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.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

BOOK REVIEW : Capture : Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Illness by David A. Kessler, M.D.

It means a lot for one’s life experience to be understood - to be able to read a book like this one and say, “Yes, that is what happened to me.”

I’ve written about the way we can get caught up in cognitive negative feedback loops, for instance if we feel guilty about being selfish then the suffering brought on by the guilt causes an increase in our focus on our own situation and thus we become more selfish which leads to more guilt… And we can become fixated on those aspects of our own psyche which we find impossible to accept in the same way that our tongue keeps finding its way back to that sore tooth. I’ve written about these things base on my own experience, but this book puts this kind of phenomenon - that of being captured by something which won’t let go of us because we can’t let go of it - into a broader and deeper framework of understanding.

David A. Kessler, M.D. worked for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in which capacity he studied the problem of cigarette addiction. Later he made a similar study of over-eating. Gradually he realised that there is a mechanism which underlies these forms of addiction which is also present in depression, mania, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and the kind of obsession which can lead to horrific acts of violence. He calls this mechanism “capture.”

When it comes to the subject of mental illness there is often controversy as to whether a condition is the result of an imbalance in brain chemistry, unhelpful patterns of cognition or an oppressive social environment. What Kessler has done is to bring all of these factors together into a coherent holistic framework.

The neurons in our brain respond to stimuli in our environment on the basis of the emotional charge which those stimuli carry for us. A single spot of colour in a grey landscape will attract our attention by its novelty. Our attention will be drawn quickly to a snake because we feel it may pose us a danger. A hungry person’s attention will be drawn to a chocolate bar more strongly than will be the case for someone who is satiated. And our neural pathways record the connections between experiences and the more often we revisit them the more they are reinforced. So if a particular song was playing the first time we set eyes on someone with whom we fell in love, it is likely that we will think of them every time we hear it.

These natural and helpful processes can turn against us in an insidious way. If a particular kind of thinking has a powerful emotional charge because it makes us feel very bad we may find it hard to turn our attention to anything else when some aspect of our experience brings it back to mind. When we talk about triggering, this is what we mean - our brain makes an association between something in our environment and the memory of an experience which was traumatic to us. Because the memory is more emotionally powerful than the other things which could be the focus of our attention, we travel back down that well-worn groove. The same kind of thing can happen with self-condemning thoughts or thoughts of committing acts of violence. The emotional charge captures our attention and the more our thoughts go back down that path the more the habit is reinforced. Or it could be something we powerfully associate with relief from suffering, such as alcohol or food, which captures us in a self-defeating way.

So we can see that the chemical processes of the brain, unhelpful patterns of cognition and responses to environmental stresses are all involved, often feeding back upon each other. According to Kessler, studies show that antidepressants work by inhibiting emotional reactivity to the cues which bring a depressive reaction. In other words, when we are depressed we hang onto negative thoughts because they hurt so much we can’t tear our attention away from them.

An explanation of what capture is and how it works takes up only a small part of the book. The rest consists of case studies of people - famous or anonymous - who have been in the grip of some form of capture. The key example is the novelist David Foster Wallace, who was tortured by self-criticism to the extent that he was driven to take his own life. He is not alone. The lives and obsessions of other writers who went the same way - Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway - are also examined. There are tales of those captured by alcoholism, self-harm, gambling, making obscene phone calls, delusions of grandeur, etc. And then there are those whose capture led to violence, including the murders of John Lennon and Robert Kennedy and the mass killings at Columbine and Sandy Hook, amongst others. A section is also devoted to those captured by Islamic extremist ideology.

Capture needn’t always be a negative though. Kessler profiles some individuals who have been inspired by a spiritual form of capture - Simone Weill, Howard Thurman, William Wordsworth and Martin Luther, etc.

This eloquent and compassionate journey through the inner battles of all these individuals gives the science of capture, drawn from masses of scientific papers cited in the notes, a human face to which we can all relate. There is some discussion at the end of the book on how we might be able to loosen the bonds of capture, taking some inspiration from Buddhism’s techniques of mindfulness and Alcoholics Anonymous’s philosophy of fostering a sense of unity with others, but perhaps the most powerful tool is knowledge itself. If we know what is happening and why it is happening and we can put a name to it, the power dynamic between us and it has shifted.

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