Am just back from my motorbike journey to Wales and Scotland. I had a good time.
I walked up and down Snowdon. (My legs! Arghh.) The landscape of Snowdonia has a brilliantly happy vibe, full of joy.
Scotland too was beautiful and the stay at the Findhorn Foundation inspirational. The over-lighting spirit of the place is as strong and loving as ever, but the community members are understandably still orienting themselves following the effects of lockdown and the fires. I was intrigued by how they decide their next steps and make their policy decisions. This is always a challenge in utopian communities. Talking with Findhorn members set me thinking. . .
So here is one of my longer pieces – with a few diagrams to help illustrate my thoughts. It is all about thinking. Some thinking creates suffering. And some thinking creates enjoyable flow.
The Survival Dynamic
Here is an obvious idea. Our thoughts often have an emotional investment. This means that we want them to be respected, welcomed and appreciated. And we feel threatened and aroused if our thoughts are disrespected or challenged.
This is a good illustration of the Buddhist teaching that ‘desire is the source of suffering.’
We desire that our thoughts be respected. If our desire is not met, we experience suffering.
Thoughts + Feelings = Emotional Investment = Arousal if disrespected or challenged.
The current arguments around covid vaccinations are uncomfortable examples of how unpleasant emotionally invested thinking can be. The power of the emotional charge can be intense.
In a different world there could be a relaxed conversation between vaccine sceptics and vaccine advocates. This could be similar to how cooks might debate the best recipe for chocolate cake. The discussion could be passionate and noisy, but filled with creativity, flow and friendship.
The crucial triggering difference between emotional thinking and friendly creative thinking is the instinctive biological dynamic of threat and survival.
In emotional thinking there is always an unconscious dynamic at work. When our opinions are challenged, the vagal nerve is aroused. The gut becomes uncomfortable and acidic. Heart rate loses its integrity and breath loses its natural rhythm. The brain goes into the electrochemistry of fight/flight. The endocrine system ditches its cocktail of wellbeing hormones and releases a flood of anxiety neuropeptides.
As a result clear thinking is impossible. Feelings overwhelm the ability to be rational. Conversation becomes conflict.
When people with an emotional investment in their thinking are challenged or disrespected, there is an instinctive arousal as they unconsciously perceive a threat to their survival. But why do people feel such a primal emotion when there is no actual attempt to kill them?
My doctoral research was in identity politics and how we become glued to our sense of self. This sense of identity can be so powerful that we may be prepared to die for it. We can see this throughout history where people volunteer for death to maintain their ideology, religion and nationality.
The power of this sense of identity comes from the social and psychological safety it provides. Think of any cultural clan — lads, ladettes, greens, tories, bikers, Trump-ists, Obama-ists, bankers, goths, billionaires, vegans — and notice the psychological glue that binds them to that identity. It is not superficial. Through the processes of identification, internalisation and socialisation, it develops into a deep biological and neural groove. Our identity provides a primal sense of security, a compensatory safety in a world where most infants, children, teenagers and adults experience endless micro-aggressions and mini-traumas, as well as full blown abuse.
Enmeshed in this sense of self are our ideas and our opinions. Any challenge to our thinking can therefore be experienced as a threat to our identity and to our survival. Disrespect my clan and you disrespect me.
In my home town of Glastonbury I know people who were once friends, but now avoid each other because of their disagreements over vaccines. On both sides they are so emotionally invested in their thinking that the biological imperatives of survival are triggered the moment they start discussing the topic. We can clearly see this too in politics, community processes, religion, identity and culture wars. These types of argument are deeply confrontational and uncomfortable.
Education, Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence
One solution of course is good education. Education not knowledge.
At its best education teaches us how to enjoy thinking, how to explore and develop knowledge. Opinions based in beginner’s knowledge mature into thoughtful explorations, knowing that there is always new knowledge. New thoughts and perspectives are harvested through conversation, research, contemplation and being open to new insights. The further we go in education the more we appreciate the elasticity and infinite scope of knowledge and ideas.
Mindfulness and meditation are useful too. They provide strategies that help us work with the feelings that may be triggered by challenging thoughts. Sitting in the calm of meditation we can bring into our awareness those thoughts that usually provoke and trigger us. Vaccines. Governments. Global warming. Difficult family members. Identity politics. Trump. The meditation strategy is straightforward:
We bring the provocative thought into our awareness.
We notice the uncomfortable arousal.
We compassionately welcome the feeling. We breathe into it. We calm and integrate it.
In this way we train our body and neural grooves to stay calm when experiencing challenge.
Noticing these feelings and managing them wisely is the heart of emotional intelligence.
The first year groundhog day problem
Psychotherapy of course can be very helpful too in disengaging our thoughts from the unconscious, instinctive arousals of threat and survival.
