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.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

BOOK REVIEW : The Varieties of Religious Experience : A Study in Human Nature by William James

Religion is a contentious topic. It is normal that each of us should look on our own form of belief or lack there of as truthful and the other options as various forms of eccentricity. So I feel that the best way to start a review of a classic book which surveys the field of varying forms of religious experience, is to give an overview of my views on the topic so that my own bias can be accounted for.

I identify as a pantheist. Wikipedia gives this definition : Pantheism is the belief that the Universe (or nature as the totality of everything) is identical with divinity, or that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent god.” So perhaps it is not surprising that I view the world’s religions (and also atheism) as deviations from an original state of pantheism.

To me, God is a mythological figure representing the creative principle of the universe in the same kind of way that Mother Nature is a mythological figure representing the natural ecosystem and Father Time is a mythological figure representing time. That there is a creative principle at work in the universe is self-evident. Once there was nothing on earth but inorganic matter, now there are complex living systems of which we ourselves are one of the most complex and capable manifestations. Thus creation takes place in the universe by the medium of the laws of nature. If we term this “an act of God” then we are talking not of an extrinsic God (a human-like creator sitting outside of “his” creation forming it though conscious decisions) but of an intrinsic self-creating “God” the face of which is the laws which favour such complexity when circumstances allow.

This creative principle is not just expressed by our form, but we give conscious or unconscious expression to it when we create or when we cooperate with others in creative ways. The creative principle at work in ourselves is what we call “love”. Love is a form of communication characterised by openness, honesty, spontaneity and generosity. It is through this process that we become more than our individual selves. We become part of a whole which is more than the sum of its parts.

I believe that there was a time when our ape-like ancestors (maybe Ardipithecus over 4 million years ago) lived every moment of their existence within the experience of being life itself in all its creativity. They knew they were what we would later come to label “God”. The individual ego of each male or female being an essential tool for exploration and self-management but existing always within the context of loving communion with the other members of the group.

So what went wrong? Our questing minds arrived at the concepts of “good” and “evil” and from there we developed morality. “Evil” may initially have been something outside of ourselves, e.g. the predatory behaviour of some animals. But once we had “knowledge of good and evil” it opened us up to the social phenomenon of criticism of behaviour and thus a system of morality based on the discouragement of some forms of behaviour and encouragement of others. Initially, in such a loving community this would have caused little disruption, but it was a slow poison. We would come, by an act of will, to try to avoid certain forms of behaviour and pursue others. What started as an external social phenomenon would eventually have become internalised when we began to second-guess what behaviour might lead to criticism and thus developed our conscience, i.e. a part of our ego in which we store our expectations about ourselves.

To be secure in our life as “God” we need to practice unconditional self-acceptance. Otherwise we become internally split between the acceptable and the unacceptable. Morality and the conscience would increasingly have led us to practice repression and also experience guilt. It gave us a dark side to battle with and to feel ashamed of.

Of course all of this is symbolically represented in the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge and being expelled from the Garden of Eden. 

The more we experienced feelings of guilt or felt the need to battle against repressed anti-social tendencies within us the more selfish we became. Selfishness is the natural self-directedness of the suffering individual. But selfishness was something of which our morality was critical. Thus we became caught in a negative feedback loop - guilt about being selfish made us feel more guilty which made us more selfish.

It was this state of alienation from the creative principle of the universe which gave birth to our various conceptions of God. (I’ll stick to the mono-theistic variety here. The varied gods in polytheistic religions seem to represent different elements of nature and/or human qualities, and thus provide a somewhat different function.)

Personifying the creative principle as “God” was a way to provide focus to our condition. Our relationship to this principle had become difficult, and it is easier to deal with a difficult relationship with a human-like being than with an impersonal principle. Again, this is the reason we came up with the concept of “Mother Nature”. The earliest personification of the creative principle probably was female. A Goddess who gave birth to us, but might also be critical of us. Later, as society became patriarchal, this would have been supplanted by “God the Father”.

This psychological state of disturbance is what gave rise to our capacity for superstitious belief. There is a general belief that superstition is the expected state of the non-scientifically informed individual. But why should there be any relationship between not knowing how things work and belief in things of which we have no sensory evidence? To a person in a state of psychological integrity, a volcano would not be an angry being who needs to be appeased. Only a person with a guilty conscience would interpret it’s eruption as some form of punishment rather than a random natural act. And we could not people the dark night with ghosts and demons unless we had parts of our own psyche from which we had become alienated and which were thus a source of fear that we could project into our environment. Sure we would believe that the earth was flat and would not know why the sun and moon appeared and disappeared, but we would have no reason to believe in a supernatural God who was invisible to us.

