The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

A Proposed Alternative Pathway to a Bowen Theory of the Spiritual

Authored by Erik Thompson, M. A.

In preparing for the Vermont Center for Family Studies’ upcoming conference on Meditation and Family Health (also available via streaming) I skipped ahead in my journey through Dr. Michael E. Kerr’s recent book, Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families, to his chapter on the potential 9th concept of Bowen theory, “Toward a Systems Concept of Supernatural Phenomena”.  I’ll begin with a summary of that chapter before proposing an alternative pathway to a Bowen theory of the supernatural.

Dr. Kerr states that:

  • Bowen theory is about things, and not about the existence or non-existence of the supernatural.
  • The 9th concept should be about the function of unproven beliefs rather than the validity of their content. This is the key to bringing supernatural phenomena into the realm of science.
  • A systems theory of the supernatural would explore how the belief in the supernatural functions, within the context of a wider science of the function of subjective belief.
  • Beliefs in a spiritual realm can have strikingly positive effects.
  • “Belief in a supernatural realm is not a pathology but part of human nature.”
  • There exist carefully documented facts about such beliefs, including about the healings that have been associated with the Catholic spiritual site at Lourdes.
  • Beliefs can be healing or destructive (as with voodoo curses.)
  • Beliefs are impacted by social-emotional process.
  • Beliefs can have similar content but be lived in very different ways.
  • The scale of DOS is useful in clarifying variations in the quality of beliefs.
  • Groups vary in the degree to which the togetherness force dictates the content of their beliefs.
  • In groups with togetherness-based beliefs, the beliefs can function in a destructive way (Nazi propaganda) or a constructive way, as when they help members live by an important but challenging principle (such as “There but for the Grace of God go I”).
  • Differentiation involves the ability to “act for self without being selfish and the ability to act for others without being selfless.”
  • Bowen spoke of Jesus Christ as a model of selflessness that is consistent with differentiation of self. This quality is often left out of discussions of DOS.  (Dr. Laurie Lassiter spoke about this at our Vermont conference last fall.)

Kerr’s position, that a science of the supernatural must proceed along the pathway of exploring the function of beliefs, is clear.  It is exciting to think about where that path could take us.  I’d like to propose another valid road.

Many incorrectly assume that all meditations are merely techniques to manage acute anxiety.  While this may be true of some, it is not true of all.  Most meditation practices emerge from a well-developed set of big ideas about human behavior.  In this  blog post, I will sketch the conceptual underpinning of my assertion that transcendence may prove relevant to Bowen theory.  I won’t talk technique, I’ll talk concepts.

The functioning of the brain cell cannot be truly understood without including the network of brain cells it functions within.  So, with the individual brain- it cannot be understood outside the context of family brains.  The family brains exist within a multi-generational context, which exists within the context of the evolution of mammals, social groups, collections of primordial cells.  If we keep going wider, what is the context within which biological evolution exists?  Are there forces older than life which shape life?  Einstein theorized that time is curved, relative, not absolute.  Is there a “thing” older than time?  How would science ever measure it?  Hope is not irrational. Gravitational waves operate on your badminton game as well as on black holes millions of light years away. They were unmeasurable for most of human history.

In order to maintain science as an open system, we need to remember that unproven ideas might be accurate.  In the universe of unscientific beliefs some are surely false and some true.  It remains possible, for example, that documented healings at Lourdes occur, in part, because of the influence of a currently unmeasurable reality that is part and parcel of the body, as the invisible, and once unknowable fields measured by modern physics exist within perceivable light.

When discussing “beliefs that are unprovable but extremely influential” in the chapter summarized above, Dr. Kerr displays his characteristic inspiring neutrality.  Near the end of the chapter he writes that “Humans are capable of thinking they know things that they do not know.” If a scientist states that they know a supernatural field does not exist, they could be caught in the belief system known as scientism.

The philosopher of science Karl Popper defined a fact as a subjective observation that is “intersubjectively verifiable”.  Along with concepts that clarify the function of belief, a Bowen theory of the supernatural might eventually clarify how the family system is part of a wider system, an intersubjectively verifiable “thing” that infuses but is also transcendental to nature, or super-natural.

What kind of thing might that be?

Kerr quotes Dr. Jaak Panksepp as stating that “chimpanzees, human beings, and a few other species have self-awareness, but Homo sapiens has awareness of awareness.” (49)  This resonates with ancient traditions which define meditation using the very same words, as awareness of awareness.  The Vedic tradition at the basis of transcendental meditation, for example, asserts that the inner silence of meditation is “pure awareness”, or content-free awareness, or awareness of awareness itself.  Pure awareness is considered an abstract, real, intersubjectively verifiable field. It is asserted to be the hidden root not only of the mind, but of all matter.  Big idea. Humans can be aware of this hidden root, which is also referred to as “Self”.  Self is considered the hidden thing beneath all things.

