Care versus Provocation for Personal Development and Spiritual Growth

Care versus Provocation for Personal Development and Spiritual Growth

Right now, with covid and global warming, my concern is that people will hunker down and seek to be soothed, instead of rising to the challenge of the provocations.

 

The Russian mystic George Gurdjieff was rumoured to have hosted orgies for his normally well-behaved middle-class followers. It is said that he created a seductive atmosphere and hypnotically inducted his party guests into their orgy. Then, when they were all fully engaged in their sensual activity, he would clap his hands and shout Wake up! Wake up! Do not be animals. Be fully conscious and awake!

True story or not, it hints at a long tradition of provocative activities intended to shift people into a new state of consciousness. Wake up, he was saying. Do not be robots. You have higher consciousness.

This startling tactic recognises the usefulness of discomfort on the spiritual journey to enlightenment.

Does the usefulness of provocation and discomfort have any relevance to covid and global warming?

*

I once sat in a meditation class where the teacher hit my back with a stick to correct my posture.

I have also experienced workshops where the doors were locked and there was no organisation or structure. The group stormed, normed and were expected to enter new states of detachment and awareness. Sometimes the result was a good-humoured shift. Other times just irritability.

There are provocations that are more gentle, for example in the Zen and Sufi traditions where humour, riddles and paradox are used to shift consciousness. What is the sound of one hand clapping?  is one of the most well-known.

Shortly after a stroke which paralysed one side of his body, the American hippy guru, Ram Dass, wryly commented: I now truly understand the sound of one hand clapping. He fully appreciated the tradition of provocation and paradox.

In nursing and social work, there is an appreciation too of what is sometimes called post-traumatic awakening. In my own life I have had two long and painful illnesses. In both there were key moments when I realised I had a choice. Continue moaning, complaining and being victim — or shift into another state of consciousness.

The new state was more detached, but also kinder, more accepting and more appreciative of life in general. I understood that these painful experiences were an opportunity for growth and learning.

This is not to say that I applaud or want illness and pain for myself or anyone else. Equally I want to muzzle those cleverdicks who respond to others’ pain and suffering with a passive aggressive, know-all quip that someone’s suffering and misfortune are useful stimulants for personal development.

In this context I often quote the professor of nursing, Margaret Newman. Between birth and death, she taught, everyone experiences cycles of health and illness. A nurse’s obvious role and calling is to relieve suffering. But equally important, she suggested to them, is that they midwife consciousness. Patients could make more sense, find greater meaning in their illness, if they woke up to a higher consciousness. To be more conscious, more discerning and more connected, can provide the deepest relief and healing of suffering.

And here we have the raw poignancy and paradox. There is a polarity. On the one hand we can relieve suffering through care. On the other we can relieve it through awakening.

Relieve Suffering
Care <–  or  –> Awakening

So when the meditation teacher struck my back with his stick was he helping to birth my consciousness or just being abusive? Was Gurdjieff perverted or strategic? Is the sound of one hand clapping just a cleverdick’s quip?

*

It is surely obvious that when someone is in a state of trauma, it is offensive and abusive to use provocation to awaken them. Trauma requires care and patience.

But when someone is not in trauma, but just habitually complaining or just habitually unconscious in their thinking and behaviour, then provocation is useful.

But who is to judge whether someone is in trauma or not?

Over the last few years, the concept of trauma and its effects have become very well-known, almost fashionable. It has added deep and useful insights to our understanding of psychological distress and development.  There is also a problem here when trauma is wrongly diagnosed and is equated with the suffering that arises when people’s desires have not been met.

Not getting what we want, being thwarted in our desires, is not trauma.

No family, for example, is one hundred per cent perfect.  Therefore, is it appropriate to claim trauma because there was not enough affectionate parenting or kind schoolteachers? There is a difference between active abuse and a lack of love.

This is a difficult grey area and requires sensitive reality checking.

In Christianity the greatest symbol of this challenging ambiguity is Jesus on the cross — a messenger of unconditional love in a state of torture. I have several friends who in sincere states of spiritual enquiry have contemplated Christ’s passion and crucifixion. When in their contemplation they have approached his tortured body on the cross, Jesus smiled and winked at them with loving good humour. 