As very young children we have a tremendous capacity for learning about our environment and, like little scientists, we will carry out experiments to see what will happen if we do this or that or how our parents will respond to this or that behaviour. This shows how reason is more basic to our nature than superstition, which may come as a later addition once the psyche is fractured. The fact that we can learn so efficiently in early childhood, picking up language very quickly for instance, is because our psyche, not yet undermined by the conflict between the conscience and the selfish desires, has an degree of integrity it will never again have.

I can take a further example from my own life. I’ve experienced a couple of severe mental breakdowns. They were the result of a double-bind, a “damned if you do/damned if you don’t”, emotional knot. I was in a state of mind which seemed to me unbearable. At that time I developed psychotic delusions about some form of “magical rescue” from my situation. I had previously been rational. Later I would be rational. This magical thinking was not a product of ignorance, but of the desperation of my current situation. I think magical religious thinking is the same. Not an essential product of ignorance, though ignorance may accompany it, but of psychological desperation. If our psychological state is such that our life would be intolerable without believing in magic then we will believe in magic. And no amount of appeals to reason will dissuade us from such belief as long as that state of desperation persists. In fact the threat posed to our ego structure by such arguments is liable to increase the need for the belief and thus serve only to reinforce it.

The concept of a judgemental God of which we are fearful is, of course, a projection. The sense of being judged was internal, arising from our conscience. In our insecurity we might look at the evidence of creativity in nature around us and recognise that it comes about through cooperation rather than selfishness (competitiveness playing a role only as a subset within natural systems which require cooperation for their stability), and this could add to that sense of insecurity and self-condemnation, but the creative principle doesn’t actually judge us. It isn’t capable of doing so as it is a natural principle not a human-like consciousness. We can gain great advantage by working with this principle, and bring suffering on ourselves by working against it. There is nothing personal though. The concept of a judgemental God who needs to be appeased is our paranoia arising from this insecure state of embattlement.

In our embattled state we would tend to create our God in our own image. If you “hate fags” your “God hates fags”.

To the pantheist, the universe is the most magnificent of cathedrals, but to those who have become alienated, exiled from their home in that reality, there may be a need to create their own magnificent cathedrals or mosques and ceremonies full of pomp and circumstance so that they can feel a part of something big and wonderful, but it is always a pale shadow of what they have lost. This is similar to the way that material wealth becomes more important to us as “evidence of our worth” the further we become removed from our capacity for loving relationships with others.

Chester Cathedral

When a child is born they are an unmediated expression of the creative principle of the universe. To the extent that their parents are alienated from that principle, they may feel the need to shape the child’s psychology in a way which will not make them feel uncomfortable. They will also, on a more conscious level, want the child to have the advantages they feel they get from their religion. Thus they will generally indoctrinate the child into that religion. It may be less a case of saving the child from “original sin” and more a case of cultivating out their original divinity. We shouldn’t, however, assume that non-religious neurotics don’t do something similar. It is not only the religious who may feel the need to pass on their prejudices to their children.

While it was the idealism thought virus (“knowledge of good and evil”) which generated the original double bind which gave birth to our capacity for selfishness and aggression, religion can sometimes turn into an even more destructive form of double-bind. If someone believes that the God or saviour they worship is perfect and that they have to struggle to be worthy of them, this is going to undermine their self-acceptance quite quickly, and yet they must strive to love this deity or saviour as the only way out of their dilemma. The more they are drained of the capacity for love, which requires unconditional self-acceptance, the more resentment towards this figure will build on a subconscious level. This can lead to a paranoid state in which they see “Satanic” forces in the world around them which are really just a projection of their own repressed hatred of that God or saviour.

I think this double bind is the source of religion’s dark side. The Catholic Church, for instance, worships innocence (placing a particular emphasis on the infant Jesus and the Virgin Mary). The value of Mary is seen as residing in her having been “sexually pure”. Such worship may create a double-bind in which the worshipper becomes progressively less accepting of those characteristics within themselves which make them, in their own eyes, unworthy of that which is worshipped. Intense (possibly subconscious) resentment may build up towards the object of worship along with a fixation on the sexual feelings which are not accepted. Is it then so surprising that the Catholic Church should have such a massive problem with priests sexually molesting children? Authoritarian power structures obsessed with secrecy and self-protection are also a natural outgrowth of the rigid character armour which is bound to be the outer shell around such a cancer of the soul.

A double-bind pushes us right back into a desperate psychological corner. It is when someone is in that corner that their beliefs may take a very “magical” form or they may feel the need to reject reason and cling to literal interpretations of religious texts, which I don’t believe were ever intended to be taken that way in the first place. (As we can see with the story of Adam and Eve, these mythological stories were symbolic ways to express our psychological situation. We have no reason to believe that they were viewed as factual histories when first expressed.) The atrophying of the imagination and the inability to appreciate symbolism are both symptoms of alienation. To interpret myths as literal realities or to dismiss them as meaningless because they are not literally real are both symptoms of such alienation.

