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, iBooks 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 593 ***** out of ***** ratings on U.S. iBooks.

Monday, 21 May 2012

"It Will Come Through Your Hands"

Sometimes when I'm feeling frustrated or impatient and in need of inspiration I listen to a song by roots rock singer-songwriter John Hiatt. Through Your Hands comes from his 1990 album Stolen Moments.

You were dreaming on a park bench
'Bout a broad highway somewhere
When the music from the carillon
Seemed to hurl your heart out there
Past the scientific darkness
Past the fireflies that float
To an angel bending down
To wrap you in her warmest coat

And you ask, "What am I not doing?"
She says "Your voice cannot command.
In time, you will move mountains,
And it will come through your hands."

Still you argue for an option
Still you angle for your case
Like you wouldn't know a burning bush
If it blew up in your face
Yeah, we scheme about the future
And we dream about the past
When just a simple reaching out
Might build a bridge that lasts


So whatever your hands find to do
You must do with all your heart
There are thoughts enough
To blow men's minds and tear great worlds apart

There's a healing touch to find you
On that broad highway somewhere
To lift you high
As music flying
Through the angel's hair.

Don't ask what you are not doing
Because your voice cannot command
In time we will move mountains
And it will come through your hands

Thanks to Lyric Time.

There are times when we are tempted to try to tell people how they should behave. When we do they probably don't listen to us. When people do something which is counter-productive for themselves or others it is generally not because no-one ever tried to point out the error of their ways. As the angel in Hiatt's song says, " [our] voice cannot command." And when we address our own behaviour the same applies. It does no good to load ourselves down with "musts" and "shoulds". Any sustainable change is not brought about by an act of will that runs counter to our desires. So here as well "[our] voice cannot command."

But the world is full of people like ourselves with needs and desires. We may not like to be told what to do but we do like to be given what we need and what we want. And to the extent that human society falls short of its potential for health, happiness and productivity, it is largely a distribution problem. Knowledge, food, wealth, attention, appreciation, acceptance, healing... There are many of us who are short of some of these things and others who have much to give.

I'm not talking here about charity, at least in the conventional sense. Sometimes when someone has a charity drive they say : "Give until it hurts." Well, pain is there to tell us something. If you are doing something and it hurts then that's a warning that it may not be healthy for you. Of course there are times when this seems necessary and is a short term thing. But people talk of "compassion fatigue" and this happens because it isn't natural to keep doing something which deep down you really don't want to do. And beyond that the concept of charity is often dishonestly exploited when a false and often sentimental image is used to hide cynical commercial or ideological objectives whether that be to push religion or sell hamburgers.

But our needs and our desires are not just to receive but also to give. There are many whose disadvantage is not to have too little of something but to not have enough of an opportunity as they would like to give of themselves.

I find it useful to think of us all as conduits. Things and qualities flow through us - information, money, ideas, emotions, sensations. All day long, in one way or another we are giving and receiving, and how freely these interactions take place and how powerful their impact on others and ourselves tends to determine how rich and vital our lives are. Think of the blood flow through the body. Where there is poor circulation feelings are numbed and health is compromised, but when we are excited and there is healthy circulation the blood flows strongly and we feel very much alive. The same is true in our lives, it is the flow of giving and receiving which makes life vital and exciting.

What we most want to give and what we most want or need to receive differs for each of us. And this is a good thing. Hope for a better experience of life lies in the fact that, while we may be short of one thing, someone else has a surplus. A rich philanthropist may have more money than he could possibly spend on himself, so to channel it to worthy causes, far from being something that requires self-sacrifice on his part, is something which gives him satisfaction and a perhaps a sense of power. A lonely person who has no job may be in need of money but he does have time and the desire for company which makes spending time visiting other lonely people something which is no act of charity. We are often in the habit of discounting the value of something which someone has to contribute because there is no self-sacrifice involved or because the individual gets a clear personal benefit. And yet the result of something which maybe took almost no effort can have big consequences. Think of Betty Grable posing for a pin up during World War II. Being a sex symbol actress was the dream of many a young woman then as it still is now and posing for a photo is no big thing. But that photo hung on scores of barrack room walls bringing to many soldiers a sense that life was not all horror and death. The littlest of things can have a big effect. Chaos theory shows that even a minimal change in a system over time can lead to a complete change of its structure. So if we want to look at positive change and healing in society heroic efforts and self-sacrifice are a distraction. The effort required is important to the individual but may not have anything to do with the results.

And so, if healing happens in the world, it will happen, not because we try to force it to happen - to "command" it - but it will "come through our hands" - we will be conduits for it.

