What Do Your Cravings Say About You?

Swedenborg Foundation

by Morgan Beard

It’s human nature to crave things. Sometimes it’s as simple as, “Hey, I could go for some ice cream right now.” Sometimes it’s a deeper desire, like craving money or fame. It may not seem like anything unusual—after all, who doesn’t like something delicious to eat, and who couldn’t use a little extra cash? But Emanuel Swedenborg says that what we crave might reveal more about us than we think.

blog_craving

What we crave sometimes tells us what we lack. If we’re craving specific types of food, our body might be telling us that we need more vitamins or other nutrients. A desire for sweets could mean that we need a pick-me-up from the jolt of energy and the feel-good chemical serotonin that comes with eating something sugary. On an emotional level, craving items that we don’t need might indicate stress or negative feelings—getting some new luxury can give us a little rush of pleasure. Or, on a less tangible level, craving attention can mean that we feel unloved or unappreciated.

Swedenborg writes, “Craving is love reaching out. Whatever we love we constantly crave, and it is our delight, since we feel delight when we get what we love or crave. There is no other source of our heart’s delight” (Heaven and Hell 570). From the context, it’s clear that love here means something broader than love for another person. He’s saying that when we love something, it fills us, and we seek out more of it.

This can work in good ways or not so good ones. For example, let’s say a woman grows up without a lot of money, goes to school, gets a good-paying job, and is suddenly able to buy herself all the things she never had. Her self-esteem goes up; she feels better about herself. She works to get more and more money until all she can focus on is making money so that she can keep feeling better. Swedenborg calls this “love of the world”—a situation where people keep chasing material pleasures and are never satisfied with what they have. That love of wealth, power, or whatever it is we’re chasing becomes a fundamental part of ourself, the core of our identity. And no matter what, we always crave more.

Let’s say that same woman who grew up without a lot of money but got educated and became a wealthy professional puts love of others over love of self. Now she donates money back to the community where she grew up and mentors kids growing up in limited circumstances to help them achieve career success. This is what Swedenborg calls “love for one’s neighbor”—when we focus on using what we have to help other people rather than helping ourselves. And again, he says, the more we do good, the more that we want to do good. We crave opportunities to help others.

People are complicated. All of us are capable of being selfish one day and selfless the next, and it can be hard to know if we’re on the right track, spiritually speaking. Are all of our actions adding up to a positive inner state or a negative one?

When Swedenborg writes, “craving is love reaching out,” he’s letting us know that just as our physical cravings can be an indicator of our body’s health, our emotional cravings give us a barometer for our spiritual state. Those little impulses, itching desires, and outright compulsions that strike us throughout the day are indicators of what is happening within us. The things we are pulled to do tell us which way our inner status—or our “ruling love,” in Swedenborgian terms—is leaning. The things we crave most often are the things that dominate us mentally and therefore spiritually.

But what if we find that we’re being drawn toward these selfish types of desires? Swedenborg says there’s a remedy for that: regeneration, the path to spiritual growth. You can read more about it here, or for a really in-depth discussion, check out this compilation of Swedenborg’s writings on the subject.

http://www.swedenborg.com/

The Riots and Disorder

The recent riots in Britain, starting in London and quickly spreading to other cities in England, left many people feeling shocked, insecure and even frightened. For a short time we were reminded what life is like if laws of order (e.g. the commandments in the Bible) are not observed in our society.
Afterwards, the debate soon got going as people began asking “who is to blame”.

I listened with interest as people expressed their thoughts on where the
responsibility lay. Among the flurry of opinions a small number of people were prepared to consider deeper causes but I was disappointed that few were enabled to point out the move away from the solid ground of religious teachings towards “Relativism” in society. Most people, whipped up perhaps by emotive political statements in the media, put the blame squarely where the problem occurred.

Whereas no decent minded person would disagree with the politicians, when
they site horrific examples of crime and say this type of behaviour is completely unacceptable, this does not necessarily represent any progress in dealing with the problem. What it does achieve is to continually draw people’s minds back to the symptoms and away from the true causes.

I see a parallel here; when I worked in Social Care my colleagues and I were
given training on dealing with challenging behaviours (breaking things,
shouting or lashing out) which were frequently presented in the lives of our
Service Users (SU) i.e. people with learning disabilities. Before this training
it was common place for staff to blame any challenging behaviours squarely on the SU. The more aggressive the SU became the more assertive the worker would become until eventually the SU would be either medicated, isolated and/or removed to a secure location; but the problem always re-occurred at some later date.

Until training was made available this was a regular pattern. The training
however encouraged staff to try out new ways of communicating with SU, based on assessed levels of SU comprehension through asking them to complete basic tasks. Through these assessments we were able to develop methods of communication more suited to their abilities e.g. we would invite family, friends and people who knew them best to speak on their behalf. Once we became more pro-active in identifying and meeting their needs the challenging behaviours were very significantly reduced.

The results of the training helped me view these challenging behaviours in a
new way. I came to realise that these behaviours were actually forms of
communication; not the traditional forms of communication we value, but rather the only effective communication available to them for getting people to acknowledge their needs. It was notable that after each bout of challenging behaviour the SU would get peoples’ collective attention and their needs would then be identified and met.

I see these recent riots in Britain in much the same way. Of course we
should make it clear that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable but surely we also have a duty to try to identify and deal with the real causes. Until more members of society, at every level, begin to re-apply the spiritual principles taught by the Lord our God, not least to love our neighbour as our selves, can we not expect people to continue to express themselves in this way. Unless we become more pro-active in dealing with real causes, and stop allowing our minds to be focused on the symptoms, this will become the only way a disaffected people can get the collective attention they need to have their needs met; especially now they know it works!

My message to all those who genuinely want to address this problem is
simple; “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” Matt. 6:33

Copyright 2011 Revd Jack Dunion

Permissive parenting – what does it mean?

permissive parenting

Given the huge decline in the influence of organised religion, what is right and wrong is now mainly learned in the home and through the media.  We tend to still assume that the role of a parent is to supervise children and teach them right and wrong. But to what extent is this still happening in this age of permissive parenting?

Permissive parenting and monitoring what teenagers get up to

During the 2011 English riots there were fathers and mothers of rioting teenagers who didn’t know or claimed they didn’t know their offspring were out on the street at night. One view is that some parents could indeed take more responsibility for the behaviour of their children, but that others are struggling to cope at the best of times, sometimes dealing with chronic illness or the effects of domestic abuse. Some parents in social housing work very long hours in low paid jobs to make ends meet and cannot afford a childminder to keep an eye on their children when they are doing evening shifts or during the long school holiday.

For the rest of the population who are not particularly well off, especially younger families, money is very tight. High housing costs and reducing wages mean more mothers are obliged to go out to work for the family to make ends meet. Nevertheless there is still a common expectation these women will also do most of the domestic work in the home. As a consequence they have less to do with their children. All these factors appear to be social conditions conducive to permissive parenting.

Permissive parenting and absent fathers

One argument is that since the 1960’s, permissiveness in western culture has led to early sexualisation often not making its way into stable relationships, and that this leads to higher rates of divorce and weakened parenting. It is not inevitable that permissive parenting occurs when one parent is absent. However mothers do lack help from absent fathers to deal with bad behaviour with no-one to back them up telling kids about right and wrong.

We can only guess at this stage how many looters come from homes with incomplete parenting. From film on television, black youths were seen among the rioters. Is it a co-incidence that according to a BTEG report, 48 percent of black Caribbean families with dependent children are headed by a lone parent? This compares to the national average in the UK of 7 percent of households with children having a lone parent (according to Office of National Statistics 2007) It would be instructive to know the rate of lone parenting amongst the families bringing up the white rioters.

