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Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’
Friday 22 September 1911
This day the countries of Europe are at rest; Education has become widespread. The light of liberty is the light of the West, and the intention of government is to work for truth and justice in Western countries. But ever the light of spirituality shines from out of the East. In this age that light has become dimmed; religion has become a matter of form and ceremony and the desire for God’s love has been lost.
In every age of great spiritual darkness, a light is kindled in the East. So once again the light of the teachings of God has come unto you. Even as education and progress travel from West to East, so does the spiritual fire travel from East to West.
I hope that the people of the West may be illumined by the light of God; that the Kingdom may come to them, that they may find eternal Life, that the Spirit of God may spread like a fire among them, that they may be baptized with the Water of Life and may find a new birth.
This is my desire; I hope by the will of God, He will cause you to receive it, and will make you happy.
In the same way that you have education and material progress so may the light of God be your portion.
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London: pages 48-49)
Posted in Science and Religion, tagged Amit Goswami, Bahá'í Faith, consciousness, David Rohl, Egyptian chronology, God, Goliath, John Hick, King David, Margaret Donaldson, physics, Ramesses II, Robert Wright, spirituality on 01/04/2011 | Leave a Comment »
The title Bible’s Buried Secrets drew me to watch the first programme in the series on BBC2 in the middle of last month. Initially, in spite of the youth and charm of Francesca Stavrakopoulou, I found myself waiting on a bland platform of only mild interest until I found myself boarding a train of thought that carried me through intriguing terrain to a fascinating destination.
Her argument, in brief, was that the archaeological evidence for the existence of the biblical King David, Goliath notwithstanding, was so sparse as to call into question his reality. Bells in a distant steeple of my memory began pealing as though an invasion or a coronation was imminent. I recalled reading David Rohl‘s book A Test of Time many years earlier (1995 judging by the publication date). It was turned into a television series on Channel 4 which I never saw. He argued, in a way that seemed quite plausible, that this lack of corroboration for the Bible from the historical and archaeological record is a common problem and stems from the fact that the conventionally accepted Egyptian chronology is displaced in time.
For complex reasons that it would take too long to rehearse here, Rohl feels that (page 135):
There are . . . no safe fixed points in the chronology of Egypt earlier than 664 BC.
He develops a new chronology which he summarises on page 143:
The New Chronology has determined that Ramesses II should be dated to the tenth century BC – some three hundred and fifty years later than the date which had been assigned to him in the orthodox chronology. As a consequence, the archaeology of Palestine associated with the late 18th and early 19th Dynasties – Late Bronze II – now represents the historical period known as the Early Israelite Monarchy, the era of David and Solomon.
It would be hard to find a blogger in the world with less knowledge of archaeology than me (I haven’t even seen all the episodes of Time Team), so I’m not going to claim I have the faintest idea who is really right here. What intrigues me is the divergence of view on a complex issue where the evidence appears not to be conclusive.
We’ve been here before, of course, on this blog with the issue of climate change and Peter Taylor’s detailed doubts about the theory of man-made global warming.
I love these examples of maverick experts challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. It has the same appeal as the tale of David and Goliath, in fact. Both Taylor and Rohl quote meticulously from a wide range of complex data, so wide in fact that they make the supporters of the mainstream consensus look as though the orthodox are the ones who are cherry picking data to use in evidence to support their case.
In these debates reality comes to seem as ambiguous as a Gestalt picture – you know the ones I mean. Is it Francesca Stavrakopoulou or Mother Teresa? It’s probably not a permanent state of affairs like the wave- particle situation with light, but it led me to wondering whether some other complex and ambiguous issues are eternally irresolvable.
Gazing through this window of my train of thought I had no desire to alight yet.
One perennial problem has become more acute since the rise of scientific empiricism. Religious people have sought to claim that myth is literally true, as though that will shift the debate in their favour, and the scientifically minded have been moved to dismiss anything that smacks of myth as utter fantasy. We either find the account in Genesis of the creation of the world implausibly defended as a realistic rendering of exactly what happened, or mystic experience, grounded in decades of disciplined practice, dismissed as irrational drivel.
Because I accept John Hick‘s position that the universe is such that there is just enough evidence to convince the predisposed that the spiritual realm is real while there is simply not enough to persuade the sceptical, it seems to me that the polarised debate described above is utterly fruitless. Reitan’s position is far more constructive: it is just as reasonable to believe in God as it is to doubt His existence.
