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Head Hand & Heart v4

. . . . .the people are wandering in the paths of delusion, bereft of discernment to see God with their own eyes, or hear His Melody with their own ears. Thus have We found them, as thou also dost witness.

Thus have their superstitions become veils between them and their own hearts and kept them from the path of God, the Exalted, the Great.

(Bahá’u’lláhTablet of Ahmad)

. . . . consciousness will be referred to as consensus trance; the hypnotist will be personified as the culture. The “subject,” the person subjected to this process, is you.

(Charles Tart: Waking Up – page 85)

My recently published sequence of two posts on the power of metaphor suggested strongly that I should publish this sequence again. It is a perfect illustration, in my view, of Lakoff and Johnson’s contention in Metaphors We Live By that (page 193):

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.

In the end, they feel that (page 233) ‘much of self-understanding involves consciously recognising previously unconscious metaphors and how we live by them’ and ‘engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.’  Until I read their words I don’t think I had fully appreciated exactly what I was doing when I grappled with the challenges of understanding what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the phrase ‘understanding heart.’

When I set my foot on the Bahá’í path in 1982 there were many things that puzzled and tested me. I have already dealt with one of the main ones – ‘mind is an emanation of the spirit‘ at considerable length. That most certainly was not the only one.

Another was the phrase ‘understanding heart.’ This occurs at least 30 times in currently translated Bahá’í texts. It made no sense to me at all at the time, but it challenged me by its regular occurrence to grapple with what for me was its irreconcilable paradox. The head, in my view at the time, did the understanding: the heart did the feeling. In so far as there was a relationship between them it was better to keep the heart in a subordinate position and let your head rule, OK. Understanding in an emotional sense bordering on thought was found in such expressions as ‘She’s very understanding,’ and had nothing to do with penetrating into the meaning of profound statements about spiritual reality.

I needed to know in what sense my heart could understand what Bahá’u’lláh was talking about better than my head.

I was familiar with apparent profundities such as Pascal’s ‘The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.’ I made sense of them within my frame of reference by dismissing them as nonsense.

It was clear I had an Everest to climb. The muddle in the picture at the head of this post doesn’t convey the half of it. Let’s just say that what my sceptical gaze fell upon was a confused mix of psychological and layman’s points of reference poking through the layered screens of memory and perception that constituted my experience, and here I was, being required to completely revise them in the light of the new perspective I had catapulted myself into accepting.

My first step was to read all the Bahá’í Writings at my disposal – I had no computer, not even a Concordance, at this time. I noted down on index cards every reference to the heart that I could find. There were hundreds of them. I arranged them into various groups. I think this work was probably what brought me to the point where I had the dream I described and explained in a recent post. Sadly, I have long ago shredded them thinking that they had served their purpose, not realising then that I would have need of them now.

Into the mix of my muddled understanding at the time went ideas about reflection. After all Bahá’u’lláh had quoted the hadith ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ These I have also explored at length elsewhere. Reflection was something I saw as very closely related to meditation and heavily dependant upon, if not overlapping with, aspects of detachment.

That was pretty good going really for a recently derailed died-in-the-wool atheist. But, as life went out of its way to prove, it was by no means enough. So I’m back here once more feeling I need to pull together stuff I’ve learned over the years in an attempt to dig even deeper into this paradox.  Sometimes it feels as though the rest of my life might depend upon it in some way I don’t quite understand yet, probably because of the heart problem I’m talking about.

Divided Heart v4

Let me illustrate one place where problems still clearly lurk for me behind the bushes of ignorance with which the garden of my mind is overgrown. Over many months, years even, off and on, I used the following quotation in my morning meditations:

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., the Exalted, the Great.

(Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh: page 52)

Anyone who reads that carefully will almost certainly recognise one of the key challenges it presents. Do you know anyone personally who answers to the description of possessing an ‘undivided’ heart? I don’t. And I definitely know mine has a variety of allegiances. Books for a start, food, lyric poetry, coffee, songs, murder mysteries, Shakespeare, chocolate – need I go on? I find it hard enough to forego sitting in a chair watching Poirot, as I dunk ginger biscuits in my coffee, even for the sake of the physical heart within me that I know for sure exists and whose earnestly desired ability to beat for a bit longer depends upon exercise and diet. How do I learn to sacrifice all that and much more for the sake of my invisible inaudible insensible but apparently understanding heart in some other sense?

I hope I can make my desperate explorations of this topic clear enough to be of use to others. Even if I can’t, I need to do it any way, and doing it this way, in public, makes me try harder than I would if I did it in private. And after all, you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to.

I know I’m not the only one to be divided against myself. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes it completely clear:

. . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. 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 78)

That he needs to state this at all implies that most of us don’t experience things that way.

The list he also makes, at another point, of things we crave for can apply not just to different people but to the same person who can at different times long for different things, particularly those, like me, of a butterfly-minded tendency, flitting from the marigold of one temptation to the dandelion of another:

Every soul seeketh an object and cherisheth a desire, and day and night striveth to attain his aim. One craveth riches, another thirsteth for glory and still another yearneth for fame, for art, for prosperity and the like. Yet finally all are doomed to loss and disappointment. One and all they leave behind them all that is theirs and empty-handed hasten to the realm beyond, and all their labours shall be in vain. To dust they shall all return, denuded, depressed, disheartened and in utter despair.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá  : page 204)

Waking Up

Charles Tart has a very interesting explanation, the first one he gives in a list of several, for why prayer can so often seem completely ineffective (Waking Up: pages 229-30):

. . . . most petitionary prayer, formal or unwitting, has almost no effect. First, because the ordinary person is plagued by shifting identities that have disparate and often conflicting desires, the unwitting prayers of various identities tend to contradict and largely cancel one another.

This view is indirectly supported by statements in the Baha’i Writings where we are assured of the efficacy of our prayers if we say them ‘with absolute sincerity’ or with ‘pure-hearted devotion.’ Not an easy state of mind and heart to achieve.

It does not take much thought to realise that this mishmash of conflicted attachments probably stems from some deeper cause. Most spiritual traditions would agree that it stems at least in part from what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out: we think that matter is more real and more important than spirit, and our culture is probably further down that road than most.

It does take a bit more unpacking though to grasp why we are so prone to the mistake of investing emotionally in empty vessels, and even why that vulnerability and its context make it so difficult even to see that we are vulnerable at all.

For the beginnings of an explanation of our vulnerability to this trap it’s useful to turn to someone who does not feel we need a faith in anything beyond ourselves. Even the most sceptical might then be prepared to accept this as a valid premise upon which to proceed further, though with caution. Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

For me though his explanation does not go far enough, in one respect in the same way as Kahneman’s does not.

First of all though, it implies that we would all search for a single dominating focus until we found it, but this is so often not the case for so many people. Many are lost in a mist of competing and chaotic distractions with no real focus whatsoever.

The similarity to the deficiency of Kahneman’s two-brain model is that Fromm’s thesis also misses out too much. Even before I accepted the reality of a spiritual realm, something not easily reducible the mechanics of matter and its formulae was thrusting itself upon my attention with an insistence that would not be dismissed. My dreamwork was the main example of this.

Fromm does not deal with some of the basic questions, it seems to me. For example, do we fall so easily into the quicksand, not just of debased frames of reference but also of divided attachments, not least because we are mistaken in thinking that matter is all that matters? If this idea is an illusion it would be as much use to us as individuals and communities as a mirage of water to a man dying of thirst. If it is an illusion, why do so many of us believe it? More of that next time.

garden of earthly delights

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights – for source of image see link

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Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is often called the father of modern mindfulness. Photograph: Sarah Lee

Friday’s Guardian published an insightful article by Ronald Purser on the limitations of mindfulness practice as it is currently being marketed. Below is a short extract: for the full article, see link.

