This book is a Get Out of Jail Free card and a passport back into the playground.

The aim of this book is to set you free. But free from what? Free from neurosis. Free from the feeling that you have to obey authority. Free from emotional intimidation. Free from addiction. Free from inhibition.

The key to happiness, mental health and being the most that we can be is absolute and unconditional self-acceptance. The paradox is that many of our problems are caused by trying to improve ourselves, censor our thinking, make up for past misdeeds and struggling with our negative feelings whether of depression or aggression.

But if we consider ourselves in our entirety in this very moment, we know these things :

1. Anything we have done is in the past and cannot be changed, thus it is pointless to do anything else but accept it. No regrets or guilt.

2. While our actions can harm others, our thoughts and emotions, in and of themselves, never can. So we should accept them and allow them to be and go where they will. While emotions sometimes drive actions, those who completely accept their emotions and allow themselves to feel them fully, have more choice over how they act in the light of them.

Self-criticism never made anyone a better person. Anyone who does a “good deed” under pressure from their conscience or to gain the approval of others takes out the frustration involved in some other way. The basis for loving behaviour towards others is the ability to love ourselves. And loving ourselves unconditionally, means loving ourselves exactly as we are at this moment.

This might seem to be complacency, but in fact the natural activity of the individual is healthy growth, and what holds us back from it is fighting with those things we can’t change and the free thought and emotional experience which is the very substance of that growth.

How to Be Free is available as a free ebook from Smashwords, I-Tunes in some countries, Kobo and Barnes & Noble

It is also available in paperback from Lulu or Amazon for $10 US, plus postage.

The ebook version currently has received 465 ***** out of ***** ratings on U.S. I-Tunes.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

A Big "What If?"

Copyright: alexmit / 123RF Stock Photo

What if there were a framework of understanding which could unite the perceptions of the mystic, the fundamentalist and the atheist into a single whole?

This is very much a “what if” experiment. Ride with it and see where it leads. For simplicity’s sake I’ll state speculations as if they were fact.

The universe is made up of energy. Matter is a structured form of that energy. Energy is eternal. It changes form, but it never ceases to exist. 

Energy is conscious, but it is a formless consciousness, lacking the kinds of limitation needed for the structured consciousness we call thought or sensation.

The universe is a place where structure arises from formless energy. The ways in which this happens may be mysterious to us, but our existence is evidence of just how complex and meaningful the products of that process can be. Apparently there are more connections in our brain than there are atoms in the universe. We’re pretty complex.

We are highly structured systems of energy which persist for an average of about seventy years. We have bodies which shape raw consciousness in a way we experience as physical sensations, ranging from pleasure to pain. And we have a brain which shapes raw consciousness into images and words.

The universe is a meaningful place. Complexity arises through relationship and meaning lies in relationship. The meaning of any part is defined by its relationship to the whole.

As individuals we sometimes identify with our separateness and sometimes with our connectedness to the whole. When we are in a loving relationship we identify more with the bond we share with the other person than we do with our seperate existence. Or an artist may think more of the meaning which is coming into the world through his art than he does of where his next meal is coming from.

We are not just our body. We are also meaning. We are not just the instrument, but also the music which plays on that instrument.

But we have a problem. To a significant degree we have become cut off from our source of meaning.

The creative principle of the universe is manifested by the emergence of more complex wholes from a meaningful relationship between less complex parts. This looks like the part selflessly surrendering to the needs of the whole.

We know that we are selfish, not selfless, so are we in a state of rebellion against the theme of the universe, against that which created us?

It is within the context of this question that religion arose.

Aware of our sinful, i.e. selfish, nature we could not look upon the face of God, i.e. acknowledge the theme of the universe which gave birth to us. We feared God and sought redemption through sacrifice and prayer.

To the degree that we were insecure, we needed the comfort provided by picturing a God with a human face.

ROME, ITALY - MARCH 12, 2016: The fresco God the Creator by unknown artist from end of 19. cent. in the church Chiesa di Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore. Copyright: sedmak / 123RF Stock Photo

In the Old Testament there is an emphasis on laws. If selfishness were not to lead to the collapse of the society there needed to be laws. Such laws are a compromise. They don’t solve the underlying problem, and they are based on the prejudices prevalent in the society, hence the absence of such current day laws as : “Thou shalt not own slaves.”

The New Testament seeks to address the underlying problem of the need for redemption from the selfish state into a state in which we love our neighbour as our self. That is to end the separation of humans and God.

The Bible relates stories. Our state of insecurity determines our relationship to those stories. Just as our insecurity may require God to have a human face, so it may require the stories related in the Bible to be literally true.

What matters in a story is its meaning. We read fictional stories and respond to them as if they were real. Do we weep for Little Nell? Or do we weep for ourselves, because we know what loss is like? We fear Dracula, not because vampires are real, but because we fear death, or something worse than death.

The stories we read in the Bible are profoundly meaningful, because they are stories about what we fear and about what we crave most deeply. We fear that we may lose that which makes the suffering of life bearable, and we hope to find that which redeems us from our state of fear and trembling in the face of the absolute.

We could argue forever about whether or not a story is literally true. A fundamentalist will insist that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. An atheist will insist that all of these things are impossible.

Meaning is to a story what the soul is to the body. If we get too caught up in the worldly - and whether or not something happened literally is a worldly question - then we can lose that which has a higher value. In meaning we find the transcendent. Through meaning we participate in the eternal.

Having separated ourselves from the worldly to find the meaning, we then come back to the world to make it real. What matters is not whether Jesus fed the hungry with seven loaves and a fish, but whether we ourselves feed the hungry.

KRAKOW, POLAND - DECEMBER 19, 2010; Christmas Eve for poor and homeless on the Central Market in Cracow. Every year the group Kosciuszko prepares the greatest eve in the open air in Poland. Copyright: praszkiewicz / 123RF Stock Photo

Selfishness is the knot that needs to be untied for us to feel at home in the universe that gave birth to us, for us to be re-united with God. Selfishness is the natural self-directedness of the insecure or otherwise suffering individual. Hit your thumb with a hammer and you’ll have trouble thinking about anything else but your thumb. In the same way, our insecurity turns us inwards. It can be a negative feedback loop. We behave selfishly. We feel guilty about behaving selfishly. The pain of the guilt directs our attention even more strongly toward our self. This makes us even more selfish. Thus the knot tightens.

