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My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

Vincent to Theo – March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh page 272)

Distraction

Last Monday was not my best meditation day.

I was doing quite well till my mind got hooked by my shirt. I found myself suddenly remembering how I thought twice before letting its red corduroy comfort go to the charity shop as part of our current declutter. Red shirt led to blue shirt, which led to blue jacket, blue trousers and Crewe Station. I was there again. Just as I was boarding the train, one foot on the platform and one foot in the air above the step, carrying luggage that should have made it clear I was a passenger, someone tapped me on the shoulder thinking I was a guard and asked me what platform the Liverpool train was leaving from. I turned to look at them and put my foot down between the platform and the train, scraping the skin neatly off my shin as I did so. Fortunately I dropped my bags on the platform and not on the line. I used a tissue to staunch the blood between Crewe and Hereford. Rather than go straight home, I called in on a friend who got out the TCP and Elastoplast. I still remember the sting to this day. I remembered that this was the friend I’d called on once before 20 years earlier, when – and this came vividly back to me despite the span of time – driving home tired down the Callow at the end of a long week, I was overtaking (legally at the time) in the middle lane (they’ve blocked that option since for downhill traffic), when I saw a car coming up the hill doing the same thing. The long lorry I was halfway past was picking up speed. All I could do was brake. As I tried to pull in slightly too soon, I caught the Lada on the back end of the truck. Fortunately the Lada was made of sterner stuff than most cars at the time and didn’t completely cave in or get derailed, but it was pulled out of shape and the near side front tyre was blown. I pulled into the side of the road and, with the help of the lorry driver who had stopped to check I was OK, changed the tyre. The car was slightly wobbly as I drove off and I knew it was not a good idea to drive it all the way home. I was amazed to pass a parked police car on the way with no interest shown on their part. So, I drove to my friend’s and parked the car on his front lawn, the only safe space off the road. He had a bit of a shock when he got home from work. At this point I snapped out of my trance of associations and brought my mind back to the focus of my meditations, shaking of my irritation with myself and my slight reactivation of the Lada-on-the-lawn stress as best I could.

Incidentally, I don’t wear blue anymore when I’m travelling.

Reflection

For this and other reasons I am revisiting an all-too familiar theme: reflection. To bring on board those who might not have read all my earlier posts on this issue I’ll pull in now a brief quotation from some time ago. It comes from a book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Hayes et al. It is attempting to explain that transient states of mind and mere self-descriptions are all too often mistaken for our true self. To help people step back from such identifications the authors liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board (page 192):

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.

Peter Koestenbaum makes essentially the same point more abstractly in his excellent book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

Personally, while I find the ACT analogy helpful, I prefer the idea of a mirror and its reflections, partly I suppose because it uses the same word in a different but helpful sense. Our mind or consciousness is the mirror and all our experiences, inside and out, are simply reflections in that mirror: they are not who we are, not even the most intense feelings, our most important plans, or the strongest sense of self. We have to learn to see them as simply the contents of consciousness. Only that way can we tune into deeper and wiser levels of our being. Mindfulness at its best can enable us to identify with pure awareness rather than with whatever transient trigger has grabbed our attention.

I have been working fairly hard (not hard enough probably, as the derailed meditation at the start of this post suggests) to put the insights explored in that sequence of posts into action.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 (for source of image see link)

Capturing Consciousness

It has led into me into some interesting territory.

While I was exploring the concept of transliminality even further back in time I came across A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf edited by her husband Leonard after her death by suicide. I was drawn to examine what she wrote in case it shed light on my attempt to link creativity, thresholds of consciousness and so-called psychotic experiences together.

Long before I could integrate what I found there into my model, my focus of interest had typically moved on: my mind is still more of a butterfly than a bee, despite my best efforts so far.

However, the Woolf issue was still stalking the door of my consciousness, whether I was aware of it or not.

As part of my decluttering, I am in the process, as I have mentioned elsewhere, of checking whether I still need all the books I have bought over the years. I take a book off its shelf at random from time to time, open it and see if I have read it or not. Sometimes there are highlighter pen marks within and I put it back, at least for the time being. Sometimes there aren’t and occasionally it’s not even got my name signed on the flyleaf. In which case I dip into it and read a few random pages. I reported on having done that recently with a biography of Hardy. I repeated the same process with Julia Briggs’ account of the creative life of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf: an inner life.

