O SON OF SPIRIT! My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting.
Posts Tagged ‘Hidden Words’
Posted in Compassion & Empathy, Science and Religion, Spirituality, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, compassion, consciousness, David Brooks, empathy, Hidden Words, Iain McGilchrist, research on 11/04/2011 | 1 Comment »
Occasionally you are given the heads up about something that confirms almost all your wildest suppositions about the world. This happened to me recently. Some time ago a good friend, who knows my weakness for this kind of thing, posted me a link to an article by David Brooks which I finally got round to reading last week. It said:
[A] growing, dispersed body of research reminds us of a few key insights. First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason. Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships.
Every single one of those insights resonates powerfully with me.
I have already explored the way in which the comparison of the human heart to a garden, which you find in the Bahá’í Writings, is an image which conveys very effectively the idea that invisible processes in the ‘soil’ of our being produce remarkable results that can take long periods of time to emerge into the light of consciousness, rather in the manner of flowers and fruit. McGilchrist is a writer who pulls together a wide range of data to explain very clearly how functioning in a fully human way depends upon our recognising and fully integrating the emotional and intuitive aspect of our being with the logical and verbal one, rather than pretending it does not exist or is fundamentally undesirable. And this blog is littered with posts referring to the fundamental centrality of empathy and compassion in the complex pattern of human life.
What he goes on to say takes me further along this road. While the labels he uses may seem slightly abstract, even strange or dubious, what he goes on to describe integrates in one place those core human qualities upon which the future of our civilisation probably depends.
. . . . this research illuminates a range of deeper talents, which span reason and emotion and make a hash of both categories:
Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.
Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.
Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.
Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.
Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.
The spiritual path I follow has at its heart the idea that all human beings share a core of being that is essentially the same regardless of differences of colour, gender, class, race or politics. When we encounter differences with this perspective in mind the idea of Attunement becomes not only faintly possible but completely natural. There is a quotation from the Bahá’í Writings that not only reinforces this but shows how it might link to the other talents that he refers to:
O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.
(Arabic Hidden Words: 68)
Equipoise would seem to depend upon detachment which is in its turn linked to the capacity to reflect, which is a good word to use to describe the process behind Equipoise. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá unpacks some aspects of this relationship in Paris Talks, for example when He says (pages 175-176):
Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see.
This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.
Meditation, contemplation and reflection are closely related terms and depend upon high levels of detachment for their most effective operation. Detachment seems also to be necessary if we are to tune into the feeling states of others in a way that is conducive to high levels of empathy. It is not too difficult then to see how an ability to be in synchrony with others, which he describes as sympathy, is linked to the interaction of all these skills or qualities. This is partly at least what ‘being as one soul’ surely means.
The explanation in Paris Talks also suggests that both Metis and Limerence are rooted in this same combination of detachment, oneness and meditative reflection. ‘[T]he ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations’ at the very least overlaps, perhaps even maps completely onto, discerning ‘the reality of things’ just as being ‘in touch with God’ must be close in nature to those ‘moments of transcendence’ at the centre of what Limerence is according to Brooks.
McGilchrist’s comprehensive overview suggests that this is not ‘pie in the sky by and by’ but rooted in our evolved physical nature which has the capacity to bring these meta-realities down to earth. The holistic intuitive right-brain sees patterns in complex experiences that the analytical left brain is blind to. Silencing the chatter of the left brain, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá recommends in His discussion of meditation and Jill Bolte Taylor experienced as a consequence of her stroke, allows these fruits of a deeper processing to float into consciousness.
Whether you see them as coming ultimately from a spiritual realm, as I do, or from a wiser part of our physical being, is immaterial (no pun intended!). What counts is that both secular and spiritual insights, experience and systematic evidence suggest more and more of us have to learn how to tune into our deepest levels in this way if we are not, as a society, to sink more deeply into chaos and a social entropy that will destroy all that we have created that is positive in our civilisation.
