Towards a spiritual psychology

I’m very slowly working towards a kind of spiritual psychology or anthropology, based on my reading and experiments over the years.

I hope it will take into account all the variables in my past experience: dealing with things like depression and anxiety, mysticism, cognitive and emotional states, and temperament.

It will be at heart a pragmatic approach, aimed at overcoming the suffering in my own life, and exploring the promises made by various religious teachings about the availability of love, joy, peace, and even bliss in this lifetime.

For me ‘pragmatic’ means I have a goal in mind. I didn’t go looking for answers out of simple curiosity, but because I sensed there was something wrong but had no idea what, how, or why.

So my approach will probably not appeal to many people, just as I’ve failed to find answers in the many popular approaches, theories, and methods available at present. The reason I haven’t become an exponent of any particular system or teaching is that no system or teaching has proven sufficient for me.

A quick sketch

Consciousness is something special.

In some religious systems, consciousness itself is considered divine – part of, or even all of God, right at the heart of your existence.

In others, consciousness is “close to” the divine, and is considered the “true self” or soul, in contrast to the false self, the ego, the accumulated thoughts and impressions that we usually treat as our self.

We could spend a lifetime trying to resolve and explore these theoretical differences, but remember this is a pragmatic effort. Regardless of the exact descriptions or definitions, consciousness is “special” in a good way.

The significance of consciousness is much more obvious in an Eastern context than in a Christian one, but we must bear in mind that the word “consciousness” has only recently been taken to mean what it means in this context. As “a state of being aware” it dates back only so far as the 18th Century.

Years ago I went looking for Aquinas’ perspective on consciousness, but couldn’t find it for the simple reason that Aquinas lived in the 13th Century, and for him conscientia would point to conscience, not consciousness.

In fact conscious is just a derivative of conscience. Both come from con meaning ‘with’ and science meaning “knowledge”. We could just as well say conscient instead of conscious, as in “are you conscient right now?”

The light in the darkness

In the context of mysticism, the specialness and significance of consciousness has been captured in the term “light”, as in “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it”, which is not only a powerful spiritual statement, but also a pretty neat summary of contemporary philosophy of mind and the “hard” problem of consciousness.

Likewise: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.”

We tend to think of evil deeds in concrete ways, as specific actions that contravene divine law.

But in the broader spiritual context it is clear that everything we do is corrupt and insufficient. It is ‘evil’ in a broad sense, and pragmatically this means our efforts are incapable of overcoming suffering or bringing us the happiness we seek.

We needn’t feel condemned for our actions, it’s enough that our actions cannot redeem us. Futility is an evil, just as much as malice.

The evil of human actions encompasses everything from the murderer and rapist all the way up to the proud and spiritually-barren Pharisees. That’s why Christianity presented such an apparent inversion of the moral order – because it doesn’t matter how well-behaved you are if you still have no love in you.

Some people think that light and darkness are metaphors for good and evil. I think it’s the other way around, in the sense that good and evil are ultimately grounded in light and darkness.

Light, love, and maladaptive defense-mechanisms

The ever-present light in us is also love, in that ‘light’ and love are attributes of God. Again, speaking pragmatically rather than seeking theological precision, this mysterious light by which we know the world and our own selves is also the source of divine love.

Yet instead of remaining in that love, we pay greater heed to the world, giving in to doubts and fears.

You can see this very clearly in children.

Young children are (all things being equal) loving towards their parents or caregivers. They give and receive love naturally.

Unfortunately, their parents and caregivers are not consistently loving in return. Our faults and foibles prevent us from responding to the love of our children perfectly.

Children experience this deprivation of love as a threat to their very survival. This makes sense on a biological level – since the child is entirely dependent on its caregivers for food, shelter, and security. But it also makes sense on a spiritual level, since we are told that love, light, and life all come from God.

In the face of this deprivation of love, the child invariably succumbs to doubt and fear, and immediately strives to regain the love it has lost.

This is the root of the problem: succumbing to doubt and fear, and thereby shutting down the immediacy of love in themselves, while then concluding that external conditions (the world) need to be controlled and rearranged before love can return.

In practical terms, this amounts to a child who stops experiencing love because of their parents’ implied or explicit rejection, and then seeks to find a way to regain that parental love and protect themselves from further harm.

The many layers of the psyche

Over many years of making psychological moves to avoid hurt and regain love, the child-teenaged-adult psyche ends up with many complex layers of beliefs, emotions, and choices that all originate in the choice of fear and doubt over love.

What this means is that in theory any of us can at any time feel divine love in our hearts. So long as the light (consciousness) is there, love is there as well. And the light is always with us.

But in practice our receptivity to this love is on a hair-trigger. We are ready to shut off the flow of love at the slightest hint of anything in the world of our experience that resembles the hurts, fears, doubts, and defense mechanisms that have shaped us over the years.

For example, many people develop perfectionist tendencies when young. Let’s say your parents were often depressed or angry, leaving them emotionally unavailable to you.

But then one day you get a good result at school or do well at sport, and suddenly your parents seem interested and engaged and proud of you. From your point of view, it’s as if they’ve said “Yes! This is the kind of behaviour and accomplishment we find worthy of love!”

Many children (depending on temperament and other circumstances) will form an intention to become as accomplished and successful as possible, because this is obviously what it takes to earn their parents’ love again. 

Conflating accomplishment and success with the supply of love is one cause of perfectionism.

Perfectionism can also originate in the inverse circumstance – where a child is told that they will suffer further rejection if they do not succeed in life.

Metastasizing fear

Becoming a perfectionist is one instance of a maladaptive response to fear and doubt. It’s mal-adaptive because it doesn’t really achieve the desired result (securing a supply of love) and it actually creates further conflict and harm.

Because after a while the child will begin to reflect on their perfectionist efforts. They will have further psychological responses to their perfectionism, such as: fear that they will not be able to achieve their goals, resentment that they must be ‘perfect’ in order to be accepted or loved, a sense of emptiness after finding that their accomplishments do not bring lasting rewards, and so on.

