Autism Dialogue Out of the the Box

Oak tree photo by Jonny Drury

Mindlessness:  “A style of mental functioning in which people follow recipes, impose old categories to classify what they see, act with some rigidity, operate on automatic pilot, and mislabel unfamiliar new contexts as familiar old ones.  A mindless mental style works to conceal problems that are worsening.” (Weick and Sutcliffe)

I like being me.

I’m starting to think that there’s something awry with the language generally used in the current autism discussion, on all sides.

We’ve all heard the line “we’re all a little bit autistic”.  The current discussion has a resounding cry from the actually autistic people that this is nonsense and one must be autistic to have any authoritative point of view or true understanding.  Even self-diagnosed autistics have to literally take the oath, certainly on Twitter.   But what about the ambiguous world of academia and science?  I’ve read many articles and the most recent book of a succesful and established academic and writer on autism, but I still don’t know if he autistic is or not.  Closet autism is not something that exists in academia alone and many people in responsible positions may well have good reasons for non-disclosure.  Is it important that an autism academic discloses?  There should be a good reason for only using objective, scientific language about a truly subjective phenomenon, upon which  transparent communication of experience is crucial to the discussion.  Does academic context imply there’s not enough of a conclusion to use autism as a definitive term, let alone apply it to oneself?  The material I’ve read on my Masters degree so far disproves most theories and places the origins of what we have very recently come to know as autism in a highly questionable light.  But by not clearly stating whether one is or isn’t autistic, aren’t we adding to the confusion? Perhaps we really are all ‘a little bit autistic’ and we don’t want to admit it because this is far too simplistic and doctoral students and professors everywhere will suddenly find themselves alienated from a large proportion of friends and followers.

I am autistic.  Being autistic is who I am.  But let’s take that apart a bit.

Firstly, being diagnosed by the team at SAANS using the DSM5 or whatever in 2014, makes me autistic. It is their official terminology for my type of brain and I accept it.  When I say I am autistic, I am using their frame of reference, not necessarily mine.  Being labelled autistic by the NHS carries some weight in society of course, otherwise I wouldn’t have sought their knowledge; I wanted an explanation and I was diagnosed by the UK’s predominant medical establishment.  I’ll leave my question of whether I am #actuallyautistic or not, and perhaps just such a fantastic actor I fooled them, to another post.  The NHS gave me an explanation, I got the biggest national medical organisation to diagnose me on their terms.  I wasn’t ‘identified’ as autistic by the NHS, as some people prefer to say (the NHS are not in the business of identities, as far as I am aware); my identity is made up of lots of things including this thing called autism, which interrelate to varying degrees and altogether identify me as who I am.

So I don’t question the definition, instead I accept the different views.  The NHS think I’m ‘autistic’. Hurrah! Good for them!

As well as a medical condition, autism is also a social, psychological and psychal phenomena.  A religious person told me its spirits in me.  All points are valid.

I am not separate from other people. But what do I mean by that?

What I mean is from a sociological, psychological, identification, spiritual and quantum point of view (that’s a lot of views), all of us exist, at the very least,  in this space-time continuum and social construct together.  In this sense, if someone wants to believe “we are all a little bit autistic” it’s fine by me, because it is not necessarily driven by an undermining of autistic people or some other ignorant, separatist motive.  It’s also on the face of it, a bit silly; one could just as easily state ‘we’re all a little bit non-autistic’.  Perhaps though, the sentiment behind this statement might be “We are all in this together, I have an understanding, I have compassion, I am intuitive, so hey, let me help.” and  perhaps the cliché, “we’re all a little bit autistic” is now just a little bit worn and needs to be examined in a positive way, by using dialogue, eg. by adopting the stance of:

“I accept your different view so let’s talk about that together.”

The field of Autism itself stems from early neuroscientists who observed particular behavioural styles in certain groups of people and so a great body of knowledge develops and continues to do so.  One can even study a Masters degree in Autism, of which I am a student.  However, many autistic people would deny the right of anyone who is not autistic (by diagnosis or identification) to have a truly valid knowledge on the subject.

Experience cannot be proven as entirely subjective and isolated as quantum field theory shows. So why would the father of an autistic daughter, who has devoted his life to her, since her birth for many years, not have experienced her life to some degree as the same as his and have a view on what it’s like to be autistic? Why would the experiences and views of a mother of two autistic adults, an autistic husband and an autistic father, be less valid than an adolescent boy with a diagnosis or a successful businessman who identifies with Aspergers? By osmosis, is there to be some sharing of autism, behaviourally or otherwise as a phenomenon and can the same be said for all traits in everyone on a societal level?  Our individualistic, opinionated and judgemental society can be a dangerous place and autistic people are just as much at risk from the dangers of peer-group pressure and with the additional complications of unusual modelling and masking habits, perhaps even more so.

Life is too short to be so technical and militarily challenge everyone who doesn’t meet our immediate frames of reference; we can always build on our compassionate, openness and flexibility.  Compassion begins with acceptance.  Gratitude is the key to happiness.

Autistic people should accept being autistic, and with more of an open mind and heart, and learn to accept it as only one of a multiplicity of different viewpoints.  By witnessing an example of honesty, others might see themselves more clearly too.  By holding mutually exclusive ideas in our minds at the same time, we might understand a lot more about, and be more accepting of, each other’s differences.  Acceptance of diversity leads to unity, that’s always been my position.

 

Mindfulness – my story

‘Mindful Awareness & Remembering’ is a better translation of the Pali word: Sati.  It has become known simply as Mindfulness.  I attended an all day conference at Sheffield’s Centre for Mindful Life Enhancement recently and was surprised to hear how popular it has become, even at Parliamentary level a report has been produced called ‘Mindful Nation UK‘ led by and  around 145 MP’s are currently practising.  The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) for the treatment of recurrent depression. Research also shows positive effects on several aspects of whole-person health, including the mind, the brain, the body, and behaviour, as well as a person’s relationships with others.

Mindfulness - in Chinese

This is the story of how I came to love Mindfulness.

I first started meditating in 1981, aged 15, using guidance from books on Yoga, Buddhism (and even Astral Projection!) from the central library.  I learned Chi Gong (mindful movement practice similar to tai chi) from various masters during the 1990’s and continue with it daily today.  In the 1980’s I had numerous experiences under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, which I know is controversial but it was an important component to my spiritual search.  In 1988 I realised deeply that drugs were not the answer to my search as their effects are temporary and limited. Shortly thereafter I met a Sufi Master of the Naqshbandi Order in a public talk at Sheffield City Hall and I became his student.  I followed the strict practices of the order for 20 years until near the time the Sheikh died.  These practices included prayer, recitation and zikr (‘remembering’ awareness by chanting both quietly alone and aloud in groups).  I lived a very ascetic lifestyle as the Sufi life took up every waking moment.   For example, I would awake every night, two hours before dawn, to do meditation, zikr and prayer for three hours until the sun rose then went back to bed and awoke mid-morning to begin again.  I fasted weekly and in Ramadan and performed many retreats in Sheffield, London and Northern Cyprus at the Sheikh’s home.  I once spent 40 days and nights in my garden shed in a village near Glastonbury meditating and chanting by myself, only eating lentils and onions.  In 2007 I broke from this religious lifestyle when I was living on the Isle of Skye, working as a postman and making a film about the island.  The intensely natural island atmosphere gave me a fresh, new perspective.  My family and I then returned to Sheffield.  I was to pursue a Contemporary Fine Art degree and a career as an artist.

In 2008 I was reading works of Thich Nhat Hanh, which I found very healing at the time I was going through divorce. In 2010, I decided to see what the Sufi practices felt like again. I also undertook a counselling course and trained how to be a Muslim Chaplain; here it became evident to me I was trying to marry my spiritual leanings with a practical vocation.  I applied for a couple of volunteer chaplaincy posts but then realised it wasn’t for me.  When I was on my final year of my degree I learned Bohm Dialogue, a radical, mindful way of group dialogue, as part of our wider critique methodology.  Dialogue was the best part of my whole three years at university.

Two years after graduating I learned Mindfulness Based Life Enhancement (MBLE) on an eight-week course led by Dr. John Darwin, based in the University’s Multi-faith Centre.  I began reading and watching the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the man generally accepted as the leading exponent of the modern Mindfulness movement in the West. He defines Mindfulness as “Awareness gained by paying attention to the development of experience with intention, here and now, moment by moment and in a non-judgmental way.”

On the MBLE course were formally taught a variety of tools including: sitting meditation, full body-scan, watching the breath, sounds, thoughts etc. mindful walking, mindful moving (yoga, chi gong etc.), thee minute breathing space, mindful dialogue, communication and eating and the Core Relational Qualities (loving kindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanimity).  We were taught that informal practice is about having mindful moments throughout the day where one is conscious of what is happening and what one is doing and experiencing.  We explored the relationship of mindfulness to positive psychology, negativity bias, savouring, optimism, hope, gratitude and forgiveness, through experience not exposition.  The course included a Day of Silence near the end which was a very good way of deepening the practice.  Since then to the present day I maintain a morning Mindfulness practice and maintain contact with the Centre.

In 2015 I visited Plum Village Monastery, the Mindfulness Practice Centre of Thich Nhat Hanh, with my father.  This commune is a very peaceful and loving place in the French countryside, where one can easily find deep peace, solace and love.  Here I even met a famous African war general.

Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh

Many of the Mindfulness practices and principles of Buddhism match closely with the essence of Sufi practice.  The core of them both is the premise that All is One – the universe is an indivisible unit.   This understanding has always excited me and driven me to pursue learning and meaning.  Mindful recollection of our primordial state is at the heart of the spiritual quest.

I have learned about many techniques and met numerous teachers. I read and watch interviews on an internet channel called Conscious TV.  I have been on various Vipassana retreats of up to three days, with Sheffield Insight Meditation Group.

Chisholme House, Scotland

In 2011 I spent time at the Chisholme Institute, the home of the Beshara School in Scotland.  I attended a short study course and worked in the forest. At Chisholme there are twice daily thirty-minute group meditation sessions. All the courses, learning, practices and living at Chisholme is done mindfully.  I then started my own monthly study group in Sheffield, which started with thirty minutes’ silent meditation and ended with a mindful group walk in our nearby woods.  Hester Reeve (my previous university tutor) and I held a four-hour Bohm Dialogue session at Chisholme for sixty five people and this was commenced with my leading a twenty minute guided Mindfulness session. Mindfulness is an intrinsic part of Dialogue and it is evident that for me it needs to be practically incorporated into Dialogue practice.  I am now a member of the UK Academy of Professional Dialogue.

In 2014 I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and ADHD, after going to my GP to ask about mild depression and unusual thinking habits.  I had also done the online test and came out positive.  The diagnosis involved various interviews with neuroscientists in quiet, dimmed rooms.  During one of the interviews I discussed my experiences with meditation and the notion of universal consciousness.  This diagnosis and new understanding helped my mental state greatly and I could improve my meditation techniques.   I have realised my spiritual journey is not separate from my diagnosis and my practices have helped me manage it and even lessen some of the more negative effects.

I started personal study of various other methods of meditation including some from the Advaita Vedanta tradition and now often incorporate some basic self-inquiry practices from this tradition.  The thing I enjoy about Advaita is the philosophy that Supreme Consciousness is ever present and there is no difference between our inner and outer world.

Mindfulness is my own private practice where I have a way to escape all of my thoughts and find bliss.  To visit such communities and places such as the wonderful Plum Village is a bonus.  I am pleased that my children are very much involved in Mindfulness in their own ways too.

We are born mindful, we just get covered by layers of ‘mindless’ conditioning.

Unconditional Friendliness: A Retreat

Unconditional Friendliness: A Retreat led by Zohar Lavie.
Whirlow Spirituality Centre, Sheffield.  24th & 25th September 2016

It’s 9pm and the retreat finished four hours ago.  Here are some notes I wrote during it.

Day 1.

I am not my job.
I am more than my business.
I have much more to offer.
I wish to be of real service.
The aware breath is the pure breath.
I wish to teach the dharma.

  1. Intention to Focus
  2. Attention on breath/body.
  3. Observe/acknowledge distraction and return to no.1

Then, it is all kindness to self.

The Four Immeasurables.

  1. Metta; Unconditional friendliness
  2. Karuna; Compassion
  3. Mudita; Joy
  4. Upekkha; Equanimity

Attitudes / acknowledge suffering; whatever is happening is the training ground – Life is all.  Reveal the true nature.  Watering the seed / nourishing the conditions to grow (small experiences are as important).Metta: we are all share at the core wanting to be happy.

Consciousness is a constant / Gom (Meditation; Tibetan)

I am in the world, not of it.  These practices are more appropriate for today’s society.

Karuna (Pali); compassion or ‘quivering of the heart’ (pain etc.) comes from or with the two; Acceptance and ‘wishing different’.  Discernment is required.

Day 2.

Gathering | Insight | Cultivation.
Samadhi: Gathering / concentration
Vipassana: Insight / Seeing clearly
Bavhanna: Cultivation / helping to nourish

Meditation: Everything is held. “Keep quiet” – Papaji.

Mudita

Appreciative joy.  Gratitude. (opposite: negativity bias).  Active Delight (not passive) eg. gifts / making others happy.  There is no separation.

Happiness: Suka – that which comes with ease (spontaneity). Science has shown even the relief of getting something (as opposed to the actual getting it) can be the cause of happiness.

Our relationship to that which comes with ease…

Sigh (of relief) – is a sign it’s not all about me.  Compassion and pain are very close.

Mind Fully Activated

The word ‘mindful’ can be problematic in that the Western-centric view is that we have a receptacle, the ‘mind’, who’s main purpose is to contain thoughts.  From this view, ‘mindful’ can be misinterpreted as our mind being full of thoughts, which is in contradiction to the sought-after state of being ‘mindful‘ or fully aware.  Here’s a simple exercise to flip the terminology and empower your mindful meditation.

Earlier I was preparing to meditate and had some important thinking to do first on something fairly urgent which needed to be out of the way. When I had done the little bit of planning (I was sitting in my meditation position at the time) I mentally assumed a mindful state – seeing the thoughts rather than being them.  Here’s where I clearly saw that simple difference between the former kind of trance state and the latter, an alert observance, not just of those prior thoughts but an increasing awareness of my mental, physical and environmental state.  Intentionally switching between aware state potential and the ‘daydream’, relatively unaware state of ‘thinking’ (in this case allowing an unnecessary repeating of a plan of action) helped differentiate the two.  This facilitated the following model which helped me consolidate what being mindful actually means.

Imagine a 3D energy field extending from the centre of your head in all directions, it doesn’t matter how big it is. Just see it as some sort of pale light that differentiates it from the air around you.  The sounds around you are in this field, as are your thoughts and plans, your repetitive voices, your bodily sensations, hunger, a slightly clenched jaw, a tense stomach or chest. All you are experiencing is occurring within this thought-field. Your breath, which is the most permanent fixture you have, is in there.  Take a few minutes to enjoy observing your life occurring gently along, flowing like a bubbling brook passing through your energy field.  Even the concept of time is in there…

Once you’ve achieved a satisfactory level, you can and should dispense with the ‘energy field’ which is nothing more than a conceptual thought aid.  A dispensation should come naturally, at the same time you realise that even the mental act of creating this field occurred within a greater energy field.  RoseAs you come to be more ‘at one’ and accepting of your flow of minute experiences (thoughts, warts n’all) it may dawn on you that the potentiality behind creating tools such as this, is immense, in fact, infinite.

This is the beginning of mindfulness as a mind fully activated, not a mind full of thoughts!

 

 

There’s a good, simple description on Wikipedia of the origin of the word Mindfulness here.  The page further outlines various contexts of mindfulness from linguistic, religious and historical and also contains references to critique of the mindfulness movement.