If we could enact these mutually respectful positions, what would the world of ideas look like?
Not the bombed out war zone it resembles at the moment, that’s for sure. Can we find a picture of the likely scenario anywhere? Is a ‘marriage of sense and soul‘ of this kind really possible? I believe the green shoots of a different kind of landscape are pushing through the rubble of the battlefield and what was originally only the faint possibility of this marriage is already in the process of becoming a reality.
The very possibility of emotional development that is genuinely on a par with – as high as, level with – the development of reason is only seldom entertained. So long as this possibility is neglected, then if reason by itself is sensed as inadequate where else can one go but back? Thus there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous; but it has the advantage that it is altogether easier than trying to move forward into something genuinely new.
Now we have clearly seen that the cultivation of the advanced value-sensing mode [e.g. in meditation] is not of itself new. It has ancient roots. What would be new would be a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together. Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?
For Baha’is, believing as we do that religion and science are both wings to the bird of true human understanding and progress, this is a crucial and exciting question, a long way further down the tracks of this particular train of thought than whether David did or did not really exist, but distantly related nonetheless.
Why do I think that this kind of mutual respect is possible, apart from a blind faith in my own particular spiritual tradition?
My sense that we are moving in that direction derives from my reading, in the main. McGilchrist, a psychiatrist steeped in the literature of his tradition, pleads eloquently, and on the back of a mountain of evidence, for the need to achieve a better balance between the two halves of our brain, between analytic reason and holistic intuition. On the religious side you have books such as Eric Reitan’s Is God a Delusion?. I have referred to his carefully balanced and utterly non-dogmatic position already in this post with a link to my review. On the scientific side, even if we ignore quasi-mystic physicists such as Amit Goswami, whose quantum spirituality is fascinating but some way beyond the reach of my full understanding, you have evolutionary thinkers such as Robert Wright, whose writing I’ve quoted more fully elsewhere in this blog. He states, for example, with a respect that echoes Reitan’s (The Evolution of God: pages 458-459):
. . . . natural selection’s invention of love . . . . was a prerequisite for the moral imagination whose expansion, here and now, could help keep the world on track . . . . . .
Though we can no more conceive of God than we can conceive of an electron, believers can ascribe properties to God, somewhat as physicists ascribe properties to electrons.
This idea of God as being beyond our understanding, though we can grasp some of His properties, resonates with the Bahá’í position:
As to the attributes and perfections such as will, knowledge, power and other ancient attributes that we ascribe to that Divine Reality, these are the signs that reflect the existence of beings in the visible plane and not the absolute perfections of the Divine Essence that cannot be comprehended.
(Bahá’í World Faith: page 342)
Wright continues (page 459):
One of the more plausible properties [of God] is love. And maybe, in this light, the argument for God is strengthened by love’s organic association with truth – by the fact, indeed, that at times these two properties almost blend into one. You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it.
For those who want to get a feel for quantum spirituality, and for just how closely related scientific language and ineffable spirituality can become, have a look at the video below. If you can cope with the video you’ll almost certainly enjoy having a look at a challenging article on biocentrism (see link). Mystics are not mad it seems nor science untouched by hints of the divine.
Posted in Book Reviews, Civilisation Building, Spirituality, tagged Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, brain hemispheres, Existentialism, Ken Wilber, Meditation, psychology, spirituality, suffering, The Serenity Prayer, Universal House of Justice, values on 14/02/2011 | 2 Comments »
. . . [T]he civilisation that beckons humanity will not be attained through the efforts of the Bahá’í community alone. Numerous groups and organisations, animated by the spirit of world solidarity that is an indirect manifestation of Bahá’u’lláh’s conception of the principle of the oneness of humankind, will contribute to the civilisation destined to emerge out of the welter and chaos of present-day society.
(Universal House of Justice: 21 April 2010 – para 26)
It must have been a couple of years before I retired. We were interviewing for people to take up the post of Clinical Psychologist in a Community Mental Health Service. I specialised in the rehabilitation and recovery of people with severe and enduring mental health problems but was also Head of the Psychology Service at the time and therefore part of this interview panel.
She was, I think, the last candidate of the afternoon – small, dark-haired and softly spoken. We were sitting in an upstairs room flooded with honey-coloured sunlight and uncomfortably warm as a result. I was beginning to wilt. In fact, I had probably wilted and was just hoping nobody had noticed.