Kerr quotes Sloman and Ferbach as stating that “The mind stretches beyond the brain to include the body, the environment, and the people other than oneself, so the study of the mind cannot be reduced to the study of the brain.” Does the mind stretch even further?  The ability to be aware of awareness could yield new information not currently considered part of Bowen theory.  It is possible that refinement of the intellectual system includes a capacity to know something new, lying just beyond what we call the intellect, pure awareness.

The biologist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic fields might offer a bridge between this idea and Bowen theory.  It proposes that evolution is guided by “fields of memory” that are similar to the invisible fields of physics.  They are thought to guide the development of natural forms.  Species, for example, might have their own morphic fields.  Is the multi-generational family a morphic field of memory that influences the development of the living family? If this field exists, what wider system is it nested within? To be overly sure that our individual human consciousness is the apex of awareness in our universe may be a logical error.  Dr. Lynn Margulis’ Gaia Hypothesis proposes the earth as a living being.  Does that imply consciousness? Sheldrake argues that scientists should be cautious about a blind faith in the unproven belief that matter is not made of consciousness. These seemingly far-fetched ideas become more plausible during the exploration of awareness that occurs, for example, during transcendental meditation.

At last year’s Vermont conference on the sciences of meditation and family, Dr. Fred Travis spoke about his decades of peer-reviewed research on the neurophysiology associated with ancient meditation practices, and the broad thinking that they rest upon.  This year he has begun to incorporate Skowron’ s Differentiation of Self Scale into his research. (The Differentiation of Self Inventory: Development and Initial Validation, Elizabeth A. Skowron and Myrna L. Friedlander, Journal of Counseling Psychology 1998, Vol. 45, No. 3, 235-246.)  Travis will be presenting at our fall conference again this year.  Travis researches the theory that transcendence is not something the mind does, but rather what the mind is.

As a Bowen theory scholar, I’ll end with a quote I find intriguing.

“In the state of ignorance, the ‘I’ is all mixed up with everything to the extent that everything else remains, and the ‘I’ becomes obscured completely.”

-Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, 1966


Editors’ Note: Prior to submitting the blog, the author asked Dr. Michael Kerr to read this blog post. Dr. Kerr’s response to Erik is being posted with the blog with Dr. Kerr’s permission. We hope it gets a conversation started about this intriguing topic.


Comments from Michael Kerr, MD on blog written by Erik Thompson and submitted to CFC’s, The Systems Thinker:

On Thu, Aug 29, 2019 at 4:09 PM Michael Edward Kerr <gro.ymedacayroehtnewobnull@rrekem> wrote:

Hello Erik – I finally took the time to read your short piece. To begin with, I always cringe when people describe things I have written. I think I am afraid that I will read what I wrote and think I have overstated something. Anyway, I think you reflected my thinking accurately, and did not cringe at what I had said. As far as commenting on what you have written about Vedic meditation, I would be reluctant to comment on it because I have never meditated or even tried to. I have read the occasional article about it, particularly the neurophysiological findings. I don’t know why my lack of real interest is the case. If Jaak was still alive, I would ask him to clarify what he meant by “awareness of awareness.” I think it relates to the phenomenon Bowen theory describes, namely, the human being’s (other species too?) capacity to distinguish a thought from a feeling, objectivity from subjectivity. This to me remains a remarkable capacity. I think Bowen theory does it by providing a lens (core concepts) to view the world in a new way, and, of course, link that to what is going on within oneself. The ideas provide a sound rationale for changing oneself in relationship to others, not trying to change others. Differentiation of Self (DOS), of course, explains the easily observed variation between people and between families in the capacity to self-regulate. I don’t know if Murray Bowen ever tried to meditate. I do know that on one of his admissions to an I.C.U. for pulmonary problems, he described his effort to take his vantage point up to the surface of the Moon, look back and be able to see himself lying in the ICU bed. He found it calming. As I read your piece, I remembered Bowen suggesting that medical schools should spend more time teaching what medicine doesn’t know than on what it does know. The problem was medical school might have to last 12-16 years to cover all that is not known! Thanks for sending this piece along, Erik

Erik Thompson

Erik Thompson is Executive Director of the Vermont Center for Family Studies, President, Thompson Leadership Development, Inc., moc.pihsredaelnospmohtnull@kire

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