Assurances that God forgives our sins may ease the problem, but they are founded on faith rather than rational understanding.

If we try cultivating unconditional self-acceptance and find that it produces a better result than trying to force ourselves to be less selfish, or punishing ourselves, then we learn through our own direct experience what it means to find redemption.

The relationship between Hell and Heaven can be understood in the relationship between the body and meaning. 

The body makes suffering possible. Meaning makes that suffering bearable. Pleasure is experienced in the satisfaction of bodily needs or the easing of bodily suffering.  The psychological insecurity which comes from being cut off from meaning may interfere with our ability to feel satiated by the satisfaction of these needs.

What is bliss? It isn’t a thought, though it may accompany a thought. It isn’t a physical sensation, though it may accompany a physical sensation. Bliss is loss of self-consciousness. Bliss is when we are so enraptured by something that we forget ourselves.

If the universe is conscious energy, perhaps bliss is it’s default state. The limitation provided by a body and mind increases its ability to manifest meaning, but carries with it the price tag of suffering, something which can be increased or decreased depending on the thoughts that form in that mind. So, from bliss we come and to bliss we will go. And while we are alive, the secret to bliss is love, the meaningful connection that allows us to forget ourselves in a union like that from which we came. This may be love with another person or love of an activity.

So the concept of eternal life is one of identification. Do we identify with the body or ego, which are temporary, or with the process in which we participate? If our consciousness is that of the universe limited by a temporary form, then we are at least as much the eternal as we are the temporal.

Concepts of life after death often revolve around the idea of the persistence of the personalty into a post-death realm, either of punishment or reward. Like the focus on stories being literally true, this is an indication of how insecurity makes us cling to what we know. We fixate on that which we can’t fully accept, and so, not truly accepting our personality we can’t imagine leaving it behind.

So let’s cultivate unconditional self-acceptance and find out whether doing so blissfully realigns us with the creative principle of the universe.

Copyright: noltelourens / 123RF Stock Photo

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Why Do We Have a Dark Side?

Copyright: nomadsoul1 / 123RF Stock Photo

What produces the dark side of we humans?

Some think that we are instinctively competitive and that the roots of our dark side can be found in our underlying animal tendency to form a dominance hierarchy.

We are biological entities with biological needs. It makes sense that a shortage of something we need might lead to conflict in the absence of a very strong cultural structure to restrain that tendency. If there is a shortage of food we might fight over what is available because our desire to remain alive overrides any disinclination to deprive others.

Among other animals there is often a breeding imperative which leads to competition for a mate. Does this apply on a biological level for humans? That’s hard to say. As intelligent beings with imagination we don’t have to follow our instincts. If we don’t listen to what our instincts would tell us about what food is healthy to eat, why would we think that we listen to our instincts when it comes to striving to win the most biologically healthy mate we come in contact with? Of course we often do put a great deal of effort into winning a particular kind of mate, but is it for biological reasons or psychological reasons? A millionaire’s trophy wife will win him the envy of his peers, but she may not necessarily be the best breeding prospect.

One of the factors which has given us the power to dominate the global environment as a species is our ability to cooperate and to override our instincts with the use of our intelligence and imagination. When faced with a food crisis, I imagine that chimpanzees don’t have much option but to fight it out. We humans can come up with a strategy for rationing the food and setting off in search of a new home where food is more plentiful.

We are less likely to compete for biological reasons than other animals, and yet, as a species, we have been far more brutally destructive for reasons which are not immediately obvious.

We follow the pleasure principle and the pleasure principle, in the absence of the kinds of dominating biological factors which lead to conflict amongst other animals, fosters love. The most pleasant form of life for us is to live in a close community, easing the burdens of life through cooperative strategies and sharing the sensual pleasure that comes through affectionate interaction of all kinds.

So what is the darkness that plagues us, standing in the way of such a blissful existence?

Psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich points out that the stifling of natural drives channels that energy into malignant symptoms. Our instincts are to love, to engage in productive activity, to learn, and to enjoy an erotic relationship with another individual. Hatred is generated by the frustration of the instinct to love. This can be the self-hatred characterised by depression and other forms of mental illness or hatred felt towards others.

But it is not simple barriers which impede the loving instinct in this way. We can see plenty of evidence that love is able to stand firm in the face of the obstacles life throws at it. It is when the loving instinct is frustrated at it’s very base that it gives rise to toxic secondary drives.

Love is a form of communication characterised by openness, honesty, spontaneity and generosity. Only if we are capable of being open, honest, spontaneous and generous in our relationship with our own self can we interact lovingly with others. Any lack of honesty with self will compromise our honesty with others. When we fear aspects of our self this compromises our capacity for spontaneity. We don’t trust ourselves to be spontaneous. And if we are not generous towards our self, then we won’t be able to be generous toward others without resenting the fact that we are treating them better than we treat our self. The ability to love our self is central to the ability to love anyone else.

So what threatens our ability to love our self? To love our self is to accept our self. Why would we fail to accept our self? What makes us feel that we are not worthy of acceptance?

From The Function of the Orgasm by Wilhelm Reich

I think the answer is idealism. It’s necessary for us to have some kind of system of thought to guide our behaviour. We need to understand that some forms of behaviour will lead to bad results for us, either directly or because they lead to bad results for others, which will be disadvantageous to us as well. But it is possible for such a system to be so strict or so harshly imposed that it comes to oppress us. It is one thing to be guided by a gentle hand and it is another to be kicked and shoved and berated by the one who would direct our behaviour. There are times when doing what is right is intrinsically very difficult. The question is whether our guidance system helps to foster courage or leaves us weak by undermining our capacity to feel good about ourselves at all. If idealistic expectations, either personal or from peers, are too strict, they will tend to engender in us increasing levels of resentment towards them. This resentment will then spill over into our behaviour towards others, and, in the extreme, can manifest as a drive to inflict suffering or death upon the innocent and defenceless.

