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 370 ***** out of ***** ratings on U.S. I-Tunes.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Can We Find Anything Useful in Christianity?

Copyright: udra / 123RF Stock Photo

There are many who criticise the supernatural beliefs of the religious. I prefer to take a different approach. What useful and valid ideas are there in a religion which don’t depend on such supernatural beliefs? If we don’t believe in the supernatural, we may be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater, denying ourselves something profoundly useful because it is presented in a framework which also includes supernatural beliefs. And to take what is not supernatural out and test its effectiveness to bring benefit undercuts the argument that any benefit the religion may confer is evidence for the reality of the supernatural agency or agencies which are believed to lie behind it.

If we look at the philosophy expressed by Jesus in the gospels in isolation from any supernatural belief and outside the context of any particular form of Christian dogma, it centres around the concept of sin as humanity’s central problem and love as its solution.

What is meant by “sin”? This is another word for selfishness. Take the example of gluttony. To enjoy eating is natural and healthy, but if we take more than our share and/or more than is health for us, then selfishness is taking precedence over the interests of others and over our own larger self-interest. Selfishness is not simply self-interest. We are all motivated by self-interest. Our behaviour is driven by our perception of what will maximise our pleasure or minimise our suffering. Selfishness is when our present needs are so powerful that they override our wider self-interest.

What causes selfishness? Selfishness is the natural self-directedness of the suffering or threatened individual. If you hit your thumb with a hammer you will have trouble thinking about anything other than your thumb.

While physical suffering can certainly make us self-directed for the period that it continues, it is not the central source of selfishness. The central generator of human selfishness (i.e. “sin”) is guilt. This is because guilt has the ability to form a negative feedback loop. If we feel guilty about our selfish behaviour then the guilt increases our suffering and thus our selfishness.

It was from this dilemma that Jesus wanted to deliver us. This selfishness generating sense of guilt is what alienates us from our basic loving nature.

What is love? Love is something which allows individuals to communicate and cooperate in a way which brings into existence a larger whole. It is that which allows a group of individuals to operate as a family or, on a larger scale, a community. Loving communication is characterised by openness, honesty, spontaneity and generosity. So clearly selfishness is a barrier to love.

Copyright: wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo

Jesus gave a name to the ultimate possible form of loving community - “the Kingdom of Heaven”. He saw this as something which exists both within and without the individual. It exists within us as our capacity to feel love and around us in the ways in which love is expressed and the potential that exists for it to be expressed further. The terms “Heaven” and “Hell” do not require a belief in the supernatural to be meaningful. It is illuminating to read each as referring to an imagined potential. Heaven is how the world could be if our natural capacity for love is set free and Hell is a vision of the world of suffering which the guilt-driven double bind inflicts upon us. If we look around at the suffering in the world from war, poverty, preventable disease, mental illness, etc., then we can see that Hell is already with us and that there is the potential for it to get far worse.

Love is driven by pleasure. The pleasure-giving chemical Oxytocin is released into our blood-stream when we engage in loving behaviour, thus rewarding and reinforcing it. Negative emotions such as fear or guilt block this from happening. If we view “God” as a personification of love (amongst other things) then the concept that “God forgives our sins” is a way of acknowledging that what is needed to move away from destructive forms of behaviour is to let go of guilt and fear and reconnect with our love of ourselves and, from that basis, our love of others.