It is sold as a force that can help us cope with the ravages of capitalism, but with its inward focus, mindful meditation may be the enemy of activism.

. . . what exactly is this magic panacea? In 2014, Time magazine put a youthful blonde woman on its cover, blissing out above the words: “The Mindful Revolution.” The accompanying feature described a signature scene from the standardised course teaching MBSR: eating a raisin very slowly. “The ability to focus for a few minutes on a single raisin isn’t silly if the skills it requires are the keys to surviving and succeeding in the 21st century,” the author explained.

But anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary – it just helps people cope. In fact, it could also be making things worse. Instead of encouraging radical action, mindfulness says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live. And yet mindfulness zealots believe that paying closer attention to the present moment without passing judgment has the revolutionary power to transform the whole world. It’s magical thinking on steroids.

There are certainly worthy dimensions to mindfulness practice. Tuning out mental rumination does help reduce stress, as well as chronic anxiety and many other maladies. Becoming more aware of automatic reactions can make people calmer and potentially kinder. Most of the promoters of mindfulness are nice, and having personally met many of them, including the leaders of the movement, I have no doubt that their hearts are in the right place. But that isn’t the issue here. The problem is the product they’re selling, and how it’s been packaged. Mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.

. . . .

The fundamental message of the mindfulness movement is that the underlying cause of dissatisfaction and distress is in our heads. By failing to pay attention to what actually happens in each moment, we get lost in regrets about the past and fears for the future, which make us unhappy. Kabat-Zinn, who is often labelled the father of modern mindfulness, calls this a “thinking disease”. Learning to focus turns down the volume on circular thought, so Kabat-Zinn’s diagnosis is that our “entire society is suffering from attention deficit disorder – big time”. Other sources of cultural malaise are not discussed. The only mention of the word “capitalist” in Kabat-Zinn’s book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness occurs in an anecdote about a stressed investor who says: “We all suffer a kind of ADD.”

Another asked why the teachings of all religions are expressed largely by parables and metaphors and not in the plain language of the people.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá replied:—“Divine things are too deep to be expressed by common words. The heavenly teachings are expressed in parable in order to be understood and preserved for ages to come. When the spiritually minded dive deeply into the ocean of their meaning they bring to the surface the pearls of their inner significance. There is no greater pleasure than to study God’s Word with a spiritual mind.”

(From ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London – pages 79-80)

We stopped last time at the point where Lakoff and Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By mention the metaphor of the mind as a machine.

This idea, and the more pervasive variations of the mechanical model of life, the universe and everything, could not help but call to mind Iain McGilchrist and his brilliant analysis in The Master & his Emissary.The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is on pages 228-229:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

It is ironic, in the light of this discussion, that mechanistic reductionists, who mostly dismiss poetry as flaky, probably don’t even notice most of the time that they are using metaphor, that key poetic device, to describe their view of the world, with all the reservations about objectivity that this should imply. More on that later.

The other metaphor Lakoff and Johnson mention is equally pervasive (page 29)

. . . Metaphors like THE MIND IS A BRITTLE OBJECT are an integral part of the model of the mind that we have in this culture; it is the model most of us think and operate in terms of.

And seeing our mind as an ‘object’ has other implications that they pick up on later when they write (page 58): ‘We experience ourselves as entities, separate from the rest of the world – as containers with an inside and an outside.’ This cuts across the sense of connectedness that more accurately captures our real situation.

They explore in considerable detail how metaphors are elaborated into coherent and complex systems (page 71):

All such metaphors imply further elaborations which can be experienced as a gestalt, a ‘complex of properties occurring together’ which is ‘basic to our experience.’

So far they had focused primarily on metaphors used so frequently we never experience them as imagery at all. Later they go on to consider the power of creatively generating different metaphors (page 139):

We would like to suggest that new metaphors makes sense of our experience in the same way conventional metaphors do.

