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).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 14

Intrapersonal versus Interpersonal

Interpersonal refers to how we relate to others while intrapersonal refers to how we relate to ourselves.  This is a very important distinction.  If we cannot really accept ourselves "warts and all" we will find it hard to accept ourselves for what and for who we are.  As a result we will find it much more difficult still to relate to others.  Therefore, we can say in a simplified but not simplistic way that we must learn to relate to ourselves first in a healthy way before learning to relate to others in a healthy way.  In a sense this is a simplified explanation as getting to know oneself and getting to accept oneself takes place within the nexus of inter-relationships with others.  I say simplified because all relating, whether to oneself or others is complex.  However, from lived experience we know that once we have learned to accept ourselves "warts and all" we can then move on to accepting others far more readily.  I hope that what I have expressed above is clear, as my linguistic and expressive ability is failing me here.  Nonetheless, the effort was worth it as I feel the point is important. 

In getting to grips with this distinction I have found the writings of Dr. Howard Gardner very instructive and enlightening.  Today Gardner and his followers or adherents refer to the possibility, or rather more correctly, the likelihood of there existing at least nine types of intelligence.  Others would add to this number, but the point here is, no matter what that number may be, there are more than just those types of intelligences like the logical (mathematical), spacial and verbal as are measured solely in the traditional IQ tests from the work of Albert Binet.  Gardner adverts to two intelligences among the nine which he calls the interpersonal intelligence and the intrapersonal intelligence and he sees these two as quite distinct.  The former refers to our emotional intelligence insofar as we inter-relate with others, while the latter refers to how good I am at listening to and accepting myself.  See the following site for a good description of MIs, and this site also has a load of links to other good sites.  Happy surfing! (MIs)You'll really enjoy it if you have not read about Gardner's wonderfully comprehensive and expansionist theory of intelligence. (In other words traditional IQ is limited and reductionist whereas MI is open-ended and expansive!)

Paul Gilbert in The Compassionate Mind reminds his readers that we can train our minds to be compassionate to the self and also be compassionate to others.  I have already said in my last post that really I am beginning to feel that this author has stolen the clothes of the Buddha and his followers as practically all of what he says has been said and indeed said better by the Buddhists.  However, he is bottling this old wine in the new bottles of a psychology which is based on scientific observation and testing.  He points out, again all already explained clearly in Buddhist writing and practice, that if we develop an inner relationship with ourselves based on a competitive mentality (as indeed the capitalist system wants us to do, because in that system everything is rated and has a price!), of needing to succeed at all we do, needing to achieve the highest results possible in any exam or project or even to control and impress others then we will only FEEL GOOD ABOUT OURSELVES WHEN EVERYTHING IS GOING WELL.  Then, of course, the obvious corollary of this faulty belief  is that we will FEEL MISERABLE AND DEPRESSED WHEN WE FAIL OR WHEN THINGS GO WRONG.  There is nothing new here, at all, Professor Gilbert.  This is indeed old wine in new wine skins!  Our author counsels his readers to practise a "caring mentality" towards themselves (that is, to exercise compassion towards themselves) because this will "encourage, support and soothe."  (Op.cit.,. p. 214)

Gilbert goes on in a Jungian aside to state that compassion developed from a care-providing social mentality and basic archetype. (Opus citatum, vide p. 216)  When we are compassionate to self and others the levels of feel-good hormones increase in our bodies and indeed our immune systems become stronger.  Compassion, Gilbert argues, is a major pattern generator in our brains - (are there shades of Gestalt psychology here, I wonder?)  He then outlines the Buddha's Eightfold Path which he deems to be the Buddhist programme for training the mind in compassion.

The Work of Kristin Neff:

Professor Gilbert then proceeds to quote the work of one contemporary researcher into happiness, that of Kristin Neff.   See the following link for Neff's work: KN: Self-Compassion.  Again, he informs us the his own thinking is based on an evolutionary neuroscience approach and that his approach and that of the Dalai Lama, and of Thich Nhat Hahn whom I have also quoted, are both based upon the use of practical kindness towards self and others. 