Imagine if politicians — for example the Labour Party extreme left or the Conservatives extreme right — enjoyed the benefits of psychotherapy. They would learn to have some distance from their feelings, opinions and glued-in identities. Emotional devotion to ideologies would be a thing of the past.
This approach would also be relevant to religious gatherings, conclaves and synods, so that fundamentalists would temper their passions.
But there can also be a negative side to psychotherapy when it comes to conflict and disagreements.
I have experienced this in psychotherapy training centres, in intentional communities and in many couples. When discussing hot topics, we can get caught up in endlessly recycling our emotions. We can justify this by asserting that the release of our emotions is not only therapeutically beneficial, but also a vital and ‘authentic’ part of group process.
This is what I call the ‘first year groundhog day problem.’
In psychotherapy and counselling trainings, the first year is usually about helping students recognise that emotions and feelings are driven by unconscious dynamics. In the first year we learn to identify and express these feelings, rather than deny and repress them. Feel it – Express it – Release it.
In the second, third and fourth years, we then become skilled in recognising, managing and maturing these unconscious dynamics.
But some folk stay stuck in the first year, endlessly recycling their emotions, justifying their behaviour as necessary and healthy, when in fact it is immature. In this scenario groups, organisations and couples get stuck in emotional process. There is little clear thinking and painfully slow progress.
This does not mean that there is no space for creative passion, especially in the face of abuse and injustice. But this passion needs to be conscious and guided by clear, reflective thinking.
There is a place for emotional process.
And there is a place for intelligent discussion.
It can be difficult and exhausting to do them together.
The Spiritual Perspective
In spiritual development, clean thinking without emotional attachment is a crucial stage on the journey towards more love, more compassion and more connection with the great mystery and beauty of life. It is about the expansion of consciousness and wisdom.
In inadequate language, we might describe this as moving from lower to higher mind, from small to big mind. This means an expanding awareness of what our minds and hearts can access, perceive and cognise.
As a first step in consciousness expansion, it is absolutely necessary that we are able to step back, and observe ourselves with love and compassion. We watch our feelings and thoughts. We witness. We empty. We expand. We reflect. The rational, higher mind, Plato suggested, is proof of the human soul.
Talking with my colleagues and students over the years, and from personal experience, I know that this is tough spiritual practice — being awake, being observant and compassionate, being embodied and aware, being comfortable with unknowing, being mindful and fully in the heart.
This aspect of spirituality requires passionate motivation, discipline and a willingness to flow gracefully with the tides of the natural, psychological and spiritual worlds.
So where does this leave us in the real world?
It leaves us with the normal disciplines of being a better person.
It reminds us to contain our emotional processes and guide them into suitable contexts.
It reminds us that so many of humanity’s problems and abuses originate in bad thinking – thinking that is fuelled by unconscious and primal drives.
We need those teachers who clap their hands a few inches from our faces and exclaim: Wake up!
Moment by moment we are invited to be conscious and aware. This is not stern and earnest behaviour. It is beautiful and enlightening. Each breath brings new patterns.
I hope that is helpful.
Thinking in progress . . .
Hi William, I have felt that there is an ongoing larger conversation going on about how we can disagree and still coexist. Agree to disagree as it were. I am a single mother to a 12 year old (ancient soul) son who kept asking to get the vaccine. We discussed it on and off for a long time and I finally took him because he felt strongly that was what he wanted. I am as yet not vaccinated and I totally respected his decision and I am glad I gave him the choice versus using parental authority to block him doing what he felt was correct for him. It did take me some time to get to neutrality, but it is certainly possible to live in close quarters with people with whom we disagree with on fundamental issues.
I appreciate your post and the suggestion of energetic neutrality that it offers. I so whole heartedly agree.
Thank you so much for this, William! ( – and for the picture at the top of the article) Clarity (I really like diagrams) – complex processes put into words. I really hope someone is listening/reading. Now, we go out into the world and practice it… see you there!
Thankyou,Wiliam! I really enjoy your writings This article stimulates MY own thinking about these issues.
I believe that emotions are from the ego, but feelings are from the heart.Looking at our wounds, hurts, victim stories do not seem to open the heart. The act of seeing our Feelings OPENS THE HEART, AD FROM THERE LOVE GIVES US A different picture.I also feel our life is controlled by our programs..ancestry, karma, childhood,etc and
we think we have Free Will but we really don’t.THese programs are in the unconscious so we can’t see them until we learn to become the witness, dive deep into consciousness, and seek higher consciousness.I have also found another way of breathing…breathing in with mouth and out through the nose brings one into a deep space of
relation and understanding.
Thank you, William Bloom. You most certainly have access to the Great Wisdom
Thank you William… This article has enabled the graceful flow of higher mind to rear and bow –
A Wonderful work & teaching!