But with interesting consequences.

They illustrate this by offering an alternative metaphor to describe problems. They are not puzzles which have a single solution which, once found, fixes the problem forever. They are more like elements in a chemical brew (page 144):

To live by the CHEMICAL metaphor would be to accept it as a fact that no problem ever disappears forever. Rather than direct your energies towards solving your problems once and for all, you would direct your energies towards finding out what catalysts will dissolve your most pressing problems for the longest time without precipitating the worst ones.… we see this as a clear case of the power of metaphor to create a reality . . .

They acknowledge that it would not be easy to integrate a radically different metaphor into our default operating system (page 145):

So much of our unconscious everyday activity is structured in terms of the PUZZLE metaphor that we could not possibly make a quick or easy change to the chemical metaphor on the basis of a conscious decision.

The impact of the metaphors we use extends beyond abstract issues such as how we approach problems (page 146):

Not surprisingly, the social reality defined by a culture affects its conception of physical reality. What is real for an individual as a member of a culture is a product both of his social reality and of the way in which that shapes his experience of the physical world.

They also affect how we behave (page 156):

Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities. A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies.

And that is a key point, which makes the idea that we might need to modify our metaphors sometimes hard to access.

Power differentials don’t help (page 157) because ‘whether in national politics or in everyday interaction, people in power get to impose their metaphors.’

Basically, (page 158) ‘In all aspects of life, not just in politics or in love, we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors,’ and in consequence (page 159) ‘. . . truth is always relative to a conceptual system that is defined in large part by metaphor.’

Which may explain why Pilate did not stay for an answer. As with most people trapped in a cultural trance there was no other truth worth considering, if there was any truth at all.

Personal Mythology by David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner covers similar ground using different terminology. I’ll deal with that more briefly. In her introduction June Singer writes (page xi):

If we are unacquainted with the contents of our personal mythology we are carried by it unconsciously, with the result that we confuse what exists objectively in the world with the image of the world supplied to us by our own distorted lenses.

The authors reinforce the same point right from the start (page 1):

Your personal mythology acts as a lens that colours your perceptions according to its own assumptions and values. It highlights certain possibilities and shadows others.

They express more forcefully the dubious effects of blindly following our myths (page 6):

The myths operating in modern societies tend to support material progress and the control of nature, rather than the attunement and participation with natural cycles that characterize more classical mythologies.

Metaphors We Live By also brings in the concept of myth late in their treatment of the issue (pages 185-86):

Myths provide ways of comprehending experience: they give order to our lives. Like metaphors, myths are necessary for making sense of what goes on around us. All cultures have myths, and people cannot function without myth any more than they can function without metaphor.

They clearly share my earlier expressed distrust of those who feel they can access absolute truth with no sense they are also operating from the perspective of a myth (page 186):

The myth of objectivism is particularly insidious in this way. Not only does it purport not to be a myth, but it makes both myths and metaphors objects of belittlement and scorn…

They also have reservations about objectivism’s opposite, subjectivism (page 188-192), and feel there is a need for a third way to avoid the deficiencies of both. They call this ‘experientialist synthesis’ (page 192 passim). They contend that metaphor ‘unites reason and imagination,’ an idea that is music to my ears. They echo McGilchrist in saying (page 193):

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.

In the end, they feel that (page 233) ‘much of self-understanding involves consciously recognising previously unconscious metaphors and how we live by them’ and ‘engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.’

So Why Dreamwork?

It seems to me that dreamwork is important because it is likely to be the most readily available signpost to show the nature of our own subliminally seductive metaphors. Not until we recognise them can we make wise and conscious decisions to replace them with more constructive ones. Also dreams are rich in suggestions about what metaphors we might be wiser to choose instead as part of our operating system.