There are different qualities to the things of which we can be conduits. At the source end there are those things which are gone when we give them, those which stay the same the more we give and those which may increase with the giving. If I give away a dollar it is gone. If I share a funny cartoon in my email, I still have it and can send it to as many other people as I like. If I sing songs then my skill at doing so may increase with each performance, and thus the more I give the more I have. At the receiving end also some things can only be used once, something things can be used again and again and some things, like seeds, can increase exponentially. Plant a seed and it can grow into a plant which produces fifty seeds. Each of those fifty seeds produces another plant each of which produces another fifty seeds and so on. Information is often like this. Teach someone how to read or to use a computer and the impact on their life and the lives of others can be enormous.

For myself, I love to write. I love to be a conduit of ideas, information, dreams and fantasies. On the other hand, I don't like to be the centre of attention amongst large groups of people. Some people love that. You could call it ego, but it doesn't matter. What matters is that the world needs people to do that, to present ideas to large groups or to bring comfort and enriching experiences to large groups of people through music or other forms of performance. So that is what they have to give.

And there is no need to allow lingering puritanism to exclude the sexual from the concept of the conduit  of healing. How many of us who are lonely and sexually frustrated have received some healing pleasure and comfort from those, on the internet, who find excitement or financial rewards from exhibitionism. And we often fail to acknowledge the role played by sex workers. The socially awkward, the physically or intellectually challenged, etc., may find their only experience of erotic physical affection coming from those who make it their profession. And there are those who find themselves fixated on acts which most of us would find repellant but who, no doubt, find some approximation of a healing acceptance of this part of themselves from men or women who make a profession of catering for such needs.

Do any or all of the ideas I present in How to Be Free have the power to bring about healing change? If they have helped to bring about positive change in our lives then we have an opportunity to be a conduit for something tremendously exciting. There are things I have - the talent to write and some knowledge of ebook production and the internet. There are other things I don't have - money, knowledge of hard-copy publishing, confidence in speaking to audiences, and knowledge and contacts in many areas. Whatever you have which you may want to use as a way of being a conduit for these ideas is your own unique opportunity to make your life and the lives of others happier and more exciting.

And perhaps, as it says in the song : 
"In time we will move mountains and it will come through your hands."

You can also find this post on the How to Be Free forum here. You may find further discussion of it there.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Are We Aware That We Are Life Itself?

In seeking to understand ourselves there is a very useful analogy – that of water and its container. What is the essence of who we are? It is raw consciousness – the self-awareness of the life energy. Everywhere in nature this life energy expresses itself, thrusting forward to take advantage of all possibilities. Where there is fertile soil and water, life will take root and flourish, and the earth swarms with animals driven on by the life energy to feed and to mate. The life energy is an unquenchable tide that flows through us at all times. Our rational mind and our body provide the circumference of this energy. These things give it shape and give us the ability to function as a partially independent entity. We are only partially independent because we need the web of life around us to sustain us, but we can take independent action and exercise independent thought.

If we think of raw conciousness or life energy as water and our body and conscious mind or ego as the vessel which contains the water we can more easily understand the nature of anxiety and courage, and also more rationally assess the concept of life after death.

First, in looking at anxiety, lets imagine that the conscious mind or ego is a dam holding back the pressure of the water that is our life energy. We all need to use our conscious mind to establish a practical level of order in our lives. Universal consciousness can't tell us what groceries we need to buy at the shop or how to wash our underpants. We need a sense of ourselves as a separate entity and we need to be able to accumulate and store the information necessary to perform the tasks in our life. And we have to exercise self-discipline in our interactions with others. We can't simply do whatever the life energy which is our essence pushes us to do. And this tends to become more true the more we exercise that self-discipline. It is natural for life to push against the boundaries which frustrate and limit it and it is natural for it to seek pleasure and opportunities to create beyond itself, but there are times when, through our possession of a rational mind, we come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that to act directly on such impulses would be counter-productive. There are times when we have to accept frustration. And if we have no appropriate outlet for those feelings of frustration then we need to build up a psychological structure of containment. This is our armour. It is there to protect us against threats from without, but it is also there to contain that which is within and meet the threat that it poses.