Same outcome: no way that was going to the Oxfam bookshop.

Why not?

Basically her book was a brilliant tour of the writer’s mind. Within that there were a host of insights into aspects of the creative process related to mental health and reflection, or perhaps more accurately in Woolf’s case, creative introspection. Whatever the right term is, part of her genius lies in her capacity to capture in words the subtleties and complexity of consciousness, including the rambling associative networks that can hijack attention at any moment.

Before we tackle that head on, in the next post I’m going to make a detour via some paintings.

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The Aral Sea

Psychologists Emily and Laurence Alison from the University of Liverpool. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

On two previous occasions I have published a short blog sequence on the inefficacy of torture. It is there not surprising that I should have welcomed this long read on yesterday’s Guardian website.  Ian Leslie explains in some detail the nature of the research by Emily and Laurence Alison that comes to the following conclusion, one that challenged the previous prevailing orthodoxy:

Watching and coding all the interviews [of more than 181 terrorist suspects] took eight months. When the process was complete, Laurence passed on the data to Paul Christiansen, a colleague at Liverpool University, who performed a statistical analysis of the results. The most important relationship he measured was between “yield” – information elicited from the suspect – and “rapport” – the quality of the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. For the first time, a secure, empirical basis was established for what had, until then, been something between a hypothesis and an insider secret: rapport is the closest thing interrogators have to a truth serum.

It is a fascinating exploration of this area which extends beyond the best way to interview a terrorist, looking for example at research into the treatment of people in the grip of an addiction.  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

In 2013, a British man was arrested for planning to kidnap and brutally murder a soldier. The suspect, who had a criminal history, had posted messages on social media in support of violent jihad. In a search of his residence, the police had found a bag containing a hammer, a kitchen knife and a map with the location of a nearby army barracks.

Shortly after his arrest, the suspect was interviewed by a counter-terrorist police officer. The interviewer wanted him to provide an account of his plan, and to reveal with whom, if anyone, he has been conspiring. But the detainee – we will call him Diola – refused to divulge any information. Instead, he expounded grandiloquently on the evils of the British state for 42 minutes, with little interruption. When the interviewer attempted questions, Diola responded with scornful, finger-jabbing accusations of ignorance, naivety and moral weakness: “You don’t know how corrupt your own government is – and if you don’t care, then a curse upon you.”

Even distanced by years from the events in question, it is impossible to watch the encounter without feeling tense. Periodically, Diola turns away from the interviewer and goes silent, or gets up and leaves the room, having taken offence at something said or not said. Each time he returns, Diola’s solicitor advises him not to speak. Diola ignores him, though in a sense he takes the advice: despite the verbiage, he tells his interviewer nothing.

Diola: “Tell me why I should tell you. What is the reason behind you asking me this question?”

Interviewer: “I am asking you these questions because I need to investigate what has happened and know what your role was in these events.”

Diola: “No, that’s your job – not your reason. I’m asking you why it matters to you.”

The interviewer, who has remained heroically calm in the face of Diola’s verbal barrage, is not able to move the encounter out of stalemate, and eventually his bosses replace him. When the new interviewer takes a seat, Diola repeats his promise to talk “openly and honestly” to the right person, and resumes his inquisitorial stance. “Why are you asking me these questions?” he says. “Think carefully about your reasons.”

The new interviewer does not answer directly, but something about his opening speech triggers a change in Diola’s demeanour. “On the day we arrested you,” he began, “I believe that you had the intention of killing a British soldier or police officer. I don’t know the details of what happened, why you may have felt it needed to happen, or what you wanted to achieve by doing this. Only you know these things Diola. If you are willing, you’ll tell me, and if you’re not, you won’t. I can’t force you to tell me – I don’t want to force you. I’d like you to help me understand. Would you tell me about what happened?” The interviewer opens up his notebook, and shows Diola the empty pages. “You see? I don’t even have a list of questions.”

