Tag Archives: Herbert Benson

Holotropic Spontaneity and Carl Rogers I

A lot of this is about spontaneity.

Spontaneity of course can manifest in the “sudden solution” and “sudden inspiration” experienced by most people now and then, often described by artists or scientists etc. It’s dubbed the “Breakout” by Herbert Benson. Artists know the difference between real inspiration welling up, which is natural, and that which is calculated. The key in all these effects is their appearance from outside the system one thinks of as “oneself”.

Spiritually Transformative Experience works in just the same way. It is a natural welling-up, whether it is deliberately sought or unexpected.

When Kundalini comes, for example, sometimes it is dramatic:

Suddenly, with a roar like that of a waterfall, I felt a stream of liquid light entering my brain through the spinal cord… I experienced a rocking sensation and then felt myself slipping outside of my body, entirely enveloped in a halo of light…

– Gopi Krishna, Kundalini (1967)

One day, when I was meditating… an incredible power rushed through my spine to the top of my head… My whole body was burning… I felt as if my head would explode with energy…

– Hiroshi Motoyama, Theories of the Chakras (1981)

As I was running energy around the orbit… I saw a brownish-gold coil of powerful energy… it had a head like a viper and began to come up my spinal column… when it reached the skull this time there was no mercy and no stopping it… It was as if the top of my skull blew off and I was radiating up into a fountain of light…

– Glenn Morris, Path Notes of an American Ninja Master (1993)

But the welling-up I’ll write about in this series is quieter, and more of an initial preparation in many ways, forming a ground for experience to come. It’s also about coming to see one’s own personality and thus is not merely a quiet process, but it’s a gradual one, generating a new personality that is truer to the soul.


The Way That Finds Itself

The Breakout Principle

If you are going to do it, it is actually not “you” who will do it — “it” will do itself. A big part of the skill taught by successful lineages is learning to watch neutrally as the process does the process.

This relates, on the level of ordinary psychology, to the Breakout Principle of Herbert Benson, in which you first put a lot of energy into the process of solving any problem — performance anxieties or creative blocks, life rearrangement or stress reduction, deep questions of purpose — then having struggled you let go of the process, stop, do something different, something repetitive usually, something in which “you” are not involved in the same way. It could be meditation, it could be needlework… he gives pages of things people have used including reading, shaving, drumming or folding laundry. Thanks to a mechanism we all possess, this causes you to be struck by a solution “breaking out” of previous thought patterns, a solution “from nowhere”.

Benson’s book in my opinion frankly is a little naff, but still very good to know. :) LATE EDIT: Just speed-re-read it and added more to the end of this post; if that inspires anyone to get the book it’s currently going for absolutely peanuts, especially on UK Amazon. (Maybe the rest of his stuff is worth a look too — Glenn cued off him in a lot of ways. He’s even got some of the biology which is such a big key. I’ve read Relaxation Response and it’s a good basic book with a pleasing attitude.)

I think this “Breakout” just may be the central human psychological mechanism. Yet there is so little on it in psychology — even transpersonal psychology, whose very name implies it. I think many people experience these signs as little peak experiences, which is how Benson analyses them. That connects to Maslow, but Maslow didn’t produce any method, where Benson does. I described one of my early Breakouts here on the ‘Box back in January, but didn’t even realise I was talking about a Breakout myself! I see now the description is exact, as bolded here:

I remember the moment I got my first blast of the actual Earth, from opening the base chakra plus doing a bunch of work with sexual energy. It was after I’d stopped meditating for the night and was engaged in something unconnected. Suddenly I felt it. The first words into my mind were ‘old and strong’. That was how I observed-experienced it unfolding…, bristling and deep, full of silence, strong, massively present and aware…

The Sequence of States in a Breakout

I think that moment of life in which something breaks through is a fundamental aspect of psychology which really goes places when you get deeper. At the stronger STE (Spiritually Transformative Experience) end of the scale, it leads to removing “oneself” from the equation altogether. Hence, “death”, hence “egoless” and so forth. That thing whose fortunes one has to keep track of amidst the baboon horde no longer binds. Although this is radical, I must mention that it is incredibly subtle too.

And it just happens. I like to remember what Glenn says:

Most of the religious writings with the exception of Patanjali strike me as poppycock. They describe the life, but not the practice that resulted in the life.

Path Notes of an American Ninja Master (1993), p. 41

Exactly — nor the process that this practice set in train. Preaching at people that they “should” remove their egos is probably fairly pointless — the word “should” is an ego word. My most beloved process is the Kundalini process, which long-term enables this neutrality exactly. In just the same way as we have “peak experiences” and “plateau experiences”, so we have peak STEs and plateau STEs. Kundalini sometimes announces itself with a big peak, but the plateau element is inevitable once awakened and comes from living with it for years. These changes are profound and are really what ‘ego death’ means.