The more water a dam has to hold back the stronger and more inflexible it has to be and the greater the danger if it were to collapse. And so it is with our armour – our ego-structure (which may also express itself physically through a stiffening of the musculature which aids the holding in of powerful emotions). While, for most of us, the armour is about holding things in, this is not always the case. Some do not exercise much self-control. In the extreme case of a warlord who might spend his time raping and pillaging and slaughtering we can see that there isn't much holding back, but his behaviour is armoured behaviour. The aim of the armour in this case it to protect against open communication with others. It is only possible to mistreat people if we are closed off to loving communication with them. What would drive such a tyrant would still be the life force, which has no discriminatory powers. How the life force expresses itself in action is dependent on the thinking of the individual. Where we see behaviour which is self-destructive or destructive of others it generally it is the life force operating in the service of a lie. The mind acts as a channel for the life force and the positive or negative nature of the resulting behaviour depends on the mind's capacity for truthfulness.

Sometimes we identify ourselves more with the dam and sometimes more with the water that it contains. When we feel anxiety we are identifying with the dam. Anxiety is a feeling which alerts us to the possibility that we might not be able to maintain that dam. We think that maybe the dam will break and we will lose control of ourselves. Or we think that some threat from outside will lead to the damaging or destruction of the dam. In the extreme it may be death itself which we fear, which is the final end of the dam. While the ultimate answer to anxiety may be to learn to identify more with the water than with the dam, anything which allows us to let more water out at the top of the dam decreases our susceptibility to anxiety. Any cathartic release of pent-up emotions eases the pressure on the dam and makes us less prone to feelings of anxiety. We can be a dam that holds back the water or we can be a swimmer in a peaceful ocean.

Anxiety is like pain, it is a messenger that alerts us to threats. But it can, at times, exceed its useful function. On the other hand there are individuals who show remarkable courage in the face of over-whelming adversity. There are martyrs who have gone calmly to their deaths. And there are many examples of soldiers who completed their missions while facing almost certain death. These are only the most commonly considered kinds of courage. Courage takes many forms. But how can we explain such extraordinary courage? I believe that the source of courage is the realisation (on some intuitive level) that we are not merely alive. We are life itself. Life, unlike our individual ego, is eternal and unconquerable. When we are divided against ourselves, engaged in a war to hold back aspects of our own nature, then we are weakened and more prone to anxiety. But within us flows the unquenchable tide of existence. We talk of enthusiasm. The word literally means “the God within". When we are filled with enthusiasm for any activity we forget to be afraid because we are in the grip of something bigger and deeper than fear. Not that this may not be something destructive, as in the example of the warlord. I'm sure that it is not only those whose minds are characterised by wisdom who are, at least at times, capable of identifying more with the life force itself than with the armour. To learn to do so is not an alternative to learning to think truthfully, but the two skills can work well together.

So what of life after death? In contemplating this concept it is helpful to think not of a dam but of a glass full of water. Our body and our conscious mind are the glass and the life force of raw consciousness is the water which fills it. The water is the same water which fills all other humans and all other living things. What gives it its unique shape and identity is the glass. So what happens at death? The glass is broken. The water loses its unique identity, but it is, as it has always been, something eternal. So the concept of a personal after-life for the individual makes no sense, and yet we find our deepest meaning and capacity for courage in an acknowledgement that this life is a fleeting expression of something greater and eternal, a temporary twig that grows out of a tree that lives forever.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Book Review : Illuminating the Darkness by Noel Dear

Noel Dear is a pastor who has written a book which he claims is "A Fresh and Effective Solution to Depression, Stress, and Anxiety". He sent me a direct message on Twitter suggesting that I read his book. I did. This is my review which I have submitted to Amazon.

First, let me lay my cards on the table. I'm not a Christian. I read this book because the author recommended it to me via Twitter. I am also an author of a book on how to free ourselves from mental suffering. I spent a good deal of my life living with such forms of mental distress as extreme depression (two suicide attempts and two courses of shock treatment), obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, bipolar disorder (including a number of psychotic breakdowns). I'm now happy and healthy and bursting with creativity. My own writing in this field is an articulation of the insights and techniques I discovered along my journey to freedom.

I say I'm not a Christian but that does not mean I am not a big believer in the philosophy expressed by Jesus. To me Jesus was a psychologically healthy individual who tried to use his insights to set people free. Noel Dear talks about benchmarks for normalcy. For me, personally, Jesus is the benchmark for mental health. I can believe that because I don't believe he was in any way a supernatural being. I only believe that he was the son of God to the extent that we are all the sons (or daughters) of "God" (though Dear and myself would no doubt differ on what we mean by that word). He was just an individual relatively free from the prevailing neurosis, and the more neurotic we are the more we are liable to view that state of health as something magical, because to do so helps us to deny our own condition. So my healing was greatly helped by Jesus words taken directly, but I view the Christian churches as a perversion of Jesus philosophy, a perversion that began as soon as he was dead, which contaminates the accounts of his life (hence all the ridiculous stuff about virgin birth, miracles and resurrection) and of which the nail was finally put in the coffin by Paul who turned a philosophy of liberation into a promise of a pie-in-the-sky and a philosophy of submission to the neurotic, sexually repressive, patriarchal social order from which Jesus wanted to show us the way out.

