This book is a Get Out of Jail Free card and a passport back into the playground.

The aim of this book is to set you free. But free from what? Free from neurosis. Free from the feeling that you have to obey authority. Free from emotional intimidation. Free from addiction. Free from inhibition.

The key to happiness, mental health and being the most that we can be is absolute and unconditional self-acceptance. The paradox is that many of our problems are caused by trying to improve ourselves, censor our thinking, make up for past misdeeds and struggling with our negative feelings whether of depression or aggression.

But if we consider ourselves in our entirety in this very moment, we know these things :

1. Anything we have done is in the past and cannot be changed, thus it is pointless to do anything else but accept it. No regrets or guilt.

2. While our actions can harm others, our thoughts and emotions, in and of themselves, never can. So we should accept them and allow them to be and go where they will. While emotions sometimes drive actions, those who completely accept their emotions and allow themselves to feel them fully, have more choice over how they act in the light of them.

Self-criticism never made anyone a better person. Anyone who does a “good deed” under pressure from their conscience or to gain the approval of others takes out the frustration involved in some other way. The basis for loving behaviour towards others is the ability to love ourselves. And loving ourselves unconditionally, means loving ourselves exactly as we are at this moment.

This might seem to be complacency, but in fact the natural activity of the individual is healthy growth, and what holds us back from it is fighting with those things we can’t change and the free thought and emotional experience which is the very substance of that growth.

How to Be Free is available as a free ebook from Smashwords, I-Tunes in some countries, Kobo and Barnes & Noble

It is also available in paperback from Lulu or Amazon for $10 US, plus postage.

The ebook version currently has received 329 ***** out of ***** ratings on U.S. I-Tunes.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Is Reality Real? - From Plato's Cave to The Matrix

For more vintage movie theatre photos visit the Old Wolf.

A philosopher walks into a cinema that is showing a very old soft porn movie.

“This is not reality!” he shouts, pointing at the screen.

Then he casts his fiery glance around the audience with their eyes fixed on the screen.

“You’re just sitting in the dark watching the shadows of dead people pretending to fuck,” he points out.

He starts trying to tell them about the world outside the cinema and what sunshine is like.

The audience members tell him to shut up so they can hear the movie.

He grabs one of them and tries to drag him out of the cinema. The patron puts up a hell of a fight.

Eventually the usher arrives and throws the philosopher out into the street.

This is the essence of Plato’s famous cave analogy from his dialogue The Republic. Since they didn’t have cinemas in 380 BC when Plato was writing he had to resort to talking about people being tied down in a cave while watching the shadows cast on a wall by clay figures being moved back and forth in front of a fire.

What did Plato mean by saying that what we think of as reality is not reality?

Plato believed in a world of ideal forms of which the details of the world we can perceive with our senses are a poor copy. Numbers and geometrical shapes are examples of ideal forms. And he also believed in an ethical ideal which he referred to as the Form of the Good.

So the cave analogy seems to be saying that what we take to be real blinds us to what is ideal.

We could see the cave analogy as a bit of a confidence trick. If the ideal forms exist only in the imagination, maybe we are really outside the cinema living in the real world and he is trying to persuade us to go into the cinema to watch a movie called Ideal Forms (not a bad title for a soft porn flick.)

Sometimes a symbol is so powerful that it transcends the ideology of the person who gives expression to it. I think this is true of the cave analogy.

Plato’s cave helped to inspire the 1999 science fiction film The Matrix. Here it turns out that humans are living in a simulated reality while actually being used as bioenergy batteries by parasitic machines. The hero Neo is given an choice to swallow a red pill which will enable him to see reality or a blue one which will allow him to go back to the illusory world.

Laurence Fishburne from The Matrix

This has provided a powerful metaphor to conspiracy theorists, libertarians, anarchists, and other critics of “the dominant paradigm.” The world is full of red pill pushers.

Is there a sense in which the world we take to be real is not real? Is there a reason such ideas resonate with us?

I think it may be helpful to turn Plato on his head. What keeps us from seeing reality is that we are blinded by abstract forms.

Here is an example. I love the sight of a beautiful woman. Am I really seeing the woman? She is a living organism performing a vast variety of functions. She is an ecosystem within which live a multitude of other living things. She is a conscious entity alive with emotions, memories, thoughts and desires. She was once an egg and a sperm. One day she will be dust. Her beauty blinds me to much of this. Only as I become desensitised to it somewhat do I see more. What am I seeing when I see her beauty? What we call beautiful in a woman is generally that which gives a youthful appearance. When we were young we were free of the bitterness or egotism which blocks love. So beauty is a symbol for love. So I’m blinded to the reality by an idea - the idea of love.