We are in a very grey area here.

Sometimes comfort, care and soothing are one hundred per cent necessary.

Sometimes to care for someone who is complaining, is to collude with them.

Other times a provocative kick is appropriate.

Occasionally the spiritual path asks us to take risks and throw ourselves into chasms of fire.

How can we steer ourselves through these raw ambiguities? The only way forward is an ongoing reflective practice in which we apply compassionate awareness and a moral compass. We learn our lessons, become more conscious, and perhaps wiser and more loving.

 

But this enquiry is not complete unless we also address the elephant in the room. This is the human shadow.

 

 

 

Here is a reality check and some unpleasant observations about human behaviour and psychology:

We can be obstinate, self-sabotaging, cunning, nasty and cruel. We are capable of ignorance, sociopathy and a complete lack of moral compass. We can be ingenious and self-sabotaging in how we deny and cloak our shadow behaviours, harmful addictions and compulsive polluting habits. We can invent so many stories and excuses to justify our meanness and closed hearts.

Look at any awful behaviour . . . There but for the grace of God go we . . .

It is therefore normal that our spiritual paths to more love, consciousness and connection can be fraught.

Our shadows do not go away just because we ignore them. We have to acknowledge, wrestle with, heal and integrate our shadow aspects. This is a normal part of personal development.

So although we may not appreciate or like it, it is crucial to identify and own our shadows.

As Carl Jung put it: One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.

This then is another blessing brought by provocations and crazy gurus. They can wake us up and they can illuminate our shadows.

 

The injustice and suffering experienced by our fellow beings should be enough to provoke our awakening.

But when the pain of others does not trigger our hearts and birth compassionate mindfulness, then provocations and crazy gurus are surely to be welcomed, even invited, into the privacy of our growth.

Of course, external provocateurs can be threatening, even traumatising. I do not want meditation masters hitting me or hungry ghosts jumping out of the shadows.

But I do know that risk and stretching beyond our usual comfort zones can be crucial in awakening.

Right now, with covid and global warming, my concern is that people will hunker down and seek to be soothed, instead of rising to the challenge of the provocations.

In times of crisis, we especially are called to model spiritual leadership and be the change that we want to see.

So if I have any advice for the coming year it would be:

Think, do and be different from your usual patterns.

Stretch beyond your comfort.

More spiritual generosity and good humour.

Stop complaining. Stop being surprised by the state of the world. Be surprised by yourself.

Throw yourself into the chasm of fiery enlightenment and awakening.

Relieve suffering. Midwife consciousness.

More love. More compassion.

Distant Healing – The Heart-Opening Technique

Many meditators, healers and people of goodwill are attracted to the idea of distant healing — that in meditation, contemplation and prayer we can help relieve suffering and pain at a distance.

But how exactly do we do this? I will share with you one golden rule, briefly list the most well-known techniques and then describe the strategy that I prefer.

First, the golden rule.

This is simple: Distant healing must always be done in a relaxed, calm and loving way. Otherwise, you may be sending agitated vibrations and energies. In particular, you need to monitor that you do not have any neediness that there be a healing.

If we are needy for healing, then we radiate neediness. Not useful.

So stay calm. The keynote is compassionate equanimity.

*

The most well-known distant healing strategies are:

  • Kind thoughts
  • Sending healing energy (keep to the golden rule above and check you are not interfering)
  • Praying for help and intercessions from whichever tradition, gods, spirits, angels, saints, gurus, etc, who are in your culture.

*

Then there is the heart-opening strategy that I prefer to use.

I like it because it is relevant to both suffering and the causes of suffering. It is also realistic about the fact that some illnesses and distress are chronic and long term, and that death is an inevitability.

This strategy is simple. It is a sense, a visualisation, a calm expectation that the hearts open of those who are suffering.

In the same way, the hearts open of those who create suffering.

In a calm state of compassionate contemplation, bring any person or situation of suffering into your loving awareness.

May your heart be open. May your heart be open. May your heart be open.