So now you know that I'm a heretic. But, since this book is presented as a cure for depression for all rather than only for those who already share the author's particular dogma, perhaps my thoughts on whether this book would have helped me back when I suffered from depression are not irrelevant.

Dear asks the question : "Are Depression, Stress and Anxiety Sin?" and comes to the conclusion : "The simple answer is, no. You feel the way you feel. If a door slams on my finger, it will hurt. It would be foolish for someone to tell me my finger should not be hurting. I feel what I feel. Always be wary of someone who tells you that you should or should not feel a certain way." This is good advice, but Dear does not go far enough in explicating his issue of sin. To my way of looking at things "sin" is just a word religious people use for selfishness. And suffering, whether physical or emotional, naturally causes us to direct our attention towards ourselves. If our finger is hurting from being slammed in a door, we will find it hard to think of anything other than the pain. So if "sin" is selfishness, then suffering is the source of "sin". This doesn't mean we should be ashamed of being selfish, because the healthy thing to do when we are suffering is to look after our own need for healing and any sense of shame or guilt is further emotional suffering which will only make us more selfish. The answer to emotional pain that causes selfishness (i.e. "sin") is unconditional self-acceptance and the pursuit of pleasure (as long as it can be had without doing harm to ourselves or others). While suffering makes us selfish, pleasure heals us and frees us to be more loving and available to others.

Dear's critique of some traditional approaches to depression - that they attempt to treat the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem, that they are about "chasing away the darkness" rather than "turning on the light" is reasonable. The question is whether his ideas are able to turn on that light. It was the turning on of a light in my life which drove away depression but it was not the light of doctrinaire Christianity. Dear provides a lot of build-up to his answer to depression, to the extent that he sometimes comes across as condescending, but what really matters is if what he is promoting can really free people from depression even if they are incapable of putting aside their capacity for rational thinking to the degree necessary to believe in a supernatural religion. If what he is offering can't do this job then Dear could be accused of exploiting the desperation of the depressed to try to convert them to his religious beliefs. I would not like to believe that he is such a cynic as this, but that his intentions are genuine, but that does not make his book a useful one for the free-thinker.

Dear believes that the only cure for depression is "the spirit of God". He has a point if we take "God" to mean love. Our deepest nature is one of unconditional love and uncovering that capacity once again by finding ways to let the things which keep it repressed melt away is the solution to depression. But "God" is such a troublesome term, because not everyone means simply "love" when they say "God". Some people mean an old man in the sky who is capable of committing genocide against those who disrespect his dictatorial rule. That God doesn't exist. He is a paranoid delusion of a neurotic patriarchal civilisation. And, even if he did exist, to submit to his tyranny would be unhealthy because it would entail repression and when we repress any aspect of ourselves we contribute to our repression of our capacity to love and thus express the nature of the only "God" that does exist. I believe that the only God Jesus believed in was love (and the universal creative principle of which love is the human social manifestation). I don't think that he believed in that Old Testament bogeyman. And that is probably why he was killed as a blasphemer and a heretic by those who did believe in that other God.

Dear presents the whole sin guilt trip we have become used to from Christian writers. But all of this is unnecessary. The creative principle of the universe is not perfect. Creation grows through variation, through imperfection, and our imperfections are not something to be ashamed of or to ask some deity's forgiveness for. They are the seeds of our future growth. Jesus himself expressed this with the story of the prodigal son. The prodigal son was valued more highly by his parents than the son who stayed at home. They didn't slay the fatted calf for the stay-at-home. Love and creation are a process of experimentation and improvisation, not a process of obeying rules.