While selfishness is the state in which we thinking mainly of ourselves, bliss is the state in which we forget ourselves. We can see this by thinking about the experience of orgasm. The French refer to it as “le petit mort”  or “the little death” because, in the moment of ecstasy, the ego (the conscious thinking self) is temporarily lost or forgotten. This is a good example because it challenges the puritanical stream of Christianity which saw suffering as being good for the soul and pleasure being harmful. Such a philosophy will tend to make the individual more dependent on belief in a supernatural afterlife by encouraging them to make their current life wretched, but it is unlikely to make them any less self-obsessed, and thus any more loving. Sexual lust is viewed as a sin for the same reason that gluttony is. If someone’s appetite for something is so great that it overrides their concern for the interests of others then it is a form of selfishness which stands as a barrier to love. But healthy erotic desires only turn into lust when we repress them for some reason, often because we have been encouraged to feel guilty about them. Sexual intercourse which consists of the affectionate sharing of pleasurable feelings is rightly described as “making love” (it is accompanied by the release of Oxytocin into the bloodstream). Even where sexual activity may take less healthy forms, repression is generally not the solution. Remove feelings of guilt and behaviour naturally moves in a healthier direction without the need for self-denial.

Creative activity is another example of love at work. While we are caught up in a problem solving exercise or in the creation of a work of art, our attention may be directed towards something outside ourselves to the extent that we forget about ourselves entirely. Only when we are finished do we realise that we are hungry or cold or tired.

The irony is that many turn away from Christianity because all the talk of sin makes them feel more guilty. It seems as if Jesus’ attempt to free us from Hell and admit us to Heaven has largely backfired. But this set of powerful symbols and stories, which has entered so deeply into the collective consciousness of our culture, still holds the potential to guide our transformation if we find the key to unlock it’s potential to do so.

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Wednesday, 19 October 2016

"Toxic Masculinity" or Toxic Idealism?

How often does domestic violence take place because the perpetrator doesn’t know that it is wrong? Assuming that we are talking about violence inflicted upon the physically weaker individual, it is one of the most obvious of injustices. It is true that some highly regarded religious texts attempt to justify it in some cases, taking the same kind of reasoning which has been used to justify the corporal punishment of children - i.e. a theorised larger benefit for the individual through violence-induced self-discipline, so the possibility is there, especially in those cultures still dominated by such religious belief structures. But I think that it is safe to say that educational programs based around telling us that domestic violence is a bad thing will not have a major effect in minimising the problem as they are telling us what we already know.

As with any other form of destructive behaviour, domestic violence is counterproductive to the larger best interest of the perpetrator. Any relief from pent-up frustration experienced in the act of violence is liable to be offset by the longer-term disadvantages - feelings of guilt, possibility of punishment, progressive decline in benefits available from the victim through decrease in physical and emotional health. This may seem very cynical, but I present it this way for a reason. We have to understand that, even from the most clinical viewpoint, the abuser experiences a net loss. Once this is established the emphasis falls on the question of how the individual can gain the ability to behave differently - or, to look at it from a different perspective, what is driving the behaviour which is unhelpful both to themselves and to the victim.

Domestic violence may involve violence by men against women, men against men, women against men or women against women. There is also violence by adults against children, children against children and children against adults. But since a large slice of the problem is violence by men against women, this tends to be the main focus of educational programs aimed at addressing the problem.

One radical feminist approach which is gaining popularity describes aspects of archetypal masculinity as “toxic” and attempts to re-educated males out of them. I think this provides a good example of how an idealistic approach to a social problem can exacerbate rather than help it.

This video discusses the introduction of feminist ideology into Victorian schools as a response to the problem of domestic violence.

Before we take a look at the problems inherent in an idealistic approach to the problem, lets look at what we might achieve through a more pragmatic approach. 

Domestic violence is usually a form of expression for feelings of anger. So, given that anger is occurring, what can we do to channel it into something other than violence. As Bernard Lafayette said : “Violence is the language of the inarticulate.” Anything we can do to encourage people to give verbal expression to their feelings of anger is liable to reduce the incidence of violence. And this applies also to those who might end up on the receiving end of violence. A person who feels able to express their anger outwardly rather than adopt a submissive approach to life is less likely to end up being victimised by others. If walking away or seeking help are options they will be more likely to take them more quickly.