When someone’s heart opens, they move into a different mood. They connect with the benevolent flow of the universe. Their emotions and minds become more accepting and kinder. Healing at all levels becomes more accessible. Space is created for waves of grace.

There are other ways of practising this that may better suit you.

If for example you have a Christian background, then you may prefer some wording like this, which has the same effect: May the Christ within you awaken. Or May the Christ consciousness in you be fully awake.

From a Buddhist background, you might feel more at home with: May the Buddha within you awaken. Or May the Buddha consciousness in you be fully awake.

Of course, you are free to adapt the wording in whatever way works best for you.

Within the Buddhist tradition there is also the foundation prayer of Om Mani Padme Hum often translated as the Jewel in the Lotus. In many respects, this is a heart awakening mantra. Each of us is a lotus, a beautiful flower with stems beneath the water and roots deep into the earth. And within us is a jewel. Perceive it. Let it be fully present.

Again, this is congruent with the Hindu greeting of Namaste. I greet the soul within you. I greet your soul. I greet the Christ within you. The Buddha within you. The Goddess within you. All of these facilitate heart-opening.

Some people may prefer to work with the chakra system. You can sense-visualise-imagine the love petals of someone’s heart chakra opening with compassion and wisdom.

*

I use this heart-opening approach when, in meditation, I send healing to the dictators and politicians who are oppressing their peoples. I sense their hearts opening. May your heart be open. I greet your soul.

Similarly, I use this strategy when contemplating those who are suffering with pain and fear. May your hearts be open. I greet your soul. Om mani padme hum.

Softly, gently, empathically, connect with suffering and sense heart-opening.

As always, you as an individual practitioner can explore and feel your way into the approach that is authentic for you.

Remember too to practise basic health and safety. Your fuel, inspiration and safety come from your connection with Spirit, by whatever name you call it. At the end of any healing, bring your focus fully home to your own body and close your energy field like a flower at night closing its petals.

*

I honour and respect activists who work on the front lines to relieve suffering and create safe space for all life to grow and fulfil.

I also honour and support the meditators, contemplatives and prayer-workers who work with distant healing.

Past Lives, Trauma and Autism

Past Lives, Trauma and Autism

Reincarnation and past lives are a natural part of Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Gnostic Christian, Jewish Kabbalah, some Sufism and most Pagan cultures.
Even if you do not believe in it, it can provide an interesting way of thinking about and understanding people. Often, when I do not understand why someone is behaving in a certain way, I contemplate them through the prism of reincarnation. Is there a deeper and longer back story?
Logically, I also believe in life after death. This belief is based in experience, mainly from a near-fatal illness in my twenties when I had a sequence of out-of-the-body happenings.

In this context of past lives and life after death, I think about my mother who died a few years back. Usually, when someone I love dies, I feel their presence or some kind of communication from them over the coming weeks and months. But I felt nothing from my mum. It was as if, once out of her body, she moved away from Earth as fast and as far as she possibly could.

Then in meditation a few weeks ago I found myself contemplating her again and wondering if she would reincarnate and where. Tuning into her soul I felt a great reluctance on her part to reincarnate. This was understandable because her last life had contained much traumatic tragedy. At the centre of this tragedy was her time in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. The secret police had decided that she was a spy and troublemaker because of her interest in braille — and they treated her with great cruelty.
As a result of her deprivations her first child, my sister, was born deaf. This led my mother into pioneering charitable work for deaf children.
My mum, Freddy Bloom, was well known for her courage. A book was written about her. She was an early subject of the television programme This Is Your Life. And she had a difficult relationship with my father.

So she did not fancy reincarnating. I felt her saying to me:
If I reincarnate, I do not want to feel all that pain again. I do not want to be so involved with people. I want my sensitivity allowed and protected. I will need to be very introvert. I won’t understand relationships.

