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The Buzzing in our Brain Cells v5

Mindful Eye Earth Heart

Given the emphasis I placed on compassion in yesterday’s review of Buddha’s Brain, I felt this earlier post might be of interest.

I said at the end of an earlier post that I might, in addition to quoting from Karen Armstrong, risk revealing some of my own strange ways of holding onto the few spiritual insights I’ve acquired recently, hence the rough and ready cartoonish graphic at the head of this post (more of that in a moment).

So here goes on both counts.

The roots of what I am going to describe go back a long way but it would make for a very long post indeed to go into them as well. For present purposes what is important is a play on three words that were forced on my attention in some dreamwork I did and in my study of the Bahá’í Writings: heart, earth and hearth. Removing the ‘h’ from one or the other end of ‘hearth’ creates the other two words. This word play only works in English but its effect is powerful for me.

This is for several mutually reinforcing reasons.

Bahá’u’lláh reminds us of the value of the earth:

If true glory were to consist in the possession of such perishable things, then the earth on which ye walk must needs vaunt itself over you, because it supplieth you, and bestoweth upon you, these very things, by the decree of the Almighty. In its bowels are contained, according to what God hath ordained, all that ye possess. From it, as a sign of His mercy, ye derive your riches.

(Gleanings: CXVIII)

And He warns us of the dangers of taking it for granted, especially for those who profess wisdom but fail to practice it:

[Of those who profess belief but do not practice) . . . . . ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you.

(Persian Hidden Words: No. 20)

He refers to the earth in terms that remind us of how we should feel if we are true to our spiritual natures. He points out that acquiring the qualities of earth will make our being fertile for wisdom:

O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge.

(Gleanings: CLII)

The same quotation goes on to make reference to fire. Both fire and earth are strongly related to the human heart in Bahá’í Scripture.

Bahá’u’lláh compares our hearts to a garden which needs seeding and tending:

Sow the seeds of My divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of thy heart.

(Persian Hidden Words: No. 33)

And He gives us more guidance still as to what else to plant there:

In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, . . . . . . . . .

(Persian Hidden WordsNo: 3)

Given that Buddhism regards wisdom and compassion as two sides of the same coin, there may be no difference between them at the spiritual level.

Also in the Hidden Words are references to the fire in the heart:

The candle of thine heart is lighted by the hand of My power, quench it not with the contrary winds of self and passion.

(Persian Hidden WordsNo. 32)

So for me the idea that earth and heart are one is close to the surface and a dream gave me a potent symbol of that in the hearth, which is a symbol also evoked by the presence of fire in our hearts.

When I first became aware of all these links I dwelt more on the idea of fire than flowers and the earth. That was partly because a punning connection with my first name, Pete, suggested fuel (peat to burn) in the dream I had about a hearth, rather than peat as compost to grow flowers.

There was a lot more mileage in the hearth image than that, of course. For example, it combined the ‘soft’ right-brain qualities of peat with the ‘hard’ left-brain qualities of the iron grate in a way that resonated with what Iain McGilchrist suggests is the need to give both aspects of our being their proper role and function if we are to be balanced human beings creating a balanced civilisation. But I won’t dwell on that just now: I’ve probably said more than enough in previous posts.

Later the other associations with ‘peat’ came more strongly to the surface, particularly as my second name, Hulme, is so close to ‘humus’. They came through so strongly, in fact, that I have come to use the heart-shaped photo of the earth (see the top of the post) as my current reminder of all this. There were no hyacinths or roses handy in the clipart gallery I used, so I made do with tulips, but the point is clear enough. The earth-heart photo also calls to mind very usefully that the ‘earth,’ the dwelling place of all humanity, ‘is but one country.’

Because the earth has a magnetic field that helps us find our right direction it wasn’t hard to see that a compass, already more than half-way to compassion in its spelling, was a good way of remembering the key value that underpins every other spiritual value in all faiths, and which in Bahá’í terms emanates from the three unities of the essential oneness of God, religion and humanity, blurred as our perception of those may sometimes be. The other meaning of the word ‘compass’ is also a reminder, as is the image of our world from space, to widen the embrace of my compassion to include all life and perhaps even the earth itself, an imperative need as Robert Wright describes it.