Again it depends on the child, but rest assured that they will make some kind of “move” to try to avoid further hurt and attain more love.

If, for example, the child feels insufficiently loved for their accomplishments, they will begin to feel angry and resentful at this injustice. Somewhere in the child’s mind they made an implicit bargain with their parents that they would be loved if they accomplished enough, or did as they were told, or didn’t rock the boat, or whatever particular issue first ruptured their sense of being loved.

But how will the child respond to these feelings of anger and resentment? Whatever they decide, it will be a choice that seeks implicitly to limit their hurt and attain more love, or as much love as they can hope to achieve in their circumstances.

These psychological developments go on and on. Some people have a few, others have many.

The more you have, the more likely you will develop outright internal conflicts between different “moves” or layers. Some people end up depressed or suicidal for no apparent external cause, because the layers of their own psyche create a kind of inner tension or turmoil that they don’t know how to resolve.

Finding the answer

That’s why the spiritual path is both simple and complex, easy and difficult.

The simple spiritual answers like “God is love” can be a source of great comfort, but not necessarily a lived experience. Can you just choose to be full of love, and then do it? Maybe you can, but many of us cannot.

So on the one hand we’re told that all we have to do is believe and we will be saved.

But on the other hand:

“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”

Why this dichotomy? Because the simple truth is obscured by the many layers of our psychological defenses and accretions.

Defenses like turning to alcohol, sex, or drugs to try to relieve the inner tension, boredom, or suppressed pain which is in turn the outcome of other, more subtle defenses.

Defenses like intellectualising everything, shutting down emotionally, using dissociation or hypervigiliance to gain a sense of control over your own experience and environment.

Defenses like seeking out conflict and emotional turmoil, harming oneself or hurting others.

Nonetheless the answers are there.

The underlying, inescapable reality is light, not darkness, and it expresses itself in love, not fear.

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Love and doubt: the central truth of existence

I’ve been working for a long time to arrive at the central truth of my existence.

In search of answers I’ve read extensively the works of mystics, saints, sages and great teachers from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions.

I’ve read New Age books and talked to psychics and healers.

I’ve studied philosophy in an academic context, and theology in a private one.

I’ve read various texts from psychology and psychotherapy, undergone counselling and hypnosis, examined my quest from the point of view of mental illness and personality disorders.

I’ve tried Yoga, Qigong, martial arts, reiki, and various forms of meditation and prayer.

And through all this I’ve spent more than eighteen years analysing, questioning, struggling and striving, tying myself in knots and trying to untie them again.

What have I learned?

Some parameters

I’ve learned that the pursuit of some truths is unhelpful.

It eventually became clear to me that my path was different from most other people I know. It took longer still for me to stop apologising for this.

Part of me – both for intellectual reasons and for personal ones – has sought to universalise my conclusions. If, for example, I had the thought that “all wealth comes from God”, I would immediately think of counter-examples: drug-dealers, pimps, exploitative corporations and businesses, where clearly people are making money from the exploitation and harm of others.

Is their wealth “from God”?

Well, even asking the question is departing from my original intent. I want to get to the central truth of my existence, not come up with a universalisable moral theology of economics. The counter-examples my mind produces are not a part of my experience. To even consider them in this context is to set up obstacles to what is clearly a more faithful and God-centred view: that all wealth comes from God.

In other words, you can always find excuses to shake your faith and trust in God and in love. You can always find reasons to doubt.

So I took from philosophy a parameter that we could call subjectivism, so long as we don’t get distracted by the broader (and decreasingly relevant) context of that term in philosophy.

Subjectivism in the context of my search for truth means that I am not going to accept at face value the things that are not a part of my experience.

Many bad things happen in the world, don’t they? But in my experience, these global events are just news reports. I’m not looking to call God to account for earthquakes and wars on the other side of the world, I’m looking to call Him to account for my own subjective sense of something wrong in my life, and my experience.

Charity begins at home, or as John Wyclif apparently put it in the 14th Century: Charite schuld bigyne at hem-self.

What I’m looking for is the truth of my existence, and searching for objections in what I have heard from others’ experiences is an unnecessary constraint on finding answers.

Because there are answers I will find that defy the worldly view, and it would be ridiculous to turn to the world to confirm or repudiate answers I’ve sought from God, when the whole point of these answers is that the world could not provide them!

Nothing is impossible for God.

Over time I’ve become aware that my experience is profoundly shaped by my own beliefs, choices, and emotional states. I might be conscious of real, insurmountable limitations and obstacles in the world, and yet those limitations and obstacles have simply evaporated as my belief in them, or my underlying emotional state, has changed.

Like the previous parameter, this often emerges as a conflict between faith and doubt. Love may point in directions that the world or our own experience say is impossible, implausible, or even undesirable. It helps to remember that the limitations and obstacles presented by the world or our past or current experience are at least shaped by, and sometimes wholly constructed from our beliefs and emotions.

This can be as simple as a depressed or anxious person projecting their own negative thoughts onto others, and anticipating social rejection. Or it can be as profound as admitting that the whole of space and time is known to me only as a series of impressions, and that all existence and all consciousness emanates from, and participates in, the being we call God.

God could repair the world, or end it at any moment. Don’t talk about what is and is not possible based on the limitations of your own experience, when our own existence is barely distinguishable from a dream.

Love makes room for itself.

The obstacles and limitations that present themselves in the face of love are not substantial. They subsist foremost in our own doubts and fears, and the corresponding beliefs. They are only as consequential as we allow them to be.

Hence we can choose love over doubt, trusting that the conditions that seem to validate doubt will disappear or be resolved or somehow overcome through love itself.

Otherwise we are caught in an absurd situation, with love or hope that can’t be reconciled with “the world” or our own experience, precisely when what we yearn for, and what brings us true fulfillment, must necessarily repudiate the limitations and obstacles coming from the world.

So with all these parameters in mind, I’ve found that my experience of suffering arises because of complex sets of beliefs and emotions in my own mind, which both shape my experience and are reinforced by it.