Permissive parenting and children’s access to mass media

Another aspect of permissiveness has been the absence of effective public censorship of film, video and television. Someone said that being in the middle of the riot was like being in the middle of a computer game or a film set. Admittedly, research into the potential anti-social effects of the media is difficult area to investigate and has not always produced consistent results. However, many academic studies do suggest a relationship between exposure to media violence and violent behaviour.

Permissive parenting is watching and exposing the family to bloodshed, sexual extortion and theft on television and video film. This can only be helping with desensitisation to violence and other horrible behaviour.

Also the distinction between the virtual and the real seems to be disappearing for some young people. The computer game ‘Grand Theft Auto’ contains some horrendous scenes. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if some individuals eventually act out these hate-filled fantasies. If one opens one-self to such excitement there should be no surprise if a hellish state of mind starts to rule one’s actions. The Christian religion argues there is a reality to evil from which we need to be saved.

Permissive parenting and moral education

Parents might tell their kids about legal penalties if one is caught breaking the law and may say it is morally wrong to steal from, harm or tell lies to others. To know what is said to be right and wrong is one thing, but to understand why it is a good rule is another.  How many parents are not at home to explain their views e.g. when their kids are watching television. They may be too tired to be other than permissive in their attitude to bad behaviour in the home.

It is good to show care for others by respecting their property, helping them, and being honest with them. The hope for society is that the spiritual principles behind moral codes can be shown by adults engaging in responsible rather than  permissive parenting: then the principles can be seen as good and acceptable.

It is up to their offspring to do the rest – to think about matters, to accept what is a moral guideline worthy of following, to resolve to follow it in personal life and to resist temptation to go against it – these are all different stages in moral development.

But if they are not brought up to appreciate what makes laws good and useful they are unlikely to obey them if they believe they can get away with it. When the mob is doing crime, this is exactly what those joining in assume. They will be lost in the crowd. Their natural tendency to self-love and conceit that they know best then take over.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Consumption – Is this a problem?

consumption

Some commentators have written about consumption in terms of our acquisitive society. Gaining respect — particularly amongst younger people –often depends on wearing fashionable gear and owning the latest electronic gizmo rather than for one’s personal qualities. It seems you are not valued so much for who you are but for what you possess. One might wonder whether an emphasis on consumption is arguably a cause of the problem of looting during the riots in 2011 in some English cities.

Looting and a consumption orientated society

Many people have been shocked, frightened and angry at the breakdown of law and order that has caused great damage in some of the larger cities ; violence against unarmed police, arson and destructive behaviour together with widespread looting and mugging which terrorised shopkeepers and residents. A lot of those going on the rampage were teenagers. How has this happened? How do we make any sense of these disgraceful scenes that have brought shame on a nation? There are probably several complex factors that can throw light on this. Here I am thinking about material consumption.

Talking about the looting, one man said to a television reporter,

‘People round here have got no money man, so people are going to do things like that—it’s opportunity isn’t it.’ A woman said that it is not wrong to loot ‘something that is mass-produced and you can get millions of them from a factory and if I could pick it up, of course I would take it home’

A journalist writing in the Independent newspaper noticed:

“the startling inarticulacy of so many of those now being dragged through the magistrates courts… The great majority appear to be those for whom tertiary education – or even a job – is almost as unlikely as a trip to the moon.”

You might have the illusion that by looting something expensive you can acquire added value to yourself.

Feeling undervalued in a society orientated towards consumption

All of us, including those with little money to spare, are exposed to non-stop advertising and the materialistic values of western culture. Those who can afford it, tend to take nice foreign holidays, drive smart cars, and live in large houses in prestigious areas. All this is well beyond the wildest dreams of the poor. Many people with little or no money feel of no value in a consumption orientate culture which judges worth in terms of money.

Someone talked on a radio phone-in about children overlooked by the educational system because they have practical aptitude but not academic aptitude.

“They get put to the back, they get ignored and they bunk off school. They are not given anything of value to do in a practical sense and have just been told they are useless. And so they go on the downhill spiral.”

Our culture seems to highly value verbal intelligence at the expense of practical skills using the hands although arguably the latter is what our economy needs much more of at this time. Consequently, many kids who have difficulty and thus little interest in reading and writing also lack job opportunities. They haven’t been helped by a national shortage of apprentice-style training that would have provided personal role-models and socialisation as well as other working skills.

Some are unwilling to work for low wages and others are just not employable. Welfare benefits have been thought to provide a perverse incentive not to look for low paid jobs. Each person addicted to the dependency culture will remain on the dole and the vicious circle continues as they each consequently continue to feel and act as a social failure. When you live in a consumption orientated society having no money is pretty much a definition of failure.

What does an emphasis on consumption do to the very poor?

The so-called very poor social underclass are likely to live in inhuman tower blocks or in anonymous sink estates with few if any social amenity buildings. Such people have seen those at the top of society getting away with amoral acts; greedy bankers, who despite their reckless loss-making investments, have exploited public funding for their own extravagant bonuses. They have read all about cheating politicians who have lied over their expenses; a kind of smash and grab of sorts.

Is it so surprising that many poor people in western culture have a sense of entitlement and want some of this wealth too? Of course, just because one is poor, doesn’t make one a criminal and lack morality. There can be no excuse for acting badly.

Gaining appreciation through consumption or through communication

It is not always so obvious that we might be really appreciated for what we do rather than how much money we have. Is there not a tremendous unsung spiritual value in being courteous, giving someone a little time, showing consideration, taking the initiative to do some little job that will be of help to someone else, and generally making oneself useful. What a pity more people cannot experience what it is like to feel respected, appreciated, and esteemed by others for what they do that is good and useful.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Gay Pride and Straight Talk.

gayWhether to allow gay bishops is currently a hot issue in the Church of England. In line with British equality law, the Church cannot allow sexual orientation in itself to be grounds for preventing a priest being promoted to the role of bishop. However, consistent with provisions contained within the Act for a religious organisation to operate in accordance with its doctrine, the document, ‘Choosing Bishops – The Equality Act 2010’, makes clear that those considered for promotion must be celibate and to have been celibate during their time as a priest.

Many people feel puzzled by this reluctance to embrace homosexuality by strands of organised religion. And some feel angry and want to promote the idea that gay people should be proud of their sexual orientation feeling this is their natural inclination.

The same idea about natural inclination of course could be said of those attracted to the opposite sex who feel they have no conscious choice in the matter. However although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no firm findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.

From a spiritual perspective, we might ask whether a gay partnership has the same potential for human happiness as that of a heterosexual one. So what does Swedenborg have to say about it?

Conjugial principle and gay partnership

Swedenborg coined a new word ‘conjugial’ by adding an ‘i’ to the old legal term ‘conjugal’. He did this to distinguish a quality of love that unites a couple as one in heart, mind and life. When the understanding of what is true in one person makes one with the affection of what is good in the other, there is said to be a union of the two minds into one.

A deep union between two people is said to be characterized by spiritual states of peace, tranquility, intimate friendship, full trust, joy and sexual pleasure. According to Swedenborg this state of ‘conjugial love,’ has a spiritual source ie the divine union of what is good and what is true. Without this harmony there would be inner tension — thinking one thing but wanting another. Hence in so far as the partnership is a conjugial one, there is a profound joy because the divine harmony is present within the relationship.