“That is beautiful,” Diola says. “Because you have treated me with consideration and respect, yes I will tell you now. But only to help you understand what is really happening in this country.”

View of the River from the entrance of the Pavilion Centre

One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.

Bahá’u’lláh quoting a hadith in Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 238).

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.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Tablets – page 168)

Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212).

Last time I looked in some detail at the life of Bahá’u’lláh, as derived from the notes I made to prepare for a longer talk at the Pavilion Centre in Hereford that never happened! This is where I move to a brief consideration of the core teachings.

The Core Beliefs

The main tenets of Bahá’í belief can be summarised briefly here as follows:

The absolute core is a belief in the essential unity of God, Religion and Humanity:

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.

(“The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh”, Arabic no. 68, rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1985), p. 20)

The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.

(Gleanings – CXVII)

We are living in a single interconnected world. The challenges of globalism in its current form and the inequalities it fosters are causing many to regress to a harder line nationalism as the solution. This will definitely not work in the long term and probably won’t in the short term either.

Other important principles that stem from the concept of unity are:

The idea of a World Government; (this would not be an authoritarian bureaucracy – the local, national and international will each have their appropriate jurisdiction); the independent investigation of truth; the essential harmony of Religion and Science; the equality of men and women; the elimination of all prejudice; universal compulsory education; a spiritual solution to economic problems; and the need for a universal auxiliary language.

Questions Two, Three & Four

Two of the next three questions put to me before the talk were slightly more unusual:

How has your faith changed since travelling to the UK and do you practice in the same ways as originally defined? How can your belief be used to help us all create more understanding and a better world for us all – locally /nationally and beyond? What is your personal story for following your faith?

The answer to the first question is not a lot in terms of its fundamentals, and I’ve dealt with the second and third question on this blog many times.

The question that proved most intriguing, because the answer that popped into my head was not the one that I expected, was:

What is the most important aspect of your faith to you and why?

There is so much that I could’ve said including these: the Bahá’í Faith combines spirituality and activism in what seems to me to be a unique way; we have a global democratic administrative system that allows what we learn in one place to be applied in another and involves no priestly authority; its core concept of unity and interconnectedness is the key to our material survival as well as to our spiritual thriving; the idea of progressive revelation reduces the tensions and conflicts between people of different faiths; and service and community building are at the heart of the Faith’s approach to the social world. All of these matter to me a great deal and influenced my decision to attempt to tread the Bahá’í path. All of these depend for their effectiveness both upon nurturing the family and developing the educational system: even so I didn’t choose those either.

It may come as no surprise to readers of my blog that what I decided to say in the end, but never got the chance, focused upon the link between reflection and consultation, not just in the context of the administrative system, but as a consistent pattern of experiencing our inner and outer worlds and communicating with others, as skills that we need to use everywhere and all the time. It is part of the mystical core of the Bahá’í Faith, depending as both skills do on the development of the highest possible levels of detachment.

In a recent post I summarised the core of this insight briefly by saying:

. . . truthfulness requires the ability to reflect as an individual, which means stepping back, as we have described, from the immediate contents of our consciousness, so that we can gain a more objective and dispassionate perspective, and as a group it means consulting together as dispassionately as possible in order to lift our understanding to a higher level.

In fact, it is as though truth were, as John Donne wrote, ‘on a huge hill, cragged and steep.’ We are all approaching it from different sides. Just because your path looks nothing like mine it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, it is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. I might honestly feel you are completely mistaken and say so in the strongest possible terms. But I would be wrong to do so, even if I’m right. We would both move faster upwards if we compared notes more humbly and carefully. Reflection helps create the necessary humility: consultation makes the comparison of paths possible.

Of the key criteria that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sets for the achievement of true consultation, I chose to emphasise, in this context, the capacity for detachment. This is simply because it underpins the process of reflection for us as individuals as well as the process of consultation for us as groups and communities. If I cannot step back from my passing thoughts and feelings, detach myself from them, I won’t be able to consult, and similarly if I am with people who cannot do that also, consultation will be impossible.

