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Archive for April, 2012

 

Whatever the underlying cause, there’s a host of evidence that introverts are more sensitive than extroverts to various kinds of stimulation, from coffee to a loud bang to the dull roar of a networking event . . . .

(Susan Cain – Quiet - page 124)

I have just returned from an exacting test of temperament. Mumbai and introversion are not a good mix.

For me, I think the city would come close to number one in the top ten of worst destinations for an introvert like me to visit especially when it is getting so hot (36 degrees C). There is an unsettling frenzy about the place. To say its traffic roars would be an outrageous understatement. Three wheeler motorised rickshaws, pushbikes, taxis, motorbikes, cars and the occasional hand-drawn cart jostle with hands constantly on horns for ever so slight advantages through nerve-shreddingly narrow gaps on bumpy and broken roads that run alongside ramshackle huts and makeshift markets that spill into their edges. This ‘can’t wait’ mentality spawns and reinforces much of the endemic and extreme corruption as well the permanent cacophonous collective death wish of the streets, I think.

For various reasons we were stuck in Mumbai the whole time, something that hadn’t happened in any of my previous trips to India. I love the mountain district near Pune for example. We have often gone to Panchgani in the past where there is silence, greenery and open spaces for refreshing walks and time to simply ‘be’ with people and with nature. I don’t think I quite realised how discordant I would find fifteen days in the heart of Mumbai’s mania.

A thread that was woven into this pattern highlighted for me how far I have still to go on my spiritual path. I had taken with me, along with Susan Cain’s brilliant Quiet, Earl Redman’s moving and inspiring book ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst. At a similar age to me exactly one hundred years ago, once He was given his freedom to travel, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá undertook a gruelling three and a half year journey from what is present day Israel through Egypt to England then to North America and back again, including Scotland in his itinerary.

He travelled over vast distances the length and breadth of the United States, often on the hard seats of third class carriages rather than in a sleeper. He spoke tirelessly to innumerable gatherings of widely divergent people and patiently received an incessant stream of visitors in his rooms. The extreme contrast between the Eastern environment from which He came and the Western one through which he tirelessly  travelled could not possibly have been greater. His feats of uncomplaining endurance contrasted starkly with my own lack of stamina.

There were moments in the book though where the starkness of this contrast was softened with another way of responding (page 244 for example):

On [the] last night of [this long train] journey, none of the servants brought up the possibility of the sleeper compartment, but  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá suddenly told them to reserve six berths because ‘We slept in our seats last night and that is enough, Let us not suffer any more hardship.’

This was fortunate as I might have otherwise slipped into a state of despair over my own deplorable condition. Also, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained there were other forces at work in His case far more powerfully than in mine (page 19):

Before the meeting, the Master had a high fever and was in bed. Juliet Thompson tried to get Him to stay and rest but He laughed, ‘I work by the confirmations of the Holy Spirit. I do not work by hygienic laws. If I did, I would get nothing done.’

To recognise that difference is not a reason not to strive to do more but needs to mitigate our inevitable disappointment when we fail to emulate the perfect Example of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. There were moments when I wondered how long it would take for the frenzied impatience I was experiencing around me in Mumbai to be replaced by the peaceful compassion I was reading about and which can be found beautifully exemplified in India itself in the stillness of yoga, the quiet rapture of Buddhist meditation and the timeless rhythms of the ragas. I suppose, in the end, that depends upon us and how much effort we are prepared to make.

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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 at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate.

It is an axiomatic fact 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.

(‘Abdu’l-BaháParis Talks - page 175)

In March this year Susan Cain was recorded giving a TED talk on the theme of her book Quiet. She is well aware of the irony of pacing a platform in front of so many people and talking about introversion. I reckon she pulls the feat off amazingly well. What do you reckon? Particularly moving are the memories of her grandfather she shares towards the end of her talk and also her teasing out the implications of silence for spirituality and creativity.

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Badi

For background picture see link.

Follow this link for information about Badi.

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Victory

For background picture see link.

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Among other principles of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings was the harmony of science and religion. Religion must stand the analysis of reason. It must agree with scientific fact and proof so that science will sanction religion and religion fortify science. Both are indissolubly welded and joined in reality.

( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá   – Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 175)

You may wonder why this post follows so closely on from two very long recent ones on consciousness. Well, beyond the fact that I’m obsessed with the topic anyway, that is. ‘Why now?’ is the issue really, I suppose.

The answer is that, on the Bahá’í New Year 21st March, I had to go to the Birmingham medical school to run a seminar on consciousness and some aspects of the experience stuck with me.

The building was not reassuring. I was already feeling slightly apprehensive as the topic sprawls way outside my area of expertise. Yes, I know I’m a psychologist but that’s less than a tenth of it. Consciousness has a finger in the pie, mathematically speaking, of physics. It has vexed philosophers into paroxysms of confusion and special pleading. Doctors have to grapple with its practical manifestations when coma strikes. And here I was walking into a lion’s den of different kinds of experts to teach my grandmothers to suck eggs. At least that’s how it felt.