But where does the anger come from in the first place? Each of us has our character armour - our personality structure - the purpose of which is to protect us from threats internal and external. An internal threat might be feelings of worthlessness. We may have particular kinds of behaviour on which we pride ourselves because they carry the meaning for us that we are not worthless. Essentially the character armour is built from the conditions of our self-acceptance. If we use the example of an archetypal masculine persona, a young boy may have been taught that he’s not a real man if he cries. Thus not crying becomes a condition for his self-acceptance. All of us have some form of character armour. Playing on other’s pity by crying excessively and playing the victim, for instance, would just be another form of armour.

Insecurity in the armour can lead to outbursts of anger. When we don’t feel under threat, everything is peaceful, but when we feel our self-acceptance is under threat we will defend it aggressively by expressing angry feelings toward the source of the threat.

The more self-accepting we are, the less prone we are to anger or violence. Of course this doesn’t mean that people who don’t feel angry are necessarily self-accepting. The negative feelings can be directed inwardly rather than outwardly, thus many non-self-accepting people become depressed rather than angry.

Through cultivating unconditional self-acceptance we can increase the integrity and thus the health of our personality structure. If we have many conditions for our self-acceptance then we are like a hollow tree which many things can break. If we are self-sufficient in the maintenance of our self-acceptance then we are like a healthy tree which can resist or bend as required.

We achieve unconditional self-acceptance by learning to accept all of our thoughts and feelings. Let’s take a man who has been violent towards women. Telling him that his masculinity is “toxic” isn’t going to help him be more self-accepting. He feels angry. He wants to beat a woman. So this is the place for him to begin. He needs to accept that it is O.K. to feel angry and that is O.K. to want to beat a woman. He will feel these things whether he thinks they are O.K. or not, but recognising that the thoughts and the feelings do no harm in themselves and can be accepted in themselves will help to take the pressure off. The fact that he has, in the past, been violent, is an indication that his particular character structure and situation have resulted in a level of pressure pushing him towards violence which he was unable to resist. A demand - from the individual’s conscience or from others - that they be different from the way they are when they have no way of accommodating this demand can be a source of unbearable pressure. Drawing a distinction between the deed and the thoughts and feelings which lie behind the deed can be enough to free the individual from a good deal of this pressure. If they are made to feel that they are unacceptable for feeling like beating a woman then there is far less motive for resisting that urge. And if insecurities about self-worth are what lie at the heart of the character armour then we are hardly helping someone to free themselves of a destructive form of such armour by insisting that they are a bad person.

Copyright: alphaspirit / 123RF Stock Photo

Let’s look at a little myth or parable about the masculine and the feminine to see if we can put that aspect of the issue into some kind of historical context. The virtue of this format is that it allows for simplification.

A tribe live in the jungle. Both men and women spend time looking after the infants. Leopards from time to time eat one of the infants. The men make spears and head out into the jungle to kill the leopards and protect the women and children. (As child bearers the women are too valuable to be hunters.) Hunting requires the cultivation of competitive and aggressive abilities. The hunting culture comes to clash with the nurturing culture. The women tell the men not to be so macho when back amongst the tribe. Suppressing the voice of the nurturer within was a necessary part of becoming a successful hunter, so giving in to the critical voice of the nurturers would endanger the group, but resisting that critical voice means an increase in the behaviour which is being criticised. It is a negative feedback loop. This cultural divide between men and women determines the structure of our character armour with some of those made most insecure by the negative feedback loop feeling the need to exercise more and more control over society.

We can’t know if things actually happened like that, but I think that the pattern of criticism leading to an increase in the thing criticised is something we can see in society today. Constructive criticism is helpful to the secure individual, but if the negative behaviour arises from a state of insecurity then reestablishing a state of security is a prerequisite to being able to change for the better, and in this case criticism can be counterproductive.

While idealistic criticism leads to insecurity and retaliatory hostility, idealism itself is driven by insecurity. The more someone doubts their own worth the more addicted they may become to “proving” their worth by championing “the good”. If we have a lot of psychological room then we can think about all the shades of grey regarding any moral issue and we can recognise the underlying psychological issues which need to be addressed if we want an improvement in people’s behaviour. But if we are so insecure - so backed into a corner by our own dark side - that only a simplistic division between good and evil is possible and no strategy more complex than an insistence on the good can find a hold in our mind - then idealism is the result.