According to Dear, if we remain depressed it may be because we are sinners. It is our own fault. I believe that the essence of depression is the unnecessary struggle to prove our worth or shake off an unjustified sense of guilt. For many, Dear's approach is liable to exacerbate this process and drive them to deeper despair. How prone to guilt we are depends on the learned expectations we have about ourselves and our conduct. A Christian like Dear is bound to be more prone to feelings of guilt then someone like myself because he believes more things are unacceptable to God. As long as I do nothing to hurt anyone, I can do what I like and not feel guilty, but a Christian is liable to be prone to guilt about many things because he or she feels that God disapproves. I don't believe in that kind of God therefore I have no need to feel guilt about those particular things. I will still feel guilt if I do something dishonest, because that goes against my own personal value system. But I don't care about the personal value system of a supernatural God, because I don't believe he exists. Dear, no doubt, does not feel guilty because he does not bow toward Mecca at particular times of the day, yet a Muslim probably would. Our conscience is a personal thing, a part of our ego which contains our expectations about ourselves which we have learned from parents, teachers, religious leaders. The stricter our conscience is the less likely we are to be able to live up to its dictates and therefore the more prone we are likely to be to depression. One of the major factors that can lead to depression and other related conditions is perfectionism. So hanging on to some myth about a perfect God of whom we are not worthy is hardly a recipe for mental health.

Dear says : "Because God is a God of perfect justice, he cannot simply ignore our sin. So, God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins. Because I have sinned, someone must be punished for my sin. Jesus through the death on the cross did just that. Moreover, Jesus did it not only for me but also for you. You can be forgiven and have your relationship with God restored because of what Jesus did for you on the cross."

Because this is such a long-standing cultural belief, a lot of us have not really thought deeply about what this doctrine is saying. What would happen if the judge who tried a gang of serial killers said to the media : "Yes, they are guilty. They killed all those women and children. But I've decided that, instead of punishing them, I'm going send my own son (who's always been a good boy) to the electric chair and let the serial killers go free." We would not consider that judge a judge of perfect justice, we would consider him a lunatic.

This concept of Jesus dying for our sins is a self-serving interpretation of events. Jesus was a psychologically healthy individual who tried to show us the way to freedom from our neurotic ego-embattled mindset (what he called "sin"). The way he did this led to him upsetting some people and they put him to death. But his words lived on after him because they contained wisdom. It is as simple as that. It is in his life and his teachings and not in his death that we can find a way to escape from selfishness and return to the paradise which our deeper capacity for love makes possible. The sin and salvation game is about maintaining the discipline of the group. And the irrational belief that we have a personal afterlife either in Heaven or Hell (as opposed to our current life being an individual expression of a natural phenomena which is itself eternal but undifferentiated) is also something which is useful for maintaining control over people via the old carrot and the stick strategy.

On anger, Dear's approach seems to be to suggest the use of Biblical wisdom to help you repress it. And yet repressed anger never goes away, it forms the structure of the neurotic personality and continues to separate us from our fellows. Surely the better advice is to help people to find cathartic but undamaging ways to release their anger and thus free themselves up to be more loving individuals. He also says that : "You have a righteous anger when you oppose things that anger the Lord. Righteous anger never leads to sin." And yet he gives no advice on how to be sure if you are angry about something which angers the Lord and whether your actions are an appropriate response. When the religious leaders of his day decided that God was angry at the "heresy" and "blasphemy" of Jesus and that he should be handed over to the Romans for crucifiction was this righteous anger? And what of the anger of those who burned women at the stake because they believed that those women were witches and that God was angry?

Dear has clearly done a lot of studying of the Bible. But what does he really know about depression. He makes no mention of having suffered from it himself, and he is not a psychologist or psychiatrist who deals with a broad range of depressed patients. He is a pastor and as such he talks with some depressed people who share his belief system, but this is a limited sample. I myself am not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but depression is a land whose length and breadth I have travelled personally and from which I have returned with understanding of its landscape and where the road out lies.

Dear talks a lot about the bearing of "spiritual fruit". I think that one of Jesus most useful statements was : "By their fruits shall ye know them". While this may have a specific meaning to Christians related to "the last days", to me it emphasises the importance of judging the value of an idea or a belief system by the effect it has on those who absorb it rather than by the claims which its advocates or their critics make about it. Does the idea or belief system lead people to a state in which they are more loving, more creative, happier, and more secure. This last point can be determined by whether they are comfortable mixing with people who do not share their beliefs and open-heartedly engaging with beliefs that differ from their own, or whether those beliefs need constant re-enforcement through surrounding themselves with other believers and by reading the articulation of those beliefs over and over again. Freedom doesn't require that much discipline.

I'm sure this book will be of some use to people who share Dear's particular religious belief system. I can see that, within the context of this dogmatic mindset, he gives some good advice about how to manage somewhat better. But to a free-thinker like myself, looking in from the outside, this seems a little like learning how to rearrange the furniture in your prison cell.