She was about to say something that would wake me up in more senses than one.
We went through the usual polite formalities. We weren’t sure whether she would be suitable for so generic a post as she also had chosen, some time previously, to specialise, as it happened in my own area of expertise – rehabilitation and recovery. I asked her some formulaic question about her orientation, sleepily convinced in advance that I would have heard it all before. She’d only been specialised for three years or so after all. She mentioned ACT in the course of a long answer about something else.
During the time we got the something else out of the way, I debated with myself whether to show my ignorance and ask her what ACT was or whether to forget about it as it was not really important, probably, from the point of view of the post currently in question. It would have been so easy to look smart and learn nothing, but something wouldn’t let me. I just had to ask.
‘What’s A.C.T. exactly?’ I enquired as casually as I could, trying to sound as though I really knew but just wanted her to explain. She didn’t look fooled for a minute.
‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,’ she replied helpfully. She knew what I was doing all right.
‘Could you say a bit more about it?’ My follow up after quite a long pause triggered a flurry of foot and paper shuffling among my fellow panellists who were clearly not at all sure where this was going. They’d obviously expected a swift ‘I thought so’ kind of response, followed by some searching expert question.
She gave me a thumbnail sketch which blew me away. How could I not have heard of this before? – a therapy that combined some of my pet obsessions – existentialism, meditation, metaphor, the nature and effects of suffering, to name but the most obvious that burst like Exocets into my brain as she explained.
She spoke very briefly on each aspect, just enough to press the button that fired the Exocet. The key point for the work we both had in common was the focus of this therapy on getting people unstuck from disabling patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour that were keeping them paralysed.
I couldn’t wait for the interview to get over and check it out on the net and find a book to buy about it. (She didn’t get the job, by the way, but I owe her a lot and she almost certainly doesn’t know that.)
The book I bought was ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: an experiential approach to behaviour change’ by Hayes, Strohsahl and Wilson. I can’t give the writers a prize for clarity, and they chose to start the book in the thick of a conceptual fog which would have caused anyone less motivated than I was to slip into a coma. However, the ideas I did understand were life-changing and I read the book twice within a week, bored anyone who would listen with its wonders, and bemoaned the fact that it was too late in my career to train in this form of therapy myself.
Why does this book matter now when I have been retired for nearly three years?
Well, for a start it’s a gateway to some very powerful insights that help me understand my own spiritual tradition more deeply, particularly when we are contemplating the daunting task of community-, society- and civilisation-building to which we, as Bahá’ís, are committed in our way along with every other like-minded person on the planet in his or hers. It deals head on with the problems of how to get started and how to keep going in any long-term enactment of values. It’s both wise and practical, draws on both left-brain and right-brain processes, and shows us how we might combine ‘efficiency and love’ in the way our Bahá’í mode of operation requires us to. What it says is rooted in experience and confirms age-old insights from the East that Westerners have found it hard to see as credible. It marries ‘science and soul,’ to adapt Ken Wilber‘s phrasing. Need I go on?
One concept in the book was spot on for the people I worked with. ‘I’ll tackle this stuff when I’m feeling better,’ was a frequent justification for doing nothing. The book makes it very clear that most of the time we won’t feel better until we do something.
How do they arrive at that conclusion and how do they justify the idea that action is in itself transformative and that waiting to transform before you act is not an option?
To answer that we need to look separately at the three components of the name the authors have given to their approach: acceptance, and commitment and the acronym ‘act.’ They decode it as accept, choose and take action (page 81). If I am also going to relate what they say to the processes of community-building I have referred to I will need to save much of this for another post or three.
Hopefully by the time I tackle those posts I will have moved forward even further in my understanding of the most recent message from our central body, from which I quote below in the Commitment section. It is a complex and richly interconnected exposition of what is required of the Bahá’í community at this point. I have, in addition to my own reading and some informal discussion, spent three whole days over two weekends consulting in depth over what it implies about what we should be doing now. I need all the help I can get at unpacking its riches.
What I will do for now is briefly describe the three central aspects, which won’t even begin to address the major questions adequately.
What exactly is it that has to be accepted?