Take for example my recent dream about playing squash, which I think was a message from my dreaming mind to confirm I was consolidating the change of direction that was first triggered decades ago with my Dancing Flames dream, one that sent a strong message that I needed to blend more poetry into my life and take my foot of the mechanistic accelerator that was driving too much of what I did as I combined a fulltime job with studying psychology part-time.

The dream was short and initially seemed quite baffling.

Two of us are playing squash with forks for rackets and a boiled egg in its shell for a shuttlecock. I do a really hard return and the egg bounces back off the squash court wall broken and coming out of its shell.

Interestingly, some of my associations took me back to Birkbeck and studying psychology there, which suggests the theme is related to the same conflict or dilemma as before. I haven’t played squash more than about twice since I stopped studying psychology. Court had implications of prison. Squash could relate to suppression. I concluded that the dream was very forcefully pointing out how NOT to do things. An apparently exciting, even seemingly enjoyable but ultimately sterile competitive game is shown for what it really is. Given A Walk in the Park, the poem I wrote recently, it was perhaps not surprising that an association with egg took me straight to Magritte’s painting Perspicacity, an object lesson in creativity and how to do it better.

I’m not quite sure why my dreaming mind felt it necessary to remind me of this right now, as I’m not aware of being under the competitive pressure of exams any more, though the todo treadmill remains a problem. It was clear though that letting such pressures impinge too heavily is incompatible with the kind of reflective creativity I value highly.

Another dream I had on the same night seemed to point in the same direction.

I am holding a long set of wooden portable drawers which I clutch/clasp close to stop the drawers opening and the contents spilling out.

When I was originally thinking about this image I used the expression ‘nest of drawers’ as something smaller than a chest of drawers, not that chest is irrelevant, given that it contains the heart. I Googled it and realised this phrase was not the right expression in terms of conventional usage. So, for a time I backed off from the dream in puzzlement and couldn’t really work out what it meant.

But of course this image is my symbol and the word nest is a key to unlocking its significance. I can call it what I like.

So I did.

The nest of drawers is where my creative ideas incubate. I store all the fertile material I discover in these drawers, and at the right time they produce something original of value. I’m mainly a reader. Paper lays the eggs that hatch in my heart. I noted in my dream diary that ‘a full understanding of this dream depends upon the squash dream.’

This was an important realisation because the time it takes eggs to incubate from laying to hatching is considerable. It takes trust and patience to keep them warm and close enough for the bird of a new insight to emerge. Sometimes, perhaps too often, I give up on them too soon.

In terms of dreams, there is also a post on this blog that records how a dream directed me to a deeper understanding of what the word ‘heart’ means in terms of personal development. It was perhaps triggered by my prolonged exploration of what Bahá’u’lláh meant by his phrase ‘the understanding heart.’ I feel that this provides a useful example of how shifting the metaphors we use can make a radical difference to how we take action to tackle the need for personal change. I will be re-blogging this sequence in the coming days.

This clearly indicates that dreams are of course not the only source of life-enhancing metaphors that we can use to replace our default ones. Take for example this quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which I’ve described elsewhere on this blog as completely overturning my existing paradigm (Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317):

. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with. The brain made the mind, and that was it. Consciousness was an epiphenomenon, just a side-effect of the brain’s complexity, or at best an emergent property, an unexpected and not quite explicable benefit that we would learn to explain in the end.

Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart. It took several years of intense investigation before my head came fully on board with these metaphors – the light from a lamp or the fruit of a tree, where both lamp and tree are immaterial, spiritual.

Doing so changed the whole way I approach many aspects of the human predicament, not only in terms of death, and of illnesses which lock the person away behind walls of poor communication, but also in terms of understanding the full extent of our connectedness with other human beings and with nature – it was a life transforming shift.

Either way, whether through dreams, poetry, art or spiritual writings, I am in no doubt that recognising the metaphors we live by and learning to enhance them is a key skill to develop.

I’m pretty sure there will be more about that on this blog in the course of time.

