Spirit matters

35. The energy in things

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Subtle and gross forces

While they’re not the same, religious structures, and their rituals that bind, tend to convey spiritual notions. The implications of intolerance for others’ religious beliefs is sadly projected by many of the world’s war-zones, past and present. Religious enforcement often overlaps political allegiance – think of the Spanish Inquisition.

Given all the many religions in operation, beliefs may conflict, but what threads them together is how they address invisible aspects of life. While keeping the chakras of a person’s subtle body unblocked is linked to ancient lifestyle approaches such as yoga, this cartography of human physiology is still widely invoked by complementary healers. Terrible times can awaken a quest for something to believe in. Research conducted by Dr Randolph Byrd in 1988, though contested, demonstrates the power of faith; those who were the objects of intercessory prayer fared much better on a range of medical tests  over time than a control group. Dr Larry Dossey and others support the claim.

Shamans, the oldest healing religion, deemed spirit to inhabit all existence, as did the Essenes, a sect to which Jesus belonged. In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote:

“And if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles.

Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children. And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the cloud, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain. You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.”

And from chapter 25 of the Lao-Tzu’s esteemed Tao Te Ching:

“There is something formlessly created
Born before Heaven and Earth
So silent! So ethereal!
Independent and changeless
Circulating and ceaseless
It can be regarded as the mother of the world”.

Rupert Sheldrake methodically takes Western scientific dogma to task for vetoing the study of non-solid topics, generally related to mind or soul dynamics however understood, in the humorously-titled, The Science Delusion. His peers are catching up now, admitting to a ‘post-materialist’ reality. Some scientists have been drawn to mysteries, such as those described by Michio Kaku in his book, The Physics Of The Impossible, and elsewhere. He dissects the latest findings on human mastery of skills imagined in science fiction, including telepathy, time travel and perpetual motion. Dr Korotkov in Russia has also earned fame for imaging invisible plant life. It has even been argued that science in Europe was primarily sponsored by the Catholic Church.

A spiritual curiosity creeps up on most  people at some time during their lives, spurring them into deeper enquiry. Jack Kerouac retraced the best-known biography of Buddha in a slim volume, Wake Up, articulating his own reflections e.g.  ‘to escape [to nirvana] from the prison, [of samsara] was why the prison was made.” He claimed to cultivate his future works based on it. Richard Grossinger applies similar tenets directly to current affairs in the more contemporary tome, The Bardo Of Waking Life.

Sam Harris argues that people can do without religion while still gaining a lot of quality comfort and support from spirituality. Others cry narcissism at the a la carte approach to faith,  which can amount to no more than a cult of self-worship according to Paul C. Vitz, in his book, Psychology As Religion. Of many useful resources out there, Sounds True and Wisdom Books cater for a wide range of spiritual queries. Ken Wilber’s integral embrace and transcend system is more all-inclusive: it says everyone’s right – and there’s more! He doesn’t stop at recommending the integration of beliefs only, but at blending spiritual essences into everyday routines alongside taking responsibility for developing as a healthy human being, to make it meaningful, for a ‘holy’ (whole) life.

Furthermore, sensing and believing in extra being, inside, outside, above or below the self is less of a shot in the dark than it might seem when numerous well-regarded scientists are now convinced, based on their research results, of the  immortality of consciousness, the seat of the individual self-concept. So, having a little faith, it seems, is not only good for the soul, but sound science, and the solace supplied can be most important during high-stress episodes.

Intimacy

34. Perspectives on sex

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bonding and beyond

Sigmund Freud is synonymous with his controversial theories that spelt out psycho-sexual human development, amongst other significant observations on socialisation. Hot on his heels came Masters and Johnson, and Kinsey, collecting evidence to back up their hunches about the wide range of expressions sexuality can take.

Such findings, the invention of the pill, and popular culture ushered in more lax mores in the West from the middle of the twentieth century, which is confirmed by more frank instructions such as is found in The Little Red Schoolbook, from 1969. These were refreshingly liberating compared to the advice doled out to housewives up to that point in women’s magazines, which bullied them into staying in long-suffering masochistic roles. The trend of candour lives on; columnist Caitlín Moran is one example, and film director, Lena Denham, another. There are tips for guys, and plenty of informative TV programmes now on the topic. Pornography has its place for some but toys precariously with expectations and may disrupt or even destroy real intimacy. Reality checks seem to be necessary to dispel false impressions given elsewhere, especially in romantic films and books, whose lies can allegedly ruin love lives. Survivors of sexual abuse may need extra attention.

