Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending time we find them there.
(‘Mending Wall‘, Robert Frost, Selected Poems, page 43)
In the closing decades of the last century the Berlin wall tumbled. Nor was it only in the landscape that we found this happening. Such collapses were and still are transforming our inscape as well.
The Bahá’í Revelation, Bahá’ís believe, has a crucial part to play in helping the dismantling of the barricades within and between people. We are a kind of catalyst in that it is by our transformation as Bahá’ís that this process will be accelerated and, even better, by borrowing our ideas and practices everyone, whether a Bahá’í or not, can join in the work of bringing down the barricades.
In the concluding post of the sequence on Conviction I threatened to return to some aspects of the Bahá’í prescription for living in a way that could, if given the chance by a sufficient number of people, change the direction of civilization for the better.
I’m now delivering on that threat and going to attempt to demonstrate that one exportable aspect unique to the Bahá’í life has an especially strong bearing on this problem of walls: consultation. There are others that I don’t mention here that would have the same effect. Another, meditation, which I will deal with very briefly, is not unique to the Faith.
Meditation, for an individual, seems to be equivalent to consultation for the group. It serves the same purposes and requires and creates the same personal qualities. They both grow from and result in unity and in detachment, which may in any case be one and the same process and end-state.
I apologise for this post’s being so long but it didn’t seem possible to split it without making the theme hard to follow.
The purpose is to emphasize the statement that consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion . . .
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 72)
We have to remain mindful, though we often forget, that investigating the truth is a goal whose pursuit does not guarantee that we will always find it. What we can do though is be resolute in developing increasing levels of humility about the value of our opinions, so that the consensus becomes richer and an ever closer approximation to the particular truth under investigation. Developing that kind of humility in such an opinionated world is easier said than done.
Some questions might still come to mind. Why is it so difficult to treat our own opinions as simply contributions to a consensus? How can we learn to do that? Is the investigation of the truth the only purpose of consultation or are there others?
Turning to the literature of the Bahá’í Faith should assist us. For example Bahá’u’lláh writes :
Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.’
(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, pages 168-9)
If we are in the dark, some light, however little, will help – even a match will be better than nothing. Even though the light we create will never rival the sun’s, it will often be quite good enough to help us find our way forwards. But it will work best when we combine our lights together rather than shielding them to ourselves. That is what consultation can do: polishing our own mirror in meditation helps us, as we will briefly see later, bring a brighter light to the process of consultation.
Why is letting go and sharing our light so hard? How can we learn to do it?
Peter Senge, a systems theorist, in The Fifth Discipline (pages 8-9), argues that we all operate upon ‘mental models’ or ‘mental maps’ (page 239) which are
deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behaviour.
And on page 185:
all we ever have are assumptions, never truths, that we always see the world through our mental models and that the mental models are always incomplete.
He asserts (page 182) that:
. . . decision-making processes could be transformed if people became more able to surface and discuss more productively their different ways of looking at the world.
These assumptions are deeply ingrained because we have often formed them in childhood or adolescence, they have seen us through difficulties or even kept us alive, and they seem to make sense of our sometimes overwhelming experiences. We are not inclined to leave go of them too easily nor do we look charitably upon those who threaten them by argument or action. So, we protect our little candle and don’t readily let it pool its light with everyone else’s.
Peter Koestenbaum in his book ‘New Image of the Person: theTheory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy’ states that:
‘[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.’
By reflection, amongst other things, he means unhooking ourselves from our ideas.
An example he gives from the clinical context illustrates what he means:
. . . to resist in psychotherapy means to deny the possibility of dissociating consciousness from its object at one particular point . . . To overcome the resistance means success in expanding the field of consciousness and therewith to accrue increased flexibility . . .’
But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? In therapy it is the feeling of trust and safety we develop towards the therapist that helps us begin to let go of maladaptive world views, self-concepts and opinions.