How does this work? Well, if you feel oppressed by the demand that you be good, if you experience this demand as something which gradually erodes the self-acceptance which is, metaphorically speaking, the floor of the house in which you live, so that you just get angrier and angrier as you are backed further and further into the only remaining corner, the one thing which might give you some temporary relief is to rebel against that demand, to respond to its demand that you do the best thing by deliberately doing the very worst thing.

How did I come to this conclusion? I looked into myself, into the heart of my own darkness. I remember once seeing footage of a group of men attacking a pod of dolphins with machetes. They hacked and hacked and hacked and the bay was filled with blood. Everyone was saying : “How horrible! What monsters those men are!” I was thinking : “Hacking dolphins to death might provide a kind of relief.” This was at a time when I was prone to depression. When we are depressed we don’t love ourselves and we don’t get any consolation from the love of others. It’s almost worse to be loved when we feel we don’t deserve it. Either the other person is a fool for not realising how unworthy of love we are, or we are a fraud for not disabusing them.

I could have identified with the dolphins. Many, including many depressed people, probably would. I don’t know why I’ve always had a tendency to identify with victimisers rather than victims when confronted with these kinds of scenarios. But this tendency has an advantage for someone who wants to understand human problems. If our imagination tends to take us into the position of a victim then we may have the basis for extrapolating what is going on in their mind when they are being victimised. But if we want to understand why it is happening we have to understand what is going on in the mind of the victimiser.

I don’t think that this impulse toward defiance of the good is the only reason for the victimisation of the innocent. Another element is the resentment of the unlovable for the loved. The individual whose self-acceptance has been eaten away until they are backed into that final corner, cut off from all capacity for joy, hounded by condemnation on all sides, unable to defend themselves because their behaviour has been genuinely destructive, is the rejected of the world. How are they going to feel when people talk about how much they love the cute dolphins? What about when they see the devoted mothers dropping their children off to the pre-school? Isn’t that the darkest point to which a human can sink? The point at which a young man may take a bunch of guns to that pre-school.

We can say that the school shooter, the terrorist, the child molester, is a individual starved of love. So what are we to do? We have barely enough love for ourselves and those closest to us. We can’t go throwing our precious love into the black hole at the heart of the sociopath. It wouldn’t do any good if we did.

So what can we do about the problem of evil?

If we understand the roots of the problem in the tendency of idealistic demands to undermine self-acceptance, then we can develop a culture of unconditional self-acceptance in our own lives. If such a culture really does foster love, courage, creativity and an enhanced capacity for problem solving, then it will spread quickly. Eventually it will spread even into humanity’s heart of darkness, bringing the redemption which is urgently needed to free us from our capacity for evil.

Copyright: lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo

Monday, 22 May 2017

Can We Assess The Effectiveness of Religion in Containing the Impulse Toward "Sin"?

Copyright : Katarzyna Białasiewicz :

I’ve been thinking about religion as a form of discipline. For some people a central part of their religion is rules and regulations and a strong belief in reward or punishment to help them abide by those rules and regulations.

This aspect of religion can be a cause for conflict between some religious people and some atheists. A religious person for whom this aspect of religiously-reinforced discipline is very important may ask an atheist what is to stop them from committing terrible violent crimes if they don’t believe there is a God who would punish them if they do. The atheist may point out that they don’t want to commit terrible violent crimes anyway. The implication is that the religious person is either making up the whole issue or is a terrible person because they feel they need some form of faith and discipline to keep them from committing acts of rape or murder.

There is a very serious issue here which needs close examination. It is important that we don’t arrogantly jump to conclusions about other people’s psychological state, about the role that religion plays for particular individuals and whether we have something to offer which would work better for them.

The containment of the impulse towards sin is one of the central roles of religion. In order to assess how successfully this goal is met in any particular individual we have to first consider what we mean by “sin”. Sin is the religious word for selfishness. (Religions sometimes consider some things sinful which those of us who do not share their framework of belief would, quite reasonably, not consider to be selfish, but the principle still holds because these are things which seem selfish to them within that framework. If they believe that God forbids something then clearly anyone who does it is putting their own desires before God’s wishes and is thus being selfish.)

Selfishness can be inwardly directed or outwardly directed. Greed and gluttony are examples of inwardly directed selfishness, while outwardly directed selfishness covers hostility towards others. This runs all the way from deliberate rudeness and attempts to dominate all the way through to rape, torture and murder.

Let’s simplify things for the moment by ignoring the distinctions between different kinds of selfishness and the fact that each of us differs with regard to which forms we are most prone to feel or act upon. Let’s reduce this all to a single factor - the impulse toward sin.

The strength of the impulse toward sin is bound to vary enormously across the range of individuals. Selfishness originates in suffering and in the insecurity of the ego. Some of us have suffered tremendously and others have not. Some of us are secure in our ego and others are not. What are the key factors? Experience and the conceptual framework - to what degree we have been loved or abused and the way we think about our experience and life in general. In reality this is very complex. Some experiences wound us and others encourage our healing, and our conceptual framework changes through our life. The key point is that nobody is to blame for the strength of their impulse toward sin and we cannot know what lies in the psyche of another.

If someone suggests that belief in God is the only thing stopping them from committing rape or murder, there are a number of possibilities :

1. They may be deliberately exaggerating the seriousness of the battle in order to make a point. 

2. They may fear that they might commit rape or murder without their faith in God because they feel the impulse toward sin so strongly, even though they wouldn’t actually act this way if their faith was to disappear. (This is like my experiences with OCD where anxious thoughts that I might do great harm to myself or someone else were part of the mechanism of repression of my angry feelings.) 

3. They may genuinely sometimes experience a powerful impulse to rape or murder. We shouldn’t discount this possibly. If we look at the incidence of rape and murder across cultures and across history and consider that the number of times when someone experiences the impulse to commit that act is bound to be far greater than the number of times that impulse is actually carried out, we should not be too quick to dismiss a person’s assertion that they need their religious faith to keep them from committing such an act.