Bahá’u’lláh also has a most interesting way of linking a compass with kindness that suggests I might be on the right lines here.

A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It leadeth the way and guideth.

(Gleanings: CXXXII)

Exposing this personal approach to helping myself internalise and remember what I think I have learnt did seem a bit risky, hence my earlier hesitation. I was encouraged to persist by a moving and amusing TED talk by Brené Brown that my good friend, Barney Leith, shared with me (see the YouTube at the end of this post).

She speaks amongst other things about how our way of dealing with our vulnerability affects our relationships with others, even our whole attitude to life. Those who embrace their vulnerability, her research demonstrates, are more empathic, more authentic and better connected to others. Vulnerability is indispensable to a ‘whole-hearted’ life. So how could I continue to cop out in the light of that? (‘I can think of a few ways,’ said my craven part but I managed to ignore it.)

Well, I’ve left very little room for Karen Armstrong after all. I’ll need to come back to some of the things she says in a later post. Just one quick thought for now.

In her discussion of mindfulness Karen Armstrong, in her book on the twelve steps to a compassionate life, is strongly implying a link between compassion, mindfulness and creativity (page 97):

When you are engrossed in thoughts of anger, hatred, envy, resentment or disgust, notice the way your horizons shrink and your creativity diminishes. I find it impossible to write well when I am churning with resentment.

It would be easy to leap in and say, ‘But what about satire?’ The response there might well be, ‘What is fuelling the anger that drives the satire?’ If it is petty spite arising from wounded vanity, for example, I doubt we would be talking about great satire and this, I think, is what lets down some of Alexander Pope‘s less effective moments. If it is outrage at some monstrous injustice or malpractice, such as led to the writing of ‘Animal Farm‘, ‘1984‘ and  Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal,’ then there’s every chance the satire, rooted as it will be in a deep compassion for and identification with our fellow human beings, will be great satire, standing the test of changing times and changing tastes. Such works all have the capacity to demonstrate a control over difficult material which would be impossible in a state of intemperate rage.

This link she hints at between compassion and creativity has helped me make conscious an inner process that has determined which works of art I keep going back to, such as the plays of Shakespeare, and those I leave behind unrevisited. It is Shakespeare’s compassion that is the flame that brings my moth-mind back to him over and over again.

Take these lines from ‘Measure for Measure‘ (Act 1, Scene 3, lines 85-88):

The sense of death is most in apprehension,
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

This surely is the spirit that should permeate our entire lives.

My simple unskilled diagram is just the beginnings of my latest attempt to bring that about and realise its full potential in my life as a Bahá’í. It works for me but I can quite see that it might not do the trick for anyone else. Since I first wrote this post I have added the mindful-eye logo I use to the compass. I have put it as the home screen in my mobile phone, so every time I open it I’m reminded of how I wish to be. Preparing my mind in this way seems to attract opportunities to be helpful in small ways. Or maybe it just makes me more able to spot them and respond when they happen. Whatever the reason it has made my few small kindnesses that bit more likely.

Enjoy the talk on vulnerability.

nirvana-buddha

Still in pursuit of my publicly declared goal (why didn’t I just keep quiet?) of deepening my understanding of interconnectedness, at least in part by reading about and practising mindfulness, I discovered a gem of a book – The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain. It pulls together psychology evidence to shed light on the way that Buddhist processes achieve their efficacy.

I may have been subliminally steered towards the book after moving onto Williams and Penman’s Befriending meditation (page 195), which warmly reminded me of my early days of meditating. I learnt how to follow the breath at the Buddhist Centre in Eccleston Square, London, in the early 80s. At the end of each meditation, as I read at the time, you finished by bowing and wishing that the fruits of your meditation be of benefit to all living beings – a very similar process.

Whatever it was that primed me, as soon as I saw this book on the shelf I had to buy it, and I’m glad I did.