If I want to know why my experience feels always insufficient for happiness, then I only need to look at the fears, doubts, and sense of insufficiency in myself.

How do I feel about life, about myself, and about the world?

It turns out that my whole psyche is packed full of conflicted and negative beliefs and emotions.

But by tracing those chains of cause-and-effect backwards, I’ve come at last to the fundamental choice from which all the subsequent flawed efforts stem.

The fundamental choice is a choice between love and doubt. I describe it as doubt rather than fear, because doubt is much more insidious and plausible. Yet doubt originally meant fear or dread anyway. It comes originally from the same root as “two”, and implies duality, double-ness, and the uncertainty evoked by suddenly having two alternatives to consider.

Recapitulating the fall.

Again without seeking a comprehensive theological framework: our original, fundamental choice between love and doubt reflects and recapitulates the fall of man in the garden of Eden.

In essence, human beings were at one with God and in paradise. Yet the serpent tempted them to doubt. 

In Genesis 3, the serpent essentially casts doubt on God’s command not to eat from the tree of knowledge, and defies God’s justification of the command. He presents to Eve, and by proxy to Adam, an alternative option, an option in which God – who is Love itself – has ulterior motives.

And from that moment erupts human suffering with temptation, blame-shifting, and fear dominating the human experience.

This doubt arises in our own lives continually. We have continual opportunities to choose between doubt and love. Yet for most of us the original doubt has grown and developed into a convoluted web of subordinate doubts, fears, temptations, and other psychological maneuvers, all designed to help us avoid, overcome, or shift the suffering that arose from that original doubt.

The original doubt would have been reflected back to us as it shaped our experience. In a vicious circle, our experience would have seemed to vindicate the doubt, in much the same way that a self-conscious, anxious person may act in ways that elicit negative attention from others.

The experience of doubt is painful, since it would have seemed to nullify or render-hollow the prior experience of love, just as the serpent cast doubt on the goodness of God’s motives in commanding the first humans not to touch the tree of knowledge.

To escape this pain, what can we do? Well, we can blame other people for our suffering. Or we can blame ourselves for our suffering. Either option gives us a sense that maybe we can regain the love we lost when we entertained doubt.

But both are false. And both elicit a chain of psychological “moves” that attempt to shift the pain around in the vain hope of eventually removing it.

If you blame yourself for your suffering, then yes you have the hope of changing and redeeming yourself, but you also experience an additional pain of self-blame and recrimination.

And now you must pursue self-improvement and redemption.

It is no coincidence that such a central theme of Christianity is the insufficiency of our efforts to redeem ourselves, and the depiction of Christ’s death on the cross as the one true and eternal sacrifice for our redemption.

I’ve never appreciated the idea that God required a sacrifice, rather it is we who needed to know that our attempts at redemption would never succeed.

We can’t go forward from doubt into love. We need to go back to the original choice, to our own choice and repudiate doubt at the most basic level. That’s why the centrality of God’s love is the most prominent theme in Christianity.

If you choose doubt, no amount of love can overcome it. If you choose love, no trace of doubt can shake you.

How I overcame ankylosing spondylitis

Reader Stacey asked for an update on my AS and how I’m now faring, so I thought it would be a good idea to do a blog post on my current status and how I got to where I am now.

The disease

It started back in late 2010/early 2011. I’d gotten married and we’d bought a unit, so it was a time of intense and significant changes.

I was working on the unit – cleaning and painting and fixing things – and feeling pretty terrible about it. I’d never thought much about owning property, and with the housing market so difficult to get into, it was a big reality-check to realise we could only afford a one-bedroom unit on a busy road.

The unit was not in good condition, and I was not happy or enthused about moving in. Yet I felt I just had to get it done, put my feelings aside, and just keep going until it was ready.

That was when I had my first bout of iritis/uveitis. I thought it might have been caused by the anti-mould additive I had mixed into the bathroom ceiling paint.

But I tested positive to HLA-B27, an antigen associated with ankylosing spondylitis and other auto-immune conditions. As wikipedia states: “while 90% of people with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) are HLA-B27 positive, only a small fraction of people with HLA-B27 ever develop AS.”

I had recurrent episodes of iritis, and each time was asked if I had back or neck or other joint pain, with the implication that I could expect to develop these symptoms at a later point. Eventually the ophthalmologist referred me to a rheumatologist “just in case”.

I well remember the first time I felt the stiffness and pain in my sacro-iliac joint.

I was sitting in an armchair in our unit, reading some fantasy book on my kindle, and I remember thinking “is this all there is?” Is that what life is all about? We work to earn money, and when we’re not working we distract ourselves with entertainment. That was never the kind of life I wanted to lead, and yet that’s where I’d ended up.

When I got up from the chair, I noticed a dull ache near my hip.

I thought the ache was from sitting in the chair for too long.

By morning it had gotten worse. I don’t remember the exact timeline, but it got to a point where the pain was so severe I could barely walk. I rang the rheumatology clinic and had them move my appointment forward.

I clearly remember taking tiny steps towards the front door of the hospital. It was one of the most intense pains I’ve ever experienced.

The rheumatology registrar cheerfully agreed that I’d developed to the next stage of AS. He put me on celebrex (an NSAID), ordered x-rays, and explained to me the great new drugs available that would suppress my immune system and slow the progression of the disease – a progression that would see my joints slowly calcify.

The celebrex worked well, but the doctor was keen for me to get everything lined up for subsidised disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs.

Being in the public system, I ended up seeing a new doctor each time I went in – every six months. They all had a similar perspective, though some were more diligent and “by the book” and would order blood tests and x-rays, while others would just tell me to come back if anything changed.

Some were keen to get me on the more powerful drugs, while others seemed content to let me just use celebrex as required. I asked more and more questions as time went on, but received slightly different answers from different doctors.

For example, some spoke confidently about what I would expect to see as the disease progressed, while others were more tentative about the actual diagnosis.

Eventually I pressed the issue, and one of the registrars explained that…well given the history – the iritis/uveitis, the HLA-B27, the inflammation in the SI joints, past history of joint pain (my left ankle would get inexplicably inflamed at times), my positive response to the NSAIDS, and the fact that the pain was worst in the mornings and after sitting, all suggested that it was likely to be AS.