Unfortunately, the promise of blissful intimacy marketed by internet dating sites may fail to highlight some alarming dangers that go with it. While everyone would encourage taking precautions with total strangers, the picture is even more sobering when it comes to close partners, where the highest risk of assault and homicide has been shockingly linked to law enforcement officials. The phenomenon of misogyny persists in various guises across the globe but, with unflagging shaming and resistance, it can be eventually defeated, just as campaigns to abolish slavery brought relief.

Clearly, of course, sex has been happening from the beginning of time. It has generally been considered a force requiring regulation in tribal groups because of its gift to reproduce human resources expected to act in and for the wider public, despite its assumed private aspect. Attempts to control indulgence have been taken to extremes of genital mutilation of both girls and boys, sometimes to the point of organ amputation. Such practices continue in traditions which generally originated in circumstances of incredibly harsh environments where leisure wasn’t afforded.

Most civilisations, however, do not resort to such harmful measures and never did. The revered ancient Hindu text, the Kama Sutra, affirms the positive aspects of passionate affectionate relationships, as does the Biblical text, The Song Of Solomon. To help people iron out the many neuroses they may be carrying around with them after negative indoctrination and experiences from the past, teachers such as David Deida have been modernising tantric exercises and uniting them with other optimal concepts of sexuality in a variety of accessible programmes.

Flexibility to choose who to love, assuming consent, makes for more mutually-respectful pairings and a more tolerant heart-led democracy. An awareness of the suffering that sexual misconduct can wreak places a responsibility on participants to be considerate, teaches Thich Nhat Hanh. This is what his book Fidelity: How To Create A Loving Relationship That Lasts, is all about. Anthropologist Maurice Godelier believes that, in moving away from conservative nuclear groupings that were most venerated in the Victorian era, the increasing plasticity of family forms better reflects how humanity interacted in the past, as detailed in his book, The Metamorphoses of Kinship. Whatever negative views are held about relationships, the good news is that, albeit with a little corrective thinking and behaviour in some cases, everyone can hope to enjoy positive loving connection with others of their preference. For those already in mutually-cherishing unions, alleluia!

Regarding relationships

33. Knowing who friends are

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what’s going on

People operate on a continuum between a need for solitude and for company, either by choice or necessity. Being able to regulate which direction to go in boosts well-being, yet the rug can suddenly be pulled from under an illusion of trustworthiness. Other people also like to regulate their involvement and journey. One relationship partner may be hoping to derive advantages that are quite different from what the other wants. Martin Buber’s cherished book, I and Thou  shows how society’s cues encourage utilitarian aims rather than support open vulnerability in the space of authentic encounter.

Romance is not dead, however, but possibly transmuted as the entire human culture from its inception to today induces women in particular to fall for stereotypes around what they should want. The male disconnect response is made worse by a tendency to believe that behaviour is experienced as it’s intended and that everything’s fine, according to Herb Goldberg, in What Men Still Don’t Know About Women.

The right thing for women to do in marriage, according to religious and secular counsellors, has been to put up with ill-treatment and take the blame. Martha Nussbaum, in Women and Human Development, faults past methods of gauging female satisfaction for overlooking real problems women face in their material and social settings. With restricted resources for practising capabilities, asking what their conditions allow them to be and to do is wiser. Family conflict becomes an economic and social issue.

Family is where children develop and socialise, and how well this happens affects future interactions. The desire for human proximity dates to this crucial period when dependency is such that death could follow abandonment. If the impact is negative from Toxic Parents, as Susan Forward called her book on overcoming hurtful legacies, attention to undermining patterns and mindsets later will probably be needed. Naming truths, attempting genuine dialogue, can stir up awkward waves on the way to liberation, but left-over unhealthy manipulation, projection and silence only dull the life-force.The words and deeds of others who exert power shape thoughts, feelings and actions.Trying to please them despite plain evidence of a lack of respect, even abuse, just keeps a dysfunctional dynamic in play.

In his book about healing the inner child, Reconciliation, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches methods such as the peace treaty, beginning anew and letter-writing, to repair relationships. This approach acknowledges the delicacy and slow pace that may be required to address issues, but sometimes the only solution is to get far away.The author was exiled from his homeland for 35 years. It’s not only on Facebook that the name of ‘friend’ is frequently taken in vain.

Not everything can be readily fixed; it’s often complicated, to a greater or lesser extent, and equally hinges on the other person’s willingness to befriend with renewed integrity, tolerance and appropriate affection. Without that, wish them well while cutting ties, and losses, as trying too long to mend bonds may only lead to embitterment and dehumanisation.