Amongst the prerequisites listed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for those who take counsel together is ‘detachment from all save God.’ In the Tablets written after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas Bahá’u’lláh explains what it takes to be detached:
The essence of detachment is for man to turn his face towards the courts of the Lord, to enter His Presence, behold His Countenance, and stand witness before Him.
It’s fairly clear that such an awareness will entail a great deal of work on practising the presence of God. If we can maintain such a sense of His Presence then it is extremely unlikely that we would be inclined pig-headedly to bludgeon our friends, family, colleagues and neighbours into submission with our opinions. It feels like a lifetime’s work to get to this point though.
Detachment as a Process
Is this becoming one of those counsels of despair which can seem so characteristic of the spiritual life? Can we only consult if we are completely detached? If not shouldn’t we bother?
Perhaps though detachment is more of a process than an end-state at least in this life.
Koestenbaum supports this view (page 73):
The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’
By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.
We need to consider the possibility that consultation is also a process that can help us become more detached. If so, it’s goal is clearly more than simply the investigation of truth. It is a spiritual discipline in itself and leads to personal as well as group transformation. It perhaps could rightly be called a Bahá’í yoga.
Maybe now would be a good time to shift our attention from consultation to a brief consideration of meditation before looking at how the two processes work together. They may be mutually reinforcing: they may even effectively be the same thing!
The wine of renunciation must needs be quaffed, the lofty heights of detachment must needs be attained, and the meditation referred to in the words “One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious must needs be observed, . . .’
(Bahá’u’lláh: The Kitáb-i-Íqán, page 238)
At first sight an equivalence between meditation and consultation, of the kind I am speculating about, seems unlikely. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Paris Talks (page 174):
Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things it one time – he cannot both speak and meditate.
Consultation, at least in Western Europe and the United States, is not conspicuous for its silences. Have we drawn a blank?
‘It is an axiomatic fact,’ He continues,
that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.
Perhaps not. We are, in a sense, consulting, though with our higher Selves rather than with other people. Such inner speech seems to require an absence of outer speech, but it may nonetheless be a form of consultation. We are suspending our usual assumptions and opening ourselves up to other possibilities. He goes onto say:
The spirit of man is itself informed and strengthened during meditation; through it affairs of which man knew nothing are unfolded before his view. Through it he receives Divine inspiration, through it he receives heavenly food.
Do Consultation and Meditation Reinforce Each Other?
When we suspend our assumptions in this way, we receive intimations of a higher and more accurate kind. This sounds remarkably similar to the understanding achieved in consultation. It seems possible , at least in principle, to use meditation to improve our consultation skills and consultation perhaps to practise and refine our meditation. It also raises the question whether consultation, at least in the West, would benefit from more silence.
We know it requires detachment. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continues:
This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.
One possible way of conceptualising detachment, orr at least a result of it, is freedom from our animal nature as described here.
Regarding the statement in ‘The Hidden Words’, that man must renounce his own self, the meaning, is that he must renounce his inordinate desires, his selfish purposes and the promptings of his human self, and seek out the holy breathings of the spirit . . . . ..
(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 207)
Meditation, then, might help us achieve the detachment necessary for consultation. Consultation will almost certainly strengthen our ability to be detached and thereby facilitate our meditation. They are clearly not unrelated disciplines sharing as they do this same outcome.
We also have to be open to the views of other people when we consult and to the Bahá’í Scriptures when we meditate upon them or to the promptings of our higher self when we commune with it in meditation. So these two skills are not all that different either: they both enhance our understanding of reality.
In the end, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that meditation will help us consult and consulting will help us meditate. It certainly seems to me that meditation and consultation used in conjunction as the Bahá’í Faith recommends would constitute a wrecking ball of sufficient power to bring even the most obdurate of our dividing walls crashing to the ground and pave the way for greater unity within and between us. Such a degree of unity is imperative if we are to become capable of solving the problems that currently confront us.
Consultation has links with justice, too complex to go into now, which add further strength to this position:
To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.
(From Section II: The Prosperity of Humankind)
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