On the other hand, not all forms of religious belief malfunction in this way. While the kind of naturalistic explanation for and resolution of our psychological dilemma which we can now give with the benefit of science may do the job more effectively, it has been possible for some individuals to find their way to a more effective and meaningful life via religion. And it should be kept in mind that, in many parts of the world and throughout much of our history, it has been difficult if not impossible to find any assistance in dealing with our state of psychological alienation outside the medium of some kind of religious organisation. Some brave individuals might strike out on their own, but for those who felt the need of companionship in negotiating life in this state, a church of some kind, with all of its flaws, was probably the only help on offer.

Our identity floats between our embattled ego and our capacity to experience love - i.e. participation in something beyond ourselves. The story of mysticism is of psychological encounters with this wider world of love. And the fact that we can come to identify more with process than with our own body and ego is demonstrated by the willingness of some to sacrifice their lives for their comrades on the battlefield, for a stranger trapped inside a burning building or for their beliefs upon a cross or at the stake. Religion is not the only cultural expression of this kind of spiritual experience, but it is one very rich in material.

Another significant aspect of many forms of religious belief which appeared at some point was belief in a personal after-life. This is a response to the unhappiness of life, partly due to our psychologically divided state and partly due to the suffering which may be inflicted on us by others. If we lived a life of slavery or grinding poverty, for instance, we may have felt the need to believe that such a life would not be all we got. Belief in a heaven after we die would have been a comfort, but also, if our double-bind backed us into a corner in which we had to repress ever-increasing levels of hostile feelings, our self-control may have been greatly aided by the threat of hell. And the belief in a post-life reward or punishment would have had a role in maintaining social cohesion. On the other hand, all other things being equal, the more psychologically healthy an individual is the less they fear death and the less reason they have to believe that there is an existence for their ego beyond it. The healthier we are the less self-directed we are and the more we identify with the creative process of life which will continue anyway. To me the soul is something collective rather than individual. When we feel love or inspiration we know that we are not merely ourselves but are a part of something larger in the same way that a cell in the body is more than just a cell, but is an integrated part of a bigger whole.

Many view religion almost entirely as a social evil. There is no doubt that many of the worst acts our species have carried out have been carried out in the name of religion. But where exactly does the problem lie? Not with someone having a mystical experience in which they “see God” or having a conversion experience and devoting their life to helping the poor. The problem lies with dogma, rigid adherence to that dogma and oppression of others based on that dogma. Dogma is a defence system against free thought, based on the fear that such thought might lead to a scary place. Dogmatism of any kind is, at base, fear-driven insecurity. If the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages felt the need to torture heretics it was because they were afraid of the threat that such heresy posed to their insecure belief system. If an Imam insists that women cover themselves from head-to-toe it is because he is afraid of the boiling stew of lust that his repressive belief system has caused to build up in his psyche. But insecure dogmatism is not peculiar to religious institutions. Great crimes have been committed in the name of insecure political dogmas like Communism and fascism. And what is “political correctness” but an attempt to restrict others freedoms in order to protect one’s own (or someone else’s) state of insecurity.

Some mistake religious dogmatism for faith. Actually it is lack of faith. Faith is trust. Religious faith is trust in God. To feel the need to torture or kill those who do not agree with our religious beliefs is evidence both of a lack of trust in the veracity of those beliefs and also a lack of trust that God is able to handle his own affairs. When we cling to dogma and ritual, we do so because we are afraid. Faith would make us fearless. To open oneself up to the possibility of having a mystical experience requires faith. To venture beyond conventional modes of thought requires faith. We know so much more about our world than we once did, because we have had faith in the scientific method. We went to the moon because we had faith in our own abilities and faith in the process we envisioned to get us there. This is what we mean when we say that “faith moves mountains”.

For me the value of studying the field of religious belief is because it has the capacity to lay bare our deeper psychology. An atheist may not tell you what keeps them awake at night or what makes them feel depressed. They are under no obligation to do so. But the guilts, fears and insecurities of the religious individual are exposed, at least to some degree, through their belief system. Often I can identify, even if I do not share their way of addressing those problems. For me personal liberation through self-knowledge is the highest goal. (For that I find a non-supernatural interpretation of the philosophy of Jesus very useful.)