As I have already said, I feel slightly cheated because Gilbert is saying nothing new here about compassion and its exercise in our lives, and indeed much of what he says has been said better by the Buddha and his some of his more scholarly followers.  However, our scholar's neuroscientific approach has categorized the whole thing in a systematized, scientific and diagrammatic format to enable a scientific comprehension of the data that go to make up a compassionate action.  Below I will give a representation I have drawn of his diagram:

Apologies for my poor diagram above which I made in the Microsoft Paint Programme - as you can see I'm fairly poor at it!  This diagram shows the compassion circle with the central topic at the very centre, then the key attributes of compassion (Sensitivity, Sympathy, Distress Tolerance, Empathy, Non-Judgement and Care for Well-Being) in the inner ring, and finally the skills needed to develop these attributes in the outer ring (Imagery, Attention, Reasoning, Feeling, Behaviour and Sensory).  This needless to say leads to an overall feeling of warmth which bounds the set.  Professor Gilbert cautions against being too self-critical in developing the above attitudes and skills and sensibly advises that it is the combination and integration of all the compassionate qualities - that is, the pattern - that's important.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 13

The Mammalian Brain or The Limbic System

I mention this here as Professor Paul Gilbert describes it in outline without inundating the reader in technical or biological terms.  The term "limbic" comes from the Latin limbus, for "border" or "edge".  Today some scientists have suggested that the concept of the limbic system should be abandoned as obsolete and outdated, because it is grounded more in tradition than in facts.  Be that as it may, the term is quite widely used by psychologists.  Dr C. George Boeree gives the following helpful diagrammatic representation of this brain system: (See C.G.Boeree )

This limbic system is a set of evolutionarily primitive brain structures located on top of the brain stem and buried under the cortex. Limbic system structures are involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. Such emotions include fear, anger, and emotions related to sexual behavior. The limbic system is also involved in feelings of pleasure that are related to our survival, such as those experienced from eating and sex.

Certain structures of the limbic system are involved in memory as well. Two large limbic system structures, the amygdala and hippocampus play important roles in memory. The amygdala is responsible for determining what memories are stored and where the memories are stored in the brain. It is thought that this determination is based on how huge an emotional response an event invokes. The hippocampus sends memories out to the appropriate part of the cerebral hemisphere for long-term storage and retrieves them when necessary. Damage to this area of the brain may result in an inability to form new memories.

Part of the fore brain known as the diencephalon is also included in the limbic system. The diencephalon is located beneath the cerebral hemispheres and contains the thalamus and hypothalamus. The thalamus is involved in sensory perception and regulation of motor functions (i.e., movement). It connects areas of the cerebral cortex that are involved in sensory perception and movement with other parts of the brain and spinal cord that also have a role in sensation and movement. The hypothalamus is a very small but important component of the diencephalon. It plays a major role in regulating hormones, the pituitary gland, body temperature, the adrenal glands, and many other vital activities.

There is enough information above for what we want here.  This so-called limbic system or mammalian brain is concerned with our emotions and feelings like anger, fear and sexual arousal, as well as all feelings of pleasure.  Hence, it is important for developing a sense of compassion according to Professor Paul Gilbert

The Power of Imagery:

The new Dublin Convention Centre - the Power of an Image
I have long been convinced of the power of imagery when used in meditation or visualization exercises to allow the user/meditator/visualizer to experience in a powerful way what is being imagined, almost as if the real thing being imagined were before one in actuality.  In other words the imagination when used in this way can create almost a virtual world in our minds.  Therefore, psychologists, surgeons and psychiatrists have long been aware of the potential and indeed potency of guided meditation and visualizations in the healing process.  The oncologist and cancer surgeon Dr. Bernie Siegel has used meditative practices with great success in cancer recovery groups. 
Gilbert underlines the power of imagination, or in other more concrete terms, of visualized images by instancing the power of sexual images to excite us physically.  He then follows this up by mentioning that bringing images of food to one's mind can also get the gastric juices flowing.  In short all images can stimulate one or another feeling.  Now, obviously we can bring negative images to our minds also, maybe like that of a bully or something he or she did - a powerful and depressing image is conjured up in our minds.  Immediately after the image the negative feelings of anger, fear and depression are provoked or evoked.  At this point, it seems to this reader at least that Professor Gilbert is indeed stating the obvious and that he has spent many pages of intricate argumentation to get at some simple truths as in the following:

So in exactly the same way that imagining a meal  can stimulate sensations and feelings in our body linked to eating, our own thoughts and images might be able to stimulate our inner caring mentalities and brain systems that lead to soothing.  If we can learn to be kind and relate to ourselves with a caring mentality - to send ourselves helpful messages when things are hard for us we're more likely to stimulate those parts of our brain that respond to kindness.  This will help us to cope with stress and setbacks.

