Posts Tagged ‘Consciousness’

Death, and dying are not topics that we discuss freely in our Western Christian culture; we tend to live life with the certainty of death hidden in the recesses of our mind.  It is all around us, but we dare not think of it in case the impact of it is too much to bear.

We have made enormous advances in openly discussing other existential issues – relationships and human sexuality immediately come to mind.  We have matured in our various faith (or non-faith) communities to the point that we can, at least in many quarters, discuss issues that were previously taboo, or ‘brushed under the carpet’ as we would colloquially refer to it.

But death……death is still stubbornly knocking at the door that we dare not open.  From an early age, we have been taught not to talk about it – perhaps this has not be conveyed to us consciously, but sub-consciously through the culture we live and move in, or the avoidance of the issue in our homes and places of worship.

We fear death.  Most of us, if we were truly honest with ourselves would admit to this as a factual reflection of our emotional status.  We fear the unknown, or the ambiguity, or the fact that we take that final journey alone.

Yet, if we face death head on, we find that we can liberate ourselves from the shackles of fear and meaninglessness, and instead walk in the light of peace and contentment.  Yes, that might sound clichéd, insensitive and lacking in pastoral tact, but it does have a biblical basis and a sound psychological underpinning.

Viktor Frankl, the eminent Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and best-selling author made the point ad infinitum, in his writings and speeches, that there is meaning in all circumstances and situations, including death and the process of dying.  Our will to meaning may indeed be enhanced when we face the finitude of our earthly life and contemplate what lies ahead.  We may be, in the words of NT. Wright’s book title, be ‘Surprised by Hope’, or in the Franklian sense ‘Surprised by Meaning’.  Those of us to minister to others in such circumstances can attest to that, although we may find it difficult to articulate the profundity of our observations at the time, or to grasp its import fully without a period of prayer and reflection.    We have seen it in front of us, in its rawness and unpredictability, therefore we can attest to it in our convictions.

As part of my training as a Logotherapist & Existential Analyst, my colleagues and I were required to write a  ‘spiritual autobiography’ (with the spiritual aspect not being confined to the ‘faith dimension’, but rather in the much wider sense as delineated by Frankl to include all of those experiences that make us uniquely human). This autobiography took us from before we were born to how we might envisage our death , and importantly, our legacy – not, at first glance, a particularly easy thing to do!  Nor was it in truth.  But it was, as I’ve alluded to a few seconds ago, not only enlightening, but it was uplifting.  As Frankl understood, it is only in the shadow of death that life can be seen for all its beauty, and the opportunity to realise meaning in its myriad forms presents itself more clearly and urgently.

In our Christian faith, our tradition has much to say about the topic of death, particularly in terms of continuity and a new mode of being. But how that manifests itself in practice is often difficult to pragmatically articulate, and crucially, to employ as part of a wider roadmap that can be consulted as we inevitably go astray from time-to-time.

By far the most helpful book I have come across in that respect is a small volume by Dr. Ann V. Graber, author of the incredible ‘Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy: Method of Choice in Ecumenical Pastoral Psychology’ and a Professor of Pastoral Logotherapy.  This book, published in 2009, entitled ‘The Journey Home: Preparing for Life’s Ultimate Adventure’ is nothing short of phenomenal; Dr. Graber combines a detailed, and a times very personal insight with her talent for writing simply, yet profoundly, distilling a wide-range of pertinent issues into an accessible format.

Dr. Graber asks those questions we are sometimes so reticent to ask: 1) how can we help a loved one who is dying, 2) does death frighten us, and 3) how would we, as unique individuals, deal with the reality that we were about to die, if and when, that situation arises?

Now you might be forgiven for thinking that such questions would inevitably result in a book that is very difficult to read! Instead what we find is a book that represents a journey, or an unfolding adventure that begins with an exploration of Dr. Graber’s own transformative experience, where she confronted mortality following a traumatic injury.  She writes convincingly of an ‘expanded awareness’ that she encapsulated in this short reflection: ‘There is a wondrous life to be lived, here and beyond, as we love and serve each other!’

Throughout, Graber skilfully and gently offers practical suggestions as to how those who are facing death can do so in a meaningful way, thus confronting uncomfortable emotions that can be characterised by fear and uncertainty. As Dr. Graber describes this ‘transformation of attitudes’, it can be facilitated and understood in terms of one’s belief system, but crucially, can also go ‘beyond the rites and rituals available to a person’.  She identifies these as ‘attuning to nature, imagery, stories, art, music, and whatever helps one cultivate an inner peace in which fears melt away’.

Preparation then, is central to the process of understanding the nöetic dimension of the dying process.  Graber rightly points out that, as Viktor Frankl himself noted, we need to prepare ourselves for death before we can venture to help others.  Part of that process includes acquainting or re-acquainting ourselves with the insights of religion, science, poetry, literature and philosophy and how they enrich and underpin the ‘transitoriness of our mortal existence’.