Four years ago, after a summer school workshop exploring the Universal House of Justice’s text Century of Light, I described some of the fruits of that exploration. For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, I have recently discovered another powerful aspect of this to which I had not given proper attention.

Prior to explaining exactly what this insight was and what triggered it, I need to briefly revisit my earlier sense of the matter,

Social Reality

We had looked at some of the obstacles that stand in the way of our full appreciation of reality, first as individuals and then as groups. Bahá’u’lláh writes (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Haifa 1978: page 58):

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.

Given the hidden nature of spiritual reality and our freedom to choose what we believe or seek to teach others to believe, there is also therefore the immense power of social influence at work on what we experience and how we experience it.

Given that I couldn’t possibly reproduce here the complex flow of our consultation as we grappled with this issue, I pulled in quotations that cover much the same ground.

There are two thinkers who have shaped my perspective about this, which of course is an example of how culture works: these are Paul Lample and Charles Tart. A Bahá’í writer, Paul Lample, has written illuminatingly on this theme. I will move between the two of them as I explore their thinking. Tart’s views I have already explored at some length on this blog so I will spend more time on Lample’s as explained in Revelation and Social Reality.

Before I plunge into the depths, it is perhaps important to share the distinction Lample explores early on between two types of reality, a distinction that is of central importance to our understanding of human nature (page 7):

We can understand this special role of humanity by noting that most of what we perceive to be reality – the world with which we interact every day – is not physical reality at all. It is social reality. . . . Social reality mediates our engagement with the world, physical and spiritual, and it is this reality that we have the capacity to create anew.

He quotes from John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality to unpack the distinction he wishes to make (ibid):

In a sense, there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking of things like money, property, governments, and marriages. Yet many facts regarding these things are “objective” facts in the sense that they are not a matter of your or my preferences, evaluations, or moral attitudes. I am thinking of such facts as that I am a citizen of the United States, that the piece of paper in my pocket is a five dollar bill, etc. . . . These contrast with such facts as that Mount Everest has snow and ice near the summit… which are facts totally independent of any human opinions.

Of course, Searle continues (page 8), ‘in order to state a brute fact we require the institution of language, but the fact stated needs to be distinguished from the statement of it.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá eloquently explains exactly what this means in a spiritual terms (Promulgation of Universal Peace (PUP) Wilmette 1982 pages 421-422):

When we consider the world of existence, we find that the essential reality underlying any given phenomenon is unknown. Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes. Man discerns only manifestations, or attributes, of objects, while the identity, or reality, of them remains hidden. For example, we call this object a flower. What do we understand by this name and title? We understand that the qualities appertaining to this organism are perceptible to us, but the intrinsic elemental reality, or identity, of it remains unknown. 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. Inasmuch as the realities of material phenomena are impenetrable and unknowable and are only apprehended through their properties or qualities, how much more this is true concerning the reality of Divinity, that holy essential reality which transcends the plane and grasp of mind and man?

Even before we consider the role of names in clouding reality, we have to accept that our senses are quite limited in the way they represent the world to our consciousness, even at a material level. We see wavelengths of potentially particulate light as colours, and combinations of atoms composed mostly of empty space as densely solid objects. In a sense not only is our social reality a simulation: our perception of the physical world is also. It has evolved simply to maximise our chances of survival, not to penetrate the surface to reach the inner reality.

Lample continues (ibid:)

Searle notes that the structure of social reality has a tremendous complexity. A simple visit to a restaurant as a reality that include immediately visible aspects, including the social meaning of ‘money,’ ‘waiter,’ ‘restaurant,’ ‘chair,’ and invisible, underlying aspects such as the concept of employment, an economic system, an agricultural system, and government regulations. There is also a normative dimension of social reality, in that the waiter can be rude or polite, the food unsatisfying or delicious.

There is an important corollary here (ibid:)

Searle observed that the entire structure of social reality is taken for granted by individuals, who are brought up in a culture that conveys social facts in the same way it presents rocks or trees.

