Criminal punishment – How might this work?

criminal punishmentNearly 75% of those aged over 18 and charged with offences committed during the 2011 English riots, had prior criminal convictions. In some urban neighbourhoods, there had been an intimidating atmosphere from a section of young people who can be aggressive in their demeanour and unafraid of social disapproval. We might wonder whether  the prospect of criminal punishment deters such individuals.

I’m not necessarily talking about all the looters during the recent riots some of whom to my mind were shallow thrill seekers joining in  because they thought they could get away with avoiding criminal punishment. But rather those engaged in  the mob violence, many armed with bricks, who didn’t care too much if they were  caught. Some of these  people were quite prepared to throw heavy slabs through police car windscreens and hurl petrol bombs at officers. This aggression towards the authority of law enforcement suggests a deeply held antagonism to mainstream society by a widespread if small criminal minority who are likely to end up receiving criminal punishment sooner or later.

The attitude of criminal punishment as a just desert

A few commentators have adopted a condemnatory attitude.

“These people are just scum and that’s the end of it. They deserve all the criminal punishment dished out to them.”

And there is a common view that trying to throw light on the riots in terms of social problems is tantamount to excusing individual actions. Social explanations do not erase responsibility of individuals but labelling these people as criminals does not help us understand why they became the way they are. Examining any relevant factors in society is not to justify behaviour but to try to throw some light on it. I would suggest a spiritual attitude is to condemn the behaviour but not the person: it is to look to enhance civil and moral order.

Criminal punishment that allows the drug habit

Is one of the possible social causes of the problem to do with the way society may have failed in its challenge to unacceptable behaviour? In other words, is disorder more likely on our streets because it has not been met with a sufficiently firm, fast and sustained response? It is well known a lot of crime is motivated by a desire to feed a drug habit. And so to the outsider like me it is a bit of a mystery why the problem of drug availability in many of our prisons has not been successfully addressed. According to this way of thinking as people get away with acting badly, social norms about law-abiding behaviour have been weakened.

A charitable attitude to criminal punishment

To my mind, a spiritual approach encourages the kind of punishment for wrong-doing that clarifies to everyone what is right, deters future crime and protects people from harm. I believe this element of social control is entirely in line with a charitable attitude. It is a very different approach to the one that sees punishment as there to make us feel better when criminals get their ‘just deserts’. Arguably, such an un-charitable attitude is counter-productive. Short-term imprisonment has been shown not to work in preventing re-offending. We need to be more creative in developing punishment that does work better. This is not to argue that punishment alone is enough but to suggest it is a crucial part of the mix of the ways disorderly behaviour can be more effectively challenged.

Community sentences as a form of criminal punishment

Offenders have not been obliged to face the consequences of their actions for example by paying back to the communities they have damaged. They need informing about what should happen locally to repair the harm they have caused. This is not a soft option. It is very popular amongst victims and can help those hurt by crime to feel a sense of closure. It is said to reduce the likelihood of re-offending.

Community sentencing as an alternative to imprisonment has not found public confidence. I suspect one reason is it has been seen as a less expensive alternative to locking people up and therefore insufficient resources have been allocated to give it a chance to have some impact.

Restorative justice as a community programme can be combined with various forms of punishment. It is a process requiring skilled facilitation – thus financial investment. Those who advocate it argue that it has the potential to help in the repair of fractured relationships and to foster a sense of responsibility in those who wronged others. I believe it is entirely in line with a psycho-spiritual response to wrong-doing whereby true charity of feeling cannot be divorced from good sense of the understanding in action – the heart, head and hands working together.

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

School discipline – how should it operate?

school disciplineOne view expressed in The Times newspaper in relation to the 2011 English riots is that “these disgraceful scenes were perpetuated by people who have not experienced any meaningful consequences for misbehaviour at school ” And so the spotlight is falling on school discipline.

Some teacher unions are saying that badly behaved pupils are running wild as staff feel  powerless to discipline them. In relation to school discipline, teachers complain that their authority is undermined both by government and by parents. Sometimes the latter have been known to aggressively come into the school to complain about teachers who dare criticise their children let alone try to discipline them.

Polarised attitudes to school discipline

Attitudes to responding to misbehaviour seem to have polarised between the hard conservative right and soft liberal left. Those on the right of politics bemoan about school discipline in what they see as a breakdown of authority. They would probably like to see a return to Victorian values such as shown in the phrases ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ ‘The little savages need civilising.’ Harsh draconian remedies may chime with a mood of resentment and anger. This is an unashamedly punitive attitude, components of which can be seen in the tabloid press, who scream for a blaming, punishing, labelling approach to misbehaviour.

The opposite attitude and one that historically has been probably a reaction against it, is one of ‘hands-off’ often accompanied by feelings of guilt regarding punishment which is seen as a violation of human rights. It is characterised by an expectation that children will thrive and behave in socially acceptable ways if they are given support and trust because of an innate goodness in their makeup.

According to this view the emphasis should be on support involving being reasonable, finding excuses, and trying to rescue the person from their problematic pattern of behaviour.

Psychologists on school discipline

However, psychologists tell us that acceptable behaviour needs to be consistently rewarded and unacceptable behaviour consistently earn disapproval, if social learning is to take place. In other words children are not born socialized. They find out how to behave properly. They have to learn to co-operate with others. They need to be trained to respect other people’s rights.

But to achieve this, teachers need to combine control with support, firmness with kindness. Control, means boundary-setting, discipline, and firmness; and  support involves nurture, encouragement, and kindness. These two things, control and support, are not actually opposites but two different dimensions of social correction.

School discipline from a spiritual perspective

From a spiritual perspective, Swedenborg writes about support in terms of a charitable heart. However, for him a charitable heart is not one at all unless it is informed by good sense of the head. This is his philosophy of the ‘heavenly marriage of good and truth’. One without the other lacks spiritual life. In his book Doctrine of Charity (section 163) he writes about those administering rules fairly are behaving charitably even when inflicting penalties. He compares this with a parent who from love firmly corrects bad behaviour.

School discipline as supportive control

Showing supportive control is entirely possible. It means exhibiting kind firmness. When this ethos is present within the school culture, teachers do not noticeably yell at the children. This combination of control and support tends to result in students acting in an orderly rather than an unruly way both within the school and whilst leaving it at then end of the day.

Such a teacher will be authoritative rather than authoritarian, responsible rather than negligent, empowering rather than only caring, and will foster a cooperative environment.

It doesn’t mean telling pupils that things are wrong in a self-righteous or over-severe manner, for in this circumstance the youngster will probably treat what the teacher says with scepticism or hostility, and especially if the adult is not following the rules him or herself. Neither does it involve failing to notice what sanctions are available.

Pupils need to be obliged to face the consequences of their actions.  What kids take for granted might be viewed as privileges that can be withdrawn rather than rights to be respected regardless of conduct.

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

Choose Happiness

  Ten steps to bring the magic back into your life by Steve Wetton Aber Publishing 2007 pp 144

By his own admission, the author is no intellectual, yet neither is he a fantasist and what he reports has the ring of authenticity. He offers us the chance to create a better life for ourselves and he does this by discussing his approach to positive mental attitude and the idea that whatever we get out of life depends on what we’ve put into it.

He takes the view that many of us consistently undervalue our own potential. But more dramatically he illustrates his theme, encouraging us to learn from his mistakes. He shares his own experiences and that of others he knows – real life stories that keep one’s attention.

Wetton tells us something of his younger days – excessive alcohol consumption, womanising, and sometimes violence. Someone who hated all the numerous jobs he tried. Spiritually speaking he was lost. But he eventually found a path.

One job he had involved driving around in a little van visiting customers on a door-to-door basis selling stuff and collecting weekly payments. One particular day he was running late rushing away from a house call when he got back into his van that was parked on the driveway.

“I looked over my shoulder and prepared to zoom into the street without any obstructions to worry about. But for some unaccountable reason I found my foot lifting off the accelerator and slamming down on the brakes before I’d moved at all.”

He slipped the gear into neutral, rechecked both wing mirrors, and even turned completely round in his seat looking through the rear window thinking he was wasting valuable time. For some unaccountable reason he switched off the engine and got out to find a small child sitting very quietly just inches from the rear bumper happily playing with a toy and completely oblivious to any danger. It transpired she had come from an adjoining garden.

However, no summary by me can do justice to this or any of the string of personal anecdotes that have to be read in full before the credibility of what they reveal can be grasped.

The reader is not asked to accept that a strange spiritual power definitely exists but only the possibility that it might do so. For it is understandable that many people might tend to believe instead that things just happen by chance and because of natural causes. However, I would suggest that those who cannot put to one side an attitude of cynical disbelief, will not like this book.

Having said that, I suspect they are in a minority. If approached with an open mind this book will be rewarding. Its honest and fascinating glimpses into meaningful coincidences and helpful premonitions, can give credibility to the idea that we can all be guided by a higher power and shared psychic realm. The way Wetton puts it is to suggest

“We are all connected to each other at a spiritual level and connected to some invisible something else that’s part of the life force itself.”

Choose Happiness is drawn with a light touch and makes for easy reading. For me it does what it claims and brings a touch of magic to the meaning of life.

Copyright 2010 Stephen Russell-Lacy

Nurturing the Soul Course

By Helen Brown published by spiritualwisdom.org.uk © July 2009 pp 75 £9.95 Enquiries:  contact editor@spiritualquestions.org.uk

Helen also leads groups taking this course. The aim is primarily to encourage reflection, experience and exploration of what our ‘soul’ means for each of us. The scope of the course includes music, art, prayer, meditation and energy medicine.

This has been a course that was both inspirational and challenging.  Throughout the eight sessions in our exploration of the ‘soul’, Helen gently guided us along an inner path in keeping with her book on the subject.

We were a small group who throughout our time together formed a very supportive and close connection.  At the beginning of each session we sat round a table where there was always a simple but beautiful delicate arrangement of flowers and leaves encircling a candle.  As we lit the candle and concentrated on the light we left behind the outside world, forming our own peaceful and tranquil world through meditation and prayer.  This made a perfect start to our spiritual journey, discovering and connecting with our own soul.  During the course we were encouraged to follow our own path freely, expressing and sharing our thoughts and feelings.  It brought in music, art, prayer, meditation and specially chosen readings to help in this search and nourishment of our own soul.

It was suggested by Helen that we should keep a journal where we can reflect on the course as it unfolds, giving time for more thought.  I chose an artist’s journal as I find both illustrating and writing stimulating.

In the quest for the soul I found I was becoming more attuned with my inner self, gaining a deeper understanding of what this long journey involved.  There were parts which were challenging and painful; complex issues had to be confronted before moving on.  Throughout the sessions this was balanced with the uplifting realization that the soul is a recipient of life from God and that the Divine flows in with Love and Wisdom.  The soul is a sacred place where God dwells.  This knowledge is inspirational, but before we can find and nurture the soul we have first to reach down into the recesses of ourselves, seek and find God and with love bring Him into our daily lives, letting His light shine in our hearts.

I have found this course exhilarating and plan to continue with this spiritual journey.

As we sat around the table for our last meditation, it came to me that our group represented a lotus flower.  I visualized each one of us as petals of the flower joined together as one with the candle in the centre radiating light.  As we lent forward to blow out the flame we sent love and peace to the world.

“OM.  In the centre of the castle of Brahman, our own body, there is a small shrine in the form of a lotus-flower and within can be found a small space, we should find who dwells there, and we should want to know him” (Chandogya Upanishad).

Rosella Williams, Course member

Here are some additional comments from others in the group: ‘its been a spiritual journey, a journey of discovery’, ‘ I found it opened doors and brought up things that I hadn’t thought about before’, ‘enlightening’, ‘gave me peaceful thoughts – we shared the journey’, ‘helpful and reassuring’.

Light and Darkness

light and darkRecently I have been reflecting on the contrast between light and darkness. At this time of year when in our northern hemisphere the days are getting shorter it focuses my awareness on light or the lack of it.

This interaction of light and darkness is present right from the beginning of the Bible. In the first day of creation light is separated from the darkness. This divine allegory of the spiritual creation of humankind begins with the coming of light or the enlightenment
of inner darkness. This dynamic is echoed throughout the Bible and in particular in the Christmas story with its theme of light coming into the darkness.

John’s Gospel reminds us of our spiritual creation when it starts with the words In the beginning was the Word. In John 1:5 we read

“the light shines in the darkness”.

This particularly struck me when I read it again recently; the light shines in the darkness. The presence of the darkness highlights or intensifies the presence of light. It reminds me of other contrasts between clarity and confusion, the unknown and the known or wisdom and ignorance. The light of truth shows up the darkness of ignorance, illusion and lack of loving kindness within the human spirit, mind and heart.

Our human understanding is limited to see just what is around us or just ahead. What the future might bring lies in the darkness and is unknown. Swedenborg expresses this in the following quotation:

“The first step is taken when we begin to realise that goodness and truth are something transcendent. People who focus exclusively on externals do not even know what is good or what is true; everything connected with self-love and love of worldly advantages they consider good, and anything that promotes those two loves they consider true. They are unaware that such “goodness” is evil and such “truth” false. When we are conceived anew, however, we first begin to be aware that our “good” is not good. And as we advance further into the light, it dawns on us that the Lord exists and that he is goodness and truth itself.”  (Secrets of Heaven: 20)

However, Divine Light raises up human reason into a greater light, bringing a higher perspective. And in its wake comes a deeper appreciation of the quality of Divine Love and the Divine Purpose for all humankind to be in loving connection that is The Way. Perhaps it is possible to see the experience of both light and darkness as a necessary part of the dance that is spiritual development. We are called to be children of the light and allow the light to be born in us and shine forth.

Copyright 2013 Helen Brown

Information technology – Toxic to spiritual life?

Information technologyWith the growth of information technology, more of everyday life activity involves our interaction with computers and smart phones rather than face to face with people. Examples are doing banking, shopping, work assignments, and social interaction. The question arises as to whether all this involvement with computers, and mobile phones may be reducing our ability to create community and make commitments? Are we using information technology wisely?

Information technology and the global news network

Information is conveyed from one end of the world to the other swiftly within an instant transmitted through information technology on the internet and television. So we are constantly  aware of another bit of bad news which is happening somewhere or other. Is the sheer volume of news in danger of overwhelming us so that although we are more aware of the headlines we are no more deeply informed about the plight of human beings?

Information technology and social communication

We can now chat endlessly on our mobile phones. And through social media like Facebook and Twitter, as well as text messages and emails, we are able to read messages wherever we are and whatever we are doing.

A lot of the social information being communicated is relatively trivial. Yet more and more, there is an expectation that we stay constantly connected. You may have had people become indignant or suspicious when you’ve turned off your mobile  phone, or not responded to texts or emails at least twice a day to suit them.

As a consequence you may be on constant call from those such as work colleagues and family members who can make demands on you  without any time you can really call your own. It has become increasingly acceptable for employers to expect employees to be reachable ’24/7.’ Is heavy use of this technology adding to fatigue and stress in young adults?

How do you use information technology?

It seems that school children these days are spending more time on social media than on their academic work or talking to their siblings or parents. How long can adults go without calling or writing to others and giving them an update on their life? How empty would your world become by filling more time with chit-chat. What would you be missing out on?

Information technology and spiritual well-being

It is good when you connect with others in a meaningful way. But shouldn’t you also be looking for ways you  can ‘disconnect’ from the minutiae of the world which is distracting you from the routine joys and sorrows of life alone in our own skin?

Sometimes it seems that just being oneself and doing our own thing can be boring. Having someone distract us however superficially from the tasks we are set can feel like a welcome relief. Or daily work can feel like drudgery and we seem to yearn for relief through a little entertainment, gossip, or even some nonsense that can take our mind off what we are supposed to be thinking about. Or where we are can feel lonely because we haven’t found a way of relating in any sort of satisfying way to the people around us — so we resort to listening to someone over the phone even if they are many miles away.

Is it not better to face up to the challenges where we are, face them bravely and find the peace and contentment that comes from being mindful of what useful things we can in the here and now?

Love of the world

The spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg maintained that one thing that blocks our reception of the spiritual — for example the experience of peace and contentment — is what he called ‘love of the world’. What he was getting at is being preoccupied with the outer side of life. In other words putting first things like money, reputation, social status, being popular, the material trappings. Buddhists refer to the problem of being attached to the things of the world. The external side of life can distract us from allowing the spiritual side of our minds to open up.  What is superficial can get in the way of what is deeply important.

You don’t have to go into the desert and give up all the comforts of modern living in order to find the spiritual. Religious people have said being alone with God is an essential part of  their faith. Some people have gone on spiritual retreats and it has worked for them but you don’t have to go into a monastery with a vow of silence to enter into a state of meditation, reflection or prayer. You just need a brief time of privacy undisturbed by others in your life.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy

Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

How do I find a new direction?

Do you need to find a new direction in your life? One sign is when you feeling a bit empty or discontented. Lacking much in the way of a sense of fulfillment in what you do?  Perhaps you are drifting through life without a clear sense of where you are going.

Having a meaningful sense of direction makes everything you do and see come alive in terms of what you are making of your life. But just how is this found?

Self-actualising motivation

New direction
Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow’s focus for psychological research was people who seemed healthy and creative, rather than those who were disturbed. He developed his well-known hierarchy of needs which included hunger, sleep, safety, belonging, love, self-respect and recognition. The hierarchy culminated in the need for what he called self-actualisation by which he meant wanting to make full use of one’s talents, capacities and potentialities. He reckoned we all have this desire deep within to find a new direction in life.

Of course there are limits to what anyone can achieve. With my eyesight problem, I would never have passed the R.A.F medical to get into jet pilot training which was my teenage dream. My article Drifting — how to stop deals with limitations on our aspirations due to nature and nurture.

Opportunities for a new direction

However, how open-minded are you to new realistic possibilities? Do you notice prospects for change? Or perhaps you are too set in your ways and too fixed in your ideas to take up new personal contacts, new avenues of information?

According to your interests you could join a relevant social network looking for personal contacts that might lead to something worth trying, whether it be a local voluntary project, a new type of skills training, a business venture in a new market. Some people are prepared to pursue any unexpected job break however humble with the hope it might lead towards something better.

Others sadly allow the obvious difficulties they face to overwhelm them and turn them into victims of their circumstances.

From a spiritual angle, I would suggest you will fail to perceive any meaning in what you do in so far as you lack a basic love of life. Not having enough feeling would sadly confirm Paul Sartre’s famous phrase ‘Man is a useless passion’. This is a denial of any meaning to existence and it simply adds to a sense of futility and boredom.

In contrast, one spiritual dictum I rather like is

The more you put into life then the more you will get out of it.

In other words, the more you go out of your way to try something then the more chance you have of finding something that suits you whether it be a hobby, a job, or a partner. I would suggest looking for a meaningful fulfilling role is like looking for a mate —  creating opportunities, looking around, kissing frogs.

So with all your heartfelt desire why not search out for opportunities to pursue?

What hinders us from finding a new direction

We are quite good at deceiving ourselves as to any higher calling which apparently is at odds with the prevailing climate of opinion and conventional styles of living. Don’t all these throw a blanket over the anxiety generated by the impermanence and uncertainty that only a deeper perception of life reveals?

Unfortunately, when feeling anxious we tend to escape or avoid whatever feels threatening. We play down our chances in life when it feels too much of a challenge; when our complacency, our fears, our resistance to change are all threatened.

Openness to a new direction means accepting this anxiety and not hiding from it.  It means being open to possible failure as well as success.

Story of Aung San Suu Kyi

How would it feel to build a life away from your own country and then return there to find it in turmoil? How would you respond to being asked to lead a protest to save your country, knowing the personal sacrifice that will involve? Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of a dead national figure in Burma who was called to lead Burma’s democracy movement in opposition to its military dictatorship. Despite their loving relationship, she and her husband were willing to suffer long separations, and a dangerously hostile regime, for the sake of trying to help the country find peace in a situation of political turmoil which continues today. She exemplifies finding meaning and purpose in life in terms of ‘looking above’ self which is discussed in How do I find meaning and purpose for my life?

The transpersonal dimension beyond the individual

Few people these days seem to gain a sense of ultimate meaning or direction from their understanding of traditional religious beliefs. However, in his research Maslow found that self-actualisers often had the ability to have mystical experiences. As a non-religious person he nevertheless supported the notion of ‘transpersonal psychology’ a field of study of human experience concerned with something which is beyond and bigger than the individual person — something many call the spiritual dimension.

What fulfillment is

People who feel fulfilled in what they do live fully in each moment. They put their trust in doing what feels right for them rather than living up to the expectations of others. There is often an acknowledgment of a spiritual reality within the physical universe. This for many means intending well towards others for the sake of the common good rather than for the sake of self.

According to spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, there is a different Divine purpose uniquely there for each of us if we allow ourselves to be carried along by the stream of Providence. He adds the idea that there is a heavenly role prepared for each of us if only we try to find it.

Everyone there does something specifically useful, for the Lord’s kingdom is a kingdom of uses. (Swedenborg HH 387)

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