Sensing this from her, I was reminded of all the presentations of autism. The NHS describes autism in this way. Autistic people may:
— Find it hard to communicate and interact with other people
— Find it hard to understand how other people think or feel
— Find things like bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable
— Get anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events
— Take longer to understand information
— Do or think the same things over and over
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/autism/what-is-autism/

*

Over the years in my work as an educator and carer, I have often wondered about autism and its relationship with past life trauma. I often have conversations with psychologists who also believe in past lives and contemplate whether autism might have its source in past life trauma. Imagine survivors of concentration camps — prisoners and guards; imagine folk killed or tortured in conflict; and so on — how might these souls choose to incarnate? What circumstances would provide the context for expressing their trauma and allow recovery?


Following my experience in meditation with my mother and her reluctance to reincarnate, I started to think about writing this blog. I hesitated. Would people believe it or accept it? Would it seem too weird?
As part of my preparation I googled ‘reincarnation and trauma. Google immediately responded with this academic paper: ‘Reincarnation Type Presentations of Children with High-Functioning Autism in Sri Lanka.’

The abstract for this paper reads as follows:

Here we describe three children from Sri Lanka claiming memories of their past lives and later diagnosed to have high-functioning autism. The first, a seven-year-old Buddhist believes he was killed by terrorists as a soldier in his previous life and attributed his birthmark to be an injury which caused death. The second, a five-year-old Catholic girl suffering from asthma claiming she died of breathing difficulties in her previous life where she was a Buddhist grandmother. The third, an eight-year-old academically superior child claims he was a monk in his previous life and demands parents to allow him to enter the priesthood. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29602719/

*

Whether you believe in past lives or not, this way of looking at autism may be positive and useful. It provides a framework that reinforces acceptance, careful safety, space and time to be.


Empaths Sensitives Stop Self-Soothing, Assert Clear Boundaries

Empaths Sensitives Stop Self-Soothing, Assert Clear Boundaries

It is obvious isn’t it? If you are sensitive or empathic or an introvert, who feels easily overwhelmed by life or people, you need boundaries.

I myself am a sensitive empathic introvert and can be easily wobbled by other people’s vibes. I know very well how to self-soothe and use calming techniques. They are great and useful. They certainly work well when I am on my own.

But when I am out in the world dealing with people and everything else, I need more than self-soothing. I need boundaries.

Why? Because the self-soothing mindful calming techniques will, in fact, just make me more of a passive sponge.

That is a horrible thought — being a passive sponge. But that is exactly what happens if we self-soothe and calm ourselves when faced with hostile or difficult behaviour and vibrations. We just become receptive radar dishes absorbing all the crap. Not good.

I talked about this when I was recording the interview for The Shift’s ‘Meditation and Mindfulness Summit.’ The very experienced woman in charge of the video/audio technology said afterwards that this was the first time she had ever heard that. “I’m a sensitive empath and no one has ever told me to assert my boundaries. That makes total sense.”

In fact I have been teaching how to assert boundaries for decades. My best techniques are in my books Psychic Protection and Feeling Safe. I also have an online Psychic Protection course you can find here at Watkins Wisdom Academy. https://watkinswisdomacademy.com/product/psychic-protection/

Especially for women who from a very young age have had to endure unwelcome intrusions of their boundaries, it can be crucial to learn to respect and assert your space.

*

— I recommend books on ‘assertiveness training.’

— I suggest too that people do twelve months of a martial art so as to learn the minimal strategy of throwing a kick or punch and asserting your boundary. You may never need to throw that punch, but that attitude will be in your aura and be felt by bullies who will back off.

— Sometimes I suggest that folk should wear a watch that beeps every hour (I have a £6 Casio that does the job) and every hour they pause and assert clearly and loudly to themselves: This is my space! My boundaries! Respect! Do that sixteen times a day for a few months and things will change.

As always, do it with love and affection.

I hope that is all of the above is helpful. The huge silver lining to being empathic and sensitive is that we can also feel all the good things.

And of course — if you are strong, healthy and have clear boundaries, be chivalrous and kind.

 

Polyvagal Theory & Emotions

Polyvagal Theory & Emotions

Like many folk I hugely benefit from talk therapy. It helps me understand who I am. It clarifies how I navigate my relationships and my work.