It is extremely encouraging to see how so many people of good will across the spectrum of beliefs are of one mind on this at least. This is why there is hope. The word ‘gleams’ in the title of this post is a rather feeble acronym to act as a mnemonic for the Great ‘Limerence Equipoise Attunement Metis Sympathy’ combination of ideas.
Posted in Civilisation Building, Spirituality, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Baha'i, Bahá'u'lláh, consultation, Hidden Words, Kitáb-i-Íqán, Meditation, Paris Talks, Peter Koestenbaum, Peter Senge, Promulgation of Universal Peace, reflection, Robert Frost, systems theory, The Fifth Discipline on 27/03/2009 | 1 Comment »
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.
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 . . .
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?
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)
Posted in Identity & Society, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, bigotry, Buddhism, consultation, detachment, fanaticism, God, Hidden Words, prejudice, religion, soul, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, W. B. Yeats on 13/03/2009 | 1 Comment »
My mind . . . . .
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.
A World-Embracing Vision
A central concept in Bahá’í discourse, as could be inferred from previous posts, is the heart. This is used to refer to the core of our being. It is not purely emotional, though emotion is an important factor.
In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love.
(Persian Hidden Words: No. 3)
It also involves insight. Bahá’u'lláh uses the phrase ‘understanding heart’ on a number of occasions.
There is more to it even than that. In previous posts about the self and the soul I have explored the implications of the way that Bahá’u'lláh describes the heart either as a ‘mirror’ or a ‘garden.’ I won’t be revisiting those considerations here but they are relevant to this theme.
I want to look at another angle on the heart which Bahá’u'lláh repeatedly refers to.
In the Hidden Words (Persian: No.27) He writes:
All that is in heaven and earth I have ordained for thee except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory; yet thou didst give My home and dwelling to another than Me and whenever the manifestation of My holiness sought His own abode, a stranger found He there, and, homeless, hastened to the sanctuary of the Beloved.
The meaning is clear. Like an addict we fill our hearts with junk as an addict blocks his receptors with heroin so that the appropriate ‘occupant’ is denied access and we do not function properly. We are in a real sense poisoned.
Return, then, and cleave wholly unto God, and cleanse thine heart from the world and all its vanities, and suffer not the love of any stranger to enter and dwell therein. Not until thou dost purify thine heart from every trace of such love can the brightness of the light of God shed its radiance upon it, for to none hath God given more than one heart. . . . . . And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided. Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of any one besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness. God is My witness.
Though it is easier said than done, of course, this has several important implications.
We are often divided within ourselves, worshipping more than one false god. We are divided from other people when we perceive them to be worshipping other gods than ours. This warps the proper functioning of the heart. It prevents us from becoming ‘a true upholder of His oneness,’ people who see all of humanity as our business and behave accordingly.
No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union.
(Tablets of Bahá’u'lláh: pages 164-165)
‘Abdu’l-Bahá developed the same theme:
Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 76)
Note that transcending such divisions within and between people is linked with a unifying devotion to an inclusive and loving God: if we worship an exclusive and narrow god our divisions and conflicts will be exacerbated.
There is a key passage in the Arabic Hidden Words (No. 68) which assists in helping us understand the spiritual dynamics here:
Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.
Oneness and detachment are inextricably linked. Only when we detach ourselves from false gods can we integrate all aspects of ourselves, bring our divided loyalties together under one banner, and see ourselves at one with all humankind. When we dismantle the barriers within us we can also dismantle those between us. Only then can the expression of unity come from the depths of our being and manifest itself in actions and words that are a seamless fabric of complete integrity harmonised with all humanity. The process of striving to achieve this state in this physical world is a slow and painful one but cannot be evaded if we are to live a full and fulfilling life, as against an empty, sterile and potentially destructive one. Above all it involves expressing a sense of common humanity in action regardless of how we feel sometimes: positive values are a better guide to consistently positive action than feelings that can shift swiftly from light to dark and back again.