Mind and Brain

The avowed aim of Hanson and Mendius’s book (page 10) is to explore ‘the relationship between the mind and brain, especially regarding conscious experience.’ They feel that this question is as important as what caused the big bang or what the unified theory integrating quantum mechanics and general relativity will look like. I’m inclined to agree with them, but then I’m biased.

They begin by clarifying the exact nature of their debt to Buddhism, which does not extend as far as accepting the existence of a transcendental realm as part of their model (page 11):

. . . with a deep bow to the transcendental, we will stay within the frame of Western science and see what modern neuropsychology, informed by contemplative practice, offers in the way of effective methods for experiencing greater happiness, love and wisdom.

Their loss, sadly, but what they do manage to achieve is well worth reading, as it explores accessibly but in reasonable detail what happens in the brain that accounts for the powerful effects of meditation.

In this post I don’t plan to mention every example of that as there are other issues I wish to focus on. However, it is worth sharing their summary to give the flavour of what they do in this respect (page 16):

It’s impossible to change the past or the present: you can only accept all that as it is. But you can tend to the causes of a better future. Most of the ways you do this are small and humble. To use examples from later in this book, you could take a very full inhalation in a tense meeting to force a long exhalation, thus activating the calming parasympathetic nervous system. (PNS). Or, when remembering an upsetting experience, recall the feeling of being with someone who loves you – which will gradually infuse the upsetting memory with a positive feeling. Or, to steady the mind, deliberately prolonging feelings of happiness as this will increase levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which will help your attention stay focused.

The Negativity Bias

Buddha BrainWhat I want to focus on now are one or two of the valuable insights they convey as they go along. The first, concerning our evolutionary heritage, helps to clarify why meditation is both so valuable and yet so difficult for most of us. I will also deal with their treatment of a pet theme of mine later.

The first of these insights is derived from our evolutionary history (page 26):

. . . . to motivate animals, including ourselves, to follow [survival] strategies and pass on their genes, neural networks evolved to create pain and distress under certain conditions: when separations break down, stability is shaken, opportunities disappoint, and threats loom.

They explain slightly later not only why this was so but one of its most unwelcome correlates (pages 40-41):

. . . it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival. . . . . The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information. . . . . Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.

The consequences of this are not by any means simply confined to life threatening situations for us modern human beings (ibid):

. . . . In relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one (Gottman 1995).

Also this bias towards negativity determines the scenarios with which our imagination mesmerises us constantly (pages 44-45):

[Mini movies run in our heads] and . . . . keep us stuck by their simplistic view of the past and by their defining out of existence real possibilities for the future, such as new ways to reach out to others or dream big dreams. Their beliefs are the bars of an invisible cage, trapping you in a life that’s smaller than the one you could actually have.

Effectively they are asserting the same insight as is attributed to Montaigne and Mark Twain: ‘There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened.’

They describe a kind of three-legged stool upon which we can sit to remain grounded, but doing so is by no means easy as it entails going against the flow of our evolutionary heritage (page 46 – my italics pick out the legs of the stool):

Virtue restrains emotional reactions that worked well on the Serengeti, mindfulness decreases external vigilance, and wisdom cuts through beliefs that once helped us survive. It goes against the evolutionary template to undo the causes of suffering, to feel one with all things, to flow with the changing moment, and to remain unmoved by pleasant and unpleasant like.

The effects of this negative bias upon memory are particularly debilitating (page 68):

. . . even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, the pile of negative implicit memories naturally grows faster. Then the background feeling that what it feels like to be you can become undeservedly glum and pessimistic.

We need to make a conscious and sustained effort to cut against the grain of that bias – shades of Schwartz et al again here from earlier posts on this blog (page 73-75:

To gradually replace negative implicit memories with positive ones, just make the positive aspects of your experience prominent and relatively intense in the foreground of your awareness while simultaneously placing the negative material in the background. . . . . Given the negativity bias of the brain, it takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones.