Given that each of us has both of some of what is good and true within us, it might be asked whether the conjugial principle has the potential to apply equally to the relationship between two people of the same sex in the same way as between two of the opposite sex. In other words can there be conjugial love in a gay marriage between masculine and feminine natures in each person if we assume we all have both masculine and feminine within us?

Gender difference

The idea there is both masculine and feminine in each person came from Carl Jung. On the contrary, although Swedenborg says that both sexes have thinking heads and feeling hearts and should be equally valued, he nevertheless maintains they are not the same. In his book Conjugial Love (section 32) he says there is an essential difference between male and female and that after death a male lives on as a male and a female as a female.  He goes on to describe the underlying psycho-spiritual difference between male and female minds.

According to Swedenborg, both sexes are capable of intelligent thought and empathy. At the same time, his contention is that men are more naturally inclined towards using their heads and taking an objective stance. On the other hand, women are said to be more likely to observe what is going on with their intuition and take a subjective perspective. Whilst the man is suited to thinking about what is right for longer in the light of understanding, the woman is suited to sustaining a warm feeling for what is good in the heat of love.

Heterosexual love

This supposed gender difference is Swedenborg’s rationale for heterosexual love. Just as opposites attract, the love between a man and a woman can be deeper because it can be between an understanding and its corresponding affection. And so each complements the other. This difference offers the potential to enter deeply and unite them. Also (in his book Conjugial Love section 181), he contends that conjugial love can only happen in the relationship between a man and a woman.

If Swedenborg is right about the difference between men and women, then love between two people of the same sex cannot be the same as the love between those of the opposite sex.

Gay love

We might wonder if these ideas from the eighteenth century have anything to teach us in this day and age. The marriage statistics show that there are lots of people in less than satisfactory heterosexual relationships. Some gay partnerships last longer than heterosexual ones. And given the sexual prejudice still around, one might argue that to persist as a gay couple requires a better inner resilience in the partnership.

Swedenborg doesn’t address the issue of gay partnerships – there was no word for it in his day. However one thing he does state (in his book Conjugial Love section 55) is that the love of a man for a man or that of a woman for a woman cannot be a deep one. He may have got it wrong, but he says that the love of a man for a man and of a woman for a woman make relatively superficial contact not leading to any deep inner union of the two.

In other words according to this view the love between two men is more about the association between one way of thinking and another way of thinking – between one understanding and another understanding. The love between two women is more about the association of one state of feeling and another state of feeling.

In aspiring to reach the heavenly condition of what Swedenborg calls conjugial love, one could argue that people stand a better chance within a heterosexual rather than a gay partnership.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Evil – Can anyone be so characterised?

evil
Ratko Mladic

Ratko Mladic was the key player and commander of the Bosnian Serb forces that tried to eliminate Muslims from large parts of Bosnia. His forces were responsible for much social evil, massacring eight thousand Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995: the brutal siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995 resulted in the death of 10,000 people. His capture and trial for war crimes reminds us of the torture, mass rape, arson and genocide that formed part of this ‘ethnic cleansing’.

How does one explain these evil crimes against humanity? How could someone like Mladic fundamentally go against human values, and be outside of what civilisation universally sees as acceptable behaviour?

Can a person be evil?

When someone, like Mladic, or one of his followers, harms another person, should they be considered as evil? Or are they so out of harmony with themselves, they should be seen as sick or ill rather than wicked? This may be so. But even if no individual person is evil, this does not mean that some human behaviour cannot be properly considered evil. According to this second view evil is part of the process of individual choice rather than the quality of the person doing the choosing.

Is evil a useful term?

Some people ask whether the social context in which harm to human beings is done, calls into question the idea that such acts can be universally considered as evil. For them, standards of good and evil are only products of local culture, custom, or prejudice and that the very word ‘evil’ is an outmoded concept no longer fit for purpose.

However, others point out that what counts as evil is all to do with the individual intent, independent of culture. Arguably, those who are willing to go against moral codes will justify their actions if it suits them to do so, whether they be those ship captains and plantation owners who engaged in the slave trade, the Nazis who found mass extermination of the Jews acceptable, or the leadership of the United States Union Army’s massacre of “savage” Native American Indians.

Is evil an illusion?

The results of evil intent are real enough whether they be seen in times of war, suffering of victims of serious crime, or simply those on the end of spiteful gossip. But should we understand evil as a powerful identity that causes suffering in the world? Or is it just a man-made idea that has no reality? Should we ditch the idea of Satan as just old hat?

In one sense perhaps we should. Ever since Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church has defined evil as the absence of good. Just as cold is defined as the lack of warmth, and darkness the deprivation of light, so evil is defined in terms of good. To understand evil one thus needs to understand what is meant by good. For evil is its opposite. To appreciate cruelty one first needs to experience tender care. To comprehend malice one needs to know love. To understand a state of ignorance one needs to fathom a state of knowledge.

Where does evil come from?

Likewise for Swedenborg, evil is the inversion of good. He reckons disorder is the inversion of order, and falsity the inversion of truth. Evil is a quality of life which has no independent origin, but is a distortion of the one Divine life.

Using his psychic vision, he describes a way of life of human spirits in a hidden spirit realm, who choose hatred over love, and crime over justice. One is not normally conscious of their influence but if one continually allows their presence into one’s heart and mind, they are said to then prompt and urge cruelty, sexual violence, and self-ascendancy without any concern for human suffering. We don’t know if people like Mladic will join them in his after-life. But allowing himself to be constantly swayed by their impulses and thoughts, he can become crazed with evil, caught up in a crowd baying for blood. The madness feels overpowering and the individual is swept along apparently helpless to fight against the current.

Actually, Swedenborg says this seeming overwhelming power of evil is an illusion. For there is also a divine sphere of justice and humane concern which is available to us all. This good balances the evil flow. And so we have the freedom to inwardly turn in which direction we wish. But without turning towards what is good we would all be vulnerable to the inflow of cruelty and malice.

Many of us human beings sometimes choose to turn our back on the one Source of happiness and opening ourselves to evil impulses. This is when we put self above all else. That is when what we want determines all our actions together with the fear, pride and greed that accompanies self-love. Just look in at the criminal courts of justice and see what trouble can then be reeked; never mind the international court in the Hague where crimes against humanity are tried. Perhaps the Serb nationalists who still support Mladic will then realise the full extent of the evil their hero has really caused.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Admiration – Do you deserve it?

admiration
Silvio Berlusconi

You have seen the young pop performers, posturing on stage, pretentious, reeking of youthful ego and full of their celebrity status. And you wonder if you could have gone up on stage yourself and done that too. Maybe not! But what about something else you do that deserves attention — great disco dancing, passing of academic tests, goal scoring on the sports field?  Don’t you too deserve some admiration?

A politician wanting admiration

Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi apparently thinks so. Why else at the age of 74 does he surround himself with a bevy of bimbo escorts and sexual scandal? Is this not an attempt to cut a fine figure wanting the image of admiration, adulation, and adoration?

Admiration for those with power, sexual allure & expertise

This desire for others to have a high opinion of oneself shows in other ways. The over-sensitivities of gangland city youth come to mind. With gang leaders it can be difficult, however carefully you choose your words, to talk frankly without making their hackles rise.  ‘We beat him up because he didn’t respect me’. By respect the gang leader meant ‘cow-towing’.

In addition wanting to be well thought of is seen in the victim of plastic surgery desperate for a ‘boob job’ that will give the allure of sexual status. It is also present in the interest in social standing in those who are proud and touchy over questions of social precedence and correct forms of address on formal occasions.