I make no promise that my own self-help book "How to Be Free" by Joe Blow (not on Amazon but you can find it as a free download at many other places where ebooks can be obtained) will necessarily free you from depression. The principles in it have worked for me and for some others. But I can say from my own experience that becoming free of depression does not require being a Christian or believing in God.


You can also find this post on the How to Be Free forum here. You may find further discussion of it there.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Anorexia, Armouring and Objectification

Adolescence is a very emotionally difficult time for most people. Severe depression and suicide among teens is on the increase.

The reason why this time in our lives is so difficult and distressing is that it is the time we begin to feel the pressure to put on our masks and adopt the bullshit game of adulthood. Never again, we may feel, will we be able to truly be ourselves. This is a time when image comes to take precedence over experience. And, as R. D. Laing puts it, "To adapt to this world the child abdicates its ecstasy."

At the time of puberty, our capacity for sexual pleasure becomes very important to us. But during adolescence a change tends to occur, particularly for girls, in which the body's power to attract sexual attention from others comes to supersede in importance for the individual its capacity to experience sexual and other forms of pleasure.

For boys this can also be true, but what is often more important for males is the image of being "cool" or strong. In the game of adulthood there can only be winners and losers, and the maintenance of a viable self-image requires either the invulnerability of the winner or a cultivated air of indifference about whether or not one is perceived as a loser.

This is armouring, a rigid emotional construction which has the purpose of protecting us from threats both internal and external. The problem with this armouring is that it ends up becoming more of a threat to our wellbeing than any of the things against which it is intended to protect us. We need to convince the world that we are sexy or strong or cool so that we can feel good about ourselves, but we wouldn't feel so bad about ourselves if it weren't for the fact that we know that this front is a hollow lie.

What characterises childhood is spontaneity. We do and we experience, and think little about how it will be perceived by others. We are unselfconscious. We lose this when we reach adolescence and it has to do with more than the onset of acne.

One particular problem in which the devastation of this process can be seen in a very concrete physical way is in the condition known as anorexia nervosa. This is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder in which the sufferer is unable to accept their own body. (In other forms of OCD it is an inability to accept certain thoughts or emotions which lead to anxiety and obsessional thinking and behaviour.) While this condition sometimes effects adolescent boys and also some adults (particularly those in the entertainment industry) I'll concentrate here on the issues relating to the majority of sufferers who are teenage girls.

Following puberty a girl's body begins to develop in ways which indicate sexual maturity. She grows breasts, etc. This can lead to a dramatic change in the way some adults look at her. Some adult males will begin to feel uncomfortable about these changes and tend to avert their eyes from parts of her body. Unaware of the imperative for adults to repress their sexuality and, in particular, to fight against any possibility of being sexually drawn to someone under the age of consent, she may conclude that this avoidance is evidence that there is something wrong with her body, that it is in some way repellant.

Because we have a particular cultural obsession with weight loss and the concept that we have to be slim to be sexy, a natural conclusion for this girl to jump to is that if her body is repellant it must be repellant because it is too fat. So she starts to dramatically restrict her eating. Because she is relying on others to give her her idea of whether or not she is repellant and she assumes that to be repellant is to be fat, she will become fixated on the idea that she will know when she is no longer fat by whether or not men look at her body with pleasure. Of course this doesn't happen. The thinner she gets the more her body genuinely repels others. She is caught in a self-reinforcing downward spiral that all too often leads to death.

Starvation has a strange effect on the mind. It breaks down the ability to conform the inner world of the imagination to the evidence about the outside world collected by the senses. Historically mystics have used fasting as a way to disconnect with the external world and get in touch with the perceptions of the deep unconscious. This can lead to visions (i.e. hallucinations) in which the individual cannot distinguish between something which is happening outside of themselves and something going on inside. Lack of nutrition is not the only thing which can have this effect. Certain kinds of extreme emotional distress can also lead to this phenomena in the form of what we call psychotic episodes. And drugs can have this effect also. But the point is that the anorexia sufferer comes to actually see herself as fat when she looks in the mirror because the commitment to that theory about how people respond to her body has taken precedence over the mind's need to accurately process visual information and the chemical changes brought on by starvation make it easier for the hallucination to occur.

Like other forms of mental illness the prevailing approach to treatment for anorexia is through attempts to control the symptoms rather than look deeply at what is really taking place. Very often when we try too hard to control something we only succeed in making it worse. If an individual is suffering from low self-esteem then forcing them to eat when they don't want to, while it may end up keeping them alive, can only have the effect of making them feel worse about themselves, as being forced to submit to another's will is always humiliating and disempowering.