Which brings us back to the idea of trying to educate young men out of their “toxic masculinity”. This reminds me of the Chinese Cultural Revolution or the discipline and “consciousness raising” approach of religious cults. Education should be about giving people facts and tools, not trying to shape intentions and personalities. The shaping of intentions and personalities should be an autonomous process. We may be able to “educate” people to be submissive to our demands, but a society of such people is a dictatorship waiting to happen. If we want a truly healthy society it needs to be made up of individuals with the kind of integrity which can only grow naturally.

The concept of unconditional self-acceptance is very simple. At its heart is the idea that thoughts and feelings, in and of themselves, do no harm, but, no matter how apparently sick, may be steps on the way to a healthier mode of being. It isn’t an attempt to “educate” anyone out of anything as it is offered as a tool to be used only if the individual finds it useful.

Carl Jung said : "The healthy man does not torture others - generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers." If we apply this to those in our society who are given to violence, we are left with the question : “What is the nature of the violence which has been done to them?” Is it not possible to conceive that that violence is/was a lack of acceptance of some kind - a message conveyed by those around them (from parents to peers to religious teachers) that they were, in some essential way, unacceptable? Is it not the same kind of invisible violence that drives so many to suicide?

Of course here we find another negative feedback loop. The more violent acts a person commits the further recedes the possibility of the acceptance - both from themselves and others - they might require to lose the violent impulse.

It may be easy to lose hope for our society - torn as it is between those whose insecurity makes them cling to various forms of idealism and those who are driven to hostility by the wounds that that idealism’s lack of acceptance inflicts upon them (neither of those positions being mutually exclusive). But each of us who learns - through unconditional self-acceptance - to achieve reconciliation between the warring factions of our own psyche is an island of strength in a sea of weak and frightened individuals. The advantage lies with us.

Friday, 14 October 2016

BOOK REVIEW : Transform Your Life and Save the World - Through Living In Support Of The Biological Truth About The Human Condition by Jeremy Griffith

I’ve been studying the writings of Jeremy Griffith for over 25 years. You may wonder why I would take such an interest in the writings of a man whose books I give one star ratings to. If his ideas are no good, why waste my time on them?

The truth is that I agree with much of what Griffith says and I’ve always felt that there is something in his theory which is essential to addressing humanity’s most serious problems. On the other hand, I think he is wrong in many ways. If he presented his theory as a theory to be assessed like any other, I would give his books five stars, because they are a passionate and original exploration of very deep issues. But he doesn’t present it as a theory. He claims that he is presenting the holy grail of liberating knowledge which all humanity has been striving towards since the dawn of human consciousness. Anyone who has dipped into his books or even read the blurbs on the back covers will know what I mean when I say he goes the hard sell. And he sometimes gets carried away when expressing his disagreement with others. He has labelled fellow biologist Edward O. Wilson “the anti-christ” and described the rejection of one of his articles by Scientific American : “…the most serious crime that could possibly be committed in the whole of humanity’s 2-million-year journey to enlightenment…” This kind of behaviour may lead many people to view Griffith as some random nut-case, but there are those for whom the combination of the self-hype and the fact that Griffith genuinely delves deep and acknowledges aspects of human psychology most of us would be more comfortable denying leads to an unwavering commitment to these ideas. So I value his writings as a catalyst for my own thinking, but have to rate his works with a single star because I believe that, while he has the best of intentions, the way he presents his ideas is wrong and dangerous.

If you want to know what his central theory is you are better off reading it here than trying to wade your way through his massive tome Freedom : The End of the Human Condition to which this booklet is intended to be an introduction.