This apparent need for status can also be apparent in the way business people communicate with each other. Use of specialist language can save time when specialists talk together. But sometimes clarity and succinctness go out of the window when people strive to conform to what they imagine is high status ways of talking. One example is the use of phrases like ‘benchmarking’, ‘roll-out’, ‘synergies’ and other management-speak which is tired and discredited by the time it is introduced into a local setting.

But are the rest of us so radically different? Some of us wouldn’t easily admit it but can we too not be a little touchy over the amount of courtesy shown us by strangers, or the degree of deference we imagine we are due on account of our professional reputation? Of course in traditional British culture, if you want to keep the good regard of others, you don’t make the mistake of allowing any boastful note to creep into how you talk about any achievements. No, you have to show off in more subtle ways!

Admiration and ego

According to Emanuel Swedenborg, in the spiritually transformed person, the needs of ego are set to one side – not annihilated contrary to what some spiritual teachers say — but only put to bed.

The writer Dr Michael Stanley puts it this way

All our troubles “stem from believing in the ego’s illusion – that one is separate and self-contained, and what is in one is one’s own. Cease to fall for this error, and heavenly states are experienced – especially peace.”

Admiration for the source of love and light

Instead of egoism with its showing off and concern for status in the eyes of others, a spiritually changed  person chooses to turn to the source of love and light and as a result is filled with a more elevated state of mind that gives an overriding desire to please others for their sake.

Swedenborg’s visionary experiences of a higher heavenly realm is filled with such angelic people who do not think or speak from self yet experience the sublime feelings of content, joy and peace.   The way such individuals vary is seen in terms of the quality of their useful functions rather than any sense of social class, stigma, or fame carried over from the world.  No concern about status there. Just an interest in allowing the divine life to flow through one’s being.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Mental health – Same as spiritual health?

For over thirty years I worked as a psychological therapist in the British National Health Service. I helped patients start to manage and deal with their mental health problems. The service expected me to discharge each case as soon as possible so I could see the next patient on the long public waiting list. Following treatment, the individual received no further active professional help. All I did were follow-ups to check on progress.

Many who had finished therapy had successfully started to better deal with past traumatic experiences, long-term negative situations, and current stressful difficulties. They had become free of their worst symptoms of mental ill-health.

Mental health

However, despite their improvements, I believed many of the discharged patients would have benefited from further help. The condition of mental health is not just the absence of mental health problems.

Mental health is usually seen as a state of subjective well-being. A satisfactory adjustment to personal circumstances and a resilience in facing life’s demands. Some definitions also include personal competence, a balance of autonomy and dependence, and reaching one’s potentials. In other words ‘the capacity to work and to love’ as said by Sigmund Freud.

Spiritual terminology

mental health
Professor Julie Exline

Actually, recent research by Julie Exline, at Western Reserve University, has found that people who more fully embrace struggles with fundamental beliefs and values report better mental health than those who don’t. She identified this in spiritual terms.

“Regular spiritual avoidance can make it difficult to identify, work toward or experience the qualities that lend a sense of purpose to life” (Julie Exline)

In other words, help is needed for people fearful of confronting the tensions and conflicts brought on by existential concerns—the “big questions” of life.

However, in mental health circles at the time I was working, there was still an attitude of negativity or indifference towards spirituality and religion. I am pleased that in more recent times this is slowly changing. There is now much more openness and positive attention given. Hence psychotherapists, at least in North America, are now encouraged to be more active in stimulating patients, if they wish, to explore the spiritual dimension in their lives.

But do the words ‘mental’ and ‘spiritual’ mean different things? Are ‘mental health’ and ‘spiritual health’ not the same? Does spirituality really add an extra dimension?

Transpersonal psychology

mental health
Dr. Steve Taylor

Transpersonal psychologist Steve Taylor studies:

“Experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos”. (R. Walsh, and F. Vaughan)

Taylor has written about an inner suffering of the mind he calls ‘psychological discord’. It is when we have a sense of loneliness, foreboding, dissatisfaction, boredom. I would say you don’t have to have a mental-health problem to experience this emptiness within yourself.

Effects of psychological discord

As a result of this inner disharmony, we want to be taken out of ourselves, to compensate for our dissatisfaction and discord. We seek to defend our fragile ego and build it up. So we react angrily to anyone causing us offence. Or we might put a lot of energy into acquiring material things, social status, power or fame.

We want to latch our attention on to something external to our own discord. So we are also prone to frequently use electronic gadgets to engage in unnecessary activity such as accessing social media, games, television. We spend this time in a passive state where there is no real challenge and we don’t have to engage our deeper nature.

Also we fall into daydreaming or rumination about the past or future rather than being mindful of the present moment. Part of our minds are elsewhere rather than being alive to opportunities for living life to the full. Often we aren’t even properly present to the people we meet throughout the day. Not giving our full attention when we talk to them.

Cause of psychological discord

Taylor says that this state of inner disharmony and discord is normal. We need to learn to inwardly grow as people to transcend it. He attributes it to what he calls a common condition of ‘humania’. This is defined as one of isolation, and incompleteness inherent in our superficial sense of self-hood. He contrasts this sense of ‘I’ with a different state of consciousness he calls the ‘witnessing self’ which is more fundamental.

This concept of ‘humania’ is not so very different from the concept of ‘proprium’ written about by the spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. For him, this is the non-spiritual awareness we have of being a separate, self-contained individual with a mind and body of our own quite apart from other people, the world around us and our divine Source.

“By proprium no one understands anything else than that he lives from himself, and consequently thinks and wills from himself.”(Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher)

Spiritual health

Instead of operating at the level of lower ego or propium, people, have traditionally understood spiritual health to refer to a higher consciousness of ennobling thoughts. It is to do with contentment and peacefulness. Experiencing generosity and a joy of doing good service for others, living ethically, and rising above the natural desires and attachments of the material plane.

Scholars interpret most of the sacred writings of the world’s great religions as referring to an enlightened understanding of life and liberation from wayward motives. Many writers refer to spiritual health as death of an old ‘false self’ and uncovering of one’s ‘true Self’.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Immortal life – Not forever surely?

immortal life

There are two well-known hypotheses – death survival and immortal life. You may find the idea of living forever a bit daunting.

If you were to continue to exist, what you would be doing with yourself all that time? Actually, if true, it would be much more than a long time: it would be – well – forever!

Everything we do would get tiresome if done forever. Food and drink give less pleasure as we become satiated; travel, sport, parties, hobbies, and work become irksome if we do nothing else. The mind boggles at the very concept of immortal life that goes on forever.

immortal lifeTimelessness

From a mystical perspective, immortal life is timeless existence. Something of this consciousness can be experienced now. When you are enjoying life, or absorbed in some activity, then subjective time ceases to matter. It is really only when you are faced with the world’s daily requirements and deadlines that time starts to impact.

People, in this life who feel energised, enthused, and satisfied, are turned on by something deeply meaningful for them. They don’t get bored and time doesn’t drag. What absorbs them, they would happily do forever.

I would suggest whether anyone experiences lasting satisfaction depends on their inner attitude: what mind-set they adopt when dealing with others and engaging in things.

foreverSelf-orientation forever

The basic message of all faith traditions is that there is immortal life  – that we do live forever. Also they all say that deep and lasting happiness comes from learning to stop putting oneself first.

This central idea can be seen in much sacred writing and the books written by many spiritual teachers – when they talk about mindfully living in the present, reducing craving, living ethically, and cultivating love and gratitude. Personal fulfilment is said to be found by making a difference in the lives of others.

And so I would like to suggest a deep sense of meaning comes from thinking about people and community. We can contrast the attitude of ‘what’s in it for me’ with the attitude of ‘thinking of the needs of others’. The latter is all about providing something good by serving a useful function.

