Book Reviews

Tony Ryle and Miranda Buckley, 2005. Book Reviews. Reformulation, Autumn, pp.27-28.


A MIND SO RARE : THE EVOLUTION OF HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS
by Donald Merlin
W.W.Norton, NY and London (2001) pb.

Reviewed by Tony Ryle

A decade after his impressive ‘Origin of the modern mind’ Donald presents another major work of integration, this time focusing on consciousness. He draws on a wide array of sources-anthropological, evolutionary and cognitive studies, literature and neuroscience - to offer a passionate assertion of the central role and uniqueness of consciousness in the human mind. Consciousness is not a unitary phenomenon and Donald does not offer a grand theory, but nor does he simply assemble facts from different sources without considering their inter-relations. Having dispatched the ‘hardliners’ who deny or marginalise consciousness or seek to explain it as a purely biological phenomenon, Donald’s first aim, and achievement, is to point to the fallacies derived from laboratory studies focusing on short term processes, such as perception and performance, and to shift attention to the active imagination and management which are the core features of human consciousness. These functions are carried out by brain structures, notably the association areas, which are larger than, but essentially similar to, the brains of other primates. The number of discrete, but distinguishable, capacities linked with this brain area increases as one compares monkeys to apes and apes to humans, but only one - the invention of symbols - is exclusive to humans.

It cannot be asserted with confidence whether, in the course of evolution, increasing symbolic capacity enabled cultures to develop or the development of cultures generated greater symbolic capacity. But in the course of evolution progressively more complex forms of cognition and of culture were acquired. The addition to primate episodic awareness of the mimetic capacities of early hominids, communicating through imitation and enacted metaphors, was the first step and this was followed by the emergence of the mythic cultures of the past half million years where symbolic representation and language formed the basis of orally transmitted narratives defining cultural values and traditions. And from this emerged the theoretic culture of today, with the increasing dominance of symbolic representation and of external storage of information.

All the stages of this evolutionary progress are reflected in the forms of consciousness of which we are capable, but a brain isolated from cultural influences would not develop such consciousness, a fact Donald emphasises by describing us as possessing the first hybrid minds. We share with other primates consciousness as awareness of the stream of discrete events, we express meanings through gesture, posture and expressive movements as did our ancestors during the mimetic stage, we describe and refi ne our knowledge through language and other symbolic form and in all these ways our thinking and our conscious sense of ourselves are derived from our immersion in culture. Donald sums this up as follows: ‘The human conscious process is a specialised adaption for navigating the turbulent waters of culture as well as the primary channel through which cultural infl uence can be transmitted back to us’ (p.322).

The confident assertions of some evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists that consciousness does not exist or does not matter or is simply biological can impress some people as scientific certainties. The work of integrating minds like Donald’s do not offer such simplicities or simplifications but they do unite evidence from many sources and they do provide an account of human experience which we can recognise. Combined with the studies of early development by Trevarthen, and others, which describe the social and interpersonal processes involved in the formation of individual hybrid human minds, it provides the intellectual justification for the emphasis on consciousness, and the making and using of symbols of CAT practice.

NOTHING TO LOSE: Psychotherapy, Buddhism, and Living Life
by Nigel Wellings
and Elizabeth Wilde McCormick,
Continuum (2005) pb. ISBN 0- 8264-7340-7

Reviewed by Miranda Buckley

This is a book about compassion and growth, written from a Buddhist, Jungian and Transpersonal perspective. Those who attended the ACAT conference this year will remember that Nigel Wellings was one of the main speakers on ‘Not pushing the river’ and spoke of the importance of staying with feelings in therapy in order to achieve breakthrough to a different dimension of the personality. He and Liz McCormick have found the practice of mindfulness an important part of their personal and professional lives. At one stage they were both directors of training at the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology. The book resulted from their search for a way of reconciling the tension between Jung’s theory of individuation and the Buddhist belief that individuality is a misapprehension since the truth lies beyond particularity and that, at a metaphysical level, everything is one.

The book speaks as much to individuals to help them understand their potentiality and the processes of their personal growth as it does to psychotherapists, although the authors quote plenty of clinical material and are keen to show how much their metaphysical outlook has enriched their psychotherapeutic work. They suggest that psychotherapy is incomplete without such a perspective. At the same time they have the wisdom to admit that such a stance does not have to be grounded in Buddhism, since some other religious traditions also use meditative practice and value ‘non-dual consciousness’.

They start with a helpful and open account of their own personal and spiritual growth, and by doing so put into practice their belief in transparency. The book then links the myth of the hero, who grows through personal crisis, with psychological insights and processes, illustrated by descriptions of clinical encounters at a deep interpersonal level. The book draws on both eastern and western myths and literature. As a theme running through it, however, it refers particularly to the ancient Sumerian story of Inanna who descended to the underworld in a process of painful transformation. Her resurrection was made possible by the empathic response to her dark sister, who held her body there, by two little creatures, Kugurra and Galatur, who had been sent to comfort her. For a contemporary reader this myth is particularly poignant since it originated in Southern Iraq (then Mesopotamia) where there is currently so much overwhelming anguish and need for breakthrough and healing.

The authors emphasise the importance of developing selfreflection - in CAT, the ‘observing eye or I’ - in order to be able to lead a fuller life and honour previously repressed aspects of the personality. They introduce the concept of ‘maitri‘, which they warmly recommend, as an applied practice of mindfulness whereby a person learns to accept their feelings with unconditional friendliness. This compassionate approach can clearly be a helpful process through which to bypass a harsh internal critic; in this way it is equivalent, to some extent, to the internalisation of the therapist as a ‘good‘ object who provides a refl ective understanding and nonjudgemental stance in relation to the patient’s inner world. Liz McCormick observes that it can also cut through a patient’s narcissistic preoccupations, by shifting the value system. The way in which maitri can do this is because the underlying assumption is that a person can accept their feelings and thoughts because, fundamentally, these are not part of the ‘self’, but are just contingently associated with it (so a narcissistic person’s inflated thoughts are no more a reflection of them than are their dismissive ones). Here we connect with a Buddhist metapsychology and nondualist metaphysic, and this raises many difficult questions. In giving my response I too am running into deep water. However, it could be argued that maitri is but one aspect of a self-to-self relationship, since as agents in the world we both experience and need an internal evaluator of thoughts and feelings to refl ect the ethical dimension of living; and that, whatever the nature of ’ultimate reality’, this is a paradox which we have to live with in the activity of living a life. Perhaps this confusion could be resolved if a distinction were to be made in the book between mindfulness as a selfto- self state (in living a life) and mindfulness as a metaphysic (refl ecting beliefs, intuitions or para-normal experiences about the nature of all that is) although this might put too much of a constraint on what the authors wish to say. Also, in order to claim a unitary metaphysical ’reality’, somehow ethical concerns have to be transcended and this is self-evidently diffi cult. If I understand the book rightly, I also feel there are tensions between what is said about the self as agent (in the importance of developing insight as a precursor to change), Jung’s theory of the individual’s drive towards individuation (which is given to account for individual growth) and the self as seemingly passive in experiencing thoughts and feelings through mindfulness.

The authors emphasise that it is necessary to practise meditation and mindfulness in order to be able fully to understand what they are presenting. They do not minimise the diffi culties in attempting regular meditation, and conclude the book with descriptions of how to begin, as well as how to fi nd help along the way. There is also a valuable section on how to use Gendlin’s technique for ‘focussing’ to track the ‘felt sense’ of previously inarticulate feelings and psycho-spiritual needs through the body. There is, however, no mention of medication in this book; it would have been interesting to hear the authors’ views on situations in which mindfulness, meditation or therapy are on their own not enough.

Finally Nigel Wellings asks whether the book has succeeded in reconciling the eastern and western traditions. This was in itself a heroic journey; and in so far as these traditions have respectively the self or the non-self at their core, I am not sure that it has, or that doing so is possible if these concepts are where we start from. He suggests (on p. 191) that mindfulness, compassion and wisdom take us closer into our humanity; this seems non-controversial. He continues that ‘They take us closer and closer into it. In this way mindfulness is far from a transcendent path that seems to leave behind aspects of ourselves that we deem to be ‘unspiritual’, but shows, through direct knowledge, how every single aspect of us is an expression of our Buddha nature that merely waits for recognition. This is a path of no picking and choosing, because using the tool of mindfulness there is nothing to lose or leave behind’. I can see how this might connect with the sense of Jung’s theory of individuation (a theory about a process of becoming) in the transmutation of the ‘shadow’. But in so far as it is presented as a metaphysic (which, of course, is an attempt to describe all that is, even if beyond a temporal dimension) I find that, at least at present on my own journey, having been brought up in the Christian tradition and deeply imbued with western concepts, I cannot dispense with values and go with him this far towards embracing nondualism. However, others may feel that this view misses the point.

Full Reference

Tony Ryle and Miranda Buckley, 2005. Book Reviews. Reformulation, Autumn, pp.27-28.

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