Charles Tart

In his book Waking Up, Tart seems to be dealing with this same aspect (page 85): ‘normal consciousness will be referred to as consensus trance; the hypnotist will be personified as the culture. The “subject,” the person subjected to this process, is you.’

In a way that parallels Bahá’u’lláh’s ‘veils’ of delusion and superstition, Tart sees consensus consciousness as on a disturbing continuum (page 102): ‘We can view illusions and hallucinations as extreme points on the continuum of simulation of the world.’

He doesn’t give us much room to wriggle off the hook here. The state of mind he goes onto to describe is not an enviable one (page 95):

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanentrather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.

Even so, Lample sees us very much as agents in the creation of our world view (Revelation & Social Reality– page 6): ‘Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us.’

Lample none the less plausibly contends that (ibid) ‘In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.’

He illustrates the kind of factor that can trigger such transformations (page 8):

When the fundamental agreements which frame belief and behaviour change, social reality will change, as in the case of the dramatic collapse of communism in countries across Europe and Asia in a matter of months around 1990, after being a commanding presence that dominated the lives of hundreds of millions for over a half century.

He concludes, in terms which acknowledge Tart’s sense that we are shaped by as well as being shapers of social reality, that (page 10) ‘. . . Social reality is not static; it is mutable. It forms us, but because it owes its existence to common human understanding, we have the power to contribute to reshaping it.’

Metaphor:

I have long been aware of the link between dreams, poetry and other forms of creativity, a link that many writers acknowledge and which has a function in reshaping consciousness.

The link with poetry is not straightforward, as Charles Rycroft points out in a passage quoted by Krippner et al in the book, Extraordinary Dreams and How to Work with Them (page15): ‘if dreams are poetry, they are incomplete poems.’

Montague Ulmman, in Working with Dreams,the book he co-authored with Nan Zimmerman, expands on this (page 73) when he speaks of ‘those qualities a dream has in common with art, especially with the art form which relies heavily on metaphor: poetry.’ He spells out where the incompleteness of dreams as poetry exactly resides (page 80):

. . .whereas the poet is addressing himself to an audience outside himself, the dream is a private communication intended to be personally, not universally, meaningful.’

It is still of value, of course, for the dreamer to treat his dreams like poetry, and Ullman clearly sees the metaphorical value as worthy of exploration before plunging into the associations, which he feels (page 97) rather serve to integrate ‘metaphors into the waking context.’

Ole Vedfelt’s book A Guide to the World of Dreams resonates with me when he writes (page 54-55): in dreams, metaphors ‘may appear much more literally and visibly to the dreamer, consciousness is so totally immersed in the metaphors. . . . It may be illuminating to view symbols and metaphors as poetry… They interact with the receiver’s intuition…’

That may not be as simple as it sounds. He digs somewhat deeper. He goes on to say ‘when I use the term symbol in connection with dreams, I am also referring to a more complex and inscrutable meaning, such as when Jung (Man and his Symbols 1964, p. 20) writes that symbols have “an unconscious aspect, which is never precisely defined nor fully explained.”’

The opening sentence to this chapter was particularly resonant for me, given the spiritual emphasis I tend to give to dreams (page 53): ‘A prerequisite for all dream interpretation is an understanding that dreams live in a world of symbols where wind and weather, plants, animals and objects can all be expressions of qualities of the soul.’

Approaches such as these have influenced my approach to dreams almost since my dreamwork began.

However, for someone who claims to be so keen on poetry and who has used metaphors to help raise his consciousness, I realise now that for most of my life I have discounted the importance of metaphor in society as a whole. It is only since resuming a close examination of my dreams and the idea of dreamwork in general, including the reading of related texts, have I woken up more fully to the pervasive power of metaphor, a power that may be either constructive or destructive.

A key book on the power of metaphor has been Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I only discovered it this year and it has widened the scope of my understanding about the role of metaphor in culture.