There may be many true ways to do this and we know many involve Kundalini — possibly others don’t. (What is valuable is any way that works.) But I could never imagine a way which didn’t involve letting go to “it”. It does it; “it” is always doing everything.

An eloquent writer on the result is Philip St Romain, who is both Kundalini experiencer and Roman Catholic. Right away that tells us something about universality. I don’t know if he has taught Kundalini but he has certainly described it pretty well, and joins the group of those, like Gopi Krishna and Glenn, who were practicing something and then suddenly found ”it” happening. They didn’t know what “it” was at first and that is not an easy situation. In St Romain’s case the practice was prayer which perhaps says something about how sincerely most people pray by comparison :) and resulted in interesting stuff like the throat opening first. He writes:

One of the first things that happened to me, when in 1986 my prayer deepened, was a sense of having lost myself. The union between self-awareness and self-concept was dissolved, and without a self-concept mirror to gaze into, I no longer knew myself. I still had a self-concept; my beliefs and convictions about myself were still there… But the emotional bond with self-concept was severed…

Who was I? I realized that I was not my thoughts, not my memory, not my body… I sensed a response coming from my intuitive higher self. “Philip St Romain is dead!” came the word. “Quit trying to find him”…

Since then, the Egoic pole of consciousness has returned, only not as before. For although there is, with me, a very definite sense of “I”, this “I” is not the old mental-conceptual Ego. Now, the “I” is just an “I”… I have become increasingly aware of my attending self, or “I”, as pure attention itself. It often feels like the Ground Itself sees out of my senses, and when this happens, attention is realized at its Root. There is just the seeing…

Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality (1991)

This is an excellent description of death and rebirth into a different form of consciousness, the idea embodied in those myths I’ve mentioned before — Zagreus and Osiris, etc. The “Ground” mentioned is the “Dynamic Ground” of transpersonal psychologist Michael Washburn. The new “I” doesn’t get in the way so much, and doesn’t need to be got out of the way for “it” to happen through the person. This is the key. Note how the “ego death” just happened, naturally, which is why it can be so central in so many places. This is natural human functioning, of a certain kind.

Spontaneity is central to Kundalini — the bodily movements, the feelings, the perceptions, the natural results of wiring into the bigger version of oneself previously excluded by habitual attention only to what comes through the physical channels. All of this occurs.

I don’t see enough on spontaneity. Psychology doesn’t often understand its relevance and stamping it out of people is one of school’s first tasks. All moments of creativity and inspiration are spontaneities. This to me is what transpersonal psychology should be about, this psychology which goes “beyond the person”. Not so much with the maps based on comparing thinkings. I suppose that may be natural at the transcendent level — but how do you get there? I want more with the getting sleeves rolled up and finding these links. Spontaneity works on the ordinary level and then on non-ordinary levels. That makes it a principle with universal application.

Another master of generating Breakouts, Milton Erickson, shines when it comes to how rigidity grows in the natural frame of reference:

Eventually the entire conscious awareness of the individual may become restrictively governed or dictated by the very structure that originally developed to allow an increased freedom of response.

– Ronald Havens, The Wisdom of Milton H. Erickson (1985)

… which is why one needs to let go of that structure. But Erickson didn’t do what Benson did and give a range of formulae for one’s own breakouts, since his interest was purely clinical. He was a master at getting others out of their own ways, but didn’t see it as his job to give them a new map about what had happened. For Erickson all conscious maps are wayward, bizarre, rigid and complex, but the unconscious is simple, universal, and brilliant if allowed to work.

Of the world traditions, Taoism is the one that most values spontaneity — it has a term for it, ziran, which is fundamental since Laozi. Isabelle Robinet points out that ziran is the Te, the power, of the Tao itself, and represents “being natural in its highest sense”:

… ziran defines the way the world goes on by itself without anyone “doing” it… In human beings, ziran means being free from dependence on some other thing or substance [equivalent to self-actualised]… being natural… and being creative… To respect ziran one should not interfere (wuwei)… To act spontaneously is to have no intention of one’s own, to let the natural force that is within everything work freely…

Routledge Encyclopedia of Taoism, entry “ziran

It’s quite nice to see such an exact match. Whatever one says about religious tracts, once one has taken on board some of the functions of “it” in us, along with the process of transformation into “it”, a lot of Tao Te Ching turns out to be precisely about that process. Differences in translation can be interesting, here are two good ones…

Act without action, (wuwei)
And nothing is without order.

(ch. 3, Wing)

Act without contrivance
And nothing will be beyond control

(ch. 3, Lin)

The idea itself is everywhere you look in that book. “It” orders, “it” controls, “you” act without acting, without it being “you” acting.

Knowing what beauty is makes ugliness, do not take hold of the world and act on it (that is, let go), do not employ forceful strategies, what you seize you lose. Teach the practice of no words, the usefulness comes when you don’t make an effort, act without expecting, make use of what is not there, abandon strategy, allow yourself to become obscure, know the male but hold to the female and become the world’s stream, become the pattern itself, enter the substantial and do not be occupied with the veneer…

… just finished a dash through Benson’s book again. A good story I’ll give briefly: An ambitious attorney has a huge case that could make his career, gets incredibly stressed, and ignores all advice from Benson on how to reduce stress. As he rises for his summation he thinks he will “never get a word out”, yet delivers an excellent address with incredible crowd rapport by having a spontaneous breakout based on one simple thought: none of this really matters.

As Benson notes (p. 77) at that moment he abandoned control over his situation — a perfect reflection of the Laozi ideas.

“None of this really matters”. When you have been struggling, struggling for ever, is that statement not in itself a kind of death? The push and the stress have engaged the nervous system, telling it in effect that this struggle is all about staying alive — the sympathetic fight/flight response is entrained. When you let go of that, you realise that your attempt to control is not keeping you alive, that life itself is what is giving you life.

Deep spiritual experience is stronger than this and leads to permanent changes, as St Romain was describing. As Paul says, “Die every day,” and Soko Morinaga ups it to every moment. There’s a whole chapter on this in the rebuttal (now being digested by its first advance readers BTW, many thanks to them) because Webster carps on it.

“Stress” or arousal is good up to a point — then let go. Have this take place within a realm of quiet attention… etc.

For those interested, here are Benson’s basic ideas on triggering mechanisms (for use after you have gone as far as you can with the conscious struggle upcurve remember) — all these can lead to a Breakout:

1. Repetitive physical or mental activity breaking previous thought patterns.

2. Becoming immersed in some expression of your personal belief system.

3. Surrendering, “total abandon” (as with the attorney above).

4. Participating in an absorbing personal encounter.

5. Becoming deeply engaged in an altruistic activity.

6. Filling your mind with a dominant sensory impression — sound or sight.

These are fine places to start. You can combine them. Obviously qigong works real well. The full list of individual Breakout trigger activities is 3 whole pages of the book — pp. 40-3. As I say, copies are going for 11p on Amazon so if you want this, go for it.

Sometime I’m going to talk a little about that second item, the “belief system”, and various radical ways to think about that… a combination of philosophy and the ability to reprogram the nervous system can produce very interesting results. In the end I have always tried to avoid being a “true believer” because once independent you can get results from your own sets of symbols, provided you know where the bottom line is.

Advanced processual meditation goes further than Benson knows about which is where Glenn comes in, but the priming and the letting go can both be done in meditative states. That’s where the aforementioned observing/witnessing states come in, which allow “it” to happen because “you” are just the process of watching the process. The “preliminary stress” just means concentrated attention and qi.

As a final word, I know nothing about Eckhart Tolle but I just remembered something I’d seen once:

One night shortly after his 29th birthday, Tolle says he was in a state of suicidal despair [as he had been all his life BTW]. “I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And this question arose without an answer: who is the ‘I’ that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void. I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved.”

He pauses and reflects. “The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or “beingness”, just observing and watching.” He laughs lightly. “I had no explanation for this.”

Classic breakout from lifelong struggle on the “who am I?” level, resulting in ego death seemingly. His way doesn’t seem Kundalini-orientated and he doesn’t understand there’s more to enlightenment than this “egoless state”, but his description precisely parallels St Romain’s. And his process is slap in the middle of the theory we have here. Which is what I mean about a universal principle!


Just say NO

The Breakout Principle -- actually rather useful

Soul change as problem solving requires a cookbook of methods, because many of the most successful operations turn on the unexpected. Humans enjoy a change, are good at backs-to-the-wall rhetorical creativity, and use aporia — a Greek word for the whaaa? blankness Socrates aimed to induce in his interlocutors — to open the mind.

Common sense is valuable but far from sufficient. At some point soon I’ll go over a panoply of methods that can concatenate to loosen the frames which normally prevent reality dawning in humans. Cycling through different mindstates can be very helpful. There is no single ‘correct’ mindstate in which to transmute the “stuff” although obviously some are more useful than others. A main point is to approach what you are handed creatively rather than settling for regular meanings.

Herbert Benson got some of this down to a science around a decade ago. He summed up his findings in a book co-authored with William Proctor, The Breakout Principle (2003). I’ll give the quick version and those who like the sound can buy it to dip into since it’s quite cheap now like most of my recommends.

The sequence of states in a breakout -- but don't take the vertical axis too literally. (It's not "measuring" anything.)

What we have here is a way to deliberately generate a “Breakout” which is a moment of creative inspiration. It can involve a Maslovian peak experience, the solution to a dilemma, clearing a health issue, etc. The way to engineer one reliably amounts to: 1) work heavily on the problem, then 2) let go of it and do something unrelated, which induces 3) a ‘breakout’ from the subconscious bodymind, that appears to come from outside the normal personality, resulting in 4) a better ordering of the original situation by a sudden inspiration, an aha!.

Yerkes-Dodson stress-performance curve -- performance initially improves with stress/activation but then declines

The initial struggle with the problem or situation being worked is necessary, because a certain amount of stress is productive so long as it doesn’t pass the Yerkes-Dodson peak, so getting familiar with one’s personal stress tolerances and gradually raising their thresholds by all the usual techniques is time well spent. The ability to lower stress is the only safe partner for raising it.

Then at a certain point the idea is to give up completely on wrestling with the problem and do something unrelated which brings on relaxation response and parasympathetic activation combined with enjoyable clear-minded concentration. Benson has found nitrous oxide, NO, will be released into the bloodstream at this point, which counters the stress hormones. William James would be proud. Qigong or callisthenics, meditation or yoga, hypnoid trance or prayer or ritual, may be excellent, but are not exclusive triggers. One of the coolest real-life examples in the book has needlepoint as the letting-go. Music, drumming, fishing and even folding laundry have been used. The point is to zone troublelessly.

Dancing would work

I often do gentle work of this kind but major fistshaking stuff can also be done if desired. Then you can give up and admit “you” cannot solve your life (that is equivalent to a quite minor kind of ‘death’ for the dramatically inclined) whereupon it solves itself. This sort of thing is mentioned in zen koan training descriptions and has made Rinzai students sweat buckets before now. Ironically, as we know from multiple traditions and some Hollywood movies, the moment when it’s all too much and you can’t cope is the prelude to rebirth, so hold off on the suicide and watch the Marx Brothers as Woody Allen recommends for his particular peak experience. (It takes all sorts.)

This works well for emotional acceptance and to short-circuit cultural arguments which are being made dramatically by other people. I prefer things to be humming along more efficiently and peacefully most of the time but numerous new age guru types (you know, the ones who can’t be bothered to learn qigong) describe their ‘enlightenment’ events as happening at the end of much depressed hacking through questions about life’s meaning etc. When younger I did some of that myself and had quite a time. Bill Wilson founded Alcoholics Anonymous on the back of a similar experience including bright light and an elation followed by deep serenity.

Andrew Wiles only proved Fermat’s famous theorem when, following a month of despair as his mass of initial work was pulled apart by critics (= heavy stress), he simply admitted he couldn’t do it (= aporia) and tried to see why — his reaction when he found he suddenly had after all is a nice juicy subject-based peak breakout:

suddenly, totally unexpectedly, I had this incredible revelation [...] it was so indescribably beautiful, it was so simple and so elegant, and I just stared in disbelief for twenty minutes…

Singh (1998)

… etc. Unlike Wilson, Wiles was unlikely to shout, “So this is the god of the preachers!” in response to that moment, but as a manifestation of mathematical beauty his otherwise similar experience is quite in line with the Platonic path. Plato would insist this “beautiful and good” can be experienced without any other content and the kundalini-ist would concur. This is also a classic Maslovian peak.

Such a subject-based breakout in some ways is possible only because there is still a strong idea of a personality with boundaries around it, which the kundalini experience will take away permanently (trance does so only temporarily) providing more direct access to inspiration and body energy as one realises “I am also that which I thought I was not”… the usual emergence stuff. But even with no meditation practice, with the Benson Breakout you learn losing can be winning — in a personal rather than a doctrinaire way — which will do wonders for enjoying life.

I’m trying to move this towards a situation of continual creative solving in every moment, which I think is what human beings do. Such events can also be ‘seeded’ with prior trance work — much fun to be had with that as you just watch it pay off. It obviously helps to keep general stress down with basic practices as mentioned before. Social “sole ownerships of meaning” can be readily circumvented with all this. (It seems to occur to relatively few spontaneously that they use language normally only to relate to other people, not to themselves.)

You can also see this as manipulation of different types of entrainment, ref. last post.


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