Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Elusive Still Point 1

The Tormented Mind

Graveyard, Tropea, Gennaio, 2011
I remember once many years ago meeting a young man at a retreat centre who had been trying for a number of years to forgive himself for some action he had done against his then deceased father.  He was a person riven with guilt, and truly was a tormented soul.  I have also come across a few tormented souls on the ASD spectrum.  One such student, whom I shall call Jacob as a pseudonym to protect his identity, could quite regularly become very upset indeed and start stabbing himself with pens or pencils and shout the most disturbed and blatantly porographic things at his teachers and SNAs.  One of his carers from the primary school described him as a "tormented soul."  Thankfully, this young man in question is no longer tormented as both his family and professional support services which include psychiatric, psychological, pedagogical and therapeutic supports, both occupational and social, have managed to dispell his torment.

Another young sixteen year old ASD student with whom I work as a teacher presents with OCD as a comorbid condition.  Poor Adam (also a pseudonym) is also a tormented soul.  His torment literally is the sheer anxiety associated with having to do the State Examinations which he is (and was) clearly and patently unable to do.  A contributory factor, a not inconsiderable one, has been the refusal to face the reality of his academic inability in certain areas on the part of some teachers and his parents.  Now, I hasten to add that we as a team at school were divided on the issue, but I shan't air our "dirty linen in public" here.  Nor shall I be so crass as to say, "I told you so!"  Anyway, my point here is the torment of mind, experienced by the young boy, his high levels of anxiety at being literally crushed by an alien (to him) system.  Thankfully,  his torment is now at an end as his parents with the help of professional advice have decided that Adam no longer has to endure the pressure of having to sit these examinations.  He still obviously presents with OCD and hopefully his anxiety will decrease steadily after this decision.

Other Torments

Wooded area, Santa Caterina dello Ionio, Gennaio, 2011
There are other types of tormented mind, of course, like those suffering from clinical depression, either of the unipolar or bipolar varieties and then there are tormented minds that are "posessed by"  reactive depression which is the direct result of pressure from the life circumstances of the individual - stress and strain and pressures of all kinds.  The latter, which may at first require medical intervention, can be and is treated primarily by the various talk therapies at our disposal, while the former endogenous kind of depression is treated mainly by psychopharmacological therapy, that is, by drugs, often with a back-up from the various talk therapies.  Then, there are legions of neuroses and phobias which can be treated mainly by the various types of psychotherapies at our disposal.  Among other mental torments we may name psychoses like schizophrenia and manic depression that is more frequently referred to by the title bipolar depression which I have already alluded to above.  All of these mental illnesses involve torment.

Going Beyond Torment

Going beyond torment is far more easily said than done.  Firstly, as I can attest to from my own life, we may need medical intervention, but we also need the help from various therapies like CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) or REBT (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy), the latter being a form of the first.  I will discuss REBT here in these pages soon as I am currently engaging in a course on how to use REBT in my everyday life, with either friends, pupils or others who may come to me for advice.  Now these latter therapies are all highly directive as they proceed by helping the client or patient discover for themselves that it is their faulty thinking or beliefs that have essentially led to their suffering or torment in the first place. Various cognitive exercises can be set for the client in pursuing this therapy. Many of the other talk therapies are non-directive and totally non-invasive. The therapies I have personally being involved in are of the more Humanistic variety as exemplified in the Talking Therapies,  especially in that of Rogerian Therapy or, as it is more commonly called, Person-Centered Therapy.  All of these therapies, along with medications of various kinds in more serious cases, can and do help dispell the torment from the mind!

Beyond Rigidity

As Dr. Eugene Gendlin has perspicaciously asserted in his little classic Focusing (Bantam, revised edition, 1981),  that it is those patients who know assuredly what is wrong with them who make the slowest or even very little recovery when they come to therapy.  These are the rigid clients, they ones who know all the answers.  It is my firm belief, again from lived experience, that these rigid thinkers are what I call the "EITHER/OR" people and most of us call the BLACK and WHITE thinkers.  So, it is those of us who have struggled through "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," through all the stresses and strains that human flesh is heir to, and who possibly continue to do so, who are not so sure what is wrong with us who are not too clear whether X or Y is more correct, are the ones to make some recovery and some progress in alleviating our mental disturbance or torment.  I am loathe to use an expression like "full recovery" or "cure" as these smack far too much like cure-alls and panaceas which simply do not exist at all. In a sense these words involve a kind of denial.   These words imply that life is and must be simple or perfect!  In fact, probably more fortunately than unfortunately, life is not that simple at all!  Moreover, it is very complex indeed.  I like the words "heal," "healing" and "healed" which, to my mind, are far more correct.  To be healed need not mean that one is cured.  Cured has within it the idea that the disease almost never existed as the cured patient is back to the condition s/he was in before the particular illness befell them.  Healed is a healthier term because it does not deny the illness which lies below the external scab of the sore or wound, if I may use a medical metaphor.  And so the flexible thinker will feel far from rigid and like the blade of grass will be able to bend under even the worst of winds.  Rigid thinkers will be like trees that will have their branches cracked and even ripped from them when the hurricanes of life blow! The flexible thinker and feeler is far more likely to live more comfortably and less tormentedly in his or her own skin.


