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

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.

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