The basic concept is that we have a genetic orientation to selfless behaviour which is what we experience as our conscience. Most other animals are genetically selfish. The change in our genetic orientation from selfish to selfless occurred through a process called “love indoctrination” whereby the mothers of our proto-human ancestors nurtured their infants for genetically selfish reasons, but to the infants it seemed like selflessness. Thus they were “indoctrinated” into the idea that selflessness is the meaning of life. Over many generations this orientation to selflessness became encoded in our genes. But, as our conscious mind developed, it needed to experiment with self-management, rather than blindly follow the guidance of the selfless instincts. When this led to us acting in ways which our instincts interpreted as selfish, they criticised us. Our conscious mind became insecure in the face of this criticism - we became angry (against the criticism), egotistical (always needing to assert our worth in the face of our instincts condemnation of us) and alienated (blocking out any aspects of reality which might seem to support the criticisms coming from our conscience. Thus we had a loving cooperative beginning as a species (which we mostly retain an orientation to in our genes) and our dark side since then has been a psychological byproduct of the emergence of consciousness.

I’m willing to believe we had a cooperative beginning as a species and I definitely believe that our propensity for selfishness, competition and aggression is a psychological phenomenon. I also believe that the critical nature of idealism is the root cause of the psychological insecurity (or neurosis) which drives our dark side.

Where I disagree with Griffith is on the source of idealism. He sees it as something genetic, whereas I see it as a social phenomenon - a product of the conscious mind, not the instincts.

A clear distinction has to be made here between idealism and love. I don’t feel that Griffith makes this distinction and thus he goes very far wrong. He identifies our conscience with this genetic orientation, but at the same time he says that this genetic orientation is the source of our capacity for love and cooperativeness. The conscience is something which tries to control our behaviour by making us feel bad if we go against it. Love on the other hand cannot be forced. If it is not freely given then it isn’t love. Cooperation in a superficial sense can be forced. People can be made to cooperate. But this isn’t cooperation in the fullest sense of the word - to work with - they may be with us physically, but if there is compulsion then they will not be with us in the relational sense.

I have no problem with the idea that we have a genetic orientation to being loving and cooperative. We see these qualities in young children and we can often see the evidence that emotional disturbance of one kind or another lies behind deviation from such a nature. But, unlike the conscience, love is not dictatorial. In it’s purest form it is all-accepting and all-forgiving. The conscience is certainly not that.

It seems clear to me that the conscience is a part of the ego - the conscious thinking self - in which we store our learned moral principles. How else do we explain that what makes us feel guilty differs from person to person and culture to culture? If our conscience were genetic we would see no such diversity. Guilt can be understood as the sense of psychological pain which accompanies the withdrawal of self-acceptance.

I see no need for the theory of “love indoctrination”. Nature at base is integrative - competition occurs within a cooperative framework. The motivation for we animals is the pleasure principle - to seek that which makes us feel good and try to avoid what makes us feel bad. (In humans this gets very complicated because of our ability to make decisions based on predictions about the future, our psychological needs and our metaphysical belief systems.) For animals, good and bad feelings are the messengers for the genes. An animal which experiences maximised pleasure when mating with a healthy member of his species and is willing to compete for that pleasure may prove more fit in the process of natural selection. And a female member of a species who feels enough discomfort at the prospect of losing her infant to fight to protect it will also be likely to have an advantage. And where there is not enough food for everyone, those who are most motivated to compete will pass on their genes. But these animals compete when there is an advantage, in terms of achieving pleasure or avoiding suffering, in competing.

Griffith places a lot of emphasis on the bonobos as an example of what our cooperative past may have been like. Bonobos are peaceful, cooperative and matriarchal, while chimpanzees are more aggressive, competitive and patriarchal. The chimpanzees developed in an ecosystem where food was less plentiful. The bonobos spend a lot of their time rubbing genitals with each other fairly indiscriminately. Why would the bonobos not be cooperative and peaceful? Everyone has enough food. Living cooperatively means living in a peaceful supportive community and spending much of your time rubbing genitals. Where is the pleasure advantage in competition?

As for our ancestors, if they lived in an environment where there was plenty of food to go around, then the only source of competition would be mating. But would competing for mates in such an environment confer a significant evolutionary advantage? It would in a more hostile environment with a high infant mortality rate. There it would be a numbers game. But if most infants grew to adulthood, then environmental advantage would go to those who were best nurtured and thus healthiest. In this kind of ecological niche, genetic advantage would favour nurturing as it does with the bonobos. And there would be no genetic drive to compete which needed to be “indoctrinated” out of us. All that was needed was a space where competition was not advantageous. Maybe the chimpanzees too would like to be living cooperatively and spending their time rubbing genitals, but if there isn’t enough food to go around they have to stick with their less pleasant lifestyle.

So how did it all go wrong? I think Griffith is right that a conflict arose between the instincts and the intellect, but not in the way he thinks. If our instincts are to be loving and cooperative then they would have to be forgiving and uncritical. Forgiveness is essential to love and necessary if ongoing cooperation is to be facilitated. Idealism on the other hand is unforgiving and is a divisive influence. Idealism encourages us to judge ourselves or others against an standard which is, by definition unreachable. Ideality and reality are opposites, thus ideals can never be achieved in the real world. The ideals produce just the kind of response in the insecure ego that Griffith attributes to them. But they originate in the conscious mind, not in the instincts. They are a product of the conscious mind’s attempt to understand the world and manage it’s own behaviour.

How did we arrive at the concept of idealism? To have an idea of good and evil we would need something with which to contrast our loving cooperative behaviour. The behaviour or predatory animals would have provided that contrast. The role of protecting the tribe against them would have fallen to men as women needed to concentrate on nurturing the infants. In hunting against them we would have had to cultivate our own competitive and aggressive potential. While necessary, this would have had a disruptive effect on the group, something which the women would have had to try to control. So we have behaviour labelled “bad” and other behaviour labelled “good” and social pressure to restrain the former and cultivate the latter. A moral system. In time individuals would have begun second-guessing criticism. They would have internalised the moral system. They would have gained a conscience.

Of course this was necessary, but the problem is that idealism has a tendency to undermine self-acceptance. We end up feeling guilty about our transgressions and the resultant insecurity makes it harder for us to open up to our deeper loving nature. Our wounded ego becomes a bigger and bigger barrier to improving our behaviour. We become, as Griffith says, angry, egocentric and alienated.

Griffith likes to use his theory as a way of explaining the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but there are some aspects of that story which can be explained by what I have just said which he does not attempt to explain. Eve was the first to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and she was tempted to do so by a snake. If predatory animals were what led us to the origin of idealism, then that explains the snake. If women were the first ones to insist on a moral system, that explains how Eve ate first. And it was not simply the Tree of Knowledge (as Griffith often says in support of his theory that conscious thought in general was the key factor), but the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (i.e. knowledge of morality or idealism). We can quite safely use our minds to explore and experiment wherever we don’t arrive at hurtful self-criticism. It was not the search for knowledge which corrupted us, as Griffith claims, but the idealism which we played with along the way.

Griffith’s placing of idealism in the genes leads him to this absurdity : “…but we have never before been able to ‘heal our soul’, to truthfully explain to our original instinctive self or soul that our fully conscious, thinking self is good and not bad…” If our instinctive self resides in our genes, then how can we explain anything to it? How can genes listen and understand? But if the split is one which idealism has caused within our conscious mind, then a healing integrity of understanding is possible.

I could go on and on analysing and criticising Griffith’s attempt to explain the human condition, and I have done that elsewhere, but here I just wanted to deal with the central issue as all other failings proceed from there.

I care about Jeremy Griffith and his followers and I care what happens to the human race. My motivation is the pleasure principle. It would be pleasant for me to see the members of the World Transformation Movement liberated from the impasse caused by their support of a faulty theory. And it would be pleasant to live in a world where the human race has a chance to survive, whether they are a part of making that possible or not.

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