William James

The Varieties of Religious Experience : A Study in Human Nature is an edited collection of lectures which William James gave at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. Throughout the lectures covering topics such as the despair preceding conversion, conversion, positive-thinking-based religion, saintliness and mysticism, he presents extensive personal accounts from the literature of the day and of the past. There is a wit and generosity of spirit to his handling of the subject which made it a great pleasure for me to spend time in his company. He has been criticised, fairly, for deemphasising the negative aspects of religion (beyond some harrowing accounts of ascetic self-torture). He does advise that religions be judged on the basis of whether or not they produce good results, but he doesn’t go out of his way to give negative examples.

It is easy to look at the religious beliefs of others from the outside. This book gives us a chance to walk with those who have experienced the agony and the ecstasy and share intimately in what it means to them. There is also plenty to amuse as we marvel at the wild varieties of human eccentricity. James’ philosophy is to seek out the most extreme experiences, as he feels that, in them, we see a kind of enlarged version of the more commonplace, much as a microscope’s process of enlargement enables us to get a better understanding of a microbe.

And, as with the classic psychoanalytic case studies, this is important raw material for anyone wishing to come to a deeper understanding of the human psyche. We needn’t accept the interpretations the experiencers put upon their own experiences, but if we want to know ourselves better we may learn much from the snapshots of the interior world that they have brought back, blurry and badly-lit as they may be.

In his summing up James says : “Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done.”

The aim of science is to be objective. This is what makes psychology such a tricky field of study. The observer is the observed. And yet, as James’ points out, the psychological experience is the only one in which we actually experience facts taking place. We are dependent on the input of our senses for the gathering of data in all other areas. If we turn out to be disembodied brains sitting in tanks having false sensory information fed to us, the one incontrovertible fact for us will be that we are having those experiences, illusory of not. Ren√© Descartes may have said “I think therefore I am” but he could have generalised a little more and said “I experience therefore I am”. Of course we are not ourselves having the religious experiences the accounts of which James’ shares with us. We may not trust that some or all of the writers are telling the truth. But the the inner world of the psyche is too important not take an interest in what evidence we have, uncertain as it may sometimes be.

James expresses his own belief in the existence of God in the following way :

“If asked just where the differences in fact which are due to God’s existence come in, I should have to say that in general I have no hypothesis to offer beyond what the phenomenon of ‘prayerful communion,’ especially when certain kinds of incursion from the subconscious region take part in it, immediately suggests. The appearance is that in this phenomenon something ideal, which in one sense is part of ourselves and in another sense is not ourselves, actually exerts an influence, raises our centre of personal energy, and produces regenerative effects unattainable in other ways. If, then, there be a wider world of being than that of our every-day consciousness, if in it there be forces whose effects on us are intermittent, if one facilitating condition of the effects be the openness of the ‘subliminal’ door, we have the elements of a theory to which the phenomena of religious life lend plausibility. I am so impressed by the importance of these phenomena that I adopt the hypothesis which they so naturally suggest. At these places at least, I say, it would seem as though transmundane energies, God, if you will, produced immediate effects within the natural world of which the rest of our experience belongs.”

I’m sure that the kinds of religious experiences he has discussed in this book are evidence of a source of great transformative power, but I don’t find his conclusion that this supports belief in the supernatural convincing. I believe the power involved is wholly natural. The psychological burden imposed by the battle between “good” and “evil” within us - that thought virus eating away at our peace of mind - has been such that it may seem miraculous to us if a mystical experience or religious conversion brings some relief from this situation and with it dramatic positive change. But far greater positive change, without any dogmatic framework, will occur for all of us if we learn the practice of unconditional self-acceptance. By so doing we release ourselves from the poison of humanity’s historic curse. I believe that this is what was at the heart of the philosophy espoused poetically by Jesus. Give up worrying about being “sinful” (i.e. selfish), because that self-criticism is the main thing making you selfish and thus standing between you and your true unconditionally-loving nature. And to love and be loved unconditionally is “the Kingdom of Heaven”.

A major advantage we have over James is the ability to study the chemistry and electrical functioning of the brain. Today we know that participating in group singing, such as many individuals do in church, tends to cause the body to produce oxytocin, a chemical which promotes feelings of affection and bonding. The feeling of love is an experiential fact of the kind to which James’ is referring. Now we have achieved a greater objective understanding of it through discovering its chemistry. 

The church-goers may explain it to themselves as “the infilling of the Holy Spirit”. Would they be wrong? If they think that something supernatural is happening perhaps so. But I see nothing wrong with their terminology. The word “holy” means “whole” or “of the whole”. Oxytocin enables us to bond with others, to experience ourselves as part of a larger whole. The “spirit” of something is its essence, that which motivates it. Why should we not see oxytocin as a “holy spirit” or as a medium for “the holy spirit” (i.e. the creative principle of the universe)? A poetic vision need not run counter to science.

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