Saturday, June 2, 2018

For Happier and Healthier Human Beings

 My sister Madeleine wrote a very intelligent piece about the “dangers of spirituality.” In her review of Kramer and Alstad’s book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, the failure of Buddhism and Hinduism is explained. Many good points are made by the book’s authors and by Madeleine.

I have wanted to write an alternative piece related to the same topic. First, I had to spend three weeks in Hawaii, so I am only now getting around to this.

Since I know little about Buddhism and Hinduism, I dot not intend to defend those perspectives here, or other Eastern spiritual philosophies in the “Zen” tradition, or other “New Age” trends.

However, it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is today a convergence among many strands of modern psychology towards certain principles. Following these principles may help humans to become happier and psychologically healthier. And in my view, they appear to be empirically true.

The common thread I see in the emerging paradigm includes the following elements:

1. Humans experience life through interpretation. The world is not given to us. We make the world in which we live.
2. Thus, we experience life “from within to without,” not the other way around, as is claimed for example by Behaviorism (“we respond to stimuli”).
3. We have minds, we think, and we have consciousness.
4. All human experience occurs in the present - NOW. No one has ever experienced anything in the past or in the future. We can only THINK about the past and the future. We cannot live in those realms.
5. Thinking tends to be verbal.
6. Thoughts produce feelings.
7. We are the totality of our thoughts and our feelings.

Here are some of the traditions in psychology and social psychology which contribute to the new understanding:

1. Symbolic Interactionism. This is perhaps still the dominant social-psychological orientation among sociologists. This orientation is rooted in the writings of American pragmatists such as William James, George Herbert Mead, W. I Thomas and Charles Horton Cooley. In Mind, Self and Society, Mead explains his central conception of the SELF: Humans are and have a self that consists of the “I” and the “me.” “I” always act in the present; and I view, judge and guide myself, the “me,” in retrospect or prospectively. Humans are “selves,” they are reflexive. As Cooley wrote, my self also includes the feelings that result from my self-reflections.
W. I Thomas coined the idea of “the definition of the situation:” This is the idea, central to sociological social psychology, that humans INTERPRET situations; they do not face and react automatically to objective realities.
Central to Symbolic Interactionism is also the crucial role of language, which is the distinguishing feature of the human species, and which makes reflexive consciousness possible.
I cannot, here, do justice to the immense Symbolic Interactionist literature. For a more detailed discussion, I refer you to my textbook Social Interaction..

2. Cognitive (Behavioral) Therapy: In books such as Feeling Good, psychologist David Burns has popularized this brand of psychology. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy emphasizes the causal interconnections of (1) thoughts, (2) feelings and (3) behavior. It has been used effectively in the treatment of a variety of mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.
Again, I cannot detail this approach here. I merely note its convergence with other approaches towards a paradigm which I see as extremely promising.

3. Eckhart Tolle: This German-born Canadian spiritual teacher has become wildly popular. His best-known book is The Power of Now. According to his website, “at the core of Tolle’s teachings lies the transformation of consciousness, a spiritual awakening that he sees as the next step in human evolution. An essential aspect of this awakening consists in transcending our ego-based state of consciousness. This is a prerequisite not only for personal happiness but also for the ending of violent conflict endemic on our planet"
Elsewhere, he describes a major aspect of the human dysfunction as "ego" or an "illusory sense of self" based on unconscious identification with one's memories and thoughts, and another major aspect he calls "pain-body" or "an accumulation of old emotional pain.”
Tolle writes that "the primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it." While this brief summary of Tolle’s ideas does not do justice to them, it does indicate their convergence with the paradigm under discussion.

4. Leisure Studies: I even see some similarities with this field (which I have researched extensively). The Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi has described a “state of flow” as one which can occur when one is “completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved...” Csikszentmihalyi mentions such aspects of “Flow” as a merging of action and awareness, transformation of time and loss of self-consciousness. It is an “autotelic experience," i.e. a person performs an act because it is intrinsically rewarding, rather than to achieve an external goal. He describes the autotelic personality as a trait possessed by individuals who can learn to enjoy situations that most other people would find miserable. Research has shown that aspects associated with the autotelic personality include curiosity, persistence, and humility. 

Csikszentmihalyi’s flow experience seems to share similarities with Tolle’s concept of “bliss” and the Buddhists’ Nirvana.

5. Meditation: A basic principle of meditation is to free yourself, at least temporarily, from the “monkey mind,” i.e. the cacophony of thoughts whirling in your head - the fears, concerns, memories, plans, ruminations, worries and other repetitive thoughts that plague you ad nauseam. For example, you are guided to focus on your breathing, and urged to return to that focus. What matters is the here and now. Your thoughts are about the past and the future. But when you meditate, you live in the present; you do not think about past insults and possible future failures.
In this context, the mind is the problem. Stopping it altogether may be neither achievable (except in death) nor desirable, but slowing it down and becoming aware of what it does surely is.