But for mental and emotional pain, I benefit more from body-oriented therapies — becoming aware of the actual physical sensations of hurt and tension, and working directly with my body to shift them.

Teaching a holistic approach to personal development, I have sometimes sounded over-enthusiastic and judgmental, asserting that talk therapists need to better understand what is going on in the body. In the tea breaks at workshops psychotherapists and counsellors have asked me to be less critical of talk therapy.  I have apologised.

In my twenties I experienced three years of psychoanalysis with one of the founders of talk therapy in the UK, Edward Glover, a wily eighty-year old. I remember halfway through our first session, when he gently paused me and pointed out that I had just contradicted myself. I almost wept that someone was really listening to me. I loved him. I was his last client. Shortly after ending our relationship, he died and I went on two years retreat.

And then my best friend, Allen, brought me to California where I experienced body-based therapies. Massage. Shiatsu. Breath-work. Feel the sensations of tension and pain. Drop down into them and then follow a strategy of movement and release to bring them into flow and healing. I was startled by — and grateful for — how well they worked.

With all this background I am obviously an enthusiastic advocate for both talk therapy and body therapy.

My grumble is when either of them does not acknowledge the validity of the other. Mainstream medicine also has its fundamentalists. Imagine a three-way argument between fundamentalist talk therapists, body therapists and medical clinicians. Groan. What does that mean? Here, have a pill.

 

POLYVAGAL THEORY AND MOLECULES OF EMOTION

This is why the discoveries and theories of scientists such as Candace Pert and Steven Porges are so crucial. They give us grounded, evidence-based maps for how physiology and psychology, body and mind integrate.

Candace Pert’s research described and explained how human moods, feelings and emotions are mediated and experienced through hormones/neuro-peptides. For example, anxiety is a physiological experience mediated by the neuropeptides of cortisol and adrenalin. The physiological experience triggers and loops with the psychological. Candace Pert’s research explained how human beings can experience ‘stews’ of mood, as neuropeptides mix with each other and flood the body. Have you ever experienced lust, hunger, enjoyment and anxiety at the same time? This is not unusual. It is a physiological, hormonal state, which we usually describe in purely emotional language, ignoring the biology. (Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion. My The Endorphin Effect.)

Steven Porges’ explanation of polyvagal theory presents another profoundly useful perspective. Deeply embedded in our biology are three states, which from birth are continuously responding to our circumstances.


 

State One: Safe, cooperative, relational, social

 


 

State Two: Threatened, aroused, energised to fight or flee

 


 

State Three: Traumatised, petrified, immobile, dissociated

 


 

Depending on our circumstances, on our personal history and specific triggers (inner and outer) we move unconsciously between these three states. Think of a row with a family member or colleague, how it starts, escalates, triggers and subsides.

In the therapy world, polyvagal theory has been particularly influential in its understanding of trauma and trauma treatments. It focuses on the biology of immobility and dissociation, appreciating that the frozen state of trauma victims, such as victims of torture, is an evolutionary survival response to insurmountable threat, injury and pain. From this perspective therapists can then carefully explore the strategies of safety that may enable the victim to return to health.

(If you want to explore the therapeutic strategies associated with polyvagal theory then for the general reader I recommend Deb Dana The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy and for therapists Porges & Dana (eds) Clinical Applications of Polyvagal Theory.  For the pure science avoid Porges’ original work unless you are a postgrad biologist and read his The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory.)

My own interest in polyvagal theory is more focused on how it explains our every day behaviour, as the three vagal states unconsciously influence how we feel and think and behave. (My original doctoral research was in identity politics and how biological imperatives for a secure sense of identity work out through the individual into society and world politics. See my Personal Identity, National Identity, International Relations.)

In particular I am focused on how these understandings of the body, its neurology and hormones, can support holistic personal development and spiritual growth — more love, more consciousness, more ethics and compassion, here and now, in action.

A FOURTH STATE

So to the three states of polyvagal theory and to the stew of emotions I want to add a Fourth State.