I will finish this post with a few quotations, this time from another great Buddhist writer whom I admire, namely Thich Nhat Hahn:

  • The essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves "inside the skin" of the other. We "go inside" their body, feelings, and mental formations, and witness for ourselves their suffering. Shallow observation as an outsider is not enough to see their suffering. We must become one with the subject of our observation. When we are in contact with another's suffering, a feeling of compassion is born in us. Compassion means, literally, "to suffer with."

  • Love is the capacity to take care, to protect, to nourish. If you are not capable of generating that kind of energy toward yourself- if you are not capable of taking care of yourself, of nourishing yourself, of protecting yourself- it is very difficult to take care of another person. In the Buddhist teaching, it's clear that to love oneself is the foundation of the love of other people. Love is a practice. Love is truly a practice. [Shambhala Sun March 2006 ]
Taking the contents of the last post where I quoted from the Dalai Lama in tandem with the above words of Thich Nhat Hahn, it would seem that they express in a far more wholesome way what Paul Gilbert is at labours to explain.  However, having voiced that criticism, I am thankful for this author's attention to scientific detail and for his ability to marry science with compassion.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 12

The Compassionate Mind

Malahide, April, 2010
Drs Anthony Storr, Ronald Laing and Ivor Browne have always and continue to appeal to me for their sheer compassion.  Ronnie Laing, especially, listened to, cared for and did not write off his psychotic patients as mad.  They struck and still strike me as compassionate persons.  Their written material is suffused with compassion I believe.  These are great psychiatrists and great healers as a result.  I suppose Freud and Jung were so, too, but they were more concerned with getting the theoretical base of their respective therapies systematized and scientifically based.  As I grow older I am aware that if we pare down the motivations behind great doctors and great humanitarians to the bare essentials we arrive at the base line of compassion for fellow beings, or sentient creatures as the Dalai Lama is prone to calling us and our fellow creatures.  As a teacher, while I acknowledge that the drive to knowledge for practical purposes and for its own sake are two important motivations for those of us in the profession, that the desire to help others in this more compassionate sense is also at play as well.


Having studied psychotherapy for a number of years I, like many others, have been attracted to the humanistic school of therapy as outlined in the person-centered approach of Carl Ransom Rogers.  This approach to therapy highlights the concepts of (i) congruence, (ii) empathy and (iii) unconditional positive regard.  These means respectively that the counsellor or therapist is (i) a totally authentic human being who has faced and has dealt or is dealing with his/her own problems,  (ii) is imaginatively able to put himself or herself in the shoes of the patient or client and (iii) that he/she unconditionally accepts the client without prejudices, and no matter who the client is or what he/she is supposed to have done or not done, the counsellor in no way allows such information to colour or effect their regard of the client; in other words the counsellor or therapist shows his/her regard for the client totally unconditionally.  I also like the fact that Rogers took the revolutionary step of recording his sessions and opened up the previously private domain of therapy for empirical study and assessment.

The Autistic Spectrum

Malahide, April, 2010
I am a teacher in a unit for pupils with Asperger's Syndrome, and I teach young adults from 12 to 18/19 years of age.  There are some 18 boys (they are all boys in our unit) and they lie along a very broad spectrum from slightly autistic to very much more so.  They all, bar three or four, present with a good number of other comorbid complaints like Dyslexia, ADHD, OCD, ADD, ODD etc.  However, they all share what we call the Triad of Impairments, i.e., Communication, Social and Imaginative.  The first of these refers to the late development, or even absence in some more serious cases, in verbal communication, echolalia (repeating words spoken to them) and literalism.  The second refers to problems of being lost in their own world, behaving as if others do not exist, their not knowing how to initiate or even continue a conversation, inability to read the spectrum of emotions on people's faces, poor eye contact and finally they may shake hands too limply or too hard even and can be excessively formal (quite common in my own group of pupils.)  However, it is the third of the triad that I am interested in here as it relates to the Imagination.