The Wolf of Love

wolf of love

For the source of this image see link

Readers of this blog will know that I have explored the importance of our widening our compass of compassion if the problems currently confronting humanity are to have any hope of being resolved. It will therefore come as no surprise to them that one of the strong appeals of this book is precisely because of the emphasis the authors place on this very point, but in their own very telling fashion (page 122):

I heard a story once about a Native American elder who was asked how she had become so wise, so happy, and so respected. She answered: “In my heart, there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.”

They spell out the implications (page 131):

The wolf of love sees a vast horizon, with all beings included in the circle of “us.” That circle shrinks down for the wolf of hate, so that only the nation, or tribe, or friends and family – or, in the extreme, only the individual self – is held as “us,” surrounded by threatening masses of “them.”

And the drastic consequences (page 132):

As soon as you place anyone outside of the circle of “us,” the mind/brain automatically begins to devalue that person and justify poor treatment of him.

And then the music to my ears, in terms of my immediate aims of the moment. They assert (page 169):

…[that] everything is connected to everything else, that “us” is the whole wide world – that, in a deep sense, the entire planet is your home and the people on it are your extended family.

Their concept of self, which they move on to discuss, is worthy of consideration also, but I’ll keep that for a separate post probably next week.

What about their practice?

I’ve only really tried one of their exercises but it has proved interesting.

I recorded a guided meditation concerning how to become aware of awareness in itself based on the suggestions below.

Buddha Meds 01

Buddha Meds 02

The very first time I used it, and only to test it rather than seriously, I ended up with tingles down the spine every time I heard my recorded self speak of focusing on being aware of awareness itself. And, even though I still find it hard to achieve that kind of consciousness with any consistency, there is still the same kind of energy circulating when I use this exercise at those same points, so something is happening.

I am hoping to use it for a while on a daily basis to see if I can stabilise my connection with this kind of consciousness. It will be a major breakthrough if I can.

If all their other exercises in this book prove equally fruitful, I could be drawing on it for a long time, even though it refuses to be drawn into a deeper consideration of the transcendent.

Just to close on something else important, what I have already found really useful is their page (184) of suggestions to help me hold mindfulness more effectively in mind.

Mindful Eye v2

Dr Raj Mattu (for source of image see link)

Dr Raj Mattu (for source of image see link)

A major article by Andrew Smith in yesterday’s Guardian dealt with an issue of great importance. Why, when people blow the whistle on abuses and malpractice, as seems increasingly necessary for someone to do, must they so often end up isolated, bribed and bullied? It not only goes through the details of the experiencer of several whistle blowers such as Dr Raj Mattu but also looks carefully at the conclusions academics have drawn from the evidence. Below are some short extracts,  for the full post see link.

Whistleblowers have always been with us, but this century they have attained a kind of ubiquity, leading the news on a weekly basis. Last month, a whistleblower reported massive accounting irregularities at Tesco; this month it was alleged mortgage fraud on an unimaginable scale at JP Morgan Chase. As I write, allegedly dangerously lax hygiene at a dental practice in Nottingham has been revealed. And all this while Laura Poitras’s documentary about Edward Snowden screens at cinemas around the country.

So why now? Partly, it’s because economic self-interest has become king. If a senior executive earns £400k, or £1m, he or she has a lot to lose. A whistleblower is a threat to the business – and in UK law, a threat to a management whose first legal duty is to shareholders, rather than customers or workers. Globalisation and the internet have further loosened the old social and commercial ties.

Who are the whistleblowers, and what makes them do it when most of us don’t? The Hollywood-created image is of the awkward outsider; brave, but destined for maverick isolation anyway. In short, not like us. But most of the people I meet in the course of writing this article are essentially conservative. They spoke out because they felt they had to. The real story lies in what happened next.