Looking for a change

The pain was at its worst in the mornings, and would hurt like hell when I tried to roll over in bed or get up out of bed.

It also interfered with my martial arts practice – most gross movements were fine, but there were occasional moves that would put pressure on my SI joint and remind me that I was still in the middle of a flare-up.

In a weird way, I wasn’t that upset about the disease. Occasionally I thought about the progression, and that really terrified me. I didn’t like taking the NSAIDs because I knew the relief they brought was only temporary – they wouldn’t halt the disease progression.

But still, it was possible for me to ignore the disease in most of my waking life.

I think that’s what got to me in the end. The fact that I wasn’t upset about having this illness when really it made no sense to me. If I started thinking about it, I felt angry and annoyed that my stupid immune system was inflicting this damage on my own body.

I used to believe that this kind of thing had meaning. I used to believe there was a purpose and a direction to life, and having an auto-immune disease was not some kind of random, meaningless affliction.

Besides, other things in life were going quite well. I was reasonably happy, and involved in a lot of activities. Why not take another look at this disease, dig a little deeper, and try to work out what was causing it?

I spent some time looking into the role that stress plays in diseases like AS. The evidence was suggestive, but incomplete. So when I asked one of my doctors if she thought stress could play a role in the disease, she quite truthfully replied that there is no evidence for it.

But as far as I could tell, there was no evidence against it either.

There was evidence showing that people with traumatic childhood experiences are more likely to experience chronic diseases later in life. There was evidence around the relationship between inflammation and anxiety and depression. There was evidence around the relationship between emotional states and inflammatory markers in the body.

But no, there was not yet evidence that stress or psychological factors of some sort might trigger the flare-up of an autoimmune disease like AS.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

So I decided to revert to a principle I used to believe before I lost my ideals. The principal was that suppressed, unaddressed negative emotions will eventually overflow into some kind of physical manifestation.

Dr John Sarno – requiescat in pace –

I just googled Sarno only to find out that he passed away at the age of 93 on 22nd June this year.

Sarno’s basic premise was that various chronic ailments – starting with back pain – were psychological in origin. Not that the pain wasn’t real, but that the body created real pain to serve a psychological purpose.

With a Freudian perspective, Sarno taught his patients that the pain was created to suppress ‘unacceptable’ emotions. Sarno found that many of his patients were cured simply by learning (and accepting) that this was the real mechanism underlying their pain, while others required in-depth psychotherapy to further elucidate the emotional cause.

I read Sarno’s books, and found them inspiring. Yet I wasn’t one of those who recovered simply by learning about the psychological cause.

I recommend Sarno to anyone with chronic ailments, but with the caveat that my own solution proved to be a little different, or perhaps more nuanced than the books I read would suggest.

I also discovered it was possible to let the search for a cure become a cause of stress in itself.

Perfectionism and emotional themes

Sarno and his supporters identified a set of driven, perfectionist personality traits that seemed to correspond to these psychogenic pains.

The problem is that it’s easy for a driven, perfectionist type of person to become driven and perfectionist about overcoming their illness.

This is made all the worse by the knowledge that some people are cured just by learning Sarno’s theory and accepting it.

Why wasn’t I cured that way? Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough? Maybe I wasn’t being diligent enough in analysing the emotions behind the symptoms?

I kept looking for more information that developed on Sarno’s work.

Eventually I came across a set of youtube videos by a guy named Richard, who had overcome back pain symptoms very similar to my own (but with a different diagnosis), using Sarno’s theory.

Hearing other people’s accounts of overcoming their pain is always encouraging, but Richard included a timeline of his recovery that showed it hadn’t been instantaneous.

It helped a great deal to know that an instant and complete recovery was not the “correct” result, and that I wasn’t necessarily doing something wrong if I didn’t recover immediately.

I emailed Richard in late 2013 asking for more information and he gave the following reply:

can you trace the pain back to a very first time you experienced it?  the place/circumstances of the first occurrence might give you clues about what the mental issue is.

i do believe it takes some discipline after first hearing about this idea / reading his book to really effect a full recovery, in terms of eg tracking and experimenting with different themes.  in the end i had a collection of several emotional themes, including time deadlines, accomplishment goals, and also mental conditioning issues (eg i got used to feeling pain in the mornings), which could all be independent of each other.

try keeping a journal or notebook to keep track of which themes you get results with, at which times.  you can even write down the themes that don’t really work for you, just to make it even more systematic.  i wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a few weeks just to work out all the issues to see lasting improvement.  it really is like learning a new skill, and just as rewarding.

try not to get discouraged if you don’t effect a full recovery right away, and keep at it.

In the end it actually took me another whole year to work out the specific cause.

Richard was right about the themes. My old notes contain lists of all the sources of pressure or stress in my life, and there was a lot going on at that time.

But there was something specific and nuanced about the flare-ups of AS, and I think that’s why it took me so long to overcome them.

Shifting gears

Following Richard’s advice I had developed a much clearer impression of what a perfectionistic, driven, stressful and intense person I was.

I had also come to realise that I was suppressing the emotional symptoms of this stress and intensity.

There’s a section in my old notes where I rated my pain from AS as 7 out of 10. I then rated my subjective emotional stress as 4 out of 10. But then I considered my objective behaviour – how driven I was and how many things I was trying to achieve, and how often I was thinking about them, and awarded myself 8 out of 10 for this self-imposed pressure.

So, I was under immense pressure, but I felt fine! Great! I just had these bouts of severe pain in my SI joints, and the prospect of a slowly crippling disease ahead of me…

Finally, in the midst of self-scrutiny and observation, I had another flare-up and was self-aware enough to ask what had preceded this specific flare-up.

I had noticed a change in my state of mind, like I had shifted gears mentally. I tried to work out what had caused this shift in gears but couldn’t locate it.

Time went on, and finally another flare-up occurred. This time I knew exactly what had prompted the change in my mind, the shift in gears.