The Impairment in the Imagination

The experts tell us, and I know from both my professional training and day-to-day experience that a child with autism will (i) be unable to play imaginatively with objects or toys with other children or adults; that they
(ii) tend to focus on minor or trivial things around them, for example an ear-ring rather than the person wearing it, or a wheel instead of the whole toy train (iii)  have a limited range of imaginative activities, possibly copied and pursued rigidly and repetitively, (iv) often miss the point of pursuits that involve words, e.g. social conversation and literature especially fiction and subtle verbal humour. Linked in with these, then there will be a failure to catch the subtleties of play which a neuro-typical child will be able to grasp quite readily.  They won't be able to pick up the jokes and innuendos of the "tippies" in the classroom, for example and often I am left explaining the jokes to them after class.

Linked in with this failure in imagination is, of course, a failure of empathy.  The Asperger boy can and does fail to see things from the other person's point of view.  I remember when I was doing my psychotherapy training one of our lecturers telling us that empathy was an exercise in imagination.  Now, this definition makes perfect sense to me now that I am a fully trained Resource and Learning Support teacher as well.  Because our boys have a lack in the imagination department, they will fail to show empathy. 

Therefore, the lack of imaginative play leads to limited or, in extreme cases, no understanding of other people's emotions, so people with autism find it difficult to share happiness or sorrow with others. Many people with autism find their pleasure in special interests.  The special interests in our group range from Egyptology, Lists of Music Groups and Charts, with positions in the charts of all groups exact to the smallest detail, Black Holes, Leonardo da Vinci, Airplanes and so on and so forth.

Also I note that the following may be placed under this lack of imagination vertex of the triangle of impairments namely complex repetitive stereotypical behavior which may include (i) A complex sequence of body movements. (ii) Placing objects in long lines that can't be moved. (iii) Extensive bedtime routines, (iv) Attachments to strange objects, such as pieces of string or leaves and (v)in more able autistic people, fascination with the weather, timetables, numbers, etc.  One of our cleverer first years keeps taking my Fifth Year Maths book and placing it on the shelf in a fellow teacher's room who has the previous four books in the series on her shelves.  Josh simply likes placing Book number 5 along side its partners in crime, 1, 2, 3 and 4.  It took me a few weeks to find out what was happening to my disappearing book.  We both laughed when I found out!

Now, as the title of this piece is about compassion, I believe that understanding this failure in imagination (genetic no doubt) on the part of my students can and does mean that I can be more compassionate towards them.  Also yesterday I attended an amazingly good in-service on the topic "Using Drama with Children and Young People with Asperger's Syndrome," presented by Dr Carmel O'Sullivan of TCD Education Department. (See her web page here:   COSTCD ) Dr O'Sullivan has successfully used educational drama as an experiential approach to social skills education for young people in the age range 6-20 years with this syndrome.  This successful teaching and learning approach has been developed with over 70 participants during tha last six years as part of a collaborative research project with ASPIRE (Asperger Association of Ireland) (See their web page here:  ASPIREIRELAND.

Dr. O'Sullivan's presentation was excellent to say the least.  I also liked her definition of the imaginative disability which described above as being in essence a Lack of Flexibility of Thought.  She informed us that the aetiology of this impairment is located in that part of the brain called the amygdala.  She could reach the pupils and they one another through the medium of drama where she was able to bring them into a fantasy world and then back to the real world where they could apply the social skills they had used in performing their various roles in the drama which itself necessitated physical movement and, of course bodily contact, all of which such persons are very poor at. 

However, change and improvement in social skills is possible, but obviously slow enough with persons on the ASD spectrum.  However, where the person is situated on this spectrum is, of course, a deciding factor in the amelioration of the disability and in the learning of more complex social skills.  However, the important point for the teacher, and even more so, for the parent, is that change is POSSIBLE!  Then, let's also remember the topic with which I am essentially concerned, the growth in compassion for these persons is essentiaql to what we are about.  The IQ, as well as the EQ (Emotional Intelligence) falls along the whole spectrum with these pupils.  After 30 years as a teacher I have learned a lot of psychology practical as well as theoretic, but the most essential point is that one size does not fit all - everyone is unique.  While some generalizations are important from a theoretical point of view one has to be always open to the uniqueness of the individual.  This sharpens the edge of the theories we have all learned, if not blunting them at times!