All the time we project and we filter. The world we see around us is a world distorted by our needs. We will see those things which serve to boost our insecure ego and we will block out those which might threaten it.

This is particularly true if we are believers in a dogma. We maintain our belief by concentrating on that which appears to support it and evading that which contradicts it. This is known as confirmation bias.

So how can we leave the cinema and live in the real world?

We need to have a secure ego. The ego is the conscious thinking self. We put down “ego” because our ego is usually insecure and thus embattled and thus a barrier to love and truth. But our conscious thinking self can become secure enough to go wide-eyed and naked in the world.

If we don’t become secure then we may take someone’s red pill only to find that they have led us from one Matrix into another. We may be woken up to how we have been a slave of capitalism only to find ourselves a slave of socialism. We are in the cinema because it makes us feel secure. Unless we learn to provide our own security, the best we will be able to do is to go from a cinema showing one kind of a movie to one showing another.

We cultivate our own security of ego by practicing unconditional self-acceptance. Our insecurity comes from being at war with our self, feeling we need to try to control our thoughts or our emotions. We don’t need to think the right thoughts or feel the right feelings. All of us are a mess of contradictions, but when we allow ourselves to be such without judgement, a deeper and truer integrity gradually forms.

The sunshine which lights the world outside the cinema is love. Love is really being with others, not just with the forms our embattled ego needed to project onto them.

Copyright: lzflzf / 123RF Stock Photo

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Freedom Vs. Political Correctness

Copyright: lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo

Idealism is the root of all evil. The fact that this is so counter-intuitive gives some idea of why evil has been with us for so long.

This is how it works. The better we feel in ourselves the more generous and loving we are towards others. To feel good in our selves we must be self-accepting. Idealism, i.e. an unforgiving insistence on certain standards, undermines our self-acceptance. If someone says to us “I will appreciate it if you do your best” then that encourages us to do well. But if someone says “You must meet this goal” then any inability to meet that goal will be interpreted as failure and this will undermine the good feelings that would feed our efforts in the future.

What we term “political correctness” is a form of idealism. It involves an insistence on certain forms of behaviour and particularly certain forms of expression, based on whether or not they reflect a sense of equality.

A society in which all members treated others as their equals would be a very healthy society.

But does the kind of idealistic insistence represented by political correctness move us toward such a society or away from it?

The roots of injustice lie in fear. It is not for no reason that we describe intolerance towards homosexuals as “homoPHOBIA”. Very often the fear is not of the person themselves but of what they represent to the discriminator. A sexually repressed white man may fear that black men will rape his wife. He is seeing in them a reflection of his own disowned self, rather than seeing them as individuals. And embattled men often fear women because they see them as an embodiment of their own critical conscience. This doesn’t mean that black men never rape white women or that women never nag men over their unethical behaviour. What it does mean is that the fearful individual will focus on those instances where these things happen, and ignore the massive amount of evidence which demonstrates that these are exceptions.

Authoritarian structures of social organisation, such as patriarchy, take the form of a rigid defence against such fears. Much of the emotional energy arising from these fear-based feelings of hostility is channelled into maintaining the social order. Some may also be channelled into aggression against other nations. What is left may feed open acts of aggression against the underclass who represent what is feared.

Since these feelings of hostility arise from fear, any sense of threat will increase them. So one of the problems faced by social reformers is that fear of change increases the level of hostility of those whose insecurities were accommodated by the old order.

So where does political correctness come in? It is intolerance of the expression, in any form, of these fear-based feelings of hostility. It is the new Ten Commandments. One big “Thou Shalt”. And the fear of God is instilled by the threat of ostracism.

Political correctness can’t expel hatred from someone’s heart and replace it with love. All it can do is to intimidate someone who has these feelings into pretending they don’t have them in return for social acceptance.