It was prompted by a decision to try freelance writing professionally. I’d written for a few years as a side-interest, but had lost my main job and decided I would give writing a real try.

At that point I made some kind of deeper commitment or decision. I felt like a deeper part of me was assenting to this idea that “from now on, I just have to write. Do nothing but write, and keep writing no matter what.”

I realised that this decision was the trigger for a change in my mental state that was soon followed by a flare-up of inflammation in my SI joints. The change in mental state was characterised by a subjective improvement in my mood, despite an objective increase in self-imposed pressure.

In other words, I located the exact point at which I had agreed to suppress any emotional resistance to achieving my new goal.

Reversing the decision

Having identified the decision that triggered the flare-up, I knew that I had to reverse it, give myself permission to relax and let my emotional resistance resurface.

This was not easy, because the whole point was that I believed “I have to keep writing!” My “just do it!” mentality had a lot of weight behind it.

But all the work I had done to find the trigger for my AS made it obvious that if I didn’t make a change I would just continue to suffer.

I reversed the decision by telling myself specifically “It’s okay if you never write another article in your life.” And “It’s okay if you are poor and unemployed for the rest of your life”.

These are things that I felt were manifestly not okay! But that’s exactly why I had to accept them.

I could feel my internal resistance to these thoughts, but I could also feel a kind of relief, a letting go of tension that I hadn’t been conscious of.

It really is okay if I never write another book, article, or blog post again in my entire life. It’s completely okay.

It’s okay if I never amount to anything in life. It’s completely okay.

Relief!

My SI pain went away as I progressively reversed the decision. From memory there were one or two subsequent flare-ups, but they were milder and I caught them early, reversing the relevant decisions behind them.

One final mistake

I didn’t make a big deal of it in my notes. I keep looking for the bit that says “Yes! Solved it! No more pain!” But it’s not there.

The reason is that in between flare-ups I had developed a different kind of pain in my lower back. This pain didn’t flare-up, it was continuous. I felt it in the mornings when I got out of bed, and occasionally triggered it when my back was under strain.

I spent a lot of time trying to overcome this back pain in the same way that I had overcome my SI joint pain, thinking they were the same thing.

Dr Sarno always insisted his patients undergo medical examination prior to utilising his psychogenic theory. The point was to rule out other causes of the pain.

I assumed my lower back pain was another symptom of AS, that it was psychogenic, and caused by stress.

But eventually I discovered the lower back pain was purely mechanical. It had developed as I tried to physically compensate for my SI joint stiffness – my lower back started to bend more and more to take pressure off my inflamed SI joints.

Conclusion

So that’s how I overcame my AS. I haven’t had a flare-up in 2-3 years.

I think the main lesson from my experience is that some people might have to specifically reverse key decisions in order to neutralise the stress and hence the pain.

I hope this is helpful for some of you with AS or those following Sarno’s theory on psychogenic pain and illness. I’m grateful especially for the late Dr Sarno’s work, and for Richard’s advice that really helped me become more systematic and narrow-down the precise cause for my pain.

The eyes have it

So it’s day four without wearing glasses, and overall I’m really enjoying it.

But I still feel like I’m only just beginning to grasp how significant my visual impairment has been.

Yesterday a friend asked me how I would approach health issues from a psychological/spiritual perspective. Using eyesight as an example, I told her I would begin by examining the emotional impact and significance of the condition itself and its symptoms.

For instance, having poor eyesight makes me feel fearful and vulnerable in my interactions with the outside world, because I become aware of things – seeing them in their blurred form – long before I can recognise them, or in the case of humans, discern their intent from facial cues.

Poor eyesight also enhances my sense that there is a world “out there” which I imperfectly perceive. This leads to a near-constant sense of doubt about my perceptions and my judgements.

I feel as though other people are quicker or more astute than me, because they see things and recognise them before I do.

Overall I’m left with the sense that I am better able to deal with things in close proximity to myself. That means I have a tendency toward introversion and introspection, as well as activities like reading and writing.

Inversion

So that’s a brief summary of the apparent psychological side-effects of this illness or impairment. The trick now would be to invert cause and effect, to consider the magnitude and depth of these psychological phenomena as potential causes of the physical condition.

The heuristic approach is that our physical impairments are by and large a reflection of suppressed or ignored psychological conflicts and suffering.

Let’s say you feel afraid, but for various social and cultural reasons you can’t express that fear. Being unable to express it, the fear cannot be resolved.

Eventually a physical problem emerges that demands your attention, demands a resolution. In the case of myopia, short-sightedness emulates and reflects the suppressed emotional conflict or suffering.

We try to address the physical impairment with medical interventions including corrective lenses. But in the case of corrective lenses the intervention is merely a crutch.

The lenses don’t overcome the underlying fear, they actually help suppress it further. The glasses become a necessary object, they become imbued with protective power. You can’t get by without them, and when they break or you lose them…you feel afraid and vulnerable once more.

Healing

Looking at an illness or impairment in this light is instructive. But we also need to consider the age of onset, the severity of the condition, how long it has been endured, and so on. All of this information offers potential clues to identifying the psychological cause.

I assume this approach doesn’t hold the answer to every single illness and impairment. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that every such impairment or illness will be reversed. But at the very least, it can help us to identify and resolve the psychological and emotional conflict that lies behind it.

If I had laser eye surgery tomorrow, my vision might be perfect. But that would still leave me having to adjust to a new experience, a new way of being in the world. It would be a little like becoming a new self, and if you think the psychological landscape behind it would just quietly reform, I think you’d be disappointed.

As for me, I’ll have to examine the nature and origin of the fear and vulnerability that accompanies this impairment in my vision.

To that end, the impairment itself can always provide further clues, not only in terms of how we feel about it, but the significance of its effects. It is significant, for example, that myopia would prevent me from seeing certain things. For all that short-sightedness impairs our vision, it also protects us by creating distance from the external world.

Miracle cures and short-sightedness

I’m in my second day without wearing glasses, because I want to cure my myopia.

If that sounds bizarre, let me explain.