They summarise their view as follows on page 78-79:
Reflecting the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous, ACT aims to teach clients how to accept the things that cannot or need not change, and how to change the things that can be changed. Unlike this prayer, ACT provides specific guidance on how to know the difference. . . . . ACT therapists recognise that in the context of making choices and taking actions, automatic reactions will appear. The client who must avoid these reactions must also avoid change. What dignifies acceptance is that it is done in the service of valued change in the client’s external world, not in the world of private experiences.
There will be more to say about the hows, whys and wherefores of that when we look at the specifics in later posts.
Commitment, their model states, determines the choices we make. It is inseparable from our values (page 210):
In the area of values, . . . we must learn to value even if we don’t feel like it. We must learn to love even when we are angry, to care even when we are exasperated.
Helping people become clearer about their values is a key component of their therapeutic process. Helping people understand that the enacting of what they value is more conducive to their feeling fulfilled than the achievement of any specific goal is another: this emphasis on process is one that is becoming evermore explicit in the Bahá’í approach.
. . . . a significant advance in culture, one which we have followed with particular interest, is marked by the rise in capacity to think in terms of process. That, from the outset, the believers have been asked to be ever conscious of the broad processes that define their work is apparent from a careful reading of even the earliest communications of the Guardian related to the first national plans of the Faith. However, in a world focused increasingly on the promotion of events, or at best projects, with a mindset that derives satisfaction from the sense of expectation and excitement they generate, maintaining the level of dedication required for long-term action demands considerable effort.
(Universal House of Justice: 28 December 2010)
This leads to a willingness to accept, rather than fight or flee from, the challenging, uncomfortable and often protracted experiences that lead to enduring and significant change – an all-important skill in their view.
Even making strong commitments to action does not guarantee action (page 245). The values you have decided to commit to may not be truly yours but ones imposed from outside by society. You may be holding onto and rationalising a block that needs to be worked through. Maybe it’s too big a step at this point and you need to practice the skills you need on something smaller. In the end, though, there has to be a willingness to overcome obstacles (page 247):
Many clients have long-standing and strongly reinforced avoidance repertoires that can be expected to reappear. . . . . . [T]he client’s job is not just to determine a direction but to reaffirm that direction when obstacles appear. . . . . [W]hen we are travelling in a particular direction, the journey can take us across difficult ground. . . . [W]e don’t walk into pain because we like pain. We walk through the pain in the service of taking a valued direction.
Before we leave this lightning overview it’s perhaps worth mentioning how ACT sees spirituality (page 275):
Spirituality as a mode of intervention is highly valued in ACT. Spirituality does not necessarily imply the use of organised religion or even theistic beliefs, but rather a view of the world that recognises a transcendent quality to human experience, acknowledges the universal aspects of the human condition, and respects the client’s values and choices.
The rest will have to wait.
Posted in Afterlife, Spirituality, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, afterlife, anoxia, anticompetitiveness, antimaterialism, atheist, Bahá'í Faith, belief in God, Black Swan, David Fontana, Faith, immortal soul, Karl Popper, Ken Ring, Michael Sabom, near death experience, Pam Reynolds, Peter Fenwick, pragmatic, scientism, sense of purpose, spirituality, transcendence on 24/01/2009 | 3 Comments »
Is it just a question of faith?
An earlier post I made ended with a question: why should the existence or not of an afterlife matter to you if you don’t believe it, even if it matters to me who does. Why on earth should you consider believing what I believe?
Let’s see if we can make some progress on that one.
Some people believe there is an afterlife and I am now one of them, though it was one of the more difficult things I had to accept when I investigated the spiritual life. After all why should beings so imperfect have an immortal soul? We hardly seemed entitled to such a privilege. To be honest, as a former atheist, I found it easier to believe in God than in an immortal soul.
The Bahá’í Faith is clear on the issue:
The soul is not a combination of elements, it is not composed of many atoms, it is of one indivisible substance and therefore eternal. It is entirely out of the order of the physical creation; it is immortal!
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks: pages 90-91)
It is also clear that how we live now will affect the kind of afterlife we have. This is to do with how well we have fed our souls. When our spirit goes from the narrow womb of this world to the vast expanses of the next we will need all our spiritual faculties in the best possible order if we are to cope.
And just as, if human life in the womb were limited to that uterine world, existence there would be nonsensical, irrelevant — so too if the life of this world, the deeds here done and their fruitage, did not come forth in the world beyond, the whole process would be irrational and foolish.
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: No. 156)
I needed help with coming to terms with this improbable hypothesis and found it hard to take it simply on trust, though I did try.