I’ll give a personal example of the effect of political correctness on myself. My tendency has been to be very open to transexual culture. Diversity of sexual behaviour fascinates me and I get great inspiration from movies about gay men, lesbians and transvestites because they illustrate the struggle involved in being true to oneself in the face of demands for conformity. On the other hand, I don’t share the view that most transexuals have of themselves, i.e. that they are “a woman in a man’s body” or a “man in a woman’s body”. As long as I recognise their right to have this self-perception, it seems to me that I have the right not to share it. (A recent viewing of the movie The Danish Girl tended to back up my view that transsexualism arises from a fixation on an aspect of the individual’s nature which they feel is not accepted. Einar felt that his father disapproved of his feminine side, as evidenced by his response to finding Einar wearing an apron and being kissed by his male friend, and so he fixated on this part of himself for which he desperately desired acceptance. When he got that acceptance in the form of Gerda wanting him to dress as a woman, it was intoxicating to the extent that it overwhelmed and destroyed him, replacing him with Lili.) Now I find it harder to access my warm feelings towards transexuals because I feel I may be accused of being “transphobic” if I have an heretical belief about their psychology.

Freedom is essential to progress. That especially includes the freedom to be mistaken and the freedom to have negative emotions.

If we see a particular way of thinking as correct and unquestionable then we will never learn whether it is the truth. All ideas have to be questioned. They must prove themselves to be the fittest if we are to evolve towards greater understanding.

The word “emotion” contains the word “motion” for a good reason. Emotions are indicators of change occurring in our psyche. The natural movement of the psyche, when give its freedom from cultural expectations, is towards wholeness. So it is important to accept our emotions. This doesn’t mean acting on them if that would be wrong or counter-productive. Who among us has not felt like punching someone at some time when we’ve been very angry? We don’t have to do it to feel our anger and let it flow out of us.

So if someone thinks differently than you, don’t condemn them. Challenge them to a debate.

If someone expresses feelings of hostility towards someone, don’t judge them as a person. Express understanding of why they may feel that way and encourage them to give expression to those feelings in a way which won’t be hurtful to others.

Recognise that the hostile and intransigent are frightened and in need of reassurance. It isn’t always easy to find a way to give them what they need, but it is at least worth thinking about.

This is addressing political correctness for what it is on the surface. For many I think it is something else again.

For many of us, to push political correctness is an outward expression of our internal battle with our own dark side. This explains the vitriol and contempt many of us express towards those we find incorrect in this way. We need a scapegoat for the stew of hateful feelings we feel building inside us.

What is needed most is honesty. If we try to deny that we are frightened and insecure, then our fear and insecurity will divide us. If we admit that we are frightened and insecure, then we will be united by this recognition that we are all in the same boat.

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. RenĂ© 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.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

"Thou Must" vs. "Fuck That!"

Copyright: kornilov14 / 123RF Stock Photo

I’ve always experienced a tension within me between feelings of frustration and the imperative to “do the right thing”. When the frustration dies down, “doing the right thing” comes naturally. But when it builds up, there is a part of me that doesn’t want to “do the right thing”. To do so at such times requires discipline. But it is right. This I don’t question.

When I feel at peace and full of generosity, I just want to be kind and helpful. But at other times, reason and conscience act like an electrified fence to keep frustration from bursting through. And just as an electric fence is hardly likely to truly pacify the herd, but rather make them feel resentful and oppressed, so the feelings of frustration can be exacerbated by the pressure to “do the right thing”, even when it would come naturally in a peaceful state of psychological freedom.

We are surrounded by messages of what not to say about people. How are we supposed to referred to the intellectually disabled? What kinds of things should a man say to a woman, and what should he not? What are we to call people of particular races? How are we supposed to respond to people’s religious beliefs, especially if they seems silly to us or we feel that they are hurtful to others? What about personal appearance? What if someone is really obese? What if we find someone physically repulsive?

There is no doubt that being polite and tolerant is the right thing. But when the pressure builds there is a little man inside me that wants to say the cruellest thing possible. He’s fed up with “doing the right thing.”

There is no problem when I feel at peace, and that is most of the time these days, but when I feel this contrary spirit well up in me and yet I continue to “do the right thing", I feel like a liar and a hypocrite, because I’m putting on a false, socially-acceptable front. This in spite of the fact that nothing would be achieved, and much would be lost, by not doing so.

And it seems as if this contrary spirit can be conjured up where it didn’t exist by the preaching of the well-meaning. Tell me I mustn’t be racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever and I want to use terms like “nigger”, “slut” or “faggot”. Because “doing the right thing” feels like oppression when you are implicitly threatened with punishment if you don’t do it.

I think this is why offensive humour plays such a role in our culture. We’ll “do the right thing” as long as we can let off steam by watching Borat do everything we know we mustn’t.