Its amazing what one can ponder just zenning along on a motor cycle. 🏍
Thanks for this interesting piece. I found that Brexit was even more divisive that the Covid Vaccine issue. A failure on my part, but I have let friendships drop as a result of disagreements on this topic, though the same advice and remedies apply.
Thank you, William, as ever, for timely thoughts. There’s lots to contemplate in your piece, and I am chuckling at the synchronicity of this. I have spent the last few days considering how best to manage emotional complexity in situations: it is sometimes hard to remember that we are NOT totally at the mercy of strong emotions. I shall bring this into my meditation in coming days. I have been working on deepening spiritual practice and asking for help to release unnecessary attachments and your writing this piece is a clear message from Source. WAKE UP, remember and be fully alive to the richness and depth of this life. Thank you!
Thank you William for this balanced and thoughtful piece. I want to add the dimension of geography to the discussion. I live 10 minutes away from the fourth worst hit ‘Covid hospital’ in England (Frimley Park). Having always been very wary of vaccinations in the past, recently, I have found the ‘Covid denial’ of friends who live deep in the country quite painful on many levels. It has been a stretch to keep my heart open to them, so thank you again for aiding my objectification from the ‘personal’ to the ‘Witness’. Much love.
Thankyou William .Sorry I only met you briefly on your recent visit to Findhorn .I feel better in myself gor your illumination of my confused reaction to yhr recent fires here .On yhe one hand I knew the perpetrator well and was not surprised by his actions although guttedmy lower self is angry and vindictive and is only held back from physical harm byyhe possible repercussions of assault including being beaten up by a stronger opponent .My higher selfish shovkedby my reaction and tells me to listen to the more enlightened yhr community who wish to extend love and compassion to what they believe is a tortured soul .I saw no evidence of torture overriding his rational mind .O saw manipulative vindictiveness which inflamed the same feelings in me .I could not believe that anyone who knew and loved this place could plan and execute these actions .I feltviolated and abused by these actions and flitbetween extreme reactiond
As Im just living through vaxxers and anti vaxxers in conflict around me this was a fabulously needed read. Thanks once again dear William xxx
William, thank you for this timely piece, which I can strongly commend to others. It fits neatly with the writings of the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in ‘Identity and Violence’ (2006) and ‘The Idea of Justice’ (2009), as well as Eckhart Tolle’s observations in ‘The Power of Now’ (2001) on the unconscious need to be right as a form of violence. Collectively, it seems obvious that the younger generation worldwide is facing increasingly severe threats to physical survival. The technology of social media amplifies the emotional charges of that, especially here in the ‘developed’ part of the planet. We all respond to it as best we can and, individually, in very different ways. Realistically, more suffering and violence for many is inevitable, but this piece helps.
Really helpful to read this. Well thought out and expressed, as ever! Thank you.
Learnt a lot about my glued, sticky, inflexible, needed to be discarded, sense of self. Elsa
Thank you William, I needed to read this.
Thank you, William. Really helpful, and at an almost comically good moment for me, just as I was trying to engage with an intransigent “the computer says no” situation. Many thanks!
Thank you so much for this William, it came at just the right time for me. Just reading it has brought me great peace 🙏
How can I help people who are distressed by the news and as a result feel that there is no spiritual help available to humankind (I am dealing with this in a Christian context of people saying ‘how can there be a God if s/he allows such suffering’, but would be interested to know how other faiths or spiritual systems can help people with this problem).
In crises some people feel, or actually are, traumatised. In a state of trauma rational or comforting words are not relevant. The traumatic state needs time to heal. — And then there is also hysteria, which requires different interventions.
In the context of religious belief, especially Christianity, people perhaps need reminding that humans have freewill, that life is a developmental process of learning, that patience is a virtue and that all will be well – all will be very well.
Very helpful and timely. Had a long conversation with a friend this morning on this topic ahead of reading your article. Thank you
Thank you William.
I believe this thinking without emotional investment is the equanimity which I gain from a meditation practice.
I am a spiritual energy having a physical experience.
I am not completely dependent and totally invested in the physical world and all it’s goings on.
The more I am pulled to invest heavily in my thinking and thoughts the further away I am taken from source energy.
My survival is not threatened, ever. I am just visiting here.
Interesting use of the term “emotional investment”. Is this a common definition of the term, or are there other synonyms such as “emotional baggage”?
Great article and stunning photograph William. I’ve been reading some interesting research (in book “The worm at the core”) on how reminders of death can make people much more invested in identity and can harden their identity attitudes, so the effect of death anxiety is definitely measurable. I imagine that the spiritual path also helps us be more at ease that death of our current form/identity is inevitable.