A warm spirit of friendship, the wish for the other to thrive, is the common denominator linking positive relationships, whatever their form. Just as terrible pain can be felt after previously cherished acquaintances, perhaps those trusted the most, inflict betrayal or neglect,  joy and optimism follow positive regard from fond companions. Good friends can be as nourishing as food. In tight spots, their presence and encouragement can even amount to the reason to go on.

Studies of immune function prove the beneficial effects of the company of genuine carers, although new patients and those recently shocked unfortunately may retreat from contact in fear of being a nuisance, just when social support is most important. On the other side, friends and helpers might back off too, unsure of how to assist, but when specific steps that can be taken to help are clearly communicated, responses are almost unfailingly generous. Prognoses of hard times have been clinically shown to improve with positive input, so pick the stalwarts from current affiliates, or waste no time seeking out new candidates. It makes a big difference. The inter-dependence of human beings makes it important to know who can be relied upon, and how to reciprocate. Love may wax and wane even as it fuels the heart.

The trials of trauma

32. Holding on when it hurts

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weathering heartache

For medical doctors, trauma means any life-threatening physical condition, but the mental health definition is wider, interpreting trauma in the more classical theatrical sense of unusual events that would induce major stress in most people. When applied to real cases, this description is vague and doesn’t take into account variations in interpretations, individual sensitivity, resilience and other salient factors. Symptoms showing that trauma has set in include extended feelings of being overwhelmed, afraid and unable to function as before, sometimes to the point of immobility.

Draining behavioural sensations such as constriction, hyper-arousal and dissociation are commonly reported. Early trauma, according to many studies, can mutate into more sustained neurosis and psychosis if not checked in time. Judith Herman’s 1992 book, Trauma and Recovery, broke new ground by confronting social antecedents of personal trauma and charting recovery through six stages.

According to Peter Levine, energy failing to discharge from the nervous system as it does in wild animals escaping predators, leads to sustained tension, re-enactment, and re-victimisation in human beings. In his classic book on trauma, Healing The Tiger, Levine outlines how healing can occur by consciously re-directing unconscious physiological instincts, that have gone awry and got stuck, through a natural creative process that allows nervous-emotional self-regulation to be restored. The topic of post traumatic growth focuses on the character gains that can rebound to survivors after enduring terrible pain.

An increasing amount of theoretical attention is being paid to trauma pathways. Dr Anne De Prince and others associate re-victimisation with betrayal and an interpersonal cognitive schema resulting from, and subsequently attracting, harmful relationships. Recent reports suggest that hostile dispositions alone, such as racism, inflict trauma. So does combat.

Ahead of her time, Alice Miller demolished Freud’s dismissal of childhood traumas, and pioneered the championing of the child’s arduous battle against endless manipulations by parents, who are inexorably inclined to foist outstanding unmet needs on their offspring, impeding the child’s progress with a sense of self intact. “Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness:  the emotional discovery and emotional acceptance of the truth in the individual and unique history of our childhood,” she said, in one of her best-selling books, The Drama Of The Gifted Child. Her work continues to be respected, while undergoing some criticism for row-backs, hypocrisy and re-assessment.

When someone is severely provoked, anger is a natural response, but there are good arguments to replace an urge to punish with non-violent transformation and understanding. This approach diverts the energy of destruction and can effect decisive change. Liz Roehmer, a long-time trauma researcher, co-wrote, The Mindful Way Through Anxiety. It outlines strategies to alleviate chronic worry states which sometimes feature in post-traumatic stress syndrome.

In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s blockbuster on mindfulness, Full Catastrophe Living, sections elaborate on various kinds of stress, anxiety, panic, emotional pain, and getting stuck in cycles of uncontrollable horrid reactivity. The clarifying healing power of the present moment, the only real time available to take in what’s going on, is promoted, instead of letting things happen on autopilot. Instructions on practices are set out in detail to help readers regain the energy to dance in the face of assured catastrophes likely to be encountered just by virtue of being alive; not only the big crises and losses but the little infuriating incidents, the weight of everything. It’s no small matter to keep going through daily uncertainties and disappointments.

In coming to grips with the difficulties though, there’s potential for growth and wisdom, especially, it is argued, if seven favourable attitudes are fostered: non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting go. With improved insights into the effects of post-traumatic stress, many different tactics have been tried and tested to help people lighten the baggage that usually trails in the after-tow. Knowing what’s available, after prevailing through the worst of the unwelcome maelstrom, is the first step in selecting the best option to safely reach the far side.