At the moment, I think this contrary spirit is contributing to the popularity of Donald Trump. He’s a real-life Borat. The only problem is that he is a politician who wants to lead one of the most powerful nations on the planet. I love Borat, but I wouldn’t vote for him. To many Trump no doubt feels “honest” for the same reason that I feel like a “liar” when I don’t allow myself to express the offensive things that are going on in my head.

Photo from Reuters

Now I’m not suggesting that we stop being polite and respectful, or that we just give up hope of the Trumps of the world ever finding that inner peace that would enable them to be polite and respectful themselves. But I do think we need to try to come to a better understanding of the relationship between that part of us which says “thou must” and the part that says “fuck that”.

I use my own inner life as a way to try to understand the world around me. If I find that the “fuck that” feelings are increased when the “thou must” comes on strong, is it not possible that the way we push for greater tolerance in the world may not be generating more intolerance? The “fuck you” may be offensive, but it is also defensive. It is a response to what feels like oppression. And if it feels like oppression then it is oppression. The problem is that we can’t see internal psychological oppression. Haven’t we all felt it though at some time, in some way. That point where there is just too much exploding in your head and someone tells you you shouldn’t be unkind and you just want to punch their face in.

There are no easy answers, but if we want to avoid social disintegration - if we want to achieve a society of sustainable equality and respect - if we want to be able to work together to solve the problems which face us - there is a commodity we really need to make our number one priority and that is what I would call “psychological space”. When we feel pressured to “do the right thing” it makes us want to do the opposite. This is especially true of those who do the wrong thing most of the time. Instead of concentrating on arguing about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, it would be more useful to view every human being as a resource the efficient functioning of which is in the interests of us all.

We could think of ourselves as cars. The people who do the wrong thing are like cars which are very short of petrol. We try to get them to go down the road. We stand in front of them giving them a lecture on which road to take. If they don’t move we get behind them and we try to push them. We get frustrated and we kick them. But the reason they don’t do what a car is supposed to do is because they are all out of gas. We tell someone off for their bigotry or selfishness or violence, but if they don’t have the psychological room needed to do any better, then we are wasting our effort.

When we confront the terrible conflicts raging through the world, from the battlefields to the boardrooms to the bedrooms, it may seem that what I’m saying is impractical philosophising. If someone is trying to make your life a misery, you can’t just say “I know it’s just because you’re out of gas” and expect that to make things better.

But I think that acknowledging that we are all in the same boat, that each of us behaves only as well as our psychological space allows, is a good starting point. Then we can work on what opens up that space within us. How can we find a way to let out all of our frustrations in a non-destructive way? How can we learn to be guided by the principles that foster community without feeling oppressed by them? How can we learn how to unconditionally accept ourselves?

The more space we make in ourselves, the more capacity we will have to help those who are "out of gas".

Copyright: jacklooser / 123RF Stock Photo

Friday, 26 February 2016

BOOK REVIEW : How to Be an Imperfectionist by Stephen Guise

In my book How to Be Free I said that “the love of perfection is the root of all evil” and that “the key to happiness, mental health and being the most that we can be is absolute and unconditional self-acceptance.” That’s all well and good, but what practical steps can we take to break the hold that perfectionism may have on us and to become more self-accepting? When I was asked this I couldn’t come up with much in the way of practical exercises, but had to acknowledge that that is one of the things people quite reasonably look for in a self-help book. So imagine how excited I was when someone alerted me to the existence of this book which promises a “new way to self-acceptance, fearless living, and freedom from perfectionism.”

Stephen Guise’s book is what a self-help book should be - short, illuminating and practical. It is full of observations which seemed so obvious after he said them that I wondered why I hadn't thought of them before.

Some of us may not view ourselves as perfectionists, but on close examination some of our problems - shyness, procrastination, depression, addiction, rumination - may arise from perfectionistic thinking, from having unhelpfully high expectations of ourselves, of others or of situations or events. Shyness can arise from a feeling that we mustn’t make mistakes in our social interactions with others. Procrastination can come from wanting to hang onto a vision of perfect action rather than discover the imperfections involved in actually carrying it out, or it can arise from over-estimating the effort that may be required in the doing of something or the negative results which might result from it, an unhelpfully high negative expectation. Depression can be increased by fighting against negative thoughts, being intolerant of our deviations from positivity. The “never enough” feeling of psychological addiction is also a form of perfectionism, as is the intolerance towards our past mistakes which takes the form of ruminating over them.

