Book Review-November 2019
Sitting in the Stillness
Freedom from the Personal Story
Mantra Books, Winchester, 2019
Review by Andrew Clark
The impact of the many Spirituality SIG conferences over the last 20 years is impossible to fully appreciate. People have been touched in many varied ways, sometimes by a one or more speaker, sometimes by connections made with like-minded colleagues.
The seeds of this inspiring book were sown at a Spirituality SIG conference on the subject of mindfulness in 2008 which was attended by the author Martin Wells. In his introduction, Martin explains: “After many years’ commitment to this path [of self-improvement], which included workshops retreats and conferences, I was starting to become increasingly jaded – and was going through the motions. My work as a therapist and meditation teacher was starting to feel formulaic and lifeless. But one day everything changed! The words I heard at a conference in London [2008 SIG conference] arrived like a clap of thunder, waking me up from my trance. They led me to question what I had taken to be ‘me’ and to loosen my identification with my story.” The words were spoken by one of the speakers, Jean-Marc Mantel, a French psychiatrist. The words which particularly shook Martin were: “You are not your story........It is fiction!........Enquire into who or what you really are.”
As a psychotherapist, Martin has been offering mindfulness practice in his NHS work for nearly 30 years. His experience at the 2008 SIG meeting led to a radical reappraisal of his understanding of mindfulness and of his personal and professional practice. This book is the fruit of this journey.
The book is divided into two parts. The first is a collection of stories about Martin’s work with individual patients or colleagues. These stories are true, although heavily disguised to protect people’s privacy. The second part has a similar format but the stories are based on his work with couples, families and groups.
Running through these stories are two broad themes. The first is that, although we often come to professional help seeking a better life and relief from some form of illness or disease, the reality is that we already are who we seek to become. From this perspective, behind the mask of our persona (persona = “sound through”) there is a deeper level of being which is whole. As a psychotherapist, one accompanies someone in the “stripping away of false notions of self.” So in describing his work with one particularly challenging patient, Martin writes “If I’ve helped him it has been by not trying to help or fix him but more by staying curious about the man behind the mask. There never was anything to fix! In fact, in trying to help or fix I assume the role of therapist and invite him into the role of patient. If I can sit still enough, by that I mean, be present without roles and expectations, there is a different kind of invitation. From this place we invite the patient into their own stillness, which quite naturally reveals itself as who they are.”
From this perspective, a breakdown in our functioning, may represent the collapse of our constructed image of self, which in turn offers an opportunity for the being behind the mask to reveal itself. This notion of breaking down to break through is not new, but Martin brings a refreshing approach to this that challenges the culture of “striving to be better”.
The second theme running through the book is that of the underlying interconnectedness of all life. This is particularly evident in Martin’s descriptions of his work with couples, families, and small and large groups. He gives good examples of the way a collection of people can function as a self-regulating whole organism. From this perspective, a couple, family or therapeutic group “offers the opportunity to experience both separation and isolation as illusions of the mind and ultimately to experience the common thread that connects us all.”
The final chapter is devoted to some frequently asked questions about mindfulness and responses to these. Martin notes that for all the welcome growth of interest in mindfulness, there is a risk of it being seen as a technique or treatment which “implies a form of doing that takes us from one state to another so that we feel better. But the essence of mindfulness embodies the opposite, reminding us that there is nothing wrong and nothing to be fixed.”
Overall this is a wise and enlightening book. The writing is open and sincere and carries an inner authority born of Martin’s personal and professional experience. He explores profound issues about who we are with a light touch and writes in an accessible and non-technical style. The text is liberally sprinkled with inspiring quotes from poets and mystics through the ages. Many people could enjoy and be inspired by this book – not just those interested in mindfulness, but anyone who is curious about their story and what lies beyond.
Andrew Powell was the founding chair of the Spirituality in Psychiatry Special Interest Group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its founding this year. Over those years it has provided a deeply valued forum for those psychiatrists with an interest in spirituality. This book is a collection of 17 papers and talks given by Andrew between 2006 and 2017, several of them given at conferences organised by the Spirituality in Psychiatry group. It is a welcome sequel to “Ways of the Soul” which included papers from the previous decade. Both collections draw richly on Andrew’s experience of working clinically as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, as well as his understanding of psychoanalytic and Jungian psychology, quantum physics, anthropology and comparative religion.
Each paper is complete in itself and although many of them were originally addressed to clinical audiences, they are refreshingly jargon-free and so are accessible to anyone interested in the subject matter.
The overall focus of the book is the question of what it means to be human and the challenges we all face both on a personal and collective level. Indeed one of the chapters is the transcript of a dialogue addressing this very question. Andrew brings a broad bio-psycho-social-spiritual perspective to his reflections on being human. He sees our bodies as providing a vehicle and opportunity for an evolving partnership between the ego and the soul. The ego helps individuals to grow and survive in the physical world. The soul co-habits with the ego for the purpose of gaining experience and so must share in the ego’s experience of pain. The soul is seen as the particular manifestation of the all-encompassing Spirit (which may be called “God” or “Supreme Consciousness”) in an individual form. Both ego and soul need each other and when working in partnership can become the perfect instrument for creating heaven on earth. However, the ego’s innate tendency to separate and divide and see the world through its own lens, means that it is often unaware of and disconnected from the soul.
At an individual level, Andrew sees the disconnection between ego and soul as a key factor in mental health problems. At a collective level this disconnection has led to a profound sense of alienation and has led to untold destruction of our fellow human beings and Nature. Helping individuals and groups to re-establish a healthy connection between ego and soul has been Andrew’s life work.
The more clinically orientated chapters describe ways of helping others listen to and converse with their soul. With the help of remarkable anecdotes and case stories, Andrew provides glimpses both of his own journey and those of the patients he has supported. He offers examples of ways in which a clinician can invite the patient to go deeper, such as using a question like: “What would your heart say if it could speak?” He also devotes significant passages to the importance of forgiveness, which is ultimately seen as a quality of the soul which balances the ego’s tendency to retaliation. From this perspective, forgiveness does not need to be forced or pushed. Helping someone connect with their soul brings forth the quality of forgiveness naturally.
The chapters examining our collective human situation give a particular emphasis on how, over the last 300 years, especially in so-called Western culture, humanity has become increasingly enthralled by scientism. This is an ideology which particularly appeals to the ego with its explanatory and technological power. Whilst science has brought extraordinary benefits to humanity, scientism has led to a narrow materialistic worldview with little room or respect for spiritual perspectives. Consequently, many in today’s world have a deep prejudice towards matters of the soul. Inevitably, modern mental health care has been shaped by a similar prejudice. Andrew draws on some of the findings of quantum physics and transpersonal psychology to address this narrow worldview and to show that it is no longer in step with modern scientific and psychological research. Fittingly, the final chapter of the book is entitled: “Prejudice – can we live without it?” The chapter and book ends with Andrew’s answer to his own question which is “yes, we must, if there is to be a future for humanity.”
My overall response to this book is one of warmth and hope. Having worked in the same field, I was struck by the courage in Andrew’s professional work which comes through in these papers. He was exploring ways to help people connect with their soul which would have been frowned upon by some colleagues. He was exploring a pathway to healing that not many psychiatrists had trodden. It is worth remembering that the origin of the word “courage” is from the French word for heart “coeur” and this book does indeed have plenty of heart. This heart-centredness is blended with clarity of thought which many readers will value, whether or not they are clinicians.
The book is also a timely exposition of the centrality of love and its importance in any situation in which one is in a position to help another human being. Andrew reminds us that in the face of inevitable suffering we always have at our disposal “the best medicine known to humankind – the healing power of love”.
The title of this book derives from an ancient Indian philosophical concept: “Atmadeepo Bhava” which literally means “Be your own Light”. It is the culmination of the author’s many years of working in mental health services in India and UK.
It describes a model of humanistic psychotherapy based on the author’s clinical experience of trying to help people with a wide range of mental health problems. It is described as a “Self-therapy” which, although particularly influenced by the work of Victor Frankl, Abraham Maslow, Narayana Surya and Carl Rogers, is also personal and distinctive.
The therapeutic model is presented in a self-help format and is clearly addressed to those wanting help, rather than to professionals. The language is relatively jargon-free, practical and refers to theory lightly.
The focus is on what each individual (and those close to them) can do in the here and now to help ameliorate the individual’s psychological suffering. To this end, a range of practical exercises are suggested, not in a prescriptive manner, but rather as tools for each individual to try out for themselves. The approach is underpinned by a deeply spiritual worldview drawing on the author’s own spiritual practice and ancient Indian sacred texts.
Seven major modules
The book describes seven major modules, which the reader is encouraged to work through in whatever order suits them. These modules cover Health, Forgiveness, Self, Connections, Will-power, Relationships and Living with Family. Four additional short modules are presented exploring Time, Negotiation, Creativity and Connecting with the “Common Person”.
A quarter of the text is devoted to the module on Health. The author likens health to a cube or room with six sides: physical, mental, cultural, social, material and spiritual. Interestingly, he also adds a section on philosophical health which he likens to the atmosphere within the room. He addresses each of these areas, with a particular emphasis on personal responsibility.
The module on forgiveness considers both forgiveness of self and other. It offers practical advice on how to deal with painful memories and persistent feelings of anger and guilt.
The module on Self considers the distinction between Self and Other and the importance of balancing the needs of both. It emphasises the intimate relationship between loving self and loving other. There is an interesting section on the pro-self and anti-self tendencies in all of us, which are part of the human experience.
Neither group of tendencies can be completely eliminated. The author notes that the anti-self tendencies have been alluded to in various cultural and religious texts. He refers to the idea of the “Six Enemies” described in ancient Indian texts as obstacles faced by any person on the spiritual path. These are lust, anger, greed, attachment, pride and envy. In the author’s view, the root problem underlying each of these is greed and practical suggestions are offered to control greed.
The module on will-power identifies this quality as the real power behind all our projects, large and small. The practical suggestions advocated to strengthen will-power include self-generated “deprivation exercises”, which may raise eyebrows amongst some readers.
The remaining three major modules focus on nurturing connections with fellow human beings (especially those close to us), to Nature and also to things that serve us well in our homes and workplaces.
In the final section of the book, the author widens his already broad lens and considers how we may all contribute to creating a healthier civilisation characterised by respect for Nature, a true balance of masculine and feminine roles, multiculturalism, a more spiritual and less materialistic approach to life and care for each other.
In summing up, the author again draws on ancient Indian sacred texts in which the three major manifestations of the Supreme Being are described: Satyam – Truth, Shivam – Welfare (sometimes translated as Goodness) and Sundaram – Beauty. Our task as human beings is to strive to manifest these qualities in our lives. For the author, it is striving for welfare of self and other, through service, which is the key for us. “You, I and other fellow beings will therefore achieve our respective places under the Sun if we continue to walk the path of ‘Love Self and Love Others.’”
The book could be a useful tool in working with patients who are looking for a self-help guide and perhaps particularly with those who have an interest in spirituality. It reflects the warmth, humanity and care of the author. I was left feeling that those patients, past and present, who worked with the author were fortunate to work with him.
Dr Partha Choudhury is happy to share his contact details in case any one wish to contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org & telephone +44 (0) 7435425926