To give a very simple example of the importance of the conceptual framework, two individuals may both be subjected to mistreatment by the same person - one may have acquired a stoic philosophy in which his self-image is dependent on showing himself to be unmoved, while the other may feel that his self-image is dependent on getting revenge. The person who sets out to get revenge may find that the effect of the original offence magnifies over time as the revenge, even if successful, brings with it other problems and, perhaps, other emotional wounds. Again, this is ridiculously simplistic, but that is necessary to see the issues at the heart of infinitely complex experiences.

A person’s religion is a major part of their conceptual framework. There are different religions of which there may be different variations, and everyone has their own personal framework which may take some bits and ignore others, interpret things differently and place different emphases. 

If we are really going to assess the success of an individual’s religion in helping them to contain their impulse toward sin, or make progress in healing the wounds which lie at the root of that impulse, we first need to know how strong that impulse is in them. And we are unlikely to find this out because admitting to having a particularly strong impulse toward sin means opening oneself to criticism as a bad person, something which is completely unjustified.

Those who’ve followed me for some time will know that I have been influenced by the ideas expressed by Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith but that I am also a trenchant critic of those ideas. One of Griffith’s strengths is that he acknowledges this key question. He uses the term “upset” for what I have described as “the impulse toward sin,” but he makes the point that none of us wants to think of ourselves as a “bad person” or be perceived that way by others, therefore the whole issue of how screwed up we are inside is off-limits. And, yet, this off-limits problem is our most important one.

To be fair to the atheist critic of religion, it is possible that many, even all, religions might be essentially destructive conceptual frameworks. Rather than helping us to contain our impulse toward sin, or heal it, they may amplify it.

I can think of a couple of examples of how this might happen. Take sexuality. Some religions tend to encourage sexual repression. To a degree there is good reason for this. Promiscuity and infidelity can bring problems for the individual and for the wider society. But repress sexuality in the wrong way and erotic urges can be transformed into sadistic ones.

One thing I’ve talked about a lot is how idealism tends to undermine self-acceptance and with it the capacity for feelings of love toward others. This can be a major part of religion. The religion says we shouldn’t be so sinful. This makes us feel guilty. Our feelings of guilt make us self-directed and sap our capacity for generous feelings toward others.

There are other aspects of religious belief though. Faith can be a comforting influence and many no doubt find a supportive community through religion.

It is hard to assess the effectiveness of religion because we don’t know what it is working with. If we see a religious person behaving badly, how do we know whether the religion has turned a person with a low impulse toward sin into a person with a high impulse toward sin or whether it has taken a person with an extremely high impulse toward sin and succeeded in turning them into a person with a moderate impulse toward sin?

Another problem is that religion is a massively complex and diverse social phenomena. When we look at it it is a bit like looking at a blot test. A person who thinks religion is evil will see all of the wars and intolerance and hypocrisy and won’t see the individuals who have been spiritually enriched, inspired to community service or redeemed from a destructive lifestyle. And the religious will likewise tend to see the positives associated with their own brand of belief and few of the negatives.

I would like to think that the philosophy I express in How to Be Free can help us to achieve a conceptual framework which, with or without religion, enables us to heal our wounds and reduce our impulse toward sin. It may be too hard for us to talk about our own personal battle for fear of judgement, but we can still benefit from anything that helps us with it.

Copyright: twinsterphoto / 123RF Stock Photo

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Thoughts About "God"

Reading the Bible has led me to think about some of the ways people think about God.

Some say that God is perfect. What does it mean for something of which there is only one to be perfect? Where there are two of something we can look for flaws and decide that one is closer to perfection than the other.

Why is this relevant? If our view of God is of the absolute grounding of reality as something perfect, then this becomes a mirror for our own very personal conceptions about what is or is not perfect in ourselves or others. We may become less accepting of our own apparent flaws or those of others if we believe there is a grounding of perfection from which we and they have deviated. The Bible contains many laws expressing what is or is not considered acceptable to God, yet why should the absolute grounding of reality give a shit?

Religion is a human institution with a human basis and a human purpose. The purpose of religious laws, as with any laws, is to try to resolve or prevent conflict in society. It doesn’t begin with something abstract, but contemplation of the abstract may give the lawmaker some of the required distance to make laws for the common good rather than his own. What we find in the early parts of the Bible are flawed attempts which we may look on critically from our own position, but we would probably find similar flaws in most indigenous systems of law - a mix of wisdom, superstition, intolerance and brutality.

My own definition of “God” is the creative principle of the universe which we see in operation in the increasing complexity of life’s development and which operates in human affairs as love. Something holds energy in the meaningful pattern that we call “matter”. And some principle allows some of that matter to organise itself in what we call “life”. The comparable meaningful arrangements of humans are what we call “families” and “tribes” and “corporations” and “societies”. What holds these together is love, i.e. open, honest, spontaneous and generous communication. Sure tribal selfishness may be a motivating force, and all groups are diluted by intra-group selfishness, but if there were no love the group would fall apart.

We put a human face on impersonal forces with which we are in a relationship. We think of nature as a “she” for example. This can be helpful, but also misleading. We may be Mother Nature’s children, but she won’t necessarily protect us the way our real mother would, in fact she may slaughter us without hesitation.

If “God” is the creative principle of the universe, then we have everything to be grateful to “him” for, but a principle doesn’t need us as individuals. This is not a “Father” who cares one way or the other what happens to us. It is we who care what happens to ourselves and, hopefully others, and only we who need to care.

One thing we see in the Bible is that God is used as a conceptual tool for widening one’s concept of self-interest. God is presented as a personification of what Hindus and Buddhists call Karma. If you behave selfishly, recklessly, dishonestly or against the legitimate interests of others, God will bring you down, but if you act generously, honestly and practice frugality, he will protect your long term interests even if you may be persecuted by others in the short term.

Of course, in reality, there are no guarantees. You could live a spotless life and get some terrible disease.