The practical exercises suggested in the book are based around the idea of forming mini-habits - very small daily tasks (so small that there is no excuse not to do them) the purpose of which is to establish the groundwork for larger habits. The example Guise uses most often is his exercise plan of doing one push-up a day. This gradually led to full workouts five days a week. His earlier book on this topic - Mini-Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results - is apparently a best-seller. (I haven’t read it.)

Guise’s approach is not about building up motivation. It’s about removing barriers. We are unlikely to be very good at anything the first time we try it, so becoming skilled and confident in any area of life means removing the barrier of high expectations. One way he suggests we can do that is to adopt a binary view of success. For instance, if we want to give a speech in front of an audience, we can forget about the issue of how well we do it, but count doing it, even incredibly badly, as a success. The only failure is to not give it a go. This isn’t just a trick. It’s being realistic, because the only way we become confident and skilled at public speaking is by being willing to do it badly until we learn to do it well. So doing it badly really is a success, because it gets us far closer to doing it well then not attempting it will.

Another idea I really like is that of replacing the phrase “I should have done…” with “I could have done…” It’s such a simple cognitive technique, but it turns us away from regrets about the past and towards a practical strategy for the future.

Need for approval from others can also be an area of unhelpfully high demands. Guise recommends ways we can break past this barrier and thus gain confidence to be more authentically ourselves. I’m not sure that singing at the supermarket is one of the suggestions of his that I will take up. (I don’t think that my authentic self is sadistic enough to inflict such suffering on others.) The principle is a good one though that, where fear stands as a barrier, liberation can come through the process of desensitisation. The more we do something potentially embarrassing or anxiety-provoking, the more those feelings will decrease.

As Guise points out, this is the problem with so many motivational books. We can build up a high level of motivation, but it too may tend to decrease over time. The beauty of his mini-habit idea is that it requires minimal motivation at the start. The habit, once established, then provides a framework within which motivation can grow, if the habit turns out to be a rewarding one. If you do one push-up a day for a few months, you may find you are curious to see if you can do a few more on your more energetic days. Eventually you are doing enough to feel stronger and more confident, and that is the motivation to join a gym, or whatever. If you write two sentences a day for six months, you may find that a really good idea for a novel is starting to emerge. Then the excitement of discovery is the motivation to keep going. But if you pumped yourself up with motivation, did as many push-ups as you could do before collapsing and said “I’m not going to do that again for awhile” or if you pumped yourself up with dreams of being the next J.K. Rowling and sat down to begin on your first novel and found you couldn’t think of a plot, you might give up before you’d had a chance to really begin. Think of Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. Build the habit and the motivation will come.

Guise isn’t one of these self-help gurus who hands down his wisdom from on high. He’s the kind of self-help author who tells you about the embarrassing thing he accidentally said to the hot woman at the gym. He practices what he preaches not just in life but in the manner of his writing. He doesn’t try to avoid embarrassment. And that makes me feel all the more comfortable in listening to his advice.

I’d recommend this book to anyone. I don’t think there is anyone so perfect in their imperfectionism that they can’t learn something from it. Any book which can give us methods to increase our chances of success in any endeavour we choose to pursue, and provides us with strategies to avoid being hard on ourselves even if we fail at all of them, is definitely worth the short amount of time it takes to read.

Beyond self-help, though, there are ideas in this book which, if they were to take hold, could make all the difference to our chances of survival as a species. Our ecological and economic crises both rest upon our “‘never enough’ bias” (pg. 58). Our apathy arises from our inability to “focus on the process” (pg. 61). The breakdown in community (and thus the cooperative skills we need to work together on solving our social problems) arises from our “need for approval” (pg. 85). Chaos theory shows that small changes in a system can gradually lead to a complete change of that system. Who knows what could be unleashed by an imperfectionist revolution? When you consider how hampered so many of us have been by perfectionism in its many forms, that is an awful lot of potential energy and talent of which we have been deprived throughout the whole of our history (has there been a time not blighted by perfectionism?).

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Why Do We Quarrel? : (The Example of the Religious Person and The Atheist)

Copyright: photochecker / 123RF Stock Photo

Sometimes something someone else says gets under our skin. We feel compelled to express our contrary view.