Their basic tenet may sound improbably radical on first hearing (page 3):

If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.

They amplify further (page 6) by saying ‘we shall argue that… human thought processes are largely metaphorical.’

They give persuasive basic examples to illustrate our pervasive and unquestioning use of metaphor such as equating time with money, argument with war and the mind with a machine or brittle object. A moment’s reflection should be enough to confirm to us from our own experience the truth of that.

More on that in the next post on Thursday.

Yesterday’s Guardian featured an article by Jonathan Aldred on the subject of inequality, for me an evil derived from our defective moral system only second to climate crisis. it provides yet another powerful example of how dissonance reduction blinds us to social injustices in urgent need of remedy. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

The economic arguments adopted by Britain and the US in the 1980s led to vastly increased inequality – and gave the false impression that this outcome was not only inevitable, but good.

In most rich countries, inequality is rising, and has been rising for some time. Many people believe this is a problem, but, equally, many think there’s not much we can do about it. After all, the argument goes, globalisation and new technology have created an economy in which those with highly valued skills or talents can earn huge rewards. Inequality inevitably rises. Attempting to reduce inequality via redistributive taxation is likely to fail because the global elite can easily hide their money in tax havens. Insofar as increased taxation does hit the rich, it will deter wealth creation, so we all end up poorer.

In both the US and the UK, from 1980 to 2016, the share of total income going to the top 1% has more than doubled. After allowing for inflation, the earnings of the bottom 90% in the US and UK have barely risen at all over the past 25 years. More generally, 50 years ago, a US CEO earned on average about 20 times as much as the typical worker. Today, the CEO earns 354 times as much.

Any argument that rising inequality is largely inevitable in our globalised economy faces a crucial objection. Since 1980 some countries have experienced a big increase in inequality (the US and the UK); some have seen a much smaller increase (Canada, Japan, Italy), while inequality has been stable or falling in others (France, Belgium and Hungary). So rising inequality cannot be inevitable. And the extent of inequality within a country cannot be solely determined by long-run global economic forces, because, although most richer countries have been subject to broadly similar forces, the experiences of inequality have differed.

. . . . .

Psychologists have shown that people have motivated beliefs: beliefs that they have chosen to hold because those beliefs meet a psychological need. Now, being poor in the US is extremely tough, given the meagre welfare benefits and high levels of post-tax inequality. So Americans have a greater need than Europeans to believe that you deserve what you get and you get what you deserve. These beliefs play a powerful role in motivating yourself and your children to work as hard as possible to avoid poverty. And these beliefs can help alleviate the guilt involved in ignoring a homeless person begging on your street.

This is not just a US issue. Britain is an outlier within Europe, with relatively high inequality and low economic and social mobility. Its recent history fits the cause-and-effect relationship here. Following the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, inequality rose significantly. After inequality rose, British attitudes changed. More people became convinced that generous welfare benefits make poor people lazy and that high salaries are essential to motivate talented people. However, intergenerational mobility fell: your income in Britain today is closely correlated with your parents’ income.

. . .

One evening in December 1974, a group of ambitious young conservatives met for dinner at the Two Continents restaurant in Washington DC. The group included the Chicago University economist Arthur Laffer, Donald Rumsfeld (then chief of staff to President Gerald Ford), and Dick Cheney (then Rumsfeld’s deputy, and a former Yale classmate of Laffer’s).

While discussing Ford’s recent tax increases, Laffer pointed out that, like a 0% income tax rate, a 100% rate would raise no revenue because no one would bother working. Logically, there must be some tax rate between these two extremes that would maximise tax revenue. Although Laffer does not remember doing so, he apparently grabbed a napkin and drew a curve on it, representing the relationship between tax rates and revenues. The Laffer curve was born and, with it, the idea of trickle-down economics.

Lumps of Sand

Image of ‘Perspicacity’ by René Magritte (adapted from ‘Magritte’ in the Taschen Edition)