I’m going to be basing a strong case to support the idea that beliefs in transcendence and the afterlife are the strongest possible motivators to building a better world. There is a problem with that though as an argument to defeat people who are sceptical. They could concede the point while still saying that there is no afterlife. There are many examples we could draw on to support the view that mistaken beliefs can be very motivating indeed. People have died and been killed for them – in fact are still dying and being killed. If the only difference is that one person’s belief wreaks havoc while the other one’s creed enhances life, we haven’t moved all that far in terms of truth value: just because a belief seems benign doesn’t make it true.
So if this pragmatic argument were the best one going in support of transcendence and the existence of an afterlife, we’d have to say that the case was at least one wing short of a complete aeroplane! Even high levels of positive usefulness, after all, do not prove truth.
So, before we move in more deeply to the implications for our society of a belief or lack of it in transcendence and the afterlife, it seems a good idea to tackle the evidence issue from another angle.
A Black Swan: the Case of Pam Reynolds
Is there really no evidence for an afterlife and/or the value of transcendence other than indirect and inconclusive notions of how it is better for our society if you believe it than if you don’t?
I think there is. We need to start with the black swan problem.
Taleb has used this as the title for his extremely relevant guide to the inevitability of the market crashes which continue to astonish us despite all the evidence confirming their eventual recurrence, but that is not the point for now.
It’s to Karl Popper that we need to turn. He originated the term in a discussion about falsifiability. If you assert that all swans are white, you cannot prove it even by discovering an extremely long sequence of white swans. You can though falsify it. One black swan will sink the theory.
The same can be said of mind/brain independence. I accept that a near death experience (NDE) which happens to involve the mind apparently functioning without any support at all from the brain does not absolutely prove there is life after death, but it is a necessary if not sufficient condition for maintaining that belief. I believe that this necessary condition has possibly been fulfilled at least once under completely controlled conditions. I think it may constitute a black swan for those that say an afterlife can be ruled out as completely impossible.
What is this black swan?
In Atlanta Georgia, the case of Pam Reynolds was investigated in the 1990s by Dr Michael Sabom (page 184 passim). His account is incorporated into a wider discussion of NDEs by David Fontana, a professor of psychology, in his book “Is There an Afterlife?”. Sabom states, and the surgical team corroborates it, that Pam was fully instrumented, under constant medical observation and completely unconscious as indicated for part of the time by the flatline EEG (a measure of brain activity: flatline would mean no brain activity at all that would support consciousness). It was as close to a controlled experiment as we are ever likely to get, he said on a television documentary on NDEs some time later. The surgical procedure she needed required a complete shut down of brain and heart activity in order safely to operate on an aneurysm at the base of the brain.
None the less, after being anaesthetised for 90 minutes but not as the video suggested when she was flatlined, she accurately observed aspects of the surgical procedure which were either a departure from what would have been the standard order of events or had unusual features, such as the bizarre appearance of the “saw” used, of which she could have had no prior knowledge. The surgeon in the case, and others who commented such as Peter Fenwick, felt that the usual methods of registering visual perceptions and memories in the brain would certainly have been unavailable to her and could offer no explanation of how she could have subsequently had access to the experiences she described.
There is a huge literature on NDEs which many people with a materialist perspective refuse to inspect on the grounds that no amount of evidence can prove the impossible. This is scientism, not science, and I would urge everyone, no matter how sceptical, to investigate this thoroughly for themselves. The arguments parroted by so many that NDEs are the results of material causes such as anoxia or drugs just don’t stand up in this case (or in many others, according to Peter Fenwick).
What is of additional interest here is that the investigations of Ken Ring plainly indicate that NDEs are life transforming. His list of the changes they induce includes: appreciation for life, concern for others, reverence for life, antimaterialism, anticompetitiveness, spirituality, sense of purpose, and belief in God (pages 125-127). These are all things that we will hopefully come back to in more detail in the lifetime of this blog (though for some people it may already seem to have gone on far too long).
That list of Ring’s is a very significant one that paves the way for the next more pragmatic approach to the issue of why it should matter to everyone, why everyone needs to investigate carefully before they jump to the conclusion that an afterlife is impossible. A sense of the transcendent allied to a belief in life after death does seem to create a different more life- and community-enhancing pattern of behaviour in the individual who possesses them.
Time for a break, I think: more on that next time.