But the principle of enlightened self-interest is still the best basis for guiding one’s life. Don’t trade current pleasure for future pain, and recognise that, as long as we are social beings, our wellbeing is nested in the wellbeing of those around us. If we sow enmity in those around us, then we will also reap it. And those who profit by an unjust society will have to live within walls which prevent them from enjoying the warmth of its community. We don’t need to believe in a personal God to come to these conclusions, but historically many have found it useful.

They say that we are made in God’s image. Clearly we are not omnipresent, omniscient or invisible. So in what way might this be true? We are not just products of the creative principle of the universe, we are expressions of it. It operates through us as surely as it does through anything else which exists. Our capacity for reason gives it a whole new level on which it can operate, through culture and technology.

Our sense of alienation from God, that God is to be feared and that we are to be ashamed of ourselves, comes from our awareness that our creative potential - our expression of love - is held in check by our selfishness. But our shame is not appropriate. 

The creative principle doesn’t operate by forcing chaos into a preconceived orderly mould. The natural intrinsic potential unfolds through spontaneously occurring connections based on the mutuality of self-interest. (We can see this most clearly in ecosystems which are balanced, orderly networks built from the individual self-interest of the constituent organisms.) 

To decide what is good and try to force it into being is the root of evil. The ends don’t justify the means. It is by embracing healthy means and not thinking too much about what the ends will be that we become faithful expressions of the creative  principle. 

And this applies also to our relationship to ourselves. If we fight with ourselves because we don’t conform to an ideal we will only make ourselves more self-obsessed. But look for ways in which our own longterm self-interest aligns with that of others and we see the seeds of a more creative way of living. If we concentrate on fostering what works, we may find that what wasn’t working has disappeared while our attention was elsewhere.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

BOOK REVIEW : You Can Stop Masturbation... And End Any Addictions By Reading Simple Stories and Charts by Sesan Oguntade

I was given a free copy of this book to review. I can only do so from the perspective of a happy non-Christian masturbator. For all I know there may be countless individuals who felt that masturbation was a problem for them and who have been rescued from an addiction to it by God and Sesan Oguntade’s book. I look forward to reading about this in their five star reviews of it.

Why would God want someone to give up masturbating? This book is written from a Christian view point and the Gospels don’t record Jesus’ thoughts on masturbation. Some believe that, in the Old Testament, Onan incurred the wrath of God through masturbation, because “he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother” Genesis 38:9 but it is unclear whether he masturbated or practised the withdrawal technique of contraception. Clearly the point of the story is that God killed him because he refused to father a child with his brother’s wife. If there were a divine death sentence against masturbation we would see a lot of evidence of it given the popularity of the practice. And, while you will find repeated prohibitions in The Old Testament against sex with animals, something which is widely frowned upon these days, I don’t think you will find a verse saying “Thou shalt not masturbate.”

He does make a reasonable point however when he directs us to Matthew 5:27-30 :

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

The argument is that masturbation is unlikely to be engaged in without accompanying fantasies or visual aids and that Jesus has said that it would be better to blind or cripple yourself than to be in the thrall of lust in such a way. (Actually Oguntade weakens his own case by quoting from some kind of Gospel for Dummies version which doesn’t explicitly mention the eye-gouging or hand-lopping bit.)

Personally I’m not terribly fond of that passage in Matthew. It seems too much like an advocacy of sexual repression and it seems to me that when we repress our sexual feelings we also repress our capacity to feel love for others in non-sexual situations. Is it such a problem that a man walks down the street with a stream of thought which runs like this : “what a lovely day… oh, I like that car, I wouldn’t mind having one like that… wow! what a sexy woman, I wouldn’t mind making love to her… mmmm, I could really go for a slice of that cheesecake in the bakery window…”? Lust becomes a problem when it takes hold of our heart and propels us to do something which is against our own best interests and the best interests of others, but this is less likely to happen if we get into the habit of feeling and enjoying our free-floating sexual desires without compulsively acting upon them. It is when we try to dam these feelings up and then the dam breaks that bad decisions get made and people get hurt.

Oguntade talks a lot about the problem of drug addiction. I think it is dishonest to write a book about masturbation and try to associate it with the obvious dangers of drug addiction. Most of us don’t think that masturbation is a problem, so the challenge of explaining why we should view it as a problem is something that should be tackled head on rather than getting us primed with talk of people ruining their lives with drugs and then expecting us to view masturbation in the same light without any evidence that it harms anyone’s life. When we look at the expert non-religious testimony on masturbation we find that there is evidence that, by inducing orgasms, it is beneficial to both the body and the psyche.

In discussing the importance of sexual morality, the author talks about the problem of sexually transmitted diseases without acknowledging that masturbation is a help not a hindrance in the fight against such diseases. If everyone with such a disease gave up having sex with others and masturbated instead it would contain the spread. This is an especial serious problem in his native Africa.

Oguntade, who lives in Nigeria, grew up in extreme poverty and found in Jesus the prospect of a way to achieve a successful life through helping others. I think Oguntade’s intentions are good. When he says : “I want to be part of the first resurrection (Revelation 20:5). I do not only desire to be part of it. I want to be a vessel in the hands of God to draw millions along with me,” I believe that he wants this and has faith that it is possible, but the success of a self-help book cannot rest on faith and good intentions. (And if helps if the author can write well and avoid saying things like “…the first steps to solving a problem is to first admit there is a problem in the first place…”) He says that he “believes that the solution to ANY problem lies in the WORD OF GOD.” Any problem? Try looking in the Bible for an answer next time your computer is infected with a virus. I’m sure that faith in God has often given people the sense of reassurance necessary to keep going through adversity, but we need a realistic knowledge of ourselves and our world if we want to find practical solutions to the problems which face us each day.

He does give some advice which seems sound enough for someone trying to break a habit they are unhappy with. Get rid of things which make it easier to indulge in the habit and avoid those people who encourage it. (If you want to break a dope habit, throw out your bong and don’t go to a party with your doper friends, would be an example unrelated to masturbation.) Create a pin-up board on which to pin any pictures, quotes or articles which help to inspire you. Cultivate a positive habit to replace a negative habit. But most of what he has to suggest hangs upon accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour and studying the Bible. 