I so appreciate the lucidity, compassion and yet self discipline flowing in this piece. And the courage to address the vaccination topic again! Wonderful distillation of the path of spiritual growth into full Self-consciousness. Thank you William x
Thank you William for this clear analysis (with v. helpful diagrams) of how our identity-related thinking all too often creates a cascade of highly damaging repercussions. I think your yellow circles capture the 3 essential ingredients of authentic spiritual practice – bearing in mind this can include any activity undertaken with single-pointed concentration & love.
From my 25+ year experience of intensive practice in 3 different spiritual traditions, I agree totally with your observation that “being awake, being observant and compassionate . . is tough spiritual practice”. I would add it’s tough beyond measure – for me there’s nothing more challenging than engaging lovingly in my daily activities with ongoing clear-sighted awareness of whats going on within & around me! Attempting to do so & all too often failing because of mental dispersion & distraction, one thing I do is try to cultivate Zen ‘beginner’s mind’ which is clearly different to to what you describe as ‘beginner’s knowledge’.
I think you would be the first to agree that behind all the processes your words & diagrams describe, there are essentially mysterious & undescribable processes that underpin everything that is.
I think this essential information may not have got through, so I’ll try again:
doctors 4 covid ethics dot org /resources-2/
And while I think of it, there’s a beautiful, very skilled energy worker called Prune Harris who has had covid herself, and who, in response to requests, came up with some energy balancing exercises for people to use before and after receiving the injections, to help the body to process them. She can see how they affect the energy field. Knowing that some people will of course choose to have them or be obliged to have them. I don’t know whether these are on her website, but I’m sure you could get them by emailing her admin team. She radiates joy and is an absolute delight – highly recommended.
Some of you may also appreciated the Off-Guardian, UKColumn – for the news that won’t be reaching you otherwise – and the wonderful American playwright and satirist CJ Hopkins at consentfactory.org (note – not dot com)
And yes, managing the state of the vagus nerve and staying connected to what is good and nourishing is absolutely critical in all this. But please, please, for the love of God – and I do mean that literally – let’s not pretend we’re living in a garden of roses. Because we’re really, really not.
I wonder how mask wearing fits into all this. It seems to be even harder to talk about than Vax or not with friends who are usually very open minded/open to discussion.
I experience powerful physical and psychological revulsion in response to masks – on myself and others. I acknowledge and observe those feelings and trust them. Thinking about it, it seems to me to be a natural healthy rejection to an oppressive, unnatural practice. It may of course arise from some past abuse of which I am unaware and/or a sensitivity to the generalised fear in the atmosphere which is heightened in places where masks are in general use.
I have never experienced anything in my life over an extended period of time that has felt so detrimental to my mental and physical health as the requirement to cover my face in so many places and be amongst people with their faces covered in various ways.
I don’t know how much you’ve researched this, William?
Hi Lauren – Thanks for asking. I have a decades long history of scepticism about big pharm and unnecessary vaccines. I am very aware of both sides of the debate.
Dear William – Thank you for this, so well timed. I have been going through some of the stages and triggers that you talk about !! Very painful indeed. Constantly trying to keep out of the line of fire from colleagues, friends and neighbours etc. I seem to be living the life of a hermit at present, just for shelter from the outside world and their judgements. “willingness to flow gracefully with the tides” Yes I am resonating with this.
Thank you William, this is indeed very very helpful. Yes, suffering often has to reach the physical level you describe before the pattern of wrong thinking is shown up as the cause. The process shown in your graphic makes it startlingly clear. Very impacting.
Love this piece William – it also brought me to thinking about the root chakra and that tribal drive so connected to identity. Survival dependent on my tribe beating your tribe. So different to community, and unity through diversity. Self-love and self-compassion bringing the inner sense of trusting safety to help us not cling so fast to the need for the safety of our identity with the tribe. Thanks so much for your writing and all that it sparked in me. Feels good to have that connection again 💜
Fantastic piece, and very helpful. Thank you x
No matter how we think, when experiencing (if only just aurically or visually) anything even remotely potentially unsafe, the amygdala is triggered into releasing fight/flight/freeze/fawn chemicals – this is hard wired and kicks in before thinking processes. So attention needed to more than just thinking in such cases but also somatic soothing before the stressors start to erode homeostasis…..
I’ve found Sukie Baxter’s vagus nerve exercises (YouTube) really helpful with this. They are very simple. Also the breathing technique where you breathe out slowly, gently, for longer than you breathe in – calms the parasympathectic nervous system – this is a handy one you can do anywhere, anytime – I use it prophylactically as well – after a couple of weeks of doing that at odd moments during the day, I’m definitely calmer, more centred and more grounded.
I found this insightful and helpful. Thank you, William.