All the traditional religions, and especially the spiritualities linked with them, have underlined the importance of living in the NOW.  To live in the NOW is to cease to be caught up in the past and to be caught up in the future.  Those with tormented minds are often captives of their GUILT about X or Y actions which they did or failed to do in the past.  Those with tormented minds are often also captives of their FEAR about the future, that this or that calamity will befall them.  Being a captive of the PAST or of the FUTURE is a most paralyzing, stagnating and stultifying thing.  One is literally a prisoner in the torment of one's own mind. There is no freedom or peace or equanimity to found there at all.

The challenge, then, is to get into the NOW, to learn to live there and we can so do with the help of the various meditative practices taught by the Buddhists and others for millennia.  This NOW is what has been called THE STILL POINT of existence, and it is rather like a Viewing Point from where we can view the path we have travelled upward on our journey.  It is also a point from where we can view the rest of the journey we have to make.  However, the real point about this Viewing Point is that we can objectively observe the whole Vista or Panorama before us without getting caught up in either the path travelled or the path to be travelled that lies before us.  The point is that this Viewing Point is a STILL POINT, an objective  place from where we can objectively observe what is happening in our bodies and in our minds right here in the Now.

The Tragic Case of Miss Havisham

For those of us who have a literary bent it would be a travesty not to mention the tragic case of Charles Dickens' outstandingly haunting character called Miss Havisham.    She was jilted on the very day of her wedding, and as a result of her hurt she decided to live in the past, in a weird unworldly place where time has stopped. 

Miss Havisham is a significant character in the Charles Dickens' great novel Great Expectations (1861). She is a wealthy spinster, who lives in her ruined mansion with her adopted daughter, Estella.  She is described by Dickens as looking like "the witch of the place." Although she has often been portrayed in film versions as very elderly, Dickens' own notes indicate that she is only in her mid-fifties. However, it is also indicated that her long life away from the sunlight has in itself aged her, and she is said to look like a cross between a waxwork and a skeleton, with moving eyes.  Humiliated and heartbroken, Havisham had all the clocks stopped at the exact point in which she had learned of her betrayal. From that day on, she remained by herself in her decaying mansion, Satis House, never removing her wedding dress, leaving the the wedding cake uneaten on the table which was laden with all the wedding fare.  She only allowed a few people to see her in her now sorry state.

Miss Havisham lives in a make-believe, unreal world; she lives in a world inhabited by the living dead; in fact, she is one of the living dead herself; the hands of the clock have stopped at 9 o'clock in the morning, or at whatever exact time she had learnt the news that she had been jilted and indeed swindled out of some of her fortune by her former lover.  This is a haunting world because we literally know it is a frightening world of captivity; that it is a world of shadows and cobwebs; a stagnant, lifeless and soulless one; a world inimical to the one where real souls live and dwell.  To be captives of our own mistakes from the past is to live similarly ourselves.  This is what Dickens is telling us.

There is a way out of our Prison

Still Point, Santa Maria dello Ionio, Gennaio, 2011
The real prisons, which are the source of our torment, is either our GUILT about the past or our FEAR for the future.  The way out is through meditative practices taught by the Buddha and his followers and the more enlightened figures in other religions over the centuries like Jesus Christ and his more exemplary followers.  With this in mind, I wish now to quote somewhat at length from the book I have been exploring in more recent posts, viz., The Compassionate Mind (Constable, 2010) by Professor Paul Gilbert.  His words are both instructive and wise, though often said before by others in the Buddhist tradition:

As I've noted before, many of our great teachers of meditation have pointed out that we only exist in this moment - each of us is a 'point of consciousness' passing through time..  Our consciousness does not exist in the moment just gone or in the moment yet to arrive.  Mindfulness brings us fully alive to the now of our conscious existence, the only place where we actually exist!...

The point is that we can be so lost in our hopes and fears about tomorrow or our regrets of yesterday that we miss the moment now - we live in the remembered or imagined world, not in the world of right now.  Of course, sometimes, it's very important to reflect back and project forward, but when we do this, we want to do it purposely rather than just being automatically dragged there by fear or anger or other strong desires.

Mindfulness also means becoming more aware and more in your experience, paying attention to the details of the world you exist in now and your inner feelings and thoughts as they emerge in your mind.  How many of us, when anxious or angry,  actually stop and pay attention  to where this feeling is in our bodies, to our primary thoughts and fears?  How often do we stand back and practise observing what is actually happening in our minds?  Mostly we don't; our archetypes and brain patterns just 'do their own thing' (Op. cit., pp 250-251) (Italics by the author, Paul Gilbert).

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