The answer to any form of obsessive compulsive disorder is to learn to accept ourselves unconditionally. A powerful tool for learning to love our bodies is to return to their capacity to give us pleasure. Masturbation is a powerful therapy for lack of body acceptance. And, no doubt, gentle affectionate touching and gazing from loved ones can help an individual to feel that their body is not something disgusting.

Some blame the media for anorexia. Or perhaps a tendency in men to view women as sex objects. But these are superficial assessments. If the magazines weren't full of pictures of skinny sex symbols then insecure individuals would find something else to feel inferior about. And the sex object comes from within as much as without. The sex object self is armouring.

And here a distinction has to be made between sexual desire and objectification. If a man feels attracted to a woman because she has large breasts or a woman to a man because he has a muscular torso this is not objectification. Objectification is what happens when someone is valued for only one thing and everything else about them is considered irrelevant. It is quite possible to love a woman's big breasts while also admiring her intelligence, her courage and her skill at badminton. Sexual desires need not dictate how we relate to each other. As Betty Rollin said : "Scratch most feminists and underneath there is a woman who longs to be a sex object.  The difference is that is not all she wants to be."

While men are sometimes sexually objectified, more often the objectification of men takes other forms. In wartime men have often been used as cannon fodder, valued only as weapons and not as full human beings. And some employers treat their workers, male and female, as nothing more than tools for the production of wealth, like so many robots. When we interact with someone only on the basis of what we can get out of them, that is objectification.

When it comes to the relationship between the sexes it is not erotic desire which is the problem, but armouring. If a woman wants acceptance and ego reinforcement from men so desperately that she betrays her true self and does things she despises, then this will have a corrosive effect on her emotional wellbeing. But if she only does what conforms to her view of what is right and what gives her pleasure, then this is healthy. Pleasure, if it is not gained in a way which brings physical damage, is healing. If we look at the example of the sex industry we can see individuals who go on a downward spiral and we also see those who thrive in this world, the difference is whether they are following the beat of their own drummer or are driven by some form of desperation (poverty, addiction, insecurity) to degrade themselves by doing something they don't really want to do.

For men the problem is the need to maintain the front of strength or cool. This amounts to a kind of self-objectification, a reduction of one's self to the ability to conform to an image. It is this which leads to misogyny. For a heterosexual man to feel sexually attracted to very many women is a sign of health, but for a man to end up feeling that "a woman is just a life-support system for a vagina" or "if they didn't have a vagina you'd throw rocks at them", is not healthy, and yet it is unfortunately prevalent enough. This kind of misogynistic attitude is a product of armouring. Sexual desire is the armoured man's Achilles Heal. It is the chink in that armour. For years he has had to stifle his vulnerable, spontaneous child self, and pretend that the armour is all that there is to him. But when he sees the soft flesh of a woman he is transported back to the erotic feelings of early adolescence before he donned the armour. His emotional self-discipline is under threat. Fear comes out as hatred. And often, even when he does have sex with the woman, he has armoured sex – perfunctory or even brutal sex – which denies a true erotic experience not only to his partner, but also to himself. Orgasmic sex is too much like that ecstasy from which he abdicated so long ago. He dare not give in to homesickness for that paradise, and so sex becomes an empty thing.

But, in truth, we can let the armour dissolve. We can return to that long lost paradise. This is not some kind of regression for the immature or cowardly. To rediscover our ability to love, to be playful, to be spontaneous and full of joy, doesn't mean we can't, at the same time, be responsible, brave and intelligent problem solvers, after all it is that armour which, paradoxically, makes us so vulnerable and which most impedes the effective operation of our intelligence.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Atheist or Not?

When, before publication, I showed How to Be Free to an atheist friend of mine he expressed disgust that it was “theist”.

Recently I've had a new review on I-Tunes warning Christians against reading my book because I express a lack of belief in God :

Before that came this one :

I've always expected that believers in the more dogmatic forms of Christian belief would tend to take a dim view of the ideas about God which I express in the book.

But the term “God" means different things to different people, and I can well imagine a good many religious people not seeing my book as being atheistic.

So I'm interested to hear from readers. Do you consider the book to be theistic or atheistic?

Postscript : Here is another review which was posted later which responds to the first two :

Very well put!

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Materialism is Masturbation

Materialism is masturbation. It is something which can make us feel better when we are on our own.