My research on midlife adults has shown that the majority of people are more than willing to sacrifice their own happiness to work on behalf of a larger cause. (Susan Whitbourne, psychologist, 2010)

immortal lifeUseful function

In this world putting others before oneself involves finding a useful function in whatever organisation you work for. It could be a charitable, commercial, private or public body.

Perhaps you are like the hands and arms of the corporate body doing the spade work and getting your hands dirty, in the coal face, on the factory floor. Or perhaps you are at the head of the establishment, a director or senior manager taking executive decisions, planning strategy and setting policies. Or maybe you work in public relations and marketing as the face of what the public sees of the company by developing the brand and publicising the added value.

foreverBodily functions

Just as we each can have a place in a corporate body, so we can each have a unique place in immortal life in what has been called the ‘universal human body’.

This isn’t conceived as just the small body of a committee or organisation but the whole body of humanity of good people. Together this huge number of people can be visualised as a universal human form. Just as each part of the physical body is needed so each person in the whole universal human form has a place to play.

So one can learn about what meaningful roles one can find that go beyond time and place, by thinking about the useful functions of each part of the human body – heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, stomach, blood vessels etc. Just as there are countless operations and tasks for all the parts of the body, so there are many and diverse roles for us all to uniquely take. Each different responsibility is a needed part of the whole.

In thinking about a timeless function in immortal life, one can get a clue by considering one’s part played in the body of people to which one belongs in this world – whether it be a small social or work group, or an organisation.

Are you the eye, the nose, the ear of your group or organisation? Maybe you can recognise yourself and others you know in the following?

Eye

Are you the eye? These people see what others miss. They have intelligent understanding and illuminating insight that sheds light on some matter about which others are in the dark. They can see through appearances to comprehend the true essence of some difficulty or issue.

Nose

Or are you the nose? Having a good nose for something is the ability to sense what’s going on that is not immediately obvious. Perhaps something that smells fishy. Following one’s nose is smelling out what is good and bad. In other words having a quick general intuition about what is happening.

Ear

Is your part to play through learning by listening to and then heeding what you are told? Simply carrying out instructions can be crucial when expert advice is needed. Not everyone pays attention. There’s none so deaf as those who will not hear.

Tongue

Or maybe you are the tongue that tastes? Sometimes it is important to find out what something is really like. If you don’t taste it how will you know you won’t like it? This can be important when people are exposed to deceit. Lies will leave a bad taste in the mouth.

Skin

Or are you the skin? The skin interfaces with the environment. Some people interface with the social environment. They keep the social cogs well oiled by making the effort to keep in touch with others.

Heart

Or perhaps you are the heart? Having a heart-felt interest is at the very centre of wanting a fulfilling role. The risk of course in caring is a broken heart when that concern is rejected.

Lungs

Instead you could be the lungs. Without the lungs the body cannot breathe. Those with energy and creative ideas are always going to be needed to breathe new life in to something. Their ideas are needed to prevent a flagging project from dying away.

Womb

Or even the womb? The womb protects and nurtures the fragile foetus. One can sense the tender love of young children that some people have.

immortal lifeBodily systems

And these are just a few examples. There are actually numerous parts of each of several bodily systems –, digestive/excretory, muscular/skeletal, nervous/hormonal, reproductive, and circulatory/respiratory etc.

foreverBody of Christ

Paul writes about idea of a universal human form in terms of what he calls the body of Christ:
“Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:4-5)

This notion is in line with the mystical idea of the presence of the infinite Source of compassion and wisdom in our finite being.

The challenge of immortal life

The idea of living forever challenges us to imagine life beyond the limitations imposed by living in a material world; constraints, for example, of money, geography, and education. It takes us beyond the specific economic, legal and social conditions in which we live our ordinary lives. Thinking about immortal life gets to the nub of what is spiritually involved in finding fulfilment because it raises our consciousness above mere worldly considerations. The idea of a universal human form shows the way all good people complement each other in their individual roles.

What timeless role in immortal life do you feel called for? Where do you fit into the concept of a universal human form?

Copyright 2016 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

 

Criminals – Are some people just bad?

You might think some saints and criminals are basically good or bad.
• Mother Teresa devoted her life to the care and service of the poor.

criminals
Zacarias Moussaoui

• Zacarias Moussaoui participated in the 9/11 terrorist conspiracy which resulted in the death of 2,996 people, and at least $10 billion in damage.
• Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid politician and philanthropist who inspired reconciliation and peace
• Al Capone – a ruthless gangster leader – was responsible for planning many acts of violence including the machine-gunning a rival racketeering gang in Chicago.

There are plenty of others who have done notably good or wicked things. Examples are those awarded with war medals for bravely risking their lives for others, serial killers, campaigners for human rights, war criminals, founders of charities serving the poor, sex abusers, whistle-blowers against corruption/malpractice and exploitative people traffickers.

Even if they have some other sides to their character, you may think such people are basically good or bad – full of selfless love or just plain rotten inside.

Natural causes of conduct of criminals

Are such individuals born the way they are? Should we give merit to nature or blame it for their condition? There is some genetic evidence to support the latter view in relation to the behaviour of criminals. Two genes – monoamine oxidase A (dubbed the “warrior gene”) and CDH13 – are both said to be tied to a higher likelihood of violent crime. Research into temperament has discovered that criminals often have high impulsivity, a sensation-seeking trait, aggression and low empathy.

Environmental causes of conduct of criminals

Others argue if you improve the environment of any individual then you can change the person. According to this view if people had not suffered maltreatment as children, come from homes with marital discord, or lacked parental supervision, then perhaps they would have been upstanding citizens. Also had they not had the social and economic disadvantages associated with a high frequency of changing jobs, unemployment and living in places of dense population, then again perhaps they would have been less likely to become criminals.

Legal view of criminals conduct

Our courts assume that we each carry responsibility for our actions and thus are either guilty or not guilty as charged. In other words regardless of their natural disposition and environmental experiences, even bad people can tell right from wrong (unless they are suffering from some serious disorder which prevents them from so-doing) and thus should be held culpable for their personal choices. This way of thinking implies people are neither born so bad nor conditioned to behave so badly that they cannot obey the law.

Mindfulness and our view of criminals

Similarly, the idea that we have responsibility and inner freedom to transcend our natural disposition and social conditioning is central to the spiritual and religious understanding. Religions teach we all have the potential to be inwardly transformed – find self-realisation, achieve enlightenment, become liberated, be saved.

Along with such beliefs is a common religious assumption: that it is a mistake to identify oneself with one’s impulses, urges and desires. They are merely states of mind, distinct from oneself.

So when you view saints and criminals, do you label them as good or bad by identifying them each with their feelings of say love or hate, or do you assume that they are only temporally influenced by humility or egoism?

Our view of ourselves

Likewise, when you see yourself, do you identify with the feelings and thoughts that come and go? ‘You may say yes of course I do. Why shouldn’t I suppose that my own consciousness is not part of myself? They are my feelings aren’t they? My thoughts. My desires.”

Yet one spiritual writer put it this way:

“We say ‘I am angry.’ But you are not angry; you just have angry feelings. You may say, ‘I am depressed.’ No, you are not depressed; you have feelings of depression” (Thomas Keating, Founder of the Centering Prayer movement)

This is very similar to the Buddhist view regarding attachment. Those who advocate mindfulness meditation advocate non-attachment which is the belief that one’s thoughts and feelings are not essential to one’s self but are merely phenomena to be observed. It is identifying with such thoughts and feelings that is said to cause suffering.