The miracle ‘cure’

I’ve always been both hopeful and skeptical about the prospect of ‘miraculous’ cures for physical illnesses and ailments.

I use the term ‘miraculous’ loosely to refer to cures that do not match our normal expectations for how health and illness work.

So, for example, I can quite honestly say in one sense that I ‘cured’ my autoimmune disease. My honesty makes me put ‘cured’ in quotation marks because I don’t have sufficient evidence to prove that what happened to me amounts to a ‘miraculous’ recovery from that disease.

In practical terms, I no longer have symptoms of that illness, and I have a subjectively meaningful narrative for how those symptoms came to an end as a result of my own actions.

My rheumatologists were quite happy to give me a provisional diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis based on my symptoms and a genetic marker. The only caveat is that if my symptoms stopped, then obviously they would withdraw the diagnosis.

A skeptical contention would be that if I hadn’t done anything to change my outlook on the illness and seek some kind of psychological cure to the physical problem, the symptoms would have disappeared anyway.

It’s impossible to prove in my case, and it’s hard to imagine an appropriately rigorous medical trial to test the theory (hard but not impossible).

So for me it remains a choice. I had to choose to face my illness as a reflection of a deeper psychological or spiritual issue. In so doing, I observed a pattern to the symptoms that matched changes to my mental and emotional state. When I became aware of these changes and adapted them, the symptoms ceased.

A short-sighted approach

So what about eyesight?

I’ve been short-sighted for a long time. I had my eyes tested in about year 5 at school, but I may have suffered from short-sightedness before that.

Wearing glasses has always bothered me. I don’t like being so dependent on a fragile external tool to interact with my environment. So when my glasses frame broke two days ago I decided to take the opportunity to investigate the problems with my vision.

Meditation on illness

Both auto-immune disease and short-sightedness  relate to extraordinarily complex biological systems.

An auto-immune disease is a good candidate for examination because it consists in essence of the body attacking itself without an obvious external cause.

But it turns out that myopia is also somewhat mysterious, with both hereditary and environmental factors at play.

Myopia is a form of refractive error due to the shape of the eye. I have trouble seeing long distances clearly because my eye is longer than it ought to be.

I don’t know about you, but my response to being told “your body’s immune system is attacking your joints” and “your eyeball is too long to focus the light properly”, is a profound and indomitable sense of challenge.

The spiritual approach

For want of a better word, let’s call this a ‘spiritual’ approach to illness. The idea is that our experience of life is not simply the random outcome of external processes. Rather, our experience of reality is mysterious and meaningful.

What this means is that something like suffering an auto-immune disease or having bad vision is not an accident or a random outcome. It has deeper significance. It relates to your life and your own person as if you were a character in a story.

Whether we continue to suffer from the illness, or find reprieve, I think it makes sense to try to see the personal meaning in it.

For me this process of looking for meaning begins with observing how I feel about the illness, the symptoms, and their impact on my life.

It turns out that despite not giving much thought to my short-sightedness for many years, I do carry strong feelings about it.

Going for two days without my glasses has made me realise how much fear and powerlessness I feel when I can’t clearly see what is going on around me.

Driving without my glasses is safe enough – I can see every object in my vicinity – but more than a hundred or so metres away and objects become blurred. People are easy to see but impossible to recognise. They become fuzzy humanoid shapes, obvious but unreadable.

The inability to see what’s coming right to the farthest horizon or the very end of the road is fear-inducing. I can see things but I don’t know what they are.

Then there’s the powerlessness. I can’t look down the aisle of a supermarket and read the signs for the food categories anymore. I have to walk towards things to make out exactly what they are. And as for people – they might as well be dressed in shrouds and wearing masks until they come within about five metres of me.

It’s a profoundly alienating experience.

So there you go. This short-sightedness does have a great deal of meaning for me, a meaning I’ve ignored and neglected by wearing glasses all the time.

I don’t want to wear glasses anymore, and that means I have to start confronting and facing these fears and insecurities.

So what am I saying?

Does that mean if I confront my fears and anxieties my eyes will magically change and I’ll be able to see without glasses?

Well, what I discovered when I tried to heal my auto-immune disease was that I had to accept the truth about the disease first. The truth was that my disease was just a reflection of my own psychological and spiritual state.

I know how challenging that sounds, because I resisted accepting it for a long time. I didn’t like the idea that progress would depend on choosing to believe something. If the evidence could convince me, I was ready to believe it. But to just believe, without evidence? That sounded pathetic and weak.

Yet there was evidence. Not evidence that could convince me this was the truth, but evidence that I could make no progress, do nothing more, until I had accepted this basic premise.

To put it bluntly, if my disease really was just some random or genetically determined biological quirk, then I was ******.

If my symptoms weren’t a reflection of my deeper psychological and spiritual state, then there was nothing I could do about it. But if they were a reflection, then nothing was set in stone.

In the end that was the choice: the choice to try to give up or try to find answers.

And if there’s one thing I know from my studies and reading in philosophy and mysticism, it’s that our claims to absolute knowledge of external reality are as much a choice as any.

We choose to believe the world is real, not because we have seen convincing evidence that it is real, but because we have seen evidence that to choose otherwise gives us nothing in return.

If I choose to believe the world is a figment of my imagination, there is nothing anyone can say or do to prove me wrong. But there is plenty that can be said and done to prove that a real world is a much better thing to believe in than a deluded imaginary one.

The zone of silence: rediscovering non-fiction

I’ve been working on a short book about dieting, weight loss, and the ideal relationship with food.

But it’s been a while since I did any real intellectual work – long enough for me to forget all the lessons I learned years ago working in bioethics, where I had the privilege to dive headlong into all-consuming questions day after day.

That’s why it took 18 attempts before I remembered how to write non-fiction again.

The French Dominican philosopher Sertillanges wrote:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

That zone of silence is essential. To create it means rejecting every other thought, idea, desire, or preoccupation.

You cannot think “I want to write a book”. You cannot have your audience in mind. You cannot harbour any thoughts of how people may react, or how well your prose matches the conventions.