“Am I a worthwhile person?” we ask ourselves. “Well a worthless person wouldn't live in a big house and drive a fast sports car, would they?” we answer. But the fact that we are asking the question means that, in a very real sense, we are alone. We are trapped in an ego, the insecurity of which keeps us turned inwards, keeps us obsessed with physical evidence that we are loveable, while cutting us off from any possibility of really loving or being loved by anyone.

But this doesn't mean that materialism is a bad thing. The route to our liberation is through learning that we are worthy, and, if material goods give us that message then that is a good place to start. We shouldn't feel ashamed of our materialism any more than we should feel ashamed about masturbating. In fact, to the extent that materialism is an addiction, it is a sense of shame associated with it which is the driving force of that addiction.

Addiction occurs when we need more of something to achieve that same effect, when the appeal of something wears off. No matter how right wing our political beliefs may be it is very hard to escape an underlying sense of guilt that we have luxuries while others are starving. But this sense of guilt doesn't help anyone, because the more it undermines our sense of worth the more material luxuries we need to compensate. So we are less happy and more addicted, and the starving are still starving.

Now we could adopt the form of idealism known as voluntary simplicity in which conspicuous consumption is eschewed and greater material generosity shown to others, but if this is another way for the insecure ego to prove its worth then we are still not healing where we need to heal and we may be contributing to the sense of guilt of those still trying to enjoy their materialism. It may just be another form of selfishness if what matters to us is how we are perceived and the net effect on the social system around us does not concern us.

The road out of addiction, whether it be an addiction to materialism or an addiction to idealism, is to enjoy it more and thus need it less. If the purpose of our materialism or our idealism is to convince us that we are worthy, then let it carry that message unadulterated by the guilt that may accompany materialism or the sense of superiority that might accompany idealistic acts. Pleasure is healing, and the more we are healed the more available we become to be a healthy part of the wider social system, and thus the more others benefit. Of course pleasures can carry a price, and it is better to chose a pleasure which doesn't do us physical harm. Taking heroin may be pleasurable at first, but the price of physical addiction far outweighs any temporary psychological benefits arising from that experience.

Masturbation is a healthy activity, an easy risk-free source of pleasure, but it carries an association of loneliness and accepting a substitute for what we really desire. And this is why I make the connection between it and materialism. We find our meaning, and our deepest opportunities for pleasure, in our relationship to others. Even when someone like Thoreau departed from human society for a couple of years to live in the woods and find himself, he found himself in relation to the natural environment, and that experience only achieved its full significance when he wrote about it and communicated his ideas to others.

Just as meaning is conveyed by a letter of the alphabet only when it takes its place in the context of a word, our meaning derives from our relationship to the whole of which we are a part. This is not to say that we should submit ourselves to that whole in the way that forms of idealism such as communism or various forms of religion would have us do. To submit is not to be a part of something but to be crushed by that thing, to cease to be a healthy part. We can only be a healthy part of the whole by being fully and completely ourselves. If discipline is required then we are not there yet.

Self-interest is the motivation for all human behaviour. Even in the case where a person may lay down their life for another, that individual has a belief system which makes death preferable to a life of knowledge that they were not true to that system. So we should not feel uncomfortable about making decisions based on what is in it for us. This is inevitable. If we think that we are placing someone else's welfare above our own then we are fooling ourselves. We may be following the dictates of our conscience, but it is our conscience and the suffering it might inflict on us which we are trying to avoid. The real question is how enlightened our self-interest is. Eating fatty food may give me a sense of comfort, but if I'm on the verge of a heart attack that comfort may be short-lived.

Jesus placed great significance, at the Last Supper, on the bread and wine which was being shared. Clearly what was important was the act of sharing. If we use the term God to describe the universal system of which we are all a part then anything which is healthy and is shared - such as bread or wine - is the flesh and blood of God. Any living system can only continue to live if the stuff of life continues to flow through it.

Of course it is possible to share something which is not good for the system. Lies, gossip, addictive drugs, disease - all of these things can be shared from one person to another and poison the social system. So, when seeking to find our meaning through sharing, it does matter what we are sharing.

Information is one of the things we share. The collective enterprises in which we engage, from playing a board game to running a multi-billion dollar corporation require the sharing of information. Factual information is the blood of the system, while lies are poison and wisdom is medicine. What spreads through the communication networks of the social system, such as the internet, effects the health of that system.

And pleasure is a key to healing. Where pleasure is shared significant healing is taking place in the fabric of the social system. If we want to be a part of a healthy system then our best chance is to find activities which help others while also giving us pleasure.

If materialism is masturbation, then sharing is an orgy!

You can also find this post on the How to Be Free forum here. You may find further discussion of it there.