Swedenborg’s experience

Swedenborg is known as someone who made an inward journey of discovery, writing up his numerous mystical experiences in meticulous detail. He reports that whilst he was in an altered state of consciousness, he would see and hear spirits of dead people who were associated with him. These he discovered to be the normally unconscious source of his thoughts and feelings.

He wrote that within his mind he had seen and heard certain spirits and felt the anxieties that well up from them. He observed the increase and decrease of anxiety as they drew near and moved away.

He very often experienced being raised up so to speak into the company of good spirits; but if he were to be let go of, even very slightly, he would be exposed to an inflow from bad spirits whose illusory ideas and selfish impulses would flood his consciousness.

So the question arises, if your good and bad thoughts come from outside of yourself, can you ever be said to be a fundamentally good or bad person?

Ruling love

Swedenborg’s answer is to do with his concept of ruling love.

We all are inwardly making personal choices turning towards either higher or lower spirits although we are not conscious of their presence with us. Turning towards the thoughts and feelings of the higher spirits we strengthen their presence within. But turning to the lower ones, we form bad habits of thought such as impure fantasies, self-serving priorities or  spiteful attitudes.

If we are not careful we begin to own lower ways of thinking which can then start to dominate our motivation. We are slowly forming a type of self-centred attitude that takes priority over higher hopes, wishes and sentiments. Criminal intent thus may become the  reigning desire which is the character one gradually forms for oneself.

Copyright 2015 Stephen Russell-Lacy

Author Heart, Head & Hands (http://spiritualquestions.org.uk/2012/10/heart-head-hands-ebook/)

Posted on15th June 2015CategoriesHuman nature, Latest post, Meaning of lifeTags, , , , , ,

Character – How does change happen?

There may be individuals with a radically reformed character. Several theories offer reasons why this may be possible.

After having been a bad person, is it later possible to become a much better individual? To be a genuinely reformed character? To develop personal virtues which are the opposites of previous reprehensible conduct?

Is it possible to replace a life of crime with honest living? Swap an erotic interest in children for normal sexual desire? Convert a streak of violence to self-control? Or change being consumed by self-hatred into compassion for and acceptance of oneself?

Is radical transformation of character really possible? And if so how might one suppose this can happen?

characterCharacter of Oskar Groening

The so-called ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’, Oskar Groening played his part in a monstrous crime against humanity. As an enthusiastic young fascist who regarded the Jews as subhuman, he had willingly made an oath of loyalty to the fanatical Waffen-SS. A junior NCO, his secret role was to count out the money the Nazis stole from the Jews and engage in a sham bureaucratic process sorting out their luggage. This deceived the prisoners arriving at the death camp into believing one day their property would be returned, so as to keep them calm and ready to accept orders not knowing their real fate.

Later in life he revealed that during the war he had seen the Jews as the enemy on the home front and saying “we exterminated nothing but enemies”. However, he volunteered his complicity in one of the greatest crimes in history, even knowing this honesty about his ‘former self’ meant his trial and, if convicted, his probable death in jail. He wanted his testimony to be used to challenge those who deny the Holocaust took place. “I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria. I saw the open fires. I would like you to believe these atrocities happened”.

Is this an example of a radical change of character?

characterCharacter of Muhammadu Buhari

Another possible example is that of former dictator Muhammadu Buhari who ruled Nigeria in the mid-1980’s. He sent soldiers to the streets with whips. Around 500 politicians, officials and businessmen were imprisoned in his campaign against waste and corruption. Critics of the regime, including the Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, were also put behind bars. Buhari passed laws allowing indefinite detention without trial and imposed a decree to restrict press freedom, under which two journalists were jailed. The execution of three young men, led to international outcry. The war against indiscipline was carried to “sadistic levels, glorying in the humiliation of a people,” wrote the Nobel laureate for literature Wole Soyinka.

However, later in life Buhari has managed to persuade Nigerians he is a reformed character who respects civil liberties. Is he really a born-again democrat who will never return to his autocratic ways and human rights abuses? There is reason to think so. He wants to manage the future for the better by beating corruption and challenging the Islamist militants. He has contested the presidential election three times and lost, and ended up in court perhaps thus showing his commitment to the rule of law.

Theories of character change

So how can anyone radically change? I believe the various theories have both an element of truth and error in them. Here are some of the main ones on offer.

  1. Everyone is basically good. It is thought we just need the right social environment, (e.g. available employment, accessible health care, satisfactory housing, educational opportunity, good family upbringing, and so on) to change our character for the better.
  2. There is a restorative force in nature. It is thought we need techniques of healing which can harness this.
  3. There is a deeper reality beyond us (consisting of benevolence, compassion, justice, joy, peace etc.). It is thought we need an appropriate form of personal therapy or spiritual practice to learn to connect with this.
  4. There is a higher universal consciousness beyond that of the perspective  of individual awareness. It is thought it is possible to discover the latter through practising control over body and mind.
  5. There is a Divine Being with power to free us from ignorance, sorrow and evil. It is thought we need to devote ourselves to and believe in this.
  6. Each person has an inner freedom of decision together with a higher perception of what is true and good. It is assumed we are obliged to make ethical choices in line with this.

Swedenborg and character change

The religious theories of character change often involve the idea of a transforming divine power. According to Swedenborg’s philosophy there is a Divine Being who consists of pure love and wisdom from which good things flow into the world e.g. human insight, virtue, hope, understanding, and contentment. This creative force, he maintains, is the power that enables character improvement.

His view is that before we can be changed inwardly, we need to co-operate with this inflow. This can start to happen as one practises self-examination of daily life without either fooling or punishing oneself. Each time we resolve with the strength of the Divine Being to change our ways in line with what we are learning about ourselves, he says we can hope to be gradually transformed with enlightened feelings.

Copyright 2015 Stephen Russell-Lacy

Author Heart, Head & Hands(http://spiritualquestions.org.uk/2012/10/heart-head-hands-ebook/)

 

Soul – Does my pet have one?

soulOur pets are loyal and affectionate members of our family and we don’t ever want to be parted from them. Lucy a beautiful black cat has lived with us for seventeen years and is nearing the end of her days. To ask ‘Do animals have a soul?’ implies that you do believe in the soul but don’t know if animals have one.

Meanings of soul

Perhaps the answer depends on exactly what is meant by ‘soul’. Here are some possible meanings.

  • Once when Lucy was placed in a boarding cattery when we were away on holiday, she was said to be like a lost soul. Soul in this sense can refer to the individuality of the creature.
  • Soul can mean the essence of something. It’s central character, nature, or quality. If Lucy could bare her soul I’m sure she would purr her satisfaction with her comfortable basket, fishy food and daily strokes. Like other cats her central quality appears to me to be her sensory enjoyment of life.
  • Soul can mean the source of a pet’s feeling and behaviour, regarded as a distinct non-material entity separate from, and animating, it’s physical body. When younger, Lucy, like each living soul with youth, was certainly more full of life and the way she has been cared for has been enough to keep body and soul together. Science can directly observe the effects of life but has never created life itself. It cannot explain the phenomenon of animal instinct. Without a spiritual source to their lives how else can animals show unlearned knowledge of how to feed themselves, find their way home, and nurture their young?
  • Soul can mean a higher quality of mind. Lucy doesn’t say much and is the soul of discretion, but we can’t really say this is the reason for trusting her with our personal secrets. I guess it is difficult to say our cat has a higher quality of mind as such. She is affectionate to those who feed her and shows a limited degree of tolerance with the children but it is hard to imagine her developing more virtues than these. They say confession is good for the soul, but I’ve noticed no sign of any guilty conscience whenever she gets caught in some misdemeanour. On the other hand no animal I know of has ever behaved with the depravity and cruelty of some people. To sell one’s soul to the devil seems a possibility open only to a human being.
  • One meaning of soul is that of an immortal soul. When someone dies we tend to say God rest his or her soul. They may have been through struggle and strife and we wish them peace. Some would feel this sentiment is also appropriate for an animal. Will I ever see my pet cat again after her death?

Immortality of the soul

Why should you believe in the immortality of the soul?

A first suggested answer is in terms of the experience of a mystic and spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. Over the last 27 years of his life, he claimed to be able to see and hear what went on in what he termed ‘the spiritual world’ which he said was peopled with the spirits of human beings who had once lived on earth. He described their first condition after death. At first being involved with the outward aspects of their life, they experience things as little different from what they were used to on earth. To my mind this would include the form of their home, their clothes and perhaps the animals with which they were familiar. So perhaps I will see our pet again after I die.

The second answer to the question is in terms of a philosophical consideration. Swedenborg offers us the idea that eternal human life – a life after death not involving physical time and space – arises from our ability to understand and perceive timeless things and matters that transcend place. I would suggest examples of this are human appreciation of higher art and perception of beauty, our capacity for reflection, the experience of the state of meditation, understanding of ethics of conduct in social affairs, and rational thought that transcends desire. It is difficult to imagine a cat being aware of and appreciating a beautiful painting, or an uplifting musical composition.

Swedenborg maintains that our immortality also comes from an inner liberty that is reflected in our motivation, that gives us free-will to choose our intentions, and that, subject to external circumstances, allows us to make personal choices and to execute plans which fulfill our aims.

These two spiritual faculties he calls rationality and liberty.

Do animals have an immortal soul?

So do animals have immortal souls too? My answer thus hinges on whether they can be said to have rationality and inner liberty. Certainly my cat seems to know what she wants and has a will of her own. But her freedom of choice seems to be limited by her natural instincts conditioned by the system of rewards and punishments she has encountered in daily living. The same might be said by some people about us humans. Traditionally, science has assumed human behaviour is determined by nature and nurture: inner liberty of personal choice doesn’t seem to have a place in its theory.

I would say that human freedom seems to be broadened by illuminated thought. Understanding what is morally good in one course of action as opposed to what is bad in another will inform your decision making. Animals don’t appear to have this kind of deeper  understanding. Consequently, we do not hold them responsible for their actions. Animals can’t be accused of criminal conduct because only we are culpable in law. I assume our pets are uninterested in personal growth, nor fight temptation nor seek enlightenment.

So I conclude my cat has a soul but not an immortal one. Having said that I still expect to see her again in an afterlife because she represents for me the love and affection we have shared for so long.

Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Posted on17th August 2014CategoriesHuman nature, Meaning of lifeTags,, , ,

Gender – Are there deep differences?

genderWhen the women’s movement spoke up for the value of women it rebelled against the traditional gender stereotypes and proclaimed equality between the sexes. It quite rightly opposed any idea of male superiority and female subservience.

Some fear that any talk of gender is only a short step from women being different to being inferior – thus justifying discrimination. After all, women’s pay still usually lags behind men’s despite a sea-change in social attitudes regarding sexism. And so feminists continue to advocate seeing people as individuals regardless of gender and the term ‘gender’ is rejected as a concept constructed socially to reinforce the power of men.

Gender and science

Scientists argue about whether gender roles are biologically based or come about through social learning. But those like the well known researcher Steven Pinker have discovered quite a bit of research data regarding infants, children and adult behaviour which supports some differences between male and female and how the two sexes can complement each other.

“Research conducted throughout the world shows gender balance in top positions contributes to improved competitiveness and better business performance.” (Beth Brooke, top business professional)

Another example of this is to do with amiability.

“Studies have been done showing that there really are gender differences, that women do bring more congeniality and compromise to the table.” (Kitty Kelley, investigative biographer)

Anyone writing about gender in terms of personal experience can only do so from his or her own perspective as a man or woman. I happen to be a man and so am understandably open to the criticism of being biased. But if I were a woman the same criticism might also be applied.

“Only the creator understands both sexes. The rest of us are one or the other. We know only our own. Few writers are bold enough to attempt to define the differences succinctly” (Alan Grange, Christian clergyman)

The question that interests me is whether we should try to ignore gender as if it were of no relevance. Are there no deeper distinctions between men and women other than their physical make up?

Brain gender difference

There is a growing amount of research finding that brains of men and women do differ. Brain activity is more diffuse for women and more specific for men in relation to vocabulary, visio-spatial perception and emotion.

In their book ‘Brain Sex: The real difference between men and women’ Anne Moir and David Jessel point out that research has shown that the two halves of the brain have a different neurological pattern in men than in women. The connection between the left and right brain in men is less marked than in women, leading to a greater distinction between the two halves and their respective functions.

Men, then, tend to keep information distinct from emotion. In women, the connection between the two halves is greater, tending to lead women to see / feel things with more co-ordination and with less distinction. A woman generally works with her whole brain; a man with one or other part of his brain.” (Anne Moir and David Jessel.)

Working with one’s whole brain ties in with the common stereotype that the female gender tend to perceive in a holistic intuitive way whereas the male gender are more liable to think logically.

Gender related values and interests

I do get the impression that the two sexes have some different preferences and concerns.

I am not sure gender ever won’t be an issue in comedy, because I think that women do have different priorities in some respects.( Jenny Éclair, British comedian)

Is it not a mistake to confuse inequality of value to society of men and women with inequality of gender-related interests?

Any difference in inclination or make up between the two sexes is no argument for them having unequal value or unequal opportunity.

Many women become troubled at any suggestion that their main strengths are heart-centred, as if this were in some way of lesser value. In one sense they are right. The cause of their objection is the reality that – albeit mistakenly – the world does value power and the acquisition of money over the nurturing of people and expression of care.

In so many occupations, it is principally the head or the intellectual, understanding side of us which has an intrinsic monetary value, whilst the affections of the heart … attracts only compliments.” (Bruce Jarvis, Swedenborgian writer)

Gender difference in disposition

According to spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, both sexes are capable of intelligent thought and warmth of feeling. At the same time he says feelings of loving concern tend to stay longer in good women and a good man finds it easier to think longer in rational light. The way Swedenborg puts it is to say that with men the mind is elevated into superior light, with women into superior heat. The male is said to be concerned that his actions are directed by the sensible thoughts of the head — or if they are not, he wants them to appear so.

These days such opinions are often heard as sexist — that women are more emotional and men are cleverer — but this is exactly not what Swedenborg is saying. A similar range of intelligence and emotional reactivity is found in both men and women. He says the difference is in perception.

“It is masculine to perceive from the understanding and feminine to perceive from love. The understanding perceives things which are above the body and beyond the world, but love does not go beyond what it feels. (Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher)

Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

How bad a person am I?

How bad am IYou may feel undeserving of any happy destiny because you are fundamentally not okay with yourself. Well, for all I know you might well be consumed by a huge ego, be selfish, vain, bitchy, resentful, etc.  But I would like to ask how do we really know when we are basically bad? That would be quite a big conclusion to carry around on one’s shoulders. Here are four questions that might help your spiritual self-assessment.

1.      How judgmental are you about yourself?

You may not be as bad as you think if you have been focusing on or exaggerating the negative side and ignoring or minimising the positive.