To describe the Fourth State physiologically: The human nervous system and brain is so evolved, sophisticated and adaptable that it can create synapses and connections that transcend the vagal and hormonal states.  Instead of being submerged in these states, the human mind can develop a new faculty, which is able to step back and take an overview. The mind-brain likes narratives. Just as it can watch a movie, it can also watch its own body and behaviour. So its own thoughts, feelings and behaviour are just another narrative.

The mind-brain can develop so that it steps back and observes the three vagal states and the molecules of emotion. It can be a witness to all the stuff of feelings and thoughts. More than that, it can choose to self-manage, influence and guide these states. (Plato said that the rational mind is proof of the soul.)

But this rational, higher, self-managing mind is a new state and a new neural groove and muscle. So the synapses and connections need development and repetition.

Of all people it is meditators who, sitting quietly with themselves, experience this new witnessing state and an ability to self-manage inner sensations and chemistry. Like benevolent white witches and wizards meditators can stir, blend and reformulate the bubbling stuff in the cauldron of their bodies. Always with more love, more wisdom, more consciousness.

Emotional intelligence. Mindfulness. Meditation. These approaches help us develop our higher mind, our detached compassionate witnessing. Not a floating, disembodied balloon of awareness, but a kind awareness that is fully engaged with flesh and blood realities.

Polyvagal Whatsit

Polyvagal Whatsit

emoji brain cells

POLYVAGAL WHATSIT

Most of you by now will have heard of Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory. But you might be unclear about what it actually means and its implications. The actual biology and science are a tad complex, so here is my take on the core practical insights of polyvagal theory.  I’m being cheeky and stripping away the science to reveal what, for me, are its core insights that are practically useful for personal development. (For an introduction to the science of polyvagal theory, the Wikipedia article is a good start.)

Three Primal States: Petrified, Aroused, Cooperative

This, for me, is the essence of polyvagal theory: Embedded in all human beings are three primal states. These are evolutionary survival mechanisms and embedded parts of our biology. They are below our threshold of consciousness – they function without us being aware of them.

Polyvagal theory helps us to be aware of them and manage them.

These three states are:

  1. Frozen, petrified, inert
    This is what we do when experiencing traumatic threat.
  1. Aroused and ready to fight or flee
    This is what we do when we perceive threat that does not traumatise or overwhelm us.
  1. Cooperative
    This is what we do when we are not threatened.

Polyvagal Theory suggests that we move through these states almost as if we are reliving the primal evolution of our nervous systems.
Petrified —> Aroused —> Cooperative

*

What I find useful about the polyvagal model is:

Built-In

It is realistic and useful to accept that these three states are an intrinsic part of our biology. To be petrified is normal. To be aroused is normal. To be cooperative is normal.

So they don’t need psychological analysis to understand them. For example, we all experience being petrified not because we were mismanaged by our parents but because it’s a natural state. To be petrified is a normal biological state and sits in all of us.

Simultaneous

I don’t buy that we move in a linear direction from one state upwards to another. I think it is more realistic to suggest that all three states are happening simultaneously in us. For example, if we go to an awkward social event or a shop assistant is rude to us – then simultaneously a part of us freezes, another part is aroused and wants to attack or run, and a third part wants to cooperate. This is the way we operate as human creatures.

Petrified + Aroused + Cooperative = Normal human interaction

Body Aware Self-Management

I like the polyvagal model because it suggests how we can better self-manage ourselves and develop healthily. For example, if I am going into a meeting where there are authority figures who make me uncomfortable, I could go psychoanalytic and explore what these people represent for me and what needs healing; or I can simply say to myself: Ah ha my evolutionary nervous system is behaving normally. Let’s see how I can soothe and manage it.

This then points to all the strategies of body awareness, meditation, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, qi gong, internal martial arts and so on – which work directly into the nervous, endocrine and gut systems.

To do this self-management requires — roll of drums, fanfare of trumpets — consciousness. Yay for consciousness!

*

So where I go is:

Petrified + Aroused + Cooperative = Normal human interaction

TO BE SELF-MANAGED BY EMBODIED CONSCIOUSNESS

I hope that is helpful. If you want a very readable book that introduces polyvagal theory and therapy have a look at Deb Dana’s The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy.