Body and soul

The problem is perennial: is the mind a product of the brain or has it an independent existence, working through the medium of the brain while we are alive, but capable of a continuing existence once the body dies? The weight of scientific opinion is heavily drawn to the first conclusion, that mind and brain are inseparable, and that when you are dead, you certainly are dead. Nevertheless, the religious consciousness of the world is less sure, and all the major religions envisage some sort of posthumous survival of the personality without the body to direct it. The development of computers that seem to be able to do just about everything, a situation called artificial intelligence, is claimed to substantiate the materialistic position in no uncertain way. And yet many of us feel that there is something in human personality that has an autonomy denied even the most advanced computer. The data of psychical research, or parapsychology, do seem to suggest that mind can act independently of the brain both during life and after death, but the problem lies in the unpredictability of the phenomena and the impossibility, at least at present, of reproducing them at will. The scientific view insists, quite reasonably, on the reproducibility of its data, so that these can be compared in different laboratories, their effects measured, and the whole embraced in a working theory. It is evident that the mind-brain problem cannot be solved scientifically. But there are other modalities of truth besides the scientific model. These are essentially phenomenological: we may study the phenomena as they appear, and see if any pattern of occurrence can be deduced that may give us a clue as to its significance in the lives of the people who claim to experience these effects, and by extension the lives of humans at large. If an unusual occurrence cuts across the normal flow of one's life, such as a sudden awareness of something about to happen that is proved later to have been quite accurate and could not have been anticipated beforehand (precognition), or a feeling of unease with a certain stranger or in an unfamiliar room which is later proved to be accurate, inasmuch as the person turns out to be a criminal or the room the seat of a suicide, one cannot fail to be impressed. Of course it may have been mere coincidence such as is common enough in daily living, but the import of the information makes one uneasy at this glib explanation, and if these types of phenomena recur in one's life, one feels that a deeper explanation needs to be forthcoming.

Is depression a disease of the brain or is it a reaction to unfortunate circumstances earlier on in one's life such as I mentioned in the last chapter? Speaking personally, I come down unequivocally in favour of the psychiatric view, that depression is due to cerebral dysfunction and can usually be alleviated and finally cured by antidepressant drugs. But the "cure" concerns only a single attack, for there is a tendency for the condition to recur. In this case another course of antidepressants may lead the patient back to normality, until either the tendency ceases of its own accord or else one has to steel oneself to the label of being a "depressive". Some people I know who fluctuate miserably between mania and depression, such as I described in Chapter 1, tell me that they can suddenly feel something give way in their head as the wonderful period of lucidity is shattered once again by their bipolar disorder. This to me proves the essential brain disorder in severe depression with or without a maniacal component.

Sometimes an attack of depression seems to occur out of the blue, but quite often there is a clearly precipitating factor, such as a sudden disappointment or bereavement. This type of depression used to be called "reactive", but in fact it is not essentially different from the "endogenous" type that occurs spontaneously without any preceding cause. Whereas most of us are able to cope with these misfortunes of life after a variable period of dejection and anger, the depressive type of individual continues in a negative phase indefinitely. The basic factor may well be a peculiar type of brain dysfunction, but if the person were able more to cope with their character problems, they might not react so negatively that a brain reaction became inevitable. It is in this situation that the possible difference between brain and mind could be worth considering. This is where psychotherapy is of significance. One cause of depression is the experience of abuse during early (and sometimes later) childhood. The poor child may be defiled by sexual assault in addition to being hurt by physical violence. It cannot fight back, and even if the period of abuse ends, the child still bears its stigma. Residual depression is a valuable clue in child abuse cases. Such children continue to think poorly of themselves, and this can easily continue into adult life. Their attitude to genital sex is also frequently warped, either fearing it or else participating in a loveless promiscuity. In due course this negative attitude to life and its pleasures can culminate in an attack of clinical depression. Merely alleviating this medically is clearly insufficient, for the condition is sure to recur. Only patient psychotherapy which painstakingly broaches the cause of the trouble is likely to produce a real change in attitude. At least the cause of the problem is uncovered. In fact healing requires something in addition: a living faith that life, no matter how painful it has been, still has a deeper purpose. This is where the spiritual (a word I much prefer to religious) perspective becomes important. When one reads Viktor Frankl's moving book about his experiences in Nazi concentration camps, Man's Search for Meaning (London: Hodder & Stoughton,1964), we can see how the belief in something important can keep people alive in the most gruesome circumstances. And if that something has a spiritual basis, by which I mean an objective to nobility of character and service to one's fellows, a great blessing may accrue that makes all the suffering seem worthwhile. To the materialist all this is tragic illusion, but then we are entitled to ask what his or her life has really contributed either to their growth as people or to the benefit of their fellow creatures.

Unresolved anger is another potent cause of depression. If anger, which is often a natural response to injustice of one type or another, is not satisfied, it may either flare out into destructive acts of antisocial behaviour or else eat inward to produce depression. One can imagine a person with an important message they feel they are meant to give the world. If they are disregarded or classed as mere cranks, they will feel the bitterness of impotence, and soon depression will show itself. A considerable portion of my own depression as a child was due to the fact that I was a natural mystic of high degree who was completely unable to communicate my feelings and insights with anyone in my vicinity. I am, many years later, finding that this is by no means an exceptional state of affairs. In South Africa I was virtually completely on my own; when I emigrated to Britain I gradually encountered fellow spirits, nearly all women and mostly considerably older than I. A cynic would point to their performing a maternal function in a lonely young man's life, but in fact they played no part in my day-to-day existence (I had always been very independent in my private life until the accident that precipitated the depression I described in Chapter 1, by which time I was no longer young). Women, on the whole, are more intuitive than men, and are likely to accommodate ideas that are almost beyond the masculine imagination. I have met only a very few men with whom I could have a deep conversation. My counselling work, interestingly enough, has evoked deeper thoughts in numerous men who have come to consult me.

My friend and collaborator Katherine Tetlow, whose inner life story has many points of contact with my own, and who is doing remarkable psychotherapeutic work at the present time, has suggested a scheme of inner development undergone by those who are unable to communicate their spiritual riches to their family and school peers. First there is a phase of anger, and this is followed by depression such as I have just described. If there is no relief and the person is strong-willed and of independent nature (like myself), the process proceeds to indifference and finally to a state of living one's own inner life in trust and integrity without regard to the world around one. This state she calls autism, but it is of a different quality from that of autistic children, who are generally incapable of communicating to any satisfactory degree with even their closest relatives. In what might be called "spiritual autism" there is no difficulty in living in normal communication with the surrounding world, so that its basic demands are satisfied and one earns one's living adequately by serving the community according to one's particular gifts. But in the depths of one's inner life, space is given for the experience of mystical union that renders the world's criteria of success very trivial indeed. It need hardly be said that such an autistic existence is lonely, indeed fearful, until one has come to a full acceptance of the situation and is no longer afraid to show oneself in one's entirety to society in general. I believe that such people are the forerunners of a new type of human, pioneers in fact, and as with pioneers in general, the course is rough and uncompromising with martyrdom as a possible end. It could be argued that there is really little new in all this. Surely the saints and mystics of all the religious traditions have experienced rejection until late in their lives, or after their martyred deaths. But what I am describing is a secular phenomenon. Though the types of people involved may have an allegiance to a religious tradition, their lives are not dictated by that tradition. On the contrary, they are free agents, as far as anyone can be free in this world. They can neither claim any support from a religious organization, nor would they seek it. They would rather see themselves as servants for all people irrespective of religious affiliation. Their end is the service of God as Jesus showed in his ministry. There is no account in the Gospel of Jesus interrogating anyone about their religious observance; it was their state of mind that concerned him. As I have already quoted, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6.21).

From all this it would appear that depression can stem from at least two psychological roots: a loss of self-confidence and an inability to communicate one's own spiritual insights to other people, who, to quote another of Jesus' analogies, are like pigs to whom pearls are thrown. They trample on them, and then turn round and tear you to pieces (Matthew 7.6). This is why it is unwise to discuss spiritual experiences with destructively agnostic folk, and why one should seek the help of a therapist who is at least open to the possibility of spiritual reality, by which I mean the existence of God. On the other hand, a dogmatically committed believer may also be dangerous in that they can deposit their prejudices unconsciously as well as deliberately on to their client. The schools of psychotherapeutic practice are legion. Apart from the loyal followers of Freud and Jung there are the group that stress the object-relations theory of personality. Some, on the other hand, practise Gestalt therapy, others transactional analysis, others again the overtly spiritual way of psychosynthesis, and there is also cognitive therapy, which is claimed to be especially useful in depression. This examines the links between a person's thoughts and emotions, and how these affect their mental health. Quite a few are clearly cranky, and can cause bad after-effects on their unfortunate victims. There is alas no disciplinary body in psychotherapy comparable to those regulating medical, legal or accounting practice. Considering this confusing maze, one is wise to exercise caution, and above all take care not to surrender one's own inner belief system to any one school of psychotherapy any more than to a religious tradition. The basic ideas are often praiseworthy, but in the end it is the integrity of the individual therapist that matters, and here the concept of love is all-important. It is the capacity of the therapist to empathize fully with the client that is of far greater importance than the philosophy that guides his or her thoughts.

In my last term at school one of the masters asked me what I intended to do when I left; I mentioned medical study (my father was a doctor), but he suggested that I considered the practice of psychoanalysis, a word that meant little to me at that time. When I look back on my life I often wonder how I escaped some sort of psychotherapy, since I had poor self-esteem and a tendency to depression. Yet an inner wisdom, my inner voice as I call it, directed me sharply from this course of action. As an older man I can at last see the wisdom of the inner caution: I had my own unique way to traverse, indeed I had to fashion that way. The one certainty I had was the divine presence around me. How easy it would have been for a well-meaning therapist to have proved that this divine presence was merely an illusion that allowed me to escape the demands of the world around me, especially marriage and the work of the householder, as the Hindu puts it! Nothing is more gratifying than to interfere with the life-style of another person, naturally for their own good! And my own state of unhappiness would have surely justified this interference. Fortunately for me I obeyed the inner injunction and kept on my solitary way with intrepid resolution despite my emotional pain. The result has been an outpouring of spiritual wisdom both in lecturing and in writing, quite spontaneous and inspirational, that is little short of a miracle (a word which means something to wonder at). My capacity to empathize is also the fruit of long inner experience of myself, and now a ministry of deliverance has been added to my quota of work.

I do not write all this either to boost my own ego or to denigrate the value of psychotherapy; the first is sufficiently well recognized not to require any further advertisement, while the second undoubtedly helps individuals to come more to terms with themselves. But it is a fearful thing to expose your inner life to an unfeeling person. Therefore one should be very careful to choose wisely whom to consult about this delicate matter.

I attribute the severe depression I had ten years ago to gross overwork and a bodily injury acting together on a brain especially liable to depressive dysfunction. I mentioned in Chapter 1 that I tried to combine medical lecturing, the charge of a church, and healing/counselling work up to 10 p.m. in mid-week evenings. How I survived as long as I did is a mystery. I suspect that the injury came in order to force me to review my style of living. Since then I have gradually dispensed with all medical teaching, and cut down the time of seeing people to a latest appointment of 6 p.m. Even now I realize that I am overdoing my activities, but if one has special gifts, I believe they are meant to be used for the benefit of those who need them most. If I had been married, my activities would have been centred around my family. Being unattached, I see all those who need assistance as my family, in this way following the example of Jesus (Mark 3.31-3 5). An extremely psychic person like me picks up negative moods from others very quickly, and I am aware of incipient depressions very soon. I have found that if I lift up the situation to God in prayer at once, the depression lifts. Then I can continue the counselling work. Fortunately only a minority of my clients "drain" me in this way. Many more are delightful people whose company I relish. They have their domestic, occupational, or spiritual problems which we can talk over in uninhibited ease. I seldom give advice, and that only when I am asked quite specifically my opinion about the matter, but from our time together they seem to pick up the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and leave satisfied with what is to be in their future lives. The Holy Spirit works best through a mind that is clear and at ease, not trying to be right at all costs or to justify itself. When we are aware of our ignorance, we are often of most help; when we know the answer before we have heard the question fully, we are most dangerous. In other words, humility is the essence of all healing and counselling work. In that state we are completely open to the Holy Spirit and may give the word that heals. By contrast, pride and arrogance occlude the Holy Spirit from our consciousness, for then we believe we know it all, and there is nothing else that we should hear. A good therapist is a model of natural humility, not the obsequious humility of a Uriah Heep, but the open childlike attitude of one who regards every phenomenon of life, and especially every human, with a mixture of awe and joy, of courtesy and delight.

To end where we started, I believe that mind and brain are two distinct entities. While we are alive, the mind works fully through the mechanism of the brain even if it picks up information in an extra-sensory, extra-rational way. But when the body dies, I look for more experience in the after-life with a now freed mind. This is a confession of faith, not a declaration of knowledge. As Jesus says, "Do not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will look after itself. Each day has troubles enough of its own" (Matthew 6.34).

Chapter 4
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