Without such a radical integration we will not be able to achieve the world embracing vision required of us if the problems confronting our civilisation are to have any hope of resolution. Anything less runs a very strong risk of perpetuating prejudice, conflict, discrimination and all the evils such as pogroms that have their roots in such heart-felt and deep-seated divisions.
We must be careful not to substitute some limited idea of God of our own devising for the limitless experience of love that is the one true God beyond all description. That way hatred lies. It is the ‘rose’ of love that we must plant in the garden of our hearts, not its daisy or its dandelion, though either of those would certainly be better than the stinging nettle of animosity, but probably not up to meeting the challenges that this shrinking and diverse world is currently throwing at us.
Planting the most inclusive and embracing flower of love in our hearts that we are capable of is the indispensable precursor to the positive personal transformation of a radical kind that is demanded of us now.
Without some plan of action, what I have described may well of course turn out to be empty rhetoric. Every great world religion has described in detail the steps we need to take to perfect ourselves once we have placed its message in our heart of hearts.
Buddhism is perhaps the clearest in its ways of doing this, with its four noble truths and eightfold path. Also its system of psychological understanding is second to none, which is perhaps why current psychological approaches to distress are borrowing so heavily from it, for example in the concept of mindfulness.
The Baha’i Faith is a much younger tradition but is unique in combining recommendations for individual spiritual development, such as prayer and reflection (in the sense I have discussed in detail in previous posts) with prescriptions for expressing spiritual understanding collectively in the special conditions of the modern world. There are two key components of this.
First, consultation, which is a spiritual and disciplined form of non-adversarial decision-making. Second is a way of organising a global network of like-minded people, which combines democratic elections with authority held collectively by an assembly. There is neither priesthood nor presidency. The system allows for a flexible process of responding to what we learn from experience: there is nothing fossilised about it.
I believe there is much to learn from the Baha’i model that can be successfully applied in our lives whether we decide to join the Baha’i community or not. The learning is readily transferable to almost any benign context.
An Appeal to our Better Selves
After such a long post as this, now is not the time to go into this in detail but the many links from this blog will introduce these ideas in accessible form. I intend to return to this aspect of the issue in due course.
I would like instead to close with the words of a powerful message, sent by our governing body at the Baha’i World Centre to the world’s religious leaders in 2002. It stated in its introduction:
Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in the path; to cite a particular painful fact, it has long lent its credibility to fanaticism.
The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It is surely unnecessary to cite in detail the horrors being visited upon hapless populations today by outbursts of fanaticism that shame the name of religion.
All is not lost, they argue:
Each of the great faiths can adduce impressive and credible testimony to its efficacy in nurturing moral character. Similarly, no one could convincingly argue that doctrines attached to one particular belief system have been either more or less prolific in generating bigotry and superstition than those attached to any other.
They assert their conviction:
. . . that interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.
And they close with the following appeal:
The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind.
This is work that we can all support, wherever we are and in whatever God we do or do not believe. We should not just leave it to our leaders.
Posted in Science and Religion, Self and Soul, tagged Bahá'u'lláh, Carl Gustav Jung, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Guy Claxton, Hamlet, Hidden Words, Human Minds, Islam, Jonathan Haidt, Jung and the Story of our Time, King Richard the Second, Laurens van der Post, Margaret Donaldson, Marriage of Sense and Soul, R. S. Thomas, religion, science, T. S. Eliot, The Wayward Mind, William Wordsworth, Zen Buddhism on 23/02/2009 | Leave a Comment »
The best journey to make
is inward. It is the interior
that calls. Eliot heard it.
Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind, and let himself
down for the poetry stranded
on the bare ledges.
(R. S. Thomas: ‘Groping’ page 328, Collected Poems)
When we considered the mind as a mirror, we felt that it could then contain the universe as a reflection within it. The idea of the heart as a garden or as soil works differently but we should still be thinking in terms of a vast landscaped garden rather than a small suburban one.