This is not a sign that we have confidence in our ideas. Quite the contrary. Confidence in an idea gives an individual the viewpoint which Jesus expressed in the parable of the mustard seed. A valid idea will bring forth a good harvest when it falls on fertile soil, so the best strategy is to spread it as widely as possible and waste no time on cursing the rocks who are immune to it or the barren soil incapable of giving it sustenance.

If we feel the need to enter into a quarrel it is because there is a threat to the security of our beliefs from within.

A person secure in their own religious faith may try to spread it, but will not feel the need to argue with members of other faiths or with atheists. However, for some, religion is a way of trying to maintain discipline over what is perceived as sinfulness. This is an insecure position, and in the extreme, if reason appears to threaten the structure of restraint, then reason itself must be denied and argued against. (Religion need not be like this. Some religious people do not feel at all threatened by the contrary views of others. And some of the great contributors to the progress of reason have been religious.)

Once again, when we come to atheists, there are some who are secure and some who are insecure. Reason has two main roles - 1. As a strategy for pursing understanding of ourselves and the world which gives us greater capacity to manage both. 2. As a defence against the irrational aspects of the human psyche. Emotions are not rational, and rational arguments have a limited ability to quell them.

If an atheist and a religious person are quarrelling, then each is also shadow boxing with his denied self.

If the denied self of the quarrelsome religious person is doubt in the reality of his system of belief or in its effectiveness to maintain his state of self-discipline, then what might the nature of the denied self of the quarrelsome atheist be?

Here are a couple of arguments made by atheists against religion :

1. It is irrational.

Someone using the discipline of reason to try to quell irrational feelings of fear or guilt, may see in the religious person an ally for such feelings, especially since attempting to inspire fear or guilt is a major strategy of the insecure religious individual.

2. It falsely claims moral superiority.

None of us are really morally superior, but it may be very important to our conditional self-acceptance to convince ourselves that we are. Deep down we know that it is a sham in ourselves and this is why we would rather attack what is, to us, the more obvious sham of another.

A religious individual may believe that an atheist is mad. An atheist may believe that the religious individual is mad. Believe me, as a person who has actually been clinically insane, you do no good arguing against insanity, because it is a defensive mechanism the purpose of which is to protect the individual from reality.

What lies at the heart of insecure individuals, be they atheistic or religious? Fear and guilt. Fear is sometimes useful to alert us to real dangers and motivate us to take action against them. But when the danger is not real, fear may paralyse us or drive us to counter-productive action. And guilt is useless. It pretends to be a corrective, but all it does is cause us pointless suffering and thus make us more selfish.

Unconditional self-acceptance is the solution to such feelings of guilt or fear. Freed of them, the believer can be a more appreciative servant of their God and the atheist can be immune to the compulsion to argue with the rocks who refuse his seed.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

A Public Service Announcement to the Dark Side

If you could beam a message telepathically into the minds of everyone on earth who was contemplating a destructive act, what would you say?

Here is what I would say :

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to harm someone - wanting to kill them, rape them, torture them… Fantasise about it as much as you like. But if you do it, you will lose more than you gain. No matter how much momentary satisfaction it gives you, that satisfaction will be fleeting and will be outweighed by the negative effects on your life of the consequences, even if you don’t get caught and punished.”

Why would I take this particular approach?

Our feelings, thoughts and desires arise from the interaction between our current psychological structure and our environment. We chose neither. It is no good chastising someone for something over which they have no control. The sensible thing is to help them to understand what they can do about it.

Hostile feelings are essentially defensive. They arise from deep-seated feelings of insecurity. A hostile individual is like a dog who has experienced many beatings. He doesn’t feel safe, so his impulse is to bite first. Now if we show acceptance of his situation and give him plenty of room to run around and bark and growl, he may gradually realise that we don’t mean to kick him. But if we back him into a corner, he may be unable to do anything but bite us. This is why expressing acceptance of the hostile feelings makes us less likely to be a victim of them.

In my message, I wouldn’t mention morality. I wouldn’t try to appeal to their better nature. I wouldn’t ask them to have compassion for their prospective victim. If any of these arguments would work, they would have worked already. Everybody has heard them before. And each of them is an implied criticism, an expression of an implied lack of acceptance. This kind of approach tends to back the savage dog further into the corner.

Throughout the history of the human race we have had many organised systems for preaching morality. We’ve had the Ten Commandments for thousands of years, but they don’t seem to have done anything to curb our propensity for murder, theft or lying. Perhaps we need to try a new approach. Perhaps we need to begin preaching unconditional self-acceptance and enlightened self-interest.