by those rules and regulations.

This aspect of religion can be a cause for conflict between some religious people and some atheists. A religious person for whom this aspect of religiously-reinforced discipline is very important may ask an atheist what is to stop them from committing terrible violent crimes if they don’t believe there is a God who would punish them if they do. The atheist may point out that they don’t want to commit terrible violent crimes anyway. The implication is that the religious person is either making up the whole issue or is a terrible person because they feel they need some form of faith and discipline to keep them from committing acts of rape or murder.

There is a very serious issue here which needs close examination. It is important that we don’t arrogantly jump to conclusions about other people’s psychological state, about the role that religion plays for particular individuals and whether we have something to offer which would work better for them.

The containment of the impulse towards sin is one of the central roles of religion. In order to assess how successfully this goal is met in any particular individual we have to first consider what we mean by “sin”. Sin is the religious word for selfishness. (Religions sometimes consider some things sinful which those of us who do not share their framework of belief would, quite reasonably, not consider to be selfish, but the principle still holds because these are things which seem selfish to them within that framework. If they believe that God forbids something then clearly anyone who does it is putting their own desires before God’s wishes and is thus being selfish.)

Selfishness can be inwardly directed or outwardly directed. Greed and gluttony are examples of inwardly directed selfishness, while outwardly directed selfishness covers hostility towards others. This runs all the way from deliberate rudeness and attempts to dominate all the way through to rape, torture and murder.

Let’s simplify things for the moment by ignoring the distinctions between different kinds of selfishness and the fact that each of us differs with regard to which forms we are most prone to feel or act upon. Let’s reduce this all to a single factor - the impulse toward sin.

The strength of the impulse toward sin is bound to vary enormously across the range of individuals. Selfishness originates in suffering and in the insecurity of the ego. Some of us have suffered tremendously and others have not. Some of us are secure in our ego and others are not. What are the key factors? Experience and the conceptual framework - to what degree we have been loved or abused and the way we think about our experience and life in general. In reality this is very complex. Some experiences wound us and others encourage our healing, and our conceptual framework changes through our life. The key point is that nobody is to blame for the strength of their impulse toward sin and we cannot know what lies in the psyche of another.

If someone suggests that belief in God is the only thing stopping them from committing rape or murder, there are a number of possibilities :

1. They may be deliberately exaggerating the seriousness of the battle in order to make a point. 

2. They may fear that they might commit rape or murder without their faith in God because they feel the impulse toward sin so strongly, even though they wouldn’t actually act this way if their faith was to disappear. (This is like my experiences with OCD where anxious thoughts that I might do great harm to myself or someone else were part of the mechanism of repression of my angry feelings.) 

3. They may genuinely sometimes experience a powerful impulse to rape or murder. We shouldn’t discount this possibly. If we look at the incidence of rape and murder across cultures and across history and consider that the number of times when someone experiences the impulse to commit that act is bound to be far greater than the number of times that impulse is actually carried out, we should not be too quick to dismiss a person’s assertion that they need their religious faith to keep them from committing such an act.

To give a very simple example of the importance of the conceptual framework, two individuals may both be subjected to mistreatment by the same person - one may have acquired a stoic philosophy in which his self-image is dependent on showing himself to be unmoved, while the other may feel that his self-image is dependent on getting revenge. The person who sets out to get revenge may find that the effect of the original offence magnifies over time as the revenge, even if successful, brings with it other problems and, perhaps, other emotional wounds. Again, this is ridiculously simplistic, but that is necessary to see the issues at the heart of infinitely complex experiences.

A person’s religion is a major part of their conceptual framework. There are different religions of which there may be different variations, and everyone has their own personal framework which may take some bits and ignore others, interpret things differently and place different emphases. 

If we are really going to assess the success of an individual’s religion in helping them to contain their impulse toward sin, or make progress in healing the wounds which lie at the root of that impulse, we first need to know how strong that impulse is in them. And we are unlikely to find this out because admitting to having a particularly strong impulse toward sin means opening oneself to criticism as a bad person, something which is completely unjustified.

Those who’ve followed me for some time will know that I have been influenced by the ideas expressed by Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith but that I am also a trenchant critic of those ideas. One of Griffith’s strengths is that he acknowledges this key question. He uses the term “upset” for what I have described as “the impulse toward sin,” but he makes the point that none of us wants to think of ourselves as a “bad person” or be perceived that way by others, therefore the whole issue of how screwed up we are inside is off-limits. And, yet, this off-limits problem is our most important one.

To be fair to the atheist critic of religion, it is possible that many, even all, religions might be essentially destructive conceptual frameworks. Rather than helping us to contain our impulse toward sin, or heal it, they may amplify it.

I can think of a couple of examples of how this might happen. Take sexuality. Some religions tend to encourage sexual repression. To a degree there is good reason for this. Promiscuity and infidelity can bring problems for the individual and for the wider society. But repress sexuality in the wrong way and erotic urges can be transformed into sadistic ones.

One thing I’ve talked about a lot is how idealism tends to undermine self-acceptance and with it the capacity for feelings of love toward others. This can be a major part of religion. The religion says we shouldn’t be so sinful. This makes us feel guilty. Our feelings of guilt make us self-directed and sap our capacity for generous feelings toward others.

There are other aspects of religious belief though. Faith can be a comforting influence and many no doubt find a supportive community through religion.

It is hard to assess the effectiveness of religion because we don’t know what it is working with. If we see a religious person behaving badly, how do we know whether the religion has turned a person with a low impulse toward sin into a person with a high impulse toward sin or whether it has taken a person with an extremely high impulse toward sin and succeeded in turning them into a person with a moderate impulse toward sin?

Another problem is that religion is a massively complex and diverse social phenomena. When we look at it it is a bit like looking at a blot test. A person who thinks religion is evil will see all of the wars and intolerance and hypocrisy and won’t see the individuals who have been spiritually enriched, inspired to community service or redeemed from a destructive lifestyle. And the religious will likewise tend to see the positives associated with their own brand of belief and few of the negatives.

I would like to think that the philosophy I express in How to Be Free can help us to achieve a conceptual framework which, with or without religion, enables us to heal our wounds and reduce our impulse toward sin. It may be too hard for us to talk about our own personal battle for fear of judgement, but we can still benefit from anything that helps us with it.

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