Gerald Manley Hopkins had already said it definitively when he wrote that there were not only ‘landscapes’ for us but ‘inscapes’ as well, or as he put it in one of his greatest poems,
‘O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall,
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.’
(‘Jung and the Story of our Time‘: page 20)
Whether we are simply talking about the mind as a product of the brain or as an emanation from the soul, this holds true. If we move from the poets to a psychologist, we find:
The assembled oddities of human nature point to the fact that it is not just the mind that bursts out of the . . . . straitjacket into which it has been forced; it is the very core of the self, of human identity, that threatens to escape. I am darker, and more dispersed, and more various, and more changeable, than I am supposed to be . . .
Though the idea of the universe may seem too much too swallow for some, even if we restrict ourselves only to thinking of the brain, our inscape is larger and more complex than many of us are prepared to admit. This throws us back onto the problem we wrestled with right at the beginning: if we have such a complex and powerful hinterland of forces within us, where does free will fit in?
The metaphor of the garden and cultivation helps us here to understand in what ways our freedom to decide is circumscribed by what is happening out of consciousness: at the same time it shows us that we are not completely powerless and we do have responsibility. We can shape the way things go but we cannot do this arbitrarily and in ignorance of the way the mind-brain system works. For those who want a more detailed understanding of what psychology thinks about this issue, Claxton’s books are a good place to start.
We are going to be simplifying the situation in order to focus on a central issue. Bahá’u'lláh tells us:
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)
The balance of conscious decision-making against automatic unconscious processes implied here is very much how things really are, I think. We can choose what we sow in the soil: we can even make sure that some of the conditions are favourable. But it is the soil and the sun that do the bulk of the work. Without the power of nature the gardener could do nothing. And this captures the balance of forces between our decisions and the actions we take, which are relatively puny but of great significance, and the massive spiritual and mental forces that are then mobilised to bring our plans to fruition. We have to work with those forces for we cannot work against them. We are the puny rider training the massive elephant, to use Jonathan Haidt‘s different image. If we plant something other than the hyacinths of wisdom, that’s what we’ll get. If we plant nothing and do no weeding, then we’ll have, in the words Hamlet uses of the state of Denmark:
. . . an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
(Act I, Scene ii, lines 135-137: merely means ‘completely.)
(It is perhaps no coincidence that both Zen Buddhism and Islam also see spiritual sustenance in both experiencing and maintaining a well-kept garden: that I’m good with the hammock and bad with the trowel worries me sometimes.)
We must allow that the brain has vast unconscious forces working in parallel. But what we do with our minds influences what those forces do in highly significant ways. It is not deterministic and we do have free will — up to a point. Beneath the surface, our mind processes outside our consciousness what we drop into it. We can learn, if we are skillful and resolute, to control by act of will what is planted in our minds though we may not be able to control exactly what our mind then does with it.
What about the soul?
Now we must return to a crucial point. While what I have just explored holds true regardless of whether we are talking about brains, minds or souls, I also accept that the evidence and the reasons for thinking it is the soul are not compelling. If we were compelled by their cogency and force to accept them, there would be no freedom of choice and no moral value in believing or not believing in a soul, anymore than there is moral value in believing that grass is green or the sun is hot.
However, I would like, before the end of this series of posts, to quote two writers from very different traditions who feel that there is a powerful body of evidence, disparaged in our culture, that says the spiritual or transcendental dimension has to be taken seriously, however you might choose to define it.
Ken Wilber concludes a complex review of what should constitute evidence and falsifiability by stating:
. . . it then becomes perfectly obvious that the real battle is not between science which is ‘real,’ and religion, which is ‘bogus,’ but rather between real science and religion, on the one hand, and bogus science and religion, on the other. Both real science and real religion follow the three strands of valid knowledge accumulation, while both bogus science (pseudo-science) and bogus religion (mythic and dogmatic) fail that test miserably. Thus, real science and real religion are actually allied against the bogus and the dogmatic and the nonverifiable and the nonfalsifiable in their respective spheres.