Now I, too, like to read the Bible, but I read it as a document created by humans in which can be found both wisdom and delusion. In Numbers 15:32-35, we are told that God wanted a man stoned to death simply for gathering wood on the Sabbath. And in 1 Samuel 15:2, we are told that he ordered his people to “put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” belonging to the tribe called the Amalekites. What kind of God wants infants and animals to die for the supposed sins committed by adults? We created this God in our own image. If you feel compelled to commit an atrocity then fool yourself and others that God demanded it. And yet there are those with love rather than hate in their heart, and when they tell me that God is love I am prepared to listen and believe : “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” 1 John 4:16 So my advice to those who chose to read the Bible is to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Reading it uncritically would be unwise.

A Bible-based self-help book needs to have plenty of quotes from the Bible and this is no exception, but the use of quotes often seems superficial. We will need faith in Jesus to succeed, says the author, so here is a quote from the Bible about someone who had faith that Jesus could cure their physical ailment and it happened. We need to accept the error of our ways and return to the true path. Here is a quote about the prodigal son doing that. By contrast, a more appropriate use of a Bible quote to help someone struggling with an addiction might be : “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:24 This fleshes out the Alcoholics Anonymous advice to take one day at a time.

Of course there are also quotes which go to the heart of the author’s dogmatic allegiance which is to a very rigid form of dualism in which the body and the spirt are seen to be necessarily at war with each other. (Actually he says there are three parts - spirit, soul and body - but doesn’t explain the difference between the spirit and the soul.) This is worthy of closer examination. “‘Watch and pray, lest you fall into temptation. The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.’” Matthew 26:41 This is Jesus speaking to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane about whether they will be able to stay awake through the night with him. This is appropriate. Their spirit - their enthusiasm to stay awake with him - is high, but their flesh is weak - they are tired and that tiredness in their flesh is likely to take precedence over their emotional enthusiasm. But this quote is often used inappropriately. When we give in to lust we may say “My spirit is willing but my flesh is weak.” But in this case, unlike when we are tired, it is the flesh which is strong in its desire and the spirit which is weaker and takes the back seat.

But we should look even deeper than that since this is a book about bodily pleasure. What does the body, in itself, want? It’s primary desires are simple - food, warmth, a modicum of sexual pleasure. So why do are we prone to exaggerated desires - gluttony, lust, power over others, etc. The exaggerating factor comes not from the body but from the psyche. The desire for orgasm comes from the body, but if we feel the need to sniff bicycle seats or be humiliated or tied up or to whip someone in order to experience orgasm then it is some imperative in the psyche which is being responded to.

The spirit and the flesh are different elements but they are not separate, nor are they at war. All spiritual experiences are experiences of the flesh. When we are moved to tears we feel the water well-up in the flesh of our tear ducts and run down the flesh of our face. When we feel awe we experience it as a tingling in our flesh. And if we are called upon to clothe the naked and feed the hungry it is in order to bring comfort to their flesh. The spiritual realm is the realm of immaterial relationships and principles, but it would have no existence without the medium of the flesh. The flesh is the instrument, the spirt the music.

The author doesn’t see it this way. He says, “Anything that belongs and acts out the characteristics of the earth is not normal and usually is contrary to the characteristics of God.”

I think this actually goes to the heart of the problem. The author talks about the story of Adam disobeying instructions and sinning against God and thus bringing spiritual death upon himself and humanity. The “sin” was to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If the intrinsic desires of the flesh - for warmth, food and sensual pleasure - only become a problem when they are exaggerated by something in the psyche, then perhaps this mythological story addresses the issue of how this problem in the psyche originated. We developed some system of morality - “knowledge of good and evil” - which had the unforeseen side-effect of giving us a dark, i.e. “sinful”, side to our psyche. “Sin” could be defined as “rebellion against God” but it could also be thought of as “defiance of moral criticism”. It’s a kind of “shut up with all your bloody thou shalt nots!” We need some kind of principles to guide us in our behaviour with each other, but if those principles are too idealistic - to strict - they produce rebellion rather than obedience. This is because they undermine self-acceptance. The insecure ego can only behave defensively, i.e. selfishly. Attempts by religion to solve this problem have always been compromised by the fact that they are a product of the problem they are trying to solve. The battle is within the mind, between ideals and resistance to the oppressiveness of those ideals. The flesh is not a combatant. It’s the battleground. Selfishness, i.e. “sin”, is not good for us, because it compromises our capacity to thrive as a community, but it’s origin is in excessive tightness of moral restrictions. If to love our neighbour as ourself is the primary objective, then getting hung up on whether we or they like to masturbate to porn would seem to be counterproductive, whereas an addiction to heroine, crack or ice is going to be a major obstacle to that objective which needs to be tackled head on.

Only a small minority of us have a problem with masturbation which is comparable with alcoholism or drug addiction. Sure there are people who find themselves making improper use of a stick of salami in a Walmart washroom or who rub their genitals raw through an anxiety-driven obsession, but most of us simply rub one out and get on with our day.

If we want to assess whether some habit of ours is an addiction we should probably ask ourselves :

1. Does it lead us to do significant harm to others?
2. Are we consciously doing significant harm to our own health?
3. Are we willing to compromise our integrity to get what we want?
4. Does it act as a significant impediment to achieving what we want to achieve in our life?

If the answer to all these questions is “No” I don’t think we need consider it an addiction.

The author asks : “Do you enjoy watching Porno films either on the internet or on television? Do you hang around in the company of friends when they discuss filthy issues?” I answer both of these questions with an enthusiastic “Yes!” The author continues : “If you do all of these, you are polluting your mind and you can be sure that a good act or behavior cannot come out from such a dirty mind!”

Think about what he is saying. Just because I spend twenty minutes masturbating over some pornography, that means that I can’t follow that up with two hours working at a soup kitchen, helping those less fortunate than myself? One kind of action need not exclude another kind of action. What makes a difference is how we think about what we do. It is true that if I felt ashamed of masturbating over pornography, that sense of shame might drain away a good deal of my enthusiasm to help others.