And the modernist feel of the building’s interior was quite unsettling in a Kafkaesque sort of way. A massive entrance hall with off-putting security and gleaming surfaces (the picture below is of the library, but it has the same feel) led me up the stairs into a grid of intersecting corridors running in parallels at right angles and all very much the same apart from the identifying codes on doors that read like WAP passwords.

After hanging around stairwells, dithering for what seemed an eternity uncertain which direction to take, I managed to find an Ariadne to guide me through the labyrinth to the seminar room we were due to be in at 5 o’clock.

I was half an hour early and the room was occupied (not by the Minotaur, I hasten to add) so I moved through to a seated area within sight of the library. It was a hot day and the building was warm. I was sweating rather a lot after my walk from the station. Nerves? What makes you think anxiety had anything to do with it?

A psychologist in denial, I sat down in a leather-upholstered chair at a shining table, with an impressive phalanx of academic heavyweights gazing down on me from their imposing portraits, and got out my notes for the umpteenth time, desperately trying to convince myself I had internalised them.

Then the hour of judgement arrived. The seminar room had no outside windows and was uncomfortably warm. No refreshments were allowed to cross its sacred threshold. It was going to be a throat-testing experience, as if mine wasn’t dry enough already.

We were about 16 people – men, women, young, old, atheist, agnostic, religious, culturally diverse. I began to feel more comfortable. People are just people after all. I checked out the audience for experts. Any qualified psychologists? One tentative possible. Relief! Any doctors? Just a small handful. I could cope with that. I’d thought I’d have a roomful. Any ‘real’ scientists? Just one man with a 30-year old physics degree. Things were getting better and better.

My plan was to cover challenging issues such as the improbability of consciousness, caveats about its reality, doubts about the materialist position and aspects of the nature of consciousness as we currently understand its workings.

Not overly ambitious then for a two hour exploration.

It would be too complicated to give a blow-by-blow account of what transpired though it will inform any future attempts I make to explore the topic. I’ll just pick up on a couple of the more intriguing points.

One of the most striking things was the lack of consensus across all shades of opinion about the free will issue. There were those who found the implications of determinism for a just and responsible society too destructive to make that hypothesis acceptable. Other people by contrast were quite comfortable with the idea that what we do is determined in advance by processes of which we are completely unaware and over which we have no control. This last position is bewildering to me, it’s so counterintuitive. ‘But what’s so reliable about intuition?’ you might ask.

Another aspect was that even the agnostics, who felt that theirs was the only rational approach to the issues of free will and determinism and of mind-brain independence, veered towards feeling the reductionist approach was somehow more plausible on both counts.

It’s as though the materialistic dogma of our times biases reason in favour of its assumptions even though they are no more reasonable than spiritual explanations. Materialism is a factoid that doesn’t know it yet. It is as much an act of faith as a belief in God and both creeds should seem equally reasonable or unreasonable, depending on the biases of the observer. And agnostics are supposed to be unbiased.

When the seminar was over the building did not release me easily from its grip. It was even harder to pass through security to get out than it had been to get in. It felt as though the building was finding its own way to express its modernist disapproval of all this flaky spiritual stuff. ‘Only matter matters after all,’ it seemed to say. ‘Agree and I’ll let you out.’ Thanks to a rebel on the inside with a passkey I managed to escape alive to tell this tale.

This clash of values is a serious issue though.

If we place any credibility at all in the eloquently expressed arguments of scholars such as Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds, Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and SoulJohn Hick in The Fifth Dimension or Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary, we have to accept the likelihood that, until our society finds a better balance between spirituality and science as pathways to what is fundamentally the same truth, we are in danger of joining previous civilisations in oblivion.

Sometimes it feels as though we are well on the way already, but that’s in my darker moments. Most of the time I believe that the tipping point can be reached where a critical mass of humanity gets the right idea in time. If Sheldrake’s idea of morphic resonance has any truth in it, the more people change their minds the easier it will become for the rest of us. Can we have more Blondins to balance on this tightrope please?

Charles Blondin

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The seven Baha'i prisoners before their arrest.

On the 30th March on the Guardian website an important and powerfully written post appeared: below is an extract – for full post see link.

The first day of April is traditionally a day of fun and laughter in Britain. For most Iranians it is Sizdah-Bidar – a time of family, picnics, and outdoor celebration.

But for Iran‘s seven Baha’i leaders, it has another meaning: 10,000 cumulative days of unjustified imprisonment, with no prospect of release until 2028. Shut away from the world, their “family” is now the hundreds of other prisoners of conscience that languish in Iran’s prisons. The seven are distinguished for their services to society, not criminality, yet they now survive in cramped, pestilential conditions, lacking essential medical care. Their suffering is emblematic of the human rights crisis in Iran. An international campaign is being launched to raise awareness of their plight.

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