***

C Fred Alford, professor of government at the University of Maryland, is the author of Whistleblowers: Broken Lives And Organizational Power, a study into the personal impact of whistleblowing. It makes for an alarming read. Surprise discoveries include a finding that seniority offers little protection, and that it makes no difference whether a concern is first raised inside or outside the organisation. Of Alford’s three dozen-strong sample group, most lost their jobs and never worked in the same field again; many also lost their families, as court cases and tribunals dragged on for a decade and more. A majority suffered from depression, with alcoholism common. In another study, half the sample group was found to have gone bankrupt. All of this tallied with the people I talked to: the sanctity of whistleblowing may be written into law, in both the UK and US, but for most it will be a traumatic experience. “The greatest shock,” Alford says, “is what the whistleblower learns about the world – that nothing he or she believed is true.” Hence the “nuts and sluts” narrative we find in relation even to celebrated whistleblowers such as Karen SilkwoodErin BrockovichJulian Assange and Edward Snowden. This is a narrative we embrace, because it makes us feel secure: they brought it on themselves

. . . . .

Kate Kenny of Queen’s University in Belfast and Harvard’s Safra Centre, author of a book about whistleblowing in the finance industry, says she has been surprised by “the amount of work that goes into a being a whistleblower”, meaning the constant reading of documents, rebutting of arguments, exposing of lies and learning about the law, all while struggling to hold your personality together: in short, by the fact that it’s a full-time job which – usually without warning – takes over your life.

Of my sense that whistleblowing is on the rise, she says: “In finance it’s too early to tell. The regulators are receiving more tipoffs, and yet no whistleblower came forward about Libor.”

***

Why is the psychological impact of whistleblowing so extreme? David Morgan is a psychoanalyst who works with whistleblowers, often on a pro bono basis for clients who have lost their livelihoods. “At first, when they talked about how paranoid they were and how many people were after them, I saw them very much like ordinary patients and treated them accordingly,” he says. “But after two or three months I became paranoid myself: I realised what they were talking about was real, not just a mental health issue – their lives were under threat.”

As further background to Monday’s post about the five dimensions disrupting my practical patterns of action, there are some earlier poems relating to the first two – death & dough. I thought it might be useful to republish three of them, along with the new one that was posted on Thursday. So, there was one on Tuesday, one on Wednesday and this is the last.

the Khalifa of Islam, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (for the source of the image see link)

The Khalifa of Islam, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (for the source of the image see link)

This Huffington Post article points up the bias in Western reporting about Islam and goes some way towards explaining why it happens. Below are some short extracts: for the full post see link.

There exist two scenarios where no one can hear you scream. The first is of course, in space because there’s no oxygen. And the second is on Earth, but only if you’re a global Muslim leader condemning ISIS and promoting universal religious freedom.

Such was the result of the landmark address His Holiness the Khalifa of Islam, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, delivered last week in London before 1000 dignitaries, politicians, faith and thought leaders, and academics at the 2014 Ahmadiyya Muslim Peace Symposium.

As British journalist Sunny Hundal tweeted, “Ahmadiyya Muslim community Caliph devotes his speech to condemning ISIS in strongest terms tonight.”

Conservative British Parliamentary candidate Dan Watkins called it an “Inspiring speech on working for world peace.”

. . . . .

At the 2014 Ahmadiyya Muslim Peace Symposium His Holiness continued his intellectual Jihad of the pen against extremism and intolerance, declaring,

It is never permissible, in any circumstance, to force another person to accept Islam or indeed any religion… All people are free to believe or not to believe. And so when the Holy Prophet was permitted only to convey the message of Islam and nothing further – how then can the so called Muslim leaders of today go beyond this and think they have more power, authority or rights than the Prophet of Islam?

. . . . .

Yet, while His Holiness accomplishes far above and beyond what critics and media alike ask when they complain, “Why aren’t Muslims combatting extremism,” it appears they have not heard him scream during his decade plus in office. Meanwhile, ISIS leader al-baghdadi makes one virulent unsubstantiated statement about Islam and violence and he garners 24/7 media coverage for the past six months.

The double standard is sickening.

So I suppose maybe I’ve been looking at this all wrong. It appears major media and critics can in fact hear Muslims scream — but only when they scream threats and vitriol. Words and acts of altruism, compassion, love, tolerance, and pluralism fall on deaf ears.

Swinging in the Park

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