It is intriguingly difficult to convey these points briefly to those who have not had cause to think about them before. In the world as it stands it is increasingly important that more of us learn these skills than ever before. A constant focus of my current reflections is on how I can best work towards both honing my own reflection and consultation skills, and, just as importantly, how can I motivate others to do the same.

Sinking

A friend of mine posted some thoughtful reflections on recent events in Las Vegas. He draws our attention to the care we should take when we choose an object of devotion, whether it be our own ego, with its proneness to acting out its reptilian reactions, or some temptingly charismatic charlatan, with his (it’s usually a man) basketful of empty promises in return for mindless obedience.  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

On October 1st, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a concert 32 floors below his Las Vegas hotel window. He had with him a large number of weapons, and he had rigged up cameras in the corridor so that he could see when any police officers were approaching him. He killed 58 people, and injured 520 more. He had no known political affiliation, was not known to have any mental problems, and unlike so many killers, he was not known to the police. It is, however, interesting to note that the police once regarded his father as being psychopathic.

So what were his motives? Was it sheer jealousy, that other people seemed to gain happiness from life, while he could not? Was it resentment of others, or desire for revenge for some real or imagined slight or injustice? Was it some kind of desire for recognition, as a skilled man who thought he had accomplished much, but to society was a complete unknown? As a hardened gambler, he would have belief either in luck, getting him something for nothing, or in his unrecognised skills in playing with the odds. As this man did with his final act, a gambler risks a lot, but with no guarantee of success. Was it pure nihilism: his life was going nowhere, so why should other people’s lives go anywhere?

What is missing in the lives of mass killers and serial killers? Whether they act alone, or under some spurious banner, surely they must have deficiencies in their lives or in their make-up. Perhaps what is missing is compassion, or empathy, or love for their fellow human beings. Perhaps they are lacking in self-control, or in a sense of proportion. Most people accept that at one level they are just one person among millions, and many realise that our planet is itself just one among billions. Most people, therefore, do not exalt their own importance. Perhaps the mass killer has an exaggerated sense of his/her importance.

Perhaps what is missing is a personal link to God.

View of the River from the entrance of the Pavilion Centre

One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.

Bahá’u’lláh quoting a hadith in Kitáb-i-Íqánpage 238).

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.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Tablets – page 168)

Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212).

Last Thursday, at the Hereford Pavilion Centre, I gave a brief talk to the Herefordshire Interfaith about the Bahá’í Revelation.

Beforehand I was told that I would have 15 minutes and was given a list of questions to address.

On the day the committee part of the meeting spilled over into the Faith-to-Faith’s time slot. The quart into a pint pot problem of describing my beliefs in quarter of an hour became a quart into a test tube experience. I had five minutes!

Even so the Faith-to-Faith moments were valuable if tantalising.

First one member briefly explained the basics of Universal Sufism, a movement connected to the mystical teachings of Inayat Khan which regards itself as expressing the compassionate spiritual core of all religion and therefore does not see self-definition as Muslim a necessary criterion of membership. He closed with a short prayer.

There was time for only one question before it was my turn.

Bicentenary Leaflet

Fortunately I had copies with me of the Bicentenary leaflet that had been mailed out to us earlier from the National Office. That saved me explaining at any length the core beliefs. I handed it round at the start of my talk to all the seven people who were there.

I had time then to briefly outline the basic details of Bahá’u’lláh’s life and the essence of the Bahá’í teachings.

There was one question, before everyone shared the same feeling that next time we really needed to allow much more time to explore what was being explained.

Given that I had spent a fair amount of time preparing what I was going to say, I think it would be a shame to waste the notes I made, though not all of them were going to be shared even in a 15 minute time slot.

So, here goes.

What was unusual this time was that I was given a set of questions in advance, most of them predictable.

Question One: What is the historical and geographical story of you faith? What are your main tenets/beliefs?

Much of what I planned to say in response to that first question focused upon the life of Bahá’u’lláh, given this year celebrates the 200th Anniversary of His Birth.

The Life of Bahá’u’lláh.

Bahá’u’lláh’s life after the execution of the Báb, the Prophet Herald of the Bahá’í Faith, in 1850, was one of constant imprisonment and exile.