Emotional messages

31. Courage to accept feelings

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Soothe the mood

The definition of emotion has not advanced much in aeons beyond perception and evaluation of bodily sensations, either reactively or as more enduring sentiment. When preliminary thought in the form of attention comes to bear on feeling, emotion, conscious or unconscious, results, as discussed in Keith Oatley’s book, Emotions: A Brief History. As signals they both guide the behaviour of the one having them, and reveal something to watching eyes. Understanding them happens in this space of interaction. They are integral to self-image and to community, and scholars are now flocking to study their multiple aspects and come up with new hypotheses. Charles Darwin and Paul Ekman had prominently and consistently linked emotions to facial expressions, although the conclusion of universality still justly attracts scientific challenge.

To handle and apply emotions effectively, at least in contemporary Western culture, developing the five qualities of self-awareness, self-regulation, internal motivation, empathy and social skills, has been proposed by Daniel Goleman, who popularised the idea of emotional intelligence. Thought combines with emotion to create attitudes on which action decisions are based. This sequence as governor of much behaviour is why so much time is devoted to tuning into body and mind. Accepting whatever comes up without holding or rejecting, but clearly observing and letting pass, inviting all-over joy, is the practice. The fickleness of feelings, their relative aspect, is one of the first things usually noted, and conditions for happiness are often rediscovered in what was resented or ignored. Raphael Cushnir offers a similar primer.

While the body-scan included in mindfulness programmes acts as a physical check-in, it can also double as a means of alerting to emotions arising, noticing whether they’re pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. They can spur to destructive or wholesome deeds. Tracing the root nature of habits and circumstances using physiological and psychological messages from deliberating on feelings, side by side with knowledge,  empowers the practitioner to modify actions as appropriate. Calmly breathing, feelings, that constitute parts of the self, are befriended and not repressed, leaving to insights, wider comprehensions and equanimity, one of the Four Immeasurable Minds advocated in Buddhism.

The defining tone of a personality, a dominating mood, can be caused by an accumulation of past occurrences drawing more on one often negative emotion that doesn’t get to be resolved but stays unconsciously stored. Triggers of that emotion during similar incidents are likely to set off the combined bad internal experiences felt before, forming a chronic reactive pattern. As prolonged painful emotional traits are associated with mental and physical illnesses, releasing repressed emotion is important. There are different ways of doing this. Psychoanalysis can take decades; counselling , years; and brief interventions, like Timeline Therapy, Emotionally Focussed Therapy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Hypnosis, memory re-consolidation techniques and others, days or weeks to bring about useful change, ideally when done with a qualified practitioner.

This is how anchors, negative or positive stimuli, work, by persistently evoking a compulsive emotional response. An example is Thich Nhat Hanh’s Pebble for your Pocket exercise. Instead of being controlled by their arbitrary development and influence on behaviour, the state management approach involves cultivating the skill of producing constructive moods on demand, through a simple physical gesture, most commonly by joining thumb and little finger together while inhaling sharply. Anchoring is quick and easy to learn, and depends on strength of feeling, timing of gesture and repetition. Instead of remaining bogged down in despondency, gradually building up inner resourceful with such cues creates stepping-stones to recovery and a stable emotional life which is one of the best foundations for dealing with fate’s surprises.

The plague of depression

30. When the cloud is heavy,

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change tack

Depression has often been described as anger turned inwards. It’s also viewed as a hiding place to go when things become unbearable, just as animals retreat into dark quiet corners when they’re weakened. Some sadness after a loss or traumatic event is normal; when it doesn’t lessen, intervention to prevent it getting worse is timely. This state, when prolonged, can monopolise thinking and energy, and drain emotional and physical resources needed to recover from existing hardship.

Suppression of deep dark secrets, such as those scandalous back-stories leaked from time to time about famous people, can strain the unconscious mind where they are stored away, frozen as lived unless processed. Powerful unresolved feelings can block recovery and ease, perpetrating disproportionate levels of horror dating back to the precipitating incident(s).

An internet search reveals how common it is for depression to concern people. At least 10-15% of populations in the Western world are diagnosed with it, a huge increase over recent decades, forecast only to rise further.  Endless check-lists of symptoms and help-tips can be retrieved at the click of a button, prior to face-to-face professional confirmation. Visitors are urged to talk, with a therapist or friend. This works well half the time, but often words feed or compound the problem, or services aren’t available or affordable or therapeutic. Along with mainstream offerings, there are other options.

Tackling depression with its negative effect on the immune system, is essential one way or the other to prevent debility and slippage in quality of life. Depression is frequently triggered by internal conversations and habitual internal questions, often self-critical,  which in turn consist significantly of remembered external remarks. There are methods to re-adjust these but first, relax because as Nietzsche and others have observed, it’s hard to be sane in a world where madness is the norm!

Quitting obsession with the other’s need to defeat in order to defeat them is the starting point to enter the game of non-zero-sum winning. Paul Watzlawick enlarges on this and other ways people contribute to their own psychic misery in his witty book, The Situation Is Hopeless But Not Serious. But when children are taught in school, at home and everywhere they look, to win above all, who can blame them/us? Better to create a new space to look at the world differently and begin to draw happiness from more reliable sources. Many guides in circulation, such as From Sad To Glad, are worth consulting.

Constantly judging and feeling judged to highest standards sends joy fleeing. Research confirms that perfectionism predisposes to depression. Always trying to do everything 100% right is often more stressful than adaptive. “The sage never strives for greatness and thereby has the ability to achieve great things,” states the Tao Te Ching. Doing jobs that involve intimidation and constant pressure to perform make pacing down very difficult without risking a confrontation, but when health and peace of mind are at stake, maybe it’s time for a change anyway.

Likewise with close relationships when they are more destructive than supportive. A popular well-regarded manual on shifting depression using mindfulness techniques by Mark Williams and three co-writers, is suitably entitled The Mindful Way Through Depression. Review the basics, of nutrition, exercise, hydration, sleep, and revise where necessary, as they profoundly influence mood. No matter what degree of help is required though, don’t be left alone looking into the abyss. Start here and now, try what’s already known, and ask people until something works to make the mood lift, as it does.

The question of suicide

29. ‘The story is old

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but it goes on’

Suicide is regularly on the radar of anyone who socialises and consumes the media. It occurs and disturbs. Sometimes disturbing is its main purpose, as it was for the Vietnamese buddhist monk self-immolating in the picture, sacrificing himself to draw the world’s attention to the need for peace-keeping efforts in that country, in an act historically linked to public protest. Mass suicides that happened in Germany in 1945 were attributed to the public defeat of the the country and of its leaders.

Such contagion has been observed enough to earn a title of its own: the Werther Effect. This is not surprising, for issues brought to attention are what enter the mind. The trend is also mentioned in Gary Lachman’s study of literary suicides, Dead Letters, which received good reviews for its comprehensive and cautious treatment of famous casualties, both of writers and of the characters they created. The last section contains excerpts from relevant writings, such as Lord Byron’s quote that “I should, many a good day, have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law…”! G.K. Chesterton’s similarly-themed poem, A Ballade of Suicide, is also there, printed in full.

Others would argue that to be alive and possess a consciousness is to ask the question which is best: to be or not to be. Albert Camus, whose existential preoccupations in part inspired humanistic approaches in psychology, claimed that “there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”. A more detached consideration of suicide recognises many different circumstances and causes as opposed to a universally negative view of it.  Social authorities have even encouraged it as the most honourable thing to do in certain situations, such as when spies or military personnel are cornered, which makes for drama.

While feeling bad frequently makes sense following terrible experience, especially when no end seems yet to be in sight, the problem with looking at suicide as a solution is that it eliminates all chances of improvement or accommodation. The true story of the kidnapping of teacher, Brian Keenan, in Beirut where he was held in harsh conditions for five years, is recounted in his book, An Evil Cradling . After suffering much he was finally freed and was ultimately able to put it all in context and even feel compassion for his capturers. Different gratitude practices are recommended to help overcome disappointment too, with the idea being that not only can something to be thankful for be found in any situation, but when a past horror is re-framed, it can often be transformed into a redemptive strength.

When trust, resources, or health has been shattered, start with the basics. A certain amount of effort will probably be needed to be prepared to enjoy anything again. The lucky ones have access to kind understanding people whose presences offer reviving and illuminating support, because the wrong words or attitudes can only make things seem worse. When safe sharing’s possible, try it; ‘giorraíonn beirt bóthar’ (two shorten the road)Whoever can breathe, drink, eat, move and sense life, though, has already got the basic conditions to receive some pleasure, moment to moment, from the immediate environment.

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” So states Thich Nhat Hanh, who addresses how to handle difficult feelings. By tenderly nursing the injured self, a taste for living returns. It can take a while, though sometimes conundrums resolve amazingly quickly.