In all of what our lecturer taught us - experientially I must add - she emphasized never imposing one's own agenda, and this went as far as never censoring their expressed thoughts and/or language unless more obviously not age-appropriate etc.  All of this appealed to me as I am a deep believer in self-expression, creativity in all its various incarnations, and also because, once again, it is an extremely compassionate approach to life.  I return to my three Doctors and therapists mentioned above, a triad of wonderful and beautiful human beings whose compassion led them into psychiatry and therapy and into listening to persons who had been written off by society at large - schizophrenics, bipolar people, other psychotics, and, of course, the autistic.  After all, it was, from my interest in schizophrenia, I learnt that the great Dr Bleuler (1857 – 1939), one of Jung's early professors, invented the term "autism" in the first place long before Kanner (1894 –1981) and Asperger  (1906 –  1980)  came on the scene in the middle years of the Twentieth century.  Bleuler was a Swiss psychiatrist and he introduced the term autism in 1911. Autism and autistic stem from the Greek word "autos," meaning self. The term autism originally referred to a basic disturbance in schizophrenia, in short, an extreme withdrawal of oneself from the fabric of social life, but not excluding oneself.  Obviously Kanner and Asperger went on to refine and particularize this term and other related ones in their more specific work on autistic persons.  Interestingly Kanner was Austrian-American while the other three were Swiss (Bleuler, Jung and Asperger.)

Two Types of Rumination

Returning now to the topic at hand namely the book The Compassionate Mind by Professor Paul Gilbert, I wish to refer to the idea of rumination.  Now all that I discussed above is ad rem as regards the question of compassion, and I mean here both compassion for oneself and the compassion for others.  Gilbert points out that because we can imagine, we can also ruminate.  He is quick to point out that there are two different types of rumination a healthy, positive more philosophical one and an unhealthy, negative, life-denying one.  The first, then, is related to trying to solve problems, and I would argue lose oneself in the magic of the mysteries of science, maths, art or any area of knowledge or human endeavour.  This first is also what we mean by the process of discovery in life, the ability to solve puzzles and to be enriched by so solving them.  They lead to what a former lecturer of mine, Michael Paul Gallagher used called the "Ahhh!" moments of life.  He was quoting some philosopher or other whose name I've quite forgotten now.

However, there is another form of rumination, an unhealthy, dark, negative and light-denying one also.  Here is where we are upset by someone or something and we replay again and again in our minds what has upset us.  An obvious example of this is where someone we love dies.  It also happens when someone bullies us or treats us unfairly.  We find ourselves going over and over it in our minds.

However, it is the role of the therapist, the doctor and indeed the teacher to help his client, patient or pupil to dispel the second type of rumination and replace it with the former if s/he can.  This is no easy task.  That's where drama, visualization, imagination and its legions of creative ways come in.  

To be continued. 

A Little Bit of Compassion 11

Returning to Compassion

As a lover of science in general and psychology in particular I am not too put off by Professor Paul Gilbert's scientific analysis of compassion, but having a Buddhist bent to my spirituality it does jar occasionally.  I can readily understand how a scientific and almost reductionist (yet not quite) description of the virtue of compassion as in this quotation which follows might put some more spiritually attuned readers off: "Compassion arises from the balance of the three emotion systems." (The Compassionate Mind, p. 202) He is here arguing that compassion arises from the balance and interplay of three basic emotion systems: (i) The Defense System of Threat and Self-Protection, (ii) The Highs-Seeking System and (iii) Calming/Soothing System.   This essentially works through the care-giving social mentality that orients us to focus on alleviating distress and promoting the flourishing of the individual.  All of this is accompanied by the release of natural hormones in the brain such as the opiates and and oxytocin.  Now, there's science for you.

Another fact that helps me accept the above is that when I had to spend some seven weeks many years ago in a psychiatric hospital after a bout of depression, I remember thinking the frightening thought that I was a chemical reality, rather than a more personal "I" with feelings.  This probably hits at a core philosophical area - namely philosophy of mind - which would deal with questions such as what is the relationship between mind and brain.  Obviously while the former (a reality we believe exists but cannot prove, an essentially metaphysical reality, then!) somehow inheres or lives in the latter.  Yet there are still other scientists who would argue that the mind also exists in other groups of nerves within the body too - after all we do have a whole nervous system that springs from the brain, so this, too, is eminently possible!  Other areas relevant to this debate would be the nature of what we call consciousness.  Can this exist beyond the locus of the physicality of the brain?  Then, a legion of other epistemological and metaphysical questions will also emerge.  However, these questions are beyond the scope of this wee post here.

The Compassionate smile says it all
The above introduction was by way of re-introducing Professor Gilbert's timely book The Compassionate mind after the longer than expected interlude on Carl Gustave Jung.  To balance out the science of my opening paragraphs I should like to take a few quotations from the Dalai Lama on what he as a Tibetan Buddhist considers compassion to be:

  • " I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved through the cultivation of altruism, of love and compassion, and elimination of ignorance, selfishness, and greed."

  • " Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them."

  • " Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive."

  • " Each of us in our own way can try to spread compassion into people’s hearts. Western civilizations these days place great importance on filling the human “brain” with knowledge, but no one seems to care about filling the human “heart” with compassion. This is what the real role of religion is."
In chapter six of his book Professor Paul Gilbert argues that our capacity for imagination and fantasy can be used to stimulate different brain systems.  This is the principle on which training our minds in compassion is based, because we can learn to understand how imagery that evokes compassionate scenes, and thinking based on such imagery, can both stimulate the contentment/soothing system.  In fairness to Gilbert he does, in this chapter, look at some Buddhist and other spiritual views of compassion before looking at it from a more Western, scientific perspective.  For the less theoretical reader, this chapter is the last in the book which deals with the science behind compassion (that is, science in the Western sense of the term).

The Power of the Imagination

Lamp on my windowsill, February 2010
I have written much in these pages about the nature, role and uses of the imagination from many perspectives, the literary, especially poetic/dramatic as discussed and expounded by the quintessential philosopher of the British Romantic Movement in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from the artistic/literary perspective of the pre-Romantic William Blake and also from the perspective of both psychoanalysis and especially its healing use by Carl Gustave Jung in his analytical psychology.  (See the appropriate label on the right side of this blog if you wish to check these entries out.)  I have long been convinced of the healing power of the imagination and have written widely here and elsewhere about it.  This is the topic with which Gilbert begins this present chapter.

He argues that that the imagination is one of the most important qualities of our "new brain/mind" (presumably he's here referring to the cortical brain or cortical layer of the same).  This, he informs us, is that which has essentially allowed us to develop science and culture.  In other words imagination is the driving power behind civilization.  There are few that would disagree with this contention.

However, Gilbert does enter a caveat, and an important one at that, viz., that a certain type of imagination can lead to trouble, that is where we allow some fantasies to become so unrealistic that we can imagine dangers that do not exist and desires that are impossible to fulfill.  Here, I personally like to differentiate between imagination and fantasy, the latter which I see as being completely impossible while the former is more possible if not probable.  Another distinction I like is that between fiction and fantasy, the former which while imaginary is more realistic and consequently quite believable and probably, whereas the latter is quite impossible and often frightening.  Hence the healing imagery of the imagination which has been used very effectively in cancer research by the great Dr Bernie Siegel (long a hero of mine in this area: See his web page here: Siegel) and others.  One does need the guidance of a good therapist in the use of healing imagery before one can set out using it on one's own, I feel.  If one is neurotic in tendency it is hard to use visualization in a healing and positive way.

Researchers believe that it was the evolution of our ability to imagine in creative ways that give us the advantages that led to our becoming the dominant species on this wonderful, if at times tragic, planet of blue spinning about our sun.  As Gilbert almost needlessly points out, but the point is educative in its striking contrast:

Bees, birds, and beavers will build the same types of living quarters (hives, nests and dams) for generation after generation... because they are primarily reliant on the knowledge stored in their genes that tell them "how to"... but humans have gone from mud huts to skyscrapers, from stick fires to central heating, from walking on the savannah to flying to the moon.  The evolution of the mind that can "imagine" and go beyond what is "there" has had a phenomenal impact on the face of the Earth.  We are approaching a technology through which we will even be able to change our genes.  (Op. cit., p. 208)

To be continued