This is another reason why I feel that idealism is a major problem. When we try to make ourselves perfect what we end up doing is to exaggerate the power of those aspects of the psyche we would like to be rid of. A person who feels no shame about masturbation can enjoy it, get the satisfaction they crave, and then be fully available to interact cooperatively and creatively with others, but for the person who wishes to rid themselves of masturbation, their life may become centred mainly around their battle with this natural impulse.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

BOOK REVIEW : How Soon Is Now? : From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation by Daniel Pinchbeck

Can the human  race survive? That is the question addressed by this book.

I’m not sure when I started thinking that we were doomed. Perhaps some time in the 1980s. It seemed obvious to me. We have an economic system dependent on ever-increasing levels of growth, which means ever-increasing consumption of material goods and energy, the production of which are eating away at our ecological life-support systems. Even before there was much attention being given to climate change, it was clear that we were headed toward a metaphorical cliff, and the fact that very few people, at the time, seemed to want to acknowledge it made it seem as if a solution was unlikely. Then, as now, I tried not to think about it too much, but it hung like a black cloud over my head.

Pinchbeck, after much inner-exploration with psychedelic drugs, has come to the belief that we have unconsciously brought this crisis upon ourselves as a way to motivate ourselves through the process of a dramatic metamorphosis as a species - that it is our initiation by crisis into existence as a specie organism - a fully-integrated global society. A similar idea has been expressed by Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman in their book Spontaneous Evolution (Hay House, 2009), which he credits as an influence.

One of the problems with the ecological crisis (not to mention associated humanitarian and economic crises) is that they inspire feelings of fear and guilt in many of us. Fear and guilt can be paralysing emotions. How are we to be motivated to act? Those who would motivate us flood us with scary facts, but these just make us feel more frightened, guilty and hopeless, and so we turn off and seek some form of comfort in more materialism or superficial escapism.

What we need more than scary facts is hope. We need a vision of how something can be done. And Pinchbeck does a great job of outlining such a vision. Of course he can only sketch in the broad outlines of what is possible. He’s not a specialist in energy systems or farming or economics. He has to point us in the direction of those who can help us in these areas.

This is a consistently fascinating book. Pinchbeck’s hyperactive mind and personal, indeed sometimes confessional, approach ensure that. But I didn’t find it an easy book to approach. There is a bitter comfort in putting things in the “too hard” basket. I start to read that I should give up eating meat and minimise buying new products and a large part of me says, “Let the planet burn. Let the innocent people die. I’m not going outside my comfort zone.” And I don’t even drive a car. What is the response likely to be from those who live far outside the bounds of ecological limits? I’m reminded of Matthew 19:24 “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” There’s no room for excess baggage aboard the specie individual.

What is at the basis of this stubbornness? When faced with a challenge, sometimes we grasp it enthusiastically and sometimes we put our head in the sand. I don’t want it to be implied that I’m not a good person. That isn’t what Pinchbeck is saying, but it is how it feels. And how it feels is what matters to motivation. Why does it give us pleasure to do things which deep down we may feel we shouldn’t? Why does the rich celebrity who travels to Africa and sees people living in poverty (and does some charity work there), nevertheless live in a ridiculously ornate mansion? In our insecure state there is a kind of relief to be found in defying what our conscience tells us we should do. This is also the lure of the forbidden. Are we going to squirm in humiliation beneath the bully who says “You mustn’t!” or are we going to feel the power and release of screaming “I will!” To my mind this is the key impasse to the realisation of the kind of plan that Pinchbeck puts forward. His emphasis on the spiritual underpinnings of the transformation acknowledge this, but I think that there are aspects of this psychological dimension that need to be understood more clearly.

The cultivation of unconditional self-acceptance will need to provide the grounding for change. A fully self-accepting individual need not experience a call for a change in their lifestyle as a condemnation. It is through unconditional self-acceptance that we unleash our capacity for the love of others and thus provide a basis for true community. Without this there is a danger that a spreading cultural imperative to adopt an ecological lifestyle might manifest itself in a toxic culture of eco-shaming, equivalent to some of the examples we see today where political correctness has taken a particularly hostile form - decentralised authoritarianism in which individuals take out the frustration of self-imposed discipline by victimising anyone who doesn’t do likewise, or doesn’t appear to be doing likewise. A healing evolution has to be motivated by warm and generous feelings.

I suspect that some may be very nervous about Pinchbeck’s references to Marx and calls for a post-capitalist economic system. The problem is that we’ve seen capitalism bring us rapid technological development and an increase in material comfort for a larger proportion of the world’s population. And we’ve seen an alternative - communism - produce most of the worst horrors of the 20th Century. Capitalism’s success was riding on temporary trends. Now it’s in trouble. Can we transition to something which suits our needs better while avoiding the catastrophe that was communism? Again, I think a lot hinges on the psychological. Has capitalism worked well because it accommodates our selfishness, allowing that selfishness to be the motive engine that drives it, or is our selfishness a product of capitalism? Are we encouraged to want more and compete more because the system doesn’t foster a sense of community which would be counter-productive to it? Of course the two are not mutually exclusive, but I think new economics will be more likely to succeed if the insecurity of ego which lies at the heart of our selfishness is healed.

Pinchbeck also examines the subject of sexuality. Is our materialistic consumption partly fed by pervasive disappointment in our erotic lives? Are we meant to be monogamous? I think this is an important subject to look at. It’s been a troubled area for Pinchbeck himself. But when we repress any aspect of our being we also end up repressing our capacity for openness, honesty, spontaneity and generosity - our capacity for love. So if we are going to have a community which functions more smoothly and productiveness, it needs to be one which knows what to do about erotic desires as an alternative to repressing them. There is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all answer to this, something which Pinchbeck acknowledges.

When it comes to spirituality, Pinchbeck really throws it all in. He even touches on reincarnation, clairvoyance, tele-kinesis and astral travel. (David Icke’s lizard men get a mention to.) This may lose him credibility in the eyes of many, but he does provide a lot of food for thought for the open-minded. Do these things seem more credible to someone who has taken ayahuasca? Maybe. Since I’m not prepared to take some of these things with a handful of magic mushrooms, I’ll take them with a grain of salt, but it is important to acknowledge that he is only presenting these things as “maybes” and the fact that he has a very open minded on these subjects doesn’t diminish the importance of the bulk of what he has to say. I think he is right that we will need something similar to the religious spirit - a shared vision of something greater than ourselves to unite and motivate us.