Key to Graber’s approach, as explained in her own words, is that ‘the transformative process will take on a hopeful note if it is accepted as a presupposition that spirituality is central. And that a person’s particular religion is supplemental’.

In journeying with others, Graber posits altruistic love, or self-transcendent caring, where the soul of another is touched at its core, as a liberating experience; how that works out in practice differs between individuals.  Although the overarching meta-narrative is the same, the micro-narrative differs from person to person.  Thus the ‘familial encounter, friendship, or therapeutic relationship’ is moulded to suit individual personalities, needs, desires and fears.

In reflecting on her own experience, Graber refers to the journey into one’s own ‘interior castle’ where meditation and the invocation of particularly meaningful imagery leads to a ‘communing with one’s ‘higher self’, the point at which we experience peace and wellbeing within.  This state of acceptance then is a powerful antidote to the fear of the unknown that often characterises death.  Moreover, by facing our fears directly, they lose their power to manipulate and direct our wider emotions.  Graber moves beyond ‘meditation’ and examines the role of storytelling, the arts and music as a repertoire of accessible tools which can lead to a gentle acceptance of fate.

Graber briefly touches on the conceptual elements congruent with a continuity of consciousness beyond death, based on religious insight, particularly that of Christianity.  That personal and empirical insights can be instructive to those facing their own mortality is a point well made by Graber. In that respect, I am reminded by a few short words penned by Søren Kierkegaard: ‘The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but are to be lived’.  One could apply such insight into the spiritual process, and experiential value, attendant with dying and death.

At our Journey’s end, Dr. Graber draws on Prof. Frankl’s maxim that our lives are a monument to our experiences and values.  It therefore makes good sense that Graber discusses memorialising and ways that the needs of the living can be expressed healthily in their grief and attendant loss of a treasured friend, relative or colleague.  In-so-doing she touches on various practices such as candle lighting ceremonies, prenatal loss memorials, commemorating body/organ donation and memorial plantings and gardens, among others. Throughout Graber emphasises sensitivity to individual preferences, a practise that is increasingly important in an evolving society that becomes more pluralistic by the day.

Perhaps the most touching part of Dr. Graber’s book is the example of one person’s specific preparation for ‘the journey home’ as explored in the final chapter entitled ‘Kay’s Legacy’.  She asks the question ‘how do we assist people who seek us out to be available to them, soul to soul, as they explore inner territory that is unfamiliar or hitherto untraversed?’  That indeed is the crux of the matter for those of us who minister to others.

Kay’s preparation was a very conscious one – she began by withdrawing from ‘earthly’ attachments such as property and business interests, prioritising healing relationships by expressing thanks for those who enriched her life, and extending forgiveness to those who had wounded her. She embraced those ‘spiritual companions’ who loved and supported her.  Her specific journey thereafter consisted of a ‘final farewell’ get-together, was surrounded by those who meant most to her.  Her funeral included participation by loved ones and a garden was constructed as a lasting memorial to her life.

Graber ‘s last sentence in her epilogue sums up succinctly the purpose of her book, that it ‘was written for anyone who may be willing to consider death as a doorway one passes through when physical life comes to an end and new vistas on the continuum of consciousness open up’.

For those who are searching, for those who are afraid and unsure of the contours of the ‘journey home’, how to live well and to die well, this book is a must read.  Our final earthly journey is an opportunity to realise meaning in profound and unexpected ways; Dr. Graber’s book provides us with the opportunity to reflect deeply on our own mortality, the continuity of consciousness and how we can embrace others.

May you journey well, Scott

In the BBC series ‘Face to Face’, John Freeman interviews a number of influential thinkers, the most important of which (at least in my opinion) is the great Psychiatrist, Philosopher and founder of the Analytic Psychology movement, Carl Gustav Jung.

The interview, which takes place at Jung’s home in Zürich, provides a very powerful insight into Jung’s main ideas and his tumultuous relationship with Sigmund Freud. We learn about Jung’s early life, including the moment in his eleventh year when he realized he was an individual, with a unique perspective on life and consciousness. He then spends some time talking about his friendship with Sigmund Freud, and explains the divergence of professional opinion which meant that the friendship could not last. Jung talks at some length on the importance of spirituality in providing a framework within which a meaningful life can be lived. Moreover, he explains his belief that the psyche is not wholly bound by time and space, therefore consciousness, in some form, carries on after physical death.

That Jung is an engaging, charismatic, intelligent and thoughtful character is gloriously borne out by this film.  You can watch the entire interview here (courtesy of YouTube):

I’ve just come across a short clip of a fantastic interview with David Whyte, the author of several books of poetry and a book of prose and poetry entitled: The Heart Aroused.

Whyte makes a very cogent case that poetry allows us to acknowledge the fullness of our being in ways that are often impossible in daily life. An he is of course correct; poetry allows us to enter the hidden recesses of our personality and to explore our emotions and creativity in greater breadth and depth.

Whyte points out that when we deny the insights that poetry provides, it can prove injurious to the soul and is bad for relationships and business. Poetry unites us with the soul of the world claims Whyte, and this is particularly evident during times of crisis, where poetry provides wisdom, solace and guidance.

I can personally vouch for the advantages of both writing and reading poetry during times of turmoil and crisis; it is therapy for the soul and I cannot imagine life without Burns, Goethe, Merton, Gibran and so many others.

You can purchase the entire hour long interview with Whyte on the ‘Thinking Allowed’ website here: http://www.thinkingallowed.com/2dwhyte.html.  You can also watch an eight minute segment of the interview here:

‘Lucid dreaming technically refers to any occasion when the sleeper is aware they are dreaming. But it is also used to describe the idea of being able to control those dreams. Once confined to a handful of niche groups, interest in lucid dreaming has grown in recent years, spurred on by a spate of innovations from smartphone apps to specialist eye masks, all promising the ability to influence our dreams’. So says a correspondent writing for the online BBC News Magazine.

There is of course nothing new about the concept of ‘lucid’ dreaming; it sits alongside other consciousness altering activities such as meditation and contemplative prayer as a practice which has a long history.  But it is now becoming more mainstream, with an eclectic group of practitioners coming together across the UK.

Why do people do it? The BBC interviewed Caroline McCready, an artist and regular at lucid dreaming meetings and got an interesting response.  McCready said: ‘You’re able to ask yourself very profound questions, and get answers. I’ve come to understand a lot of my fears now because I’m able to confront them directly in dreams.’

To find out more, read the full article here on the BBC website:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18277074

There are a multitude of unsolved mysteries when it comes to consciousness research. Consider the oft reported phenomenon of end of life lucidity in dementia patients. If dementia causes a neurological breakdown, what can explain this sudden final restoration of lucidity? Could it be the remaining neurons tapping in to the ‘collective unconscious’, or is this hypothesis a step too far?

In this short clip from an interview, Rudolph Tanzo, Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Child Neurology and Mental Retardation at Massachusetts General Hospital talks about this very issue:

Every morning we wake up and regain consciousness, which is in itself an almost miraculous fact.  But what exactly is it that we regain? What is consciousness and how can it be described?  In this short lecture, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio attempts to answer that question and in doing so, gives us a glimpse into how our brains create our sense of self.  Fascinating stuff….even although Damasio’s delivery reminds me of an undergraduate lecture!

The life of the mind | Inside Story.

An excellent article on the philosopher David Chalmers and his take on the vexed issue of consciousness.  Here’s an excerpt that summarizes the problem, especially as they relate to the ‘hard questions’ of consciousness and hints at a potential solution:

“We’ve got this great chain of explanation,” Chalmers says. “Physics explains chemistry, chemistry explains biology, biology explains some aspects of psychology, but then where does consciousness fit in? There’s this big gap between all that physical stuff and consciousness. So one of the things I’ve tried to argue – in principle – is that all that physical stuff doesn’t add up to an explanation of consciousness. So you’ve got your physical fundamentals – space, and time, and mass, and charge. They explain a lot of stuff, but they don’t explain consciousness.”

Ultimately his argument leads Chalmers to believe that consciousness may itself be a fundamental in the universe, just like mass or time.

Maybe, Chalmers conjectures, consciousness should be thought of in the same way. And maybe, therefore, it’s more widespread than we think. It could be in many things: apes, dogs, butterflies’.

If Chalmers is correct, then the implications are wide-ranging and profound, especially in terms of how we relate to wider creation.  Perhaps the proponents of what could loosely be called ‘animal theology’ are on the right track after all?

“The only two certainties in life are death and taxes” according to Mark Twain……..and a few others that came before and after him.

So, what actually happens when we die?  All faiths and wisdom traditions have something to say about the destiny of our ‘soul’ (however that is defined) when our bodies die. But what does science say?  Perhaps this is one of the areas where scientific methodology really does not lend itself to providing illuminating and coherent answers?  Still, it is an intriguing question that occupies the research activities of many clinicians across the globe.  Investigating so-called ‘Near Death Experiences’ (NDE’s) is a contentious area of research that generates competing explanations as to what happens to the individual when they ‘die’.  Vexed questions concerning the nature of consciousness are viewed in their true light and not just as philosophical abstractions.  The evidence and arguments are complex, but their importance cannot be underestimated.

I came across a brief excerpt the other day of a presentation given by Bruce Greyson, MD, PhD speaking about near death experiences and the mind-body connection.  This presentation was part of a Nour Foundation panel discussion at the September 11, 2008 United Nations symposium, “Beyond the Mind-Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness,” inspired by the philosophy of Ostad Elahi.  Dr. Greyson, who is a world-leading authority in his field, gives an excellent summary of the issues surrounding our current level of understanding of NDE’s and what they tell us about the validity of belief in an ‘afterlife’.  You can watch the clip below (courtesy of youtube):