Create that zone of silence, and into that space a pure, authentic, unadulterated idea will come forth.

Proposition by proposition the text will grow, until there is enough substance to continue.

Without this detachment, this freedom from desire and self-will, the work cannot be fresh or original. It will shrink and curl, and take the shape of cliched and familiar expressions.

I’ve written a lot about fiction recently, but I’m thrilled to rediscover these deeper levels of non-fiction I had neglected for so long. I’ll keep you posted on this new book, but in the meantime I’d be remiss not to mention my recent fantasy novel.

To Create a World is a unique tale of magic and meaning, our longing for adventure and our deepest fears and desires. Click on the image below to find out more.

Melancholic learning styles

I’ve had a few people turn up here searching for problems that a melancholic might experience in learning.

I tried writing a reply, but the attempt to be thorough killed my motivation.

So there’s the first clue: motivation for a melancholic is vital.

I learn best when I have a single burning question to answer, an intuition to explore, or an idea to develop.

So I really get Confucius:

The Master said, “Ts’ze, you think, I suppose, that I am one who learns many things and keeps them in memory?”

Tsze-kung replied, “Yes,-but perhaps it is not so?”

“No,” was the answer; “I seek a unity all pervading.”

An alternative translation refers to a single thread that binds all of his knowledge together. That’s what melancholics need, I think, at least when we’re trying to learn.

A single thread

A few weeks ago after martial arts practice, I asked a friend about his learning process.

His explanation of how he learns was completely foreign to me.

He said that the martial art we learn is made up of lots of different components that need to be developed in parallel. When he focuses on any given component he can tell that out of ten repetitions, some will be better than others. That gives him a clear sense of how he needs to improve. He simply knows what direction to head in.

By contrast, I find it confusing to think of lots of different components that each needs strengthening. I prefer to think of these components coming together to form a coherent whole. And this means having a highly-developed theory of how the martial art works. I seek a unity, all pervading.

Likewise, the idea of simply recognising when one repetition is better than another is outside my experience. I don’t know what direction to head in unless I have a theoretical framework to guide the way.

Why do I need strong theoretical support for a physical activity?

Well, remember that the melancholic is characterised by being unexcitable, with enduring impressions. It’s hard to learn anything when you aren’t excited, and that’s why melancholics need a strong motivation in the form of a question, an idea, or a problem to solve.

Without these things, the pointlessness and tedium of study and practice becomes unbearable. It is so much harder to retain 100 pointless facts, than to solve an interesting problem, even though you might learn the same 100 facts along the way.

With physical activity the approach to learning is similar. Instead of pointless facts, we have an array of sensory data that makes no sense without a theoretical context (like a question or a problem) to help us shape and frame it.

Without a theoretical framework, all the information from my body streams in like a torrent, and I can’t tell what is relevant and what isn’t.

There are days at training where my whole theory has burst like a bubble against some countervailing revelation from my teacher. I try going through the motions, but it feels as though I have no idea what I’m doing.

After a while I remember the parts of the theory that haven’t been shattered. I slowly piece it back together and try to reconcile it with the new data. Eventually I’m back on track.

From an outsider’s point of view it would look like I’ve suddenly forgotten years of training in an instant.

So that’s one aspect of the melancholic learning style. It sounds pretty bad.

The positive side of it is that once you’ve mastered your theoretical grasp of the subject, you know it inside-out. You can take it places no one else may have even thought to take it. And you can quickly see the connections and the contrasts with other theories, systems, and ideas.

In other words, whatever you have learned becomes a part of the greater all-pervading unity.

Ups and downs and spiritual experience

So, in my previous post I explored how pride is an attempt to feel in ourselves the greatness that belongs to existence itself. It’s an attempt to usurp our sense of awe at reality, and feel awe about our own selves instead.

Once you realise this, you’ll experience awe. And you’ll understand for a moment that awe just happens, there’s no need to cling to a sense of self as some kind of false centre of the experience.

But that realisation will be short-lived. Almost immediately you’ll start clinging to the experience of awe as if you can store it up inside you and make it your own.

You want your own sense of self to be the object of your awe.

The moment you bring yourself into it, the awe starts to fade. This happens because your sense of self is not a real thing, it’s just an impression. Treating an impression as if it were real is delusional, and delusion is not something that inspires awe.

Bye bye, awe.

So now you’re back, stuck in your sense of self again, and whatever you do at this point is probably going to exacerbate the delusion.

You’ll most likely feel some kind of bad feeling, because you’re coming down off the awe. You might feel hollow or empty or just miserable.

You might leap head-first into some kind of distraction, hoping to escape the unpleasant feelings that come from being deluded about yourself once more.

It might be a bad distraction that offers short-term relief but makes you feel even worse about yourself later. Or it might be a constructive distraction that leads you into a project with some real benefits for yourself or others.

But whether you find a way to feel good about yourself, or end up feeling bad about yourself, either way you are stuck playing the old game of up and down with your own self-centred emotions.

I used to go through this cycle a lot when I was younger. I would read a book, delve into the wisdom of mystics from various traditions, and for a brief time it would all make sense. I would feel as if the barrier between self and reality had fallen away, and all that remained was an experience of awe.

Then the “I” would creep back in. I’d start to wonder how I could capture, define, control this experience. I’d look for a way to remain in that state of mind permanently.

It didn’t work.

I guess you could say there was no stability to the insights I was having. I only achieved them briefly, thanks to great mental effort. It wasn’t sustainable.

I’ve only just understood what was wrong: even though the experience of awe is wonderful, it is still an experience, still a thought, still an impression. So long as we cling to experiences, thoughts, or impressions we are denying the complete truth.

Saint John of the Cross described the dark night of the soul as precisely an antidote to this kind of spiritual greed. God wants us to love him for himself, not for the good feelings that come from loving God. So at some point the saint passes through a purifying process in which there is no support and no comfort from the usual sources.

Likewise, Buddhist and nondualist sources attest that bliss cannot be the final goal, because the experience of bliss still implies a subject-object division. If you cannot pass beyond bliss, then it’s as if you stand forever at the door, refusing to enter.