(The Marriage of Sense and Soul, page 169)
Margaret Donaldson, in an equally brilliant book that looks at the development of the human mind from infancy to adulthood, concludes:
. . . . if the intellect has unbalanced us, there are corrective steps open to us which are not regressive and which do not entail a rejection of reason. At the same time, we may come to feel less embarrassed about and suspicious of transcendent emotion, seeing it as no more ‘wierd’ than the capacity for mathematical thought. Neither of these is, or is ever likely to seem, banal or commonplace. Each has its element of mystery. Yet each is a normal, though generally ill-developed, power of the human mind.
(Human Minds, page 266)
The value of a spiritual perspective
It is my view that, if we can accept the spiritual dimension, we will be more motivated to persist in the difficult work of cultivating our inscape, and if we do not we will be inclined to give up far too soon with dire consequences for ourselves and our societies.
The Elizabethans often compared the state to a garden. There is a strong connection, it seems to me, between the state of the gardens of our minds and the state of the gardens of the societies that we create. If we want to see the Tudor picture of a harmonious garden within and outside us we need to accept that arduous and persistent work needs to be done. The Gardener in King Richard the Second laments:
That [the king] had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit trees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself;
. . . . . . . . . . . . Superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live;
Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.
(Act III, Scene iv, lines 55-66)
What is true for them and for King Richard is also true for us in terms of our own hearts and our own communities. If we fail to do the necessary systematic work, then we will perhaps end up with Richard lamenting:
I wasted time and now doth time waste me.
(Act V, Scene v, line 49)
Posted in Self and Soul, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Baha'i, Bahá'u'lláh, Hidden Words, Paris Talks, Promulgation of Universal Peace, reflection on 16/02/2009 | Leave a Comment »
These energies with which the Day Star of Divine bounty and Source of heavenly guidance hath endowed the reality of man lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp. The radiance of these energies may be obscured by worldly desires even as the light of the sun can be concealed beneath the dust and dross which cover the mirror. Neither the candle nor the lamp can be lighted through their own unaided efforts, nor can it ever be possible for the mirror to free itself from its dross. It is clear and evident that until a fire is kindled the lamp will never be ignited, and unless the dross is blotted out from the face of the mirror it can never represent the image of the sun nor reflect its light and glory.
A Case of Mistaken Identity
Hopefully we have most of us made an attempt at the exercise at the end of the previous post.
A question left hanging in the air was concerning what we could learn about our mind from the comparison with a mirror. The easiest way to explain one of the most important implications is to say that consciousness is like the glass of the mirror and our thoughts, plans and feelings like the reflections in the glass. All too often we mistake what is reflected in the glass of our consciousness for who we are in essence.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy uses the image of the chess board to make the same point:
We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board. The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.
(A.C.T.: Page 192)
As I do also, they place great store by this aspect of the self, the one that remains the same as changing experiences flow past: they call it the observing self and believe, rather implausibly, that it derives from language. They believe that operating from the observing self enables us to unhook ourselves from disabling scripts and discover, choose to live by and enact our deepest values in spite of all the discomfort that inevitably attends upon such a commitment. Our lives become value- rather than self- or language-centred. If we do not achieve this level of understanding, in their view, we are condemned to betray our highest values because we have confused ourselves with what we are telling or have been told about ourselves.
It’s perhaps worth clarifying at this point that I am not saying that Bahá’ís believe that this ability to reflect is our soul. I do believe though that it is a pointer to or attribute of our soul. To summarise a complex argument rather simply we can say the essence of the soul is unknowable (Gleanings: LXXXII). However, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá illustrates that there is in fact something we can know with the analogy of a flower:
Its external appearance and manifest attributes are knowable; but the inner being, the underlying reality or intrinsic identity, is still beyond the ken and perception of our human powers.
(Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 421)
This suggests that while we cannot know the essence of our soul we can experience its attributes. I am personally of the view that the capacity to reflect is one of the attributes of the soul.