“For all right judgment of any man or things it is useful, nay, essential, to see his good qualities before pronouncing on his bad.” (Thomas Carlyle)

We may be quick to pin labels on people. That’s why the tabloid newspapers sell so well. But being judgmental about oneself is a similar attitude. One can search out for and exaggerate one’s own defects just as easily as finding fault in others. Seeing oneself just in terms of one’s negative characteristics means forgetting such positives as one’s generosity of spirit or one’s desire to better understand the deeper side of life.

2.      Are you biased by an illusion of condemnation?

In many mythological, folklore and religious traditions, hell is a place of damnation i.e. eternal torture and punishment for bad conduct during life on earth. Even today we are influenced by this tradition. Condemnation of others can be paralleled by self-condemnation. The persecutory notion that bad people deserve to suffer is mirrored by the guilty idea that I, who am bad, deserve to suffer.

A very different view of hell however shows up the illusion of self-condemnation.  It is Emanuel Swedenborg’s teaching that in the next life no-one suffers punishment for any past misdeeds however wicked the person committed in the world. According to this view, what punishments do occur do not go on continually for ever because they are not retributions for wrongdoing committed on earth, but rather disciplinary reactions to minimise and deter criminal acts that selfish and cruel people commit in hell. Thus punishments in hell cease when external order has been restored.

From a similar spiritual perspective, it could be said that a loving attitude towards oneself would means cutting out all on-going guilt or self-punishment for any past bad conduct. In evaluating our  character we  shouldn’t be biased by any desire to condemn ourselves for past conduct however bad it was. A sense of self-acceptance is part of the healing process.

Easier said than done you might think. And so those drawn to religion hope they can find a sense of divine forgiveness to compensate for their difficulty in self-acceptance.

3.      Are you being premature in trying to reach any firm conclusions about yourself?

I guess we are all a bit of a mixture of good and bad.

“There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Sometimes we obey the law and behave ethically out of love for doing what is good and right for its own sake. Other times we only do what is good out of self-interest and would behave badly if we thought we could get away with it.

Psychological theories of personal development tend to focus on the notion of integration. Disparate personal fragments in our make up slowly begin to harmonise as our character is formed. My take on this is to say that the process is either one of regeneration or degeneration; spiritual growth or spiritual decline. I believe that over a life-time we gradually are forming for ourselves an all-pervading motivation for something good or something bad and are integrating all subsidiary compatible desires and discarding all incompatible ones.

However, according to spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, this process of integration is not complete in this life: the values that deep down influence our hearts do not always come to the surface and unrelated feeling, pretentiousness  and difficulty co-exist and are manifest in different situations.

He says it is only at some point in the next life that we do eventually fully get in touch with our true self (what he calls our ruling love) when the spirit of who we are slowly begins to really show and the process of separating disparate elements can be accomplished.

 “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.” (Luke 12:2)

Swedenborg’s evidence for his position was his own experience. Subjectively he was able to become conscious of an invisible realm in which his spirit existed and that as part of his journey within a spirit world he encountered both angelic people and also some very unpleasant individuals. Many of the self-centred spirit people wanted to be obeyed and praised and were quick to feel slighted feeling various shades of contempt, vengefulness, nastiness and cruelty. The caring unselfish ones however had the opposite feelings.

4.      To what extent does your bad side now rule your life?

Does your greed, vengefulness, or being unfaithful to your partner, amount to a spontaneous unconsidered urge? One view these days is that behaving badly is nothing much more than making an impulsive mistake through ignorance of what being good involves; not realising the consequences. On the other hand mistakes can somehow get intentionally repeated.

“To make a mistake is only an error in judgment, but to adhere to it when it is discovered shows infirmity of character.” (Dale Turner)

I would suggest giving in to some bad impulse is one thing. Worse than this is deliberately intending to do something bad when knowing it is wrong in one’s heart such as using trickery and deceit, having contempt for others, etc Worst still is habitually delighting in such wrong-doing and looking for reasons to justify such behaviour. Worst of all is fully convincing oneself that such things are allowable and smart.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

What’s so bad about a bit of self-pride?

Self-prideA bit of self-pride seems part of the positive trait of self-esteem.

Possible danger of self-pride

Yet we speak of pride before a fall. The story of Icarus is about a young man’s attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. Icarus ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea where he drowned. In flying too high he is often seen as possessing overconfident arrogance. The proverb ‘Pride goes before a fall’ seems apt, implying suffering for those too cocky for their own good.

On the other hand, sounding superior and important are favoured traits in today’s tough competitive economic climate.  Even if you are not in business, you need to market your work skills in order to keep your own job or get another one.

“At home I am a nice guy: but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.” (Muhammad Ali)

And it is said that it can become counter-productive to be modest because you may not be taken seriously.

So is it really true that you will be like Icarus and suffer in some way as a result of being full of yourself and your ability? What’s so bad about a bit of self-pride?

Noticing the sacred in others rather than self-pride in oneself

In his book Essential Spirituality, Roger Walsh writes about noticing the sacred in other people.

He tells a story about an old woman sitting by the roadside outside her town who was approached by a traveller who asked “What kinds of people live in this town?”

“What were the people like in your home town?” queried the old woman.

“Oh, they were terrible!” fumed the traveller. “Liars, cheats, incompetents, you couldn’t trust any of them. I was glad to leave.”

“You’ll find the people in this town just the same.” Responded the old woman.

Not long afterwards, she was approached by a second traveller who also questioned her about the people in the town.

“”What were the people like in your home town?” she asked.

“Oh, they were wonderful!” exclaimed the traveller. “Fine, honest, hard-working, it was a privilege to be with them. I was so sorry to leave.”

“You’ll find the people in this town just the same. “responded the old woman.

So, how you see others and what you say about them reveals more about yourself than about them. You don’t want to seem to be a know-it-all full of self-pride who fails to notice the value in others. Few people want to appear big-headed about their own abilities at the cost of the abilities of others. Moreover, seeing what is valuable about others helps you be honest with yourself about your own limitations even when this is uncomfortable.

Seeing the sacred in life itself

Spiritually-minded people acknowledge a source of deeper energy and wisdom beyond their own mind. They ask how can one not feel humbled by the wonders of the universe, or when seeing the power of altruistic love manifest in the most extreme circumstances. We are so often exposed to the scientific view, of an evolution without purpose and a universe as a meaningless machine, that no transcendent sacred force — whatever we want to call it — is allowed to exist.

But then we are pulled up short by tantalizing glimpses, of a mysterious quality within nature — perhaps triggered by a beautiful sunset, the wisdom of birds and animals, or the vastness of space — glimpses that offer a truly awe-inspiring experience of something beyond oneself.   At such moments the mundane world is transfigured.

Such experiences, can lead to acknowledging a higher good and truth that exists beyond your own ability, and which is the source of inspiration for human effort. In this way of thinking, the focus is not on the strengths of humanity but on the strengths of the Divine presence within the human soul and accepting one’s dependence on this presence for finding tolerance, patience, and other virtue. Not, as do some Christians, in sanctimoniously promoting themselves as Godly and thus betraying a self-pride in being better than others. Instead, by genuinely bowing down to an origin of all that is good, the individual does not feel empty but full.

“Jesus is the God whom we can approach without pride and before whom we can humble ourselves without despair.” (Blaise Pascal)

Neither need one indulge in self-abasement as do some believers but rather celebrate one’s ability to be uplifted and share the spiritual power available: not in denying the inner strength in oneself but rather in recognising that it is received from a higher Divine source. A bit of self-pride might not be an appropriate attitude for those with this kind of true humility.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems