One of the most significant aspects of spirituality which has been emerging for me ever since I began practising mindfulness has been the possibility of – and indeed the urgent need for – a shift in the mind’s perspective.
The perspective from which we see something – anything – can utterly change our experience of whatever it is we are seeking to engage with and this can happen just as much with our mental perspective as with, for instance, the perspective from which you see an object in a room or a field.
And the story of our mental perspective goes something like this. The dominant way of thinking about and seeing things with the human mind is one of survival – my survival. There are other aspects of the mind driven by empathy and our awareness that our survival is linked with the survival of others but, either because of an absence of training in wisdom or because of life experiences, many if not most of us have developed a very narrow version of this mental survival pattern which has trained us to see almost everything from our own perspective. And we may well see this mental pattern at work when we begin to meditate and start to take note of just where the mind tends to wander off to when given a bit of space. What is happening here is that if I am not specifically and intentionally focusing on some task or other the mind will go into a kind of default mode which seems to be constantly concerned with self-referential narratives about how I am doing, how people see me, what needs to happen for me to cope etc. etc. etc.
So, in short, this is my default perspective – seeing all of life in relation to my own struggle to survive. This does not mean I am a bad person – after all who could blame me for wanting to survive? But unfortunately this narrow me-centred perspective does mean I am very often misguided – even in terms of what might give me the best chances of surviving.
So, here is the spiritual challenge for each one of us – how can we do the work of shifting perspective away from being primarily me-centred to start seeing the bigger picture. And I don’t mean by simply understanding that there is a bigger picture but by actually beginning to experience the whole of life from a perspective which does not have me at the centre.
There are, of course, many ways to help us to engage in such a shift. Meditation is one. Serious engagement in community is another. Certain books will also add to the picture. But sometimes unexpected life experiences can have a profound effect.
Which leads me to this unashamed plug for my wife Susie Stead’s new book ‘Stephen from the inside out’ which won the Impress Books new writers prize and is now available through all the normal outlets.
Essentially it is the story of her entirely unexpected long term friendship with a man (Stephen) who she met initially while he was under section in a psychiatric ward in the town where we lived.
It is part biography, part memoir and part social history of British mental health attitudes, theory and institutions over the 60 years of Stephen’s life from his childhood to his death in 2018. But significantly for Susie it is the story of her own slow but dramatic shift in perspective from her initial well-meaning but still ‘Susie-centred’ angle of wanting to ‘do good’ to a man who ‘needed help’ to, over time, the realisation that Stephen actually had his own perspective on the whole of life and that whatever healing there might be for either of them would only ever come when Susie began to get this – when she began to see and feel, as it were, through Stephen’s eyes and heart.
It is a very honest book. It is at once tragic and hilarious. Stephen is both miserable, sensitive and deeply thoughtful but perhaps most importantly, stubborn – in that vital way that meant that Susie’s perspective kept on being challenged and found inadequate.
And in the end it is deeply moving as she describes his final months, now no longer as a patient who needed help but as a friend who had profoundly changed her.
The book is not only a ‘good read’ despite its weighty subject matter but is, in my opinion, a particularly important book for our day not only for what it might have to say about spirituality but also what it has to say about our attitudes to mental health which we have got so wrong in the past – despite our good intentions.
So, do buy it and read it for yourself but also please recommend it to others who you may think will value it. Autism is a strong theme so there may be people you know who would be interested from that perspective too.