On 15 August 1852 there was an ill-considered and unsuccessful attempt on life of Shah by three followers of the Báb who were reacting against the persecutions taking place at the time. Bahá’u’lláh was denounced as a Bábí by the Shah’s mother amongst others.

The Chain that weighed on Bahá’u’lláh in the Siyah-Chal

He was taken to the so-called Black Pit – an underground disused water cistern used as a prison. Two chains were used on His shoulders, the heavier weighed more than 50 kgs. They left lifelong scars. The thumbs of both His hands were bound behind his back at times.

His first reported mystical experiences of the Divine occurred in this foul prison (See Moojan Momen, Bahá’u’lláh: a short biography  – page 32 – for both instances):

While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden—the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord—suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful. Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outer being tidings which rejoiced My soul, and the souls of God’s honoured servants.

Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand. This is the Mystery of God and His Treasure, the Cause of God and His glory unto all who are in the kingdoms of Revelation and of creation, if ye be of them that perceive. This is He Whose Presence is the ardent desire of the denizens of the Realm of eternity, and of them that dwell within the Tabernacle of glory, and yet from His Beauty do ye turn aside.

The authorities failed to implicate Bahá’u’lláh in the plot so He was released after four months.

There followed His exile to Baghdad on 12 January 1853.

He spent 10 years there apart from a retreat to Sulaymaniyyih in Kurdistan 300 km north of Baghdad. This He did to avoid making worse the conflict his half brother was causing within the Bábí community. During those two years He wrote two mystical works, The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys, for two prominent Sufis. He returned to Baghdad on 19 March 1856.

Somewhere between 1857 and 1858 the Hidden Words were written, a condensed summary of the spiritual teachings of earlier revelations.

In January 1861 the Kitáb-i-Íqán was written for the uncle of the Báb and explains the nature of progressive revelation and the meaning of prophetic symbols of the second coming of former messengers of God.

It wasn’t until 22 April 1863 on the brink of His exile to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and then Adrianople (now Edirne) that He openly declared He was the one foretold by the Báb.

It was in Adrianople that His half-brother tried to poison Him, leaving Him with a tremor for the rest of His life.

Bahá’u’lláh’s reputation was by now spreading in spite of His exile. The Bahá’í community can be said to have really begun to take shape at this point.

In 1868 He was banished again via Gallipoli and Haifa to ‘Akka, a walled and disease-ridden city, where He arrived on 31 August 1868. The authorities hoped and expected He would die there. Most people did.

It was in that prison His younger son, Mirza Mihdi, died, after falling though a sky light while pacing in prayer on the prison roof.

The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

Bahá’u’lláh was moved under house arrest in September 1871 to the house of ‘Udi Khammar. This was where the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was completed. In this book He explains in full the laws applying to and the obligations of Bahá’ís. He also speaks of the successorship – without naming ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at this point He explains the successor will be the authoritative interpreter of Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings. He also lays the foundations of the Universal House of Justice.

A compassionate governor took office in 1876 and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was able to make plans for his father to move to a house at Mazra’ih near a beautiful garden in June 1877. He moved again to the mansion at Bahji in September 1879, close to where He was eventually buried in 1892.

His wife Asiyih Khanum had died in 1886 followed by His brother in 1887.

In 1882, at the suggestion of His father, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s The Secret of Divine Civilisation had been published in India.Political and social reform would not succeed without an underlying spiritual and moral reform’ was its theme. (Momen: page 138). Current thinking about the unwise divorce in free market thinking between J S Mill’s economics and his insistence on moral checks and balances reinforces the wisdom of this.

During the whole period from arriving in Baghdad to His time in ‘Akka a stream of books and letters flowed from His lips through the pens of His secretaries (his tremor did not allow him to write clearly and the speed of revelatory inspiration would have made it almost impossible for one hand to keep pace) – more than 7000 in all have been authenticated. In these texts he explained the details of his revelation.

In conditions less conducive than the British Museum reading room used by Karl Marx, he was able to produce what seem to me and many others across the world a better blueprint for a true civilisation. More of that next time along with an explanation of why I headed this sequence up with quotations concerning reflection and consultation.