He places a lot of importance on the media as a possible way of generating fast change. If new trends spread like wild-fire across television and social media, why not the enthusiasm for this rescue mission along with all the information we will need to bring it about? And look at how the propaganda effort turned around U.S. society to fight World War II. It has to be said though that it is easier to appeal to our hedonism, our paranoia about germs crawling around our bathroom or our latent aggression and xenophobia, than it is to genuinely inspire us toward a community effort. We need autonomous individuals, not sheep, but with that caveat aside I think he is right that both mass and social media can provide us with the network we need to share practical skills and information as well as the kind of vision Pinchbeck provides us with in his book - one of a bright future that yet may be.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

BOOK REVIEW : Character Analysis by Wilhelm Reich

Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century though his ideas have yet to receive the broad recognition they deserve. Why? A combination of two complimentary factors :  his accurate diagnosis of a species-wide form of psychological disorder he called “the emotional plague” was extremely confronting, and his claim to have discovered a cosmic energy called “orgone”, which could heal people if they sat in “orgone boxes” and could make it rain if you pointed a “cloud buster” at a cloud, made it easy to dismiss him as a crackpot.

The challenge of reviewing one of his books is how to deal with the whole “orgone energy” issue. Reich was not a biologist or physicist. He came from the Freudian school of psychoanalysis, which was never based on the strict discipline characteristic of the hard sciences. He arrived at the concept of this cosmic energy from the basis of the physical experiences of himself and his patients. Some may be tempted to interpret what he says in the light of other, more recent, discoveries. A friend of mine suggested that what Reich describes as the flow of orgone through the body corresponds with the pathways by which we now know that the chemical oxytocin travels through the bloodstream. Reich believed that the orgone flowed most strongly at orgasm and orgasm produces oxytocin. Did sitting in orgone boxes help to heal people of their psychological or physical ailments? It seems likely that there would have been a placebo effect. Beyond that I’m happy with my ignorance. There are Reich supporters who claim the accumulators and cloudbusters work, but orgone energy never gained any currency amongst biologists or physicists.

Those who dismiss Reich on the basis of the grander claims make a big mistake. He arrived there by studying human behaviour, and it is in that field that his importance lies. Character Analysis was originally published in 1933 and then greatly expanded in 1948. It’s a book with a split personality which illustrates how much it’s author’s therapeutic ideas had changed over that time. In the main body of the work he introduces two of his most important ideas - character armour and body armour. The basic frame of reference here is still Freudian psychoanalysis, though Reich is already a heretic. He makes the case that Freud’s “death instinct” represents a denial of the responsibility of the psychiatrist to address those aspects of our culture which make us sick. Why does a mentally ill person hurt themselves? Because they have a self-destructive instinct? Today we might blame it on something else internal to the individual - a chemical imbalance. Reich argues that we need to be aware that religious institutions, schools and parents who teach children to fear the natural erotic processes of their own bodies can be the source of the neurotic impulse for them to hurt themselves. We shouldn’t make personal what may be political. The sections that were added later bring in discussion of orgone energy, but also widen the discussion of what constitutes psychological health and introduce the concept of “the emotional plague.”

The validity of Reich’s discussion of character armour is something which each of us can test through our observations of our own behaviour and that of others. Our personality consists of a more or less rigid character structure - a way of looking at ourselves and a mode of operating in the social world. The purpose of this structure is to protect us from threats internal and external. If we are criticised, it is to our character armour that we cling. This explains why even the most well-argued criticism of someone’s political views, for instance, far from leading them to change them, is liable to lead to them asserting them all the more strongly. Existential anxiety, sexual desires or repositories of repressed anger are examples of internal threats which may make us feel the need for our armour. This concept is a very important one because it focuses our awareness on the role of perceived threat on unhelpful intransigence. If we want to help someone to improve their behaviour we may have more luck if we first do what we can to make them feel safe, e.g. from judgement or criticism, and only then appeal to them through reason.

Body armour is the physical manifestation of character armour. The archetypal example is “the stiff upper-lip”. Our anxiety about certain physical sensations can cause us to chronically stiffen parts of our musculature. This may be a response to fear of erotic feelings, “orgasm anxiety”, but it may also be a way of repressing feelings of grief or the anxiety of trauma. Reich developed his own massage methods to deal with this. His discussion of blocks in the flow of “orgone energy” through different parts of the body is very similar to the Eastern concept of chakras.

It is with the concept of the “emotional plague” that Reich links the neurotic frustrations of the individual to the politics of society as a whole. In 1933, when the first part of this book was published, Reich was forced to flee Nazi Germany. What leads to such collective madness? According to Reich, there are three modes of psychological being. We may be healthy, in which case our body’s natural desires to love and be loved and engage in productive activity are being met. Or we may be neurotic, in which case the failure to satisfy our primary biological drives gives rise to secondary drives of a destructive nature which make repression necessary. In this case we may be a resigned, self-destructive, neurotic. But the other possibility is what he calls “the emotional plague” - a form of destructive social behaviour in which the sadistic secondary drives express themselves in behaviour which may range from gossiping about people to supporting an authoritarian political order to murder. Essentially all manifestations of the dark side of human behaviour can be understood as expressions of this form of disorder in which a natural drive is distorted through having to make its way through the character armour and is expressed as some form of hostility. Reich has given us a holistic framework for the process by which the human animal, whose primary biological orientation is toward love - not excluding its bodily erotic expression - comes to be capable of war, torture, rape, etc. From such a viewpoint we can see that we will make little progress in solving our problems by political means unless we also learn how to free up our character armour and reconnect with our original loving nature.

This is not a book to accept or reject as a whole. Some ideas may be well-founded, others may not. Reich, like Freud and Jung, had conservative attitudes to homosexuality, for instance. But if you are looking for answers to the big questions of human behaviour, you’ll find at least some of them here.