6. Mind, Consciousness and Thought: Beginning with Sidney Banks, a Scotsman who moved to British Columbia, a significant number of professionals and laymen have gravitated towards a new psychological approach. This approach is sometimes called Neo-cognitive Psychology, or Psychology of Mind, as well as other names.
The fundamental premise is that life is spiritually generated into form from formless energy, and that our experience as human beings is created from the interaction of three “principles” - Mind, Consciousness and Thought:
Mind is the energy and intelligence of all life, whether in the form, or formless. The Universal Mind, or the impersonal mind, is constant and unchangeable. The personal mind is in a perpetual state of change.
Consciousness is the gift of awareness. Consciousness allows the recognition of form, form being an expression of Thought.
Thought: The power of Thought is not self-created. Thought is a gift from nature, which serves you immediately after you are born. Thought is the creative agent we use to direct us through life.

Practitioners of the Three Principles believe that feeling states (and all mental states) are self-created (through mental activity i.e. Thought). Scientific research supports this notion that mental states (i.e. emotions) are indeed constructed from within the human mind. Practitioners believe that beyond each person's limited, conscious, and personal thought system lies a vast reservoir of wisdom, insight and spiritual intelligence. No one person has greater access to spiritual wisdom than any other. Mental health is the resting state, or "default" setting of the mind, which brings with it non-contingent feelings of love, compassion, resilience, creativity and unity; both with others and with life itself. Research supports this notion that resilience, not recovery, is a common response to difficult life events such as trauma and loss. Human experience occurs from inside to outside.
Mr. Banks' "insight" has been introduced in hospitals and hospital systems, correctional institutions, social services, juvenile justice programming, community housing, drug and alcohol prevention and treatment programs, schools, and multi-national corporations.

* * * * * * *

By no means do I claim that all these strands are fully compatible. To name just one glaring difference: According to Symbolic Interactionism, nothing is more central to human evolution and to the human condition than language - our uniquely distinctive characteristic in the animal kingdom. However, according to the adherents of the “Three Principles,” language and (intellectual) verbalization are precisely what often prevents humans from achieving true mental health and well-being.
However, there are also many points of convergence. For example, the “Three Principles” approach seems to be saying that Csikszentmihalyi’s flow is within everyone’s reach. I.o.w., we are all potentially “autotelic.” If so, this is good news indeed. 
All six strands of psychology are contrary to Cartesian rationalism: Cogito ergo sum must be transcended. The spiritual/emotional dimension of the human experience is missing from rationalism (something which Freud told us long ago, of course).
As the meditation lady admonishes us, (verbal) thoughts are often the problem, not the solution. To return to the Now requires emancipating oneself from the “mind.”

Human experience occurs “from inside to outside,” NOT the other way around, as our greedy materialistic culture says (and also Skinnerian Stimulus-Response Behaviorism).
A full harvest moon is not a gorgeously beautiful thing in and of itself. I endow it with beauty when I look at it, in awe. I do this when I connect with something universal. Call it a force, or whatever else you prefer. The point is: By transcending my own individual body and mind, I connect with the much greater world beyond me, and its vital force. I experience the world by endowing it with a perspective. I feel the world. I become conscious of it, and I feel accordingly. And all this can only take place in the present, NOW. It does not consist of thoughts about the past or the future.
The mind is a strange thing: It plays tricks on us. Thinking thoughts is inevitable, of course. However, reifying thoughts is not. That is, elevating thoughts and treating them as inescapable realities. Thoughts are no more real than passing clouds.
We may latch on to them, develop them - or not. We need not be enslaved to our mind.

It is this emancipation from one’s mind that some (non-Western) philosophies are talking about. My knowledge of these philosophies is very meager. I only associate these ideas with traditions such as those coming to us from India. Buddhism, Zen, etc. Perhaps the mindlessness I just mentioned is what is called Nirvana. But it doesn’t matter what you call it, and where these ideas originate culturally.
The important thing is that these ideas have merit. It is of course impossible to reach or to define total “mindlessness,” short of death. But the notion that many of our troubles - both at the individual psychological level and at the societal level - are rooted in the incredible cacophony that our minds often impose upon us, this is a truth which is now recognized by most brands of psychology.
Surely these ideas are promising in the face of problems such as mental illness, war, greed and materialism, problems which appear to be intractable within the Western paradigm.

Lately, I have been able to live in the “now:” I have enjoyed a heightened awareness. It’s like opening your eyes and looking around. This is not a technique which you practice and learn. It’s a paradigm that you come to understand at increasingly deeper levels.
So I am not suggesting that you read the intellectual theories of Mead, or that you begin to practice cognitive behavior therapy. What I am suggesting is that you open yourself to the possibility of this emancipation. This is not an intellectual exercise. It is a state of mind, available to all of us. It is the mental health with which we are all born and which exists in all of us, but which is interfered with by the enormous amount of thoughts produced by our mind.

© Tom Kando 2018;All Rights Reserved
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