So the awe I’ve always pursued is, finally, an obstacle and a hindrance to finding the truth. But I had to pursue it, had to recognise it as the summit of experience, before understanding that an experience is still not enough.

What matters is the source of all “experience”.  The thoughts and impressions that make up our entire reality – where do they come from? So long as we are attached to one experience – however elevated and spiritual it might seem – we cannot go beyond experience. That’s why Christ says we must lose our life in order to save it, why the Buddhist teacher Lin Chi said to kill the Buddha if you meet him, and why the Zhuangzi is just so damn elusive:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit.

Getting to the bottom of pride in practice

I’m trying to get to the bottom of pride in practice.

At this stage, I think pride involves a mistaken belief that feeling good about ourselves constitutes real happiness.

Pride motivates me to pursue certain objects and avoid others on the basis of how these things make me feel about myself. It can be subtle, and sometimes it’s hard to separate how we feel about the object, from how the object makes us feel about ourselves.

For example, you enjoy someone’s care and affection, but you also enjoy how their care and affection make you feel about yourself.

The problem is that pride – how we feel about ourselves – is empty. It consists of the most transitory, fleeting thoughts and impressions that temporarily binds together our experience of reality with our self-image, conflating the two for one intoxicating moment.

This passing alignment of subject, self-image, and object is impossible to maintain, and chasing it becomes an exhausting pursuit.

Look at it this way: to be with someone you care about, you only have to be with them. But to hold onto the good feeling about yourself that comes from that person’s care and affection, you need to keep actively thinking about it – and about yourself.

But the more you think about it, the more accustomed to it your mind becomes. It stops feeling special. You need to enhance the stimulus. Worse still, the very nature of the original special event is that it took your mind away from thoughts of yourself. You cannot self-consciously lose yourself.

It’s like experiencing a wonderful surprise, and then trying to relive the moment of surprise again and again, because you self-consciously like how “being surprised” felt.

When it comes to pride, we’re dealing with a set of beliefs or cognitions that induce an emotional response in us, which we then seek to reproduce again and again. It’s as if we’ve short-circuited a cognitive function that was designed to help us survive and thrive in the real world.

Pride entails a positive emotional response to beliefs that imply in some way “I am great”. As various spiritual traditions have taught, the cognitive component rests on a subject “I”, and an object “greatness”. The emotional component is a natural response to the object “greatness” albeit mistakenly attributed to the subject “I”.

As we have discussed in previous posts, pride is all about seeking to be in control of our own happiness, and to take credit for our own greatness, or to try to own greatness in ourselves. Spiritual traditions invariably decry this as a delusion or a sin, and seek to strip us of a false and ultimately destructive sense of being in control, or being responsible for our own existence, happiness, and so on.

In other words, they seek both to devalue the subject “I” and correctly attribute the object “greatness” to God, or the void, or whatever you would like to call it.

The end result is that the human being releases their obsession with the subject “I”, and experiences the corresponding emotion of awe as a natural response to the greatness of existence according to the divine order of which they themselves are an expression.

The nature of our deluded state is that the preoccupation with “I” inhibits our experience of awe at creation. Our momentary experiences of awe break through the limitations of the “I”, but we immediately seek to take control of them once more. We end up trying to make ourselves, through the lens of “I”, the object of awe.

In everyday life this quickly degenerates from the pursuit of awe to the pursuit of relative happiness.

TCAW: Corporal punishment for Goblins

Judging by the feedback, everyone’s favourite character in my new fantasy novel To Create a World is Torvol the Goblin:

“All goblins are beaten when we’re young,” Torvol explained, “it makes us hungry.”

“Hungry?”

“For power, for position, for profit. Beating is a challenge, not a punishment. So a goblin child who is more fearful than the others will get extra beatings – but he’ll also know he’s getting extra beatings, that he’s being singled out.”

“I don’t get it.”

“If he knows he’s getting extra beatings, then there’s nothing left for him to be afraid of. The worst has already happened. He’s surviving harsher treatment than the others. It’s all part of goblin formation, Tom. The confident ones realise they’re getting away lightly, and that makes them doubt their strength a little. The insecure ones realise they’re enduring the worst of anyone, and that gives them confidence. It’s brilliant.”

“I bet you were never beaten then,” Tom said morosely.

“Oh, I had my fair share,” Torvol grinned. But then his smile twisted bitterly. “But there are far worse things for a goblin than being beaten.”

Tom was too deeply immersed in his worries to ask what that meant.

“So are you going to beat me?” he asked instead.

“No, Tom, I’m not going to beat you,” Torvol sighed. “In the end you’re not a goblin. Who knows what effect it would have on you?”

I enjoyed writing Torvol because he’s almost the complete opposite of Tom. He’s choleric to Tom’s melancholic, but that rare breed of choleric who’s wise enough to be magnanimous without losing the inherent sharpness of his temperament.

I think many readers enjoyed seeing the Goblin tear into Tom, pushing him not so gently into getting his act together. And I loved that Tom was finally forced to confront a perspective so different from his own, without the excuse of turning the Goblin into an enemy.

It was also fun to try out some of my temperament ideas – wondering what it would be like for a whole race of creatures to be more choleric as an entire people and culture. Choleric was the obvious choice for Goblins, not because all cholerics are devious, subterranean, greedy little monsters (I still have choleric friends…) but because (brace yourselves, melancholics) the choleric temperament would ennoble the otherwise borderline-evil Goblin race, giving them a worldview and a way of thinking that encompasses not only greed and cunning, but wisdom and greatness also.

Torvol gave me an opportunity to play with the strengths of the choleric temperament – ambition and a quick wit – to offset Tom’s weaknesses, without him becoming choleric in the process. Who wouldn’t want a Torvol to advise them from time to time? Someone wiser and more astute than you, with an unrelenting yet open-minded conception of profit. You’ll be pleased to know I have big plans for him in future books.

If you enjoyed this excerpt about Torvol the Goblin, you might like my new fantasy novel To Create a WorldCheck it out!