Directing the Mirror
‘Abdu’l-Bahá in ‘Paris Talks‘ goes further in pointing out in what ways this power is involved in our spiritual development. He uses the image of the mirror to do so:
The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these. . . . Therefore let us keep this faculty rightly directed — turning it to the heavenly Sun and not to earthly objects — so that we may discover the secrets of the Kingdom, and comprehend the allegories of the Bible and the mysteries of the spirit. May we indeed become mirrors reflecting the heavenly realities . .
From a spiritual point of view, every experience we have is only a reflection in the mirror of our souls and not reducible simply to activity of the brain which is more like a radio receiver than a computer in this process. The purpose of this mirror is to reflect divine light. We must not mistake ourselves for the earthly things we reflect: that drags us down. Neither must we mistake ourselves for God when divine light is reflected from our hearts: that way lies one of the most spiritually corrosive emotions – pride. If we are a mirror it explains why we might experience the whole universe within us — we can reflect it! It is folded within us but it is not us any more than the mirror that I look into is me.
Identity and the Core Self
Another important implication of this model is that we are in essence all mirrors. What our cultures, upbringing, current situation and ‘tribal’ loyalties, such as Everton, England or Unitarianism, have brought to the shaping of our identities is superficial and divisive: it is not who we really are no matter how desperately we hold onto it. Underneath we are all the same. Our differences, when they are creative, are to be celebrated: when they are destructive, they can and should be discarded. Our essence will not be destroyed by this: rather it will be revealed in all its glory.
It is generally agreed that it is hard, if not impossible to undertake such a process of shedding destructive identities unaided. Even those who do not embrace the idea that the soul might be involved, accept that we need a special kind of support which our culture calls psychotherapy. When the shedding of an identity is very radical, when we are proposing to strip our sense of self back to the core, most spiritual traditions recommend a guru: because Bahá’ís are encouraged not to place other human beings on that kind of pedestal, we feel we need to rely on God through prayer and other spiritual processes, all of which are designed to weaken the hold of our attachment to our lesser selves.
However we go about it in our various traditions, stripping our identifications back to this core self is perhaps the only way of achieving a true deep recognition of our common humanity which is sufficiently strong to overcome many of our long-held and much cherished prejudices. Once we have experienced this core self, however faintly, I believe also that the idea of the soul becomes a more reasonable possibility to entertain, though this experience falls short of the kind of compelling evidence that would make dogmatic scepticism seem completely ridiculous. Reflection, in this sense, and detachment as used in many spiritual traditions, seem to be very closely related.
Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.
(Arabic Hidden Words: No. 68)
Limits of Free Will
This concept of consciousness as a mirror, whose direction of aim we can choose, also helps clarify one of the earlier issues we looked at: is our will free? We always need to specify: free to do what?
The mirror analogy helps here with one aspect of the problem. If a mirror is facing a dung heap and is in reasonably good condition, it will reflect it. That’s what mirrors do: they have no choice but to reflect what’s put before them. To a degree that’s also true of consciousness. However, we can choose which way to turn the mirror, and, if we do turn it, it will reflect something different. Of course if we have really neglected or other people have abused our mirror, it may have become so filthy it can’t reflect anything at all, rather as though it had not just been pointed at a dung heap but dropped into one. So, a double effort would be required here: we’d need to clean it and turn it the right way. Habit could, of course, have made the arm that pulls the mirror towards the world much stronger than the arm that pulls it towards the good, as we conceive it. This means that much exercise of the weaker arm will be needed before we can hold the mirror steadily towards the good. This is a choice that is still within our power though, no matter how weak the better arm may be. Spiritual disciplines help in this process.
Where the garden metaphor gains is in helping us understand a different but related aspect of the mind. Unlike a mirror, which is not changed by what is reflected in it, by and large, a garden is very much affected by how it is cultivated and what is sown or allowed to take root in it. This enriches the idea of the kind of choices before us and the exact way free will needs to be exercised.
This we will need to look at in more detail in the next post. In the meanwhile, we can all keep polishing.