For source if image see link

For source of image see link

Wednesday’s Guardian published an interesting piece on the power of meditation, which reinforces the argument for introducing mindfulness more consistently into our schools. The article convinces in spite of Rice’s less than perceptive comment about guns near the start:

Its origins are in the 1990s when two Silicon Valley investors – Jeff Rice and Laurent Valosek – developed a programme to teach meditation in public schools, inspired by the tragic Columbine high school massacre. “After the shooting, the usual culprits were blamed: guns, violent movies and video games,” says Rice. “But no one touched on the real problem – stress.”

I also understand the point that is often made that separating meditation from its spiritual context can lead to its being suborned to all sorts of dubious purposes of which Zen’s assistance with Sumarai killing skills is only the most famous example. The article is clearly dealing with a benign and necessary use of meditation and one which could have lasting beneficial effects.

Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

There was a time when Visitacion Valley middle school in San Francisco could have featured in a gritty US crime drama. Surrounded by drugs and gang violence, the kids were stressed out and agitated. One day children came in to find three dead bodies dumped in the schoolyard. “In 2006 there were 38 killings in our neighbourhood,” says Barry O’Driscoll, the school’s head of physical education (PE). He says the lives of students were infected by violence in the community, and several fights would break out every day.

In 2007 a meditation programme called Quiet Time was brought in to meet some of these challenges. “When I first heard about it I thought it probably wasn’t going to work,” says O’Driscoll. “We get thrown a new thing every couple of years so I didn’t put too much faith in it.” But in April, just a month after meditation began, teachers noticed changes in behaviour. “Students seemed happy,” says O’Driscoll. “They worked harder, paid more attention, were easier to teach and the number of fights fell dramatically.”

In the first year of Quiet Time, suspensions at Visitacion Valley – which has 500 students aged 11-13 – were reduced by 45% (pdf). By 2009-10, attendance rates were over 98% (some of the highest in the city), and today 20% of graduates are admitted to the highly academic Lowell high school – before it was rare for even one student to be accepted. Perhaps even more remarkable, last year’s California Healthy Kids Survey from the state’s education department found that students at Visitacion Valley middle school were the happiest in the whole of San Francisco.

[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 102)

As I explained in Monday’s post, at this point in human history parts of Africa and much of the Middle East are in turmoil. The fallout is affecting most of Europe, both in terms of the refugee crisis and the threat of terror. The recent murders in Beirut, Paris and Bamako are only the latest examples. Partly because of all this, one of my main preoccupations relates to understanding better what factors foster or suppress empathy and compassion. In terms of those factors I am aware that all the arts can have a part to play on both sides of the process, and not just in terms of the protest songs I discussed in the last post.

For reasons that may become slightly clearer as this sequence of posts unfolds, I have just now been unexpectedly drawn to the life of one poet in particular as a possible source of insight into many of these factors. Before we close in on the man himself, I felt I needed to say a bit more about my journey towards this particular choice. There were after all other poets I knew better and liked far more.

Tintern Abbey (for source of image see link)

“Tintern Abbey with Elegant Figures” by Samuel Colman (for source of image see link)

The Limitations of Protest Alone

Admittedly even my infatuation, in the poems I quoted last time, with Byron’s pointed cynicism or Shelley’s dark condemnation did not entirely replace the powerful tug of what I have always felt are Wordsworth’s greatest lyrics, Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey and Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. They touched on a sense of the transcendent, which is of course not incompatible with protest against injustice, but takes things to an altogether different level. Again my mind was ringing to the melody of many remembered lines (From the Ode:lines 59-67).

The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Or (From Lines written a few Miles above Tintern Abbey: lines 96-103):

                                      And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Something of the same current can be detected at times in the poet I have chosen to explore, but it feels more strained and less convincing, which may account for the extreme darkness of some of his poetry.

More consistently I resonated also to Keats’s greatest poems as an earlier post on this blog testifies, as does another post register my current debt to Coleridge and his Ancient Mariner, something that also goes back many years – through May 1982 as a diary entry of mine testifies – to my years at secondary school.

The diary entry in part reads:

At 17 I stopped up the wellsprings of my deepest feelings when I turned my back on all religions. I am now parching with a spiritual thirst – my main priority is to find out what I need to slake it.

I then quoted the same passage of spiritual insight from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as I have used in the blog post I linked to above.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

I then continue:

Tonight after I have prepared my meal I shall return to this journal to reflect upon what I need to do now. I have wasted half my life on vanities. I do not want to throw away the rest. . . . . Buddhism and meditation, in this last year mainly, have done so much to free my mind from its old debilitating patterns. I would be very foolish not to continue with my meditation and at least a minimum of Buddhist reading. Do I need to do more?

Seven months later I declared as a Bahá’í, but that is another story.

Not surprising, then, that I find Coleridge far more appealing, in spite of his evident frailties. He seems more rounded as a person than all the other Romantics, more complexly spiritual than Wordsworth (though undoubtedly a touch too abstractly philosophical at times) and far less egocentric than Byron. Keats I loved but his tragically short life left him somehow incomplete.

Abbé Vogler (for source of image see link)

Abbé Vogler (for source of image see link)

A Charismatic Teacher

Two post-romantics, Tennyson & Browning, were also important to me, the one mainly for his brilliant collection of lyrical meditations on loss known as In Memoriam, and the latter mostly for his brilliant handling of the dramatic monologue – but more of them another time perhaps.

My strong connection with those two poets I owe to a charismatic English Teacher at my secondary school. He was an unlikely inspiration at first sight. He was short and round, steel-rimmed spectacles with round pebble-thick lenses perched on the end of his nose. But his enthusiasm for the poetry was infectious. He paced and bounced back and forth at the front of the classroom, the sunlight glinting back at us from his glasses, as he probed our hearts for responses to the challenges of verse.

He somehow managed to convey to us, at the age of 15 in our Fourth Year, the rich layers of meaning in even a poem as complex as Browning’s Abt Vogler, which captures the experience of the organist:

All through my keys that gave their sounds to a wish of my soul,
All through my soul that praised as its wish flowed visibly forth,
All through music and me! For think, had I painted the whole,
Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-worth:
Had I written the same, made verse—still, effect proceeds from cause,
Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is told;
It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,
Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled:—

It may be no coincidence, in the light of my present concerns, that this poem explores the relationship between music and spirituality. Most of that aspect passed right over my adolescent head, though it may have registered subconsciously. Mind you, now that music can be recorded Browning might have had to steer Abt Vogler along a slightly different track.

I can remember though the impact of his enthusiasm to this day. I doubt that such a poem would find its way into any classroom nowadays, such is the pressure to equip our children to be effective cogs in the competitive economic machine we have come to believe is the peak of civilisation.

In the sixth form he taught us how to approach Tennyson’s outpourings of grief before most of us had the faintest idea of the agony loss can cause.

Without exposure to such art our sensibility is incalculably impoverished and our ability to contribute to bettering our world will be seriously impaired. Maybe that was partly what Pink Floyd were protesting about in their bleak song Another Brick in the Wall, as the powerful video below brings to life.

Coming onto Shelley

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source see link

So, why am I not starting with one or other of those poets?

I’d better start by admitting that my head doesn’t really understand my choice of Shelley at this point. I’m simply following my intuition here. Let’s hope my head catches up completely before the end of this sequence of posts, as I’ll need its help to make some sense of it all. What follows is my best attempt to understand the direction I have chosen to take.

Well, it was my interest in Coleridge that triggered me to read Richard Holmes’s excellent twovolume biography. That in turn meant that when I saw his biography of Shelley on the shelves of a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye last year I immediately snapped it up, even though Shelley has always been my least favourite poet of the Romantic period.

I’m still not quite sure why I decided to pull it off the shelf and begin to read it at last. After all, it was what I experienced as Shelley’s combination of ethereal intensity and chaotic sensibility that repelled me from his longer poems in the first instance, and nothing had happened since to change my mind. The decision to learn about his life possibly came from another level.

Initially, my recent reading of this biography did little to dispel my negative perception.

However, as my reading of this 700 page account of Shelley’s life moved forward, though I lost none of my reservations about the man, they became balanced by examples of his capacity for kindness, even generosity at times, by the increasing breadth of his understanding, and by the increasing depth and accessibility of even some of his longer poetry. I became intrigued and wanted to try and understand the dynamics of that better, while also wondering whether this might all shed some more light on the factors that influence our levels of altruism, as well as on our responses to and understanding of violence and terror.

Suddenly his life began to seem exactly what I needed to reflect on now. It looked like Shelley might be a fruitful biographical test case to get me started on my quest to understand what puzzles me so intensely.

I need to mention at this point that I am also reading a book by Ann Wroe called Being Shelley: the poet’s search for himself. As she describes it, the book (page ix) ‘is an attempt to write the life of the poet from the inside out: that is, from the perspective of the creative spirit struggling to discover its true nature. It is a book about Shelley the poet, rather than Shelley the man.’ She quotes Shelley as stating in a letter written in 1821 (ibid.): ‘The poet & the man . . . . are two different natures; though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other . . .’

Intriguingly Alan Bennet exploits this idea in his script for The Lady in the Van, though in his case the writer and the man communicate incessantly over what is happening. The film is worth watching, therefore, not only for Maggie Smith’s performance, but for the insights it gives into the creative process, though the trailer gives you no clue about that, sadly.

Wroe’s book clearly contains information relevant to my current task.

However, I have decided to focus most on Holmes’s more prosaic biography and other similar sources, only pulling in comments from Wroe’s book when I feel they add something of significance or illustrate a point more powerfully.

In this sequence of posts I will share a helicopter review of his life first. After that will come a discussion of some general ideas before I attempt to deal with his poetic development in detail, including some clues I have found in his biography about the source and nature of his creativity.

Only after that will I come to some tentative general conclusions intended to guide my subsequent investigations into the lives of other creative artists of various kinds, contrasted I hope with the Florence Nightingales and Indira Ghandis, to test whether there is a distinction to be made concerning the relationship between intense activity and personal life in the field of the arts as against in other domains, in the light of the conditions prevailing at the time.

I also eventually want to examine, further than I will be able to do here, the nature of poetry’s power. This of course requires making a distinction, that to some extent might be arbitrary, between poetry and verse.  Even my own limited experience of writing poetry suggests that there is such a distinction to be made. There are times when what I write is merely workmanlike. It is fundamentally pedestrian. It’s just verse. It has no spark. I have tried not to fall into the temptation of posting any of that on my blog.

Other poems seem to be alive in a way that I find it hard to describe. They often appear with whole lines or even passages more or less complete. They also have unexpected ideas, sometimes I even do not fully understand what I am writing (see link for one example). Whenever I have read a poet’s complete works I have found the same unevenness: one poem is sublime, the next one dull.

Dullness can even predominate. In the dedication to Don Juan, Byron made his famous comment on a poem of Wordsworth’s, that suggests that even the greatest can produce copious quantities of sub-standard work:

And Wordsworth, in a rather long “Excursion”
       (I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
Has given a sample from the vasty version
       Of his new system to perplex the sages;
‘Tis poetry—at least by his assertion,
       And may appear so when the dog-star rages—
And he who understands it would be able
To add a story to the Tower of Babel.

I also have to admit that this, in the end, comes down to a matter of taste when we discuss any particular poem, and taste is something learnt rather than innate. I found this out very early. Almost at the same time as one teacher was helping us gain access to Abt Vogler, another teacher was testing us in a different way. He came into the classroom with two poems and handed them round. He asked us to read them both and then decide which was the better of the two. Almost the whole class picked the same one. Only then did he explain that we had preferred a poem he’d written in his teens over one of Shakespeare’s sonnets!

That complicates it all even more.

Anyhow, this whole enterprise may be hopelessly ambitious. It is very much a pilot study. It may be that the anarchic chaos of Shelley’s life will spread to my treatment of his art. This may not be a bad thing if I manage to rescue some reliable data from the maelstrom. They may be worth a great deal when I come to look at more orderly examples later, if I ever do. We’ll see how far I get before I run out of steam or ideas.

An irony I can’t resist mentioning at this point is that his personal life displayed the anarchy in a less violent form that he so detested in the political arena.

There will be more on Shelley next week.

Pete Hulme:

Another inspiring post from Nick, filling in some of the blanks in terms of those who helped him get to where he is now.

Originally posted on Nick Verron:

Hello again,rbh

I’m a super happy chappy.

You are now reading the ramblings of

The Royal Buckinghamshire Hospital‘s Lead Ambassador!!!

It all started after I’d given myself a sports injury last year and was going for physiotherapy at Elite Physical Medicine. The sports physio Emily Ross there was amazing, going over and above the call of duty. She addressed my sports injury and began to sink her teeth into my never-ending list of problems associated with my brain injury. The real clincher with her was that she treated me as an equal and where I’d had to previously drag NHS physios to keep up with my determination (I just didn’t seem to compute, with them I didn’t act like a brain injured person should), I regularly had to stall to catch my breath! She looked at my individual problems and tried to use common sense combined with…

View original 1,006 more words

Thou hast clung to tyranny, and cast away justice; whereupon all created things have lamented, and still thou art among the wayward. Thou hast put to death the aged, and plundered the young. Thinkest thou that thou wilt consume that which thine iniquity hath amassed? Nay, by Myself! Thus informeth thee He Who is cognizant of all. By God! The things thou possessest shall profit thee not, nor what thou hast laid up through thy cruelty.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Epistle to the Son of the Wolf page 102)

Art and reality have a complex relationship as the background to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll illustrates (for the full 2005 article Guardian see link).

The song contains errors of fact. Dylan misspells the perpetrator’s name, omitting the letter T – perhaps deliberately, out of contempt, or perhaps to emphasise the Snidely Whiplash hissing of the Zs. And Zantzinger’s actual arrest and trial were more complicated than the song lets on.

Police arrested him at the ball for disorderly conduct – he was wildly drunk – and for assaults on hotel employees not including Hattie Carroll, about whom they apparently knew nothing at the time. When Carroll died at Mercy Hospital the following morning, Zantzinger was also charged with homicide. The medical examiner reported that Carroll had hardened arteries, an enlarged heart, and high blood pressure; that the cane left no mark on her; and that she died of a brain haemorrhage brought on by stress caused by Zantzinger’s verbal abuse, coupled with the assault. After the report, a tribunal of Maryland circuit court judges reduced the homicide charge to manslaughter. Zantzinger was found guilty of that, and of assault – but not of murder.

However, for reasons the Guardian article unpacks, those inaccuracies in no way detract from the power and brilliance of the song or from the integrity of its basic message:

Zantzinger was sentenced on August 28 1963. As it happened, that was the day of the march on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I have a dream” speech. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Baltimore Sun all ran brief stories about the sentencing; none mentioned that anybody objected to the lightness of the sentence.

All three papers devoted pages and pages to the march; and it is striking, to a reader four decades on, how blind (for want of a better word) the coverage all was. What comes through in the stories about the march is a vast sense of relief – shared, presumably, by the reporters, the papers’ management and their readership – that the 200,000 or more assembled “Negroes” hadn’t burned Washington to the ground. All three papers used the adjective “orderly” in their headlines; all reported prominently on President Kennedy’s praise for the marchers’ politeness and decorum. The Post and the Sun gave small notice to Dr King, and less to what he said. Neither made much of the phrase “I have a dream”. Only James Reston of the Times understood that he had witnessed a great work of oratory, but even his story veered into brow-wiping at the good manners of the marchers.

Listening to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll today, you can hear Dylan shouting against exactly this blindness. The song he wrote took a one-column, under-the-rug story and played it as big as it deserved to be. Dylan’s voice sounds so young, hopeful, unjaded, noncommercial – so far from the Victoria’s Secret world of today. Even the song’s title is well chosen: Before I went to Carroll’s church, I had not quite understood why her death was “lonesome”. But of course, as Rev Jessup noted: “Not one of those people stood up for her.” In a party full of elegant guests, Hattie Carroll was on her own.

If it weren’t for television and videotape, we would not know how powerful the march on Washington, or Dr King’s speech, really was. And if it weren’t for Dylan, nothing more would have been said about Hattie Carroll.

So, given that the value of the song is not corrupted by its departures from literal truth, how far is this also true of the relationship between the possibly immoral artist and the potentially inspiring art, which is at least as complex? And just as importantly why does it matter?

Times may not have changed as much as we would like

At this point in human history parts of Africa and much of the Middle East are in turmoil. The fallout is affecting most of Europe, both in terms of the refugee crisis and the threat of terror. The recent murders in Beirut, Paris and Bamako are only the latest examples. Partly because of all this, one of my main preoccupations relates to understanding better what factors foster or suppress empathy and compassion. In terms of those factors I am aware that all the arts can have a part to play on both sides of the process.

For reasons that will become clear as this sequence of posts unfolds, I have just now been unexpectedly drawn to the life of one poet in particular as a possible source of insight into many of these factors.

He was a poet living in a time of terror: terror visited by his own state upon its own people, and recent terror overseas, both during and in the wake of revolution. Our own time therefore has echoes of the times he lived in.

During his career as a poet he behaved oppressively to most of the women closest to him, one of whom committed suicide partly as a result of his indifference to her suffering. He also displayed great courage in speaking out for the oppressed in his society, at the risk of imprisonment and possibly even death.

He seems therefore a good example to choose in my exploration of altruism, and also of the complex relationship between reality, the artist and the art. It may even shed light, for me at least, on how artists and others might best respond to the current crisis, for we see him struggling, amongst other things, to define the most constructive response to violence, whether from the state or elsewhere. He may have even been an unseen influence inspiring Dylan to create his masterly attack on injustice.

Exactly what led me to see that he might be such an example also maps out an interesting trajectory, one which might tempt us to feel it was ever so, and because we still have not worked out how to solve it after 200 years, we never will. I’m not convinced by that pessimistic conclusion but I will accept that it can sometimes be a tempting one to draw.

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

The Appeal of Protest and Satire

For as long as I can remember, during my formative years, the five major Romantic poets writing in English took centre stage in my mind’s theatre behind only Shakespeare in the power of their influence upon me. Given my disaffection with the faith I was reared in, poetry was effectively my religion.

However, I was equally taken with only four of the five. In my late teens Byron snook ahead with his major satirical works: The Vision of Judgement, Beppo and of course Don Juan. How could I resist the playful power of lines I still can quote from memory such as these?

St Peter sat by the celestial gate:
His keys were rusty, and the lock was dull,
So little trouble had been given of late;
Not that the place by any means was full . . .

(My memory smoothed out the scansion of the last line but was otherwise impressively accurate!) That it was also a protest against the reign of George III, a king ‘who shielded tyrants’ (stanza viii), added to its attraction.

Mixed Dictators v5My entry into this world fell under the shadow of three tyrants and a world war. It was a long shadow and the end of the war did not see the end of widespread atrocities. The irony of the ‘peace’ that followed lay not least in the fact that the Western Powers, having rescued eastern Europe from Hitler’s brand of totalitarian oppression handed it straight over to Stalin’s version, while Mao wreaked havoc in China paving the way for further slaughter in the Far East: terror moved from concentration camps through gulags to mass graves in Cambodia. Spain continued to wither under a Fascist state. No major power came well out of the conflicts that, for example, ensued in Korea and Vietnam, or in the final dissolution of European Empires in such places as Algeria and India. Even more recently war and violence generally seems to breed more violence, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, to name but two. And almost always, cutting across many boundaries, there still remains the poison of racism.

My twenties were in part shaped by the protest songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, which strongly attracted me. In a sense Byron along with the senseless oppression I was discovering had prepared the ground for such receptivity.

Even in the Twentieth Century protest has not only been in song. Protest and political poems exist. Auden, who was clearly an admirer of Byron given that he wrote him a long verse letter, penned perhaps the most famous of them all – 1 September 1939.

The penultimate stanza is perhaps the best known moment in the poem:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

As if I needed further evidence of the tricky relationship between reality, the poem and the poet, I found another poet, John Fuller, quoting Auden (W. H. Auden: a commentary – page 292):

Rereading a poem of mine, 1st September 1939, after it had been published, I came to the line ‘We must love one another or die’ and said to myself: “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” So, in the next edition, I altered it to ‘We must love one another and die.’ This didn’t seem to do either, so I cut the stanza. Still no good. The whole poem, I realise, was infected with an incurable dishonesty – and must be scrapped.

I still think it’s a great poem even though it is not reprinted in my Collected Poems! There are other more recent poets too with a political or protest penchant. The ones on my shelves include James Fenton, Peter Reading and Tony Harrison. The genre is not dead by any means.

The poet I will be looking at later in this sequence of posts was often ploughing the same field as Byron and at more or less the same time.

In a famous sonnet he shared his sardonic awareness of the limitations of power:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

He also wrote a powerful but uneven sonnet triggered in part by the impending death of the same king Byron satirised (England in 1819):

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,–
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,–mud from a muddy spring,–
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,–
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,–
. . . . .
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestous day.

The Guardian article I’ve linked the poem to asks an important question we may have to come back to and makes its own comment upon it: ‘Why can’t political poetry be as good as any other? Distrust anyone who says the postmodern muse should be above such things.’

What Shelley might have meant by the expression ‘glorious Phantom,’ and his own attempts to bring it into reality, will begin to be our focus in this sequence of posts, as will the major obstacles, both internal and external, that impeded him in his attempts. It will become apparent that it might not be enough, if it is to be great, for a poem to be simply political. I feel Auden’s poem, quoted above, is much more than that.

A Stranger v4

O SON OF SPIRIT! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No. 13)

Rings of Self True self v2I have to be honest. The main benefits of meditation that I have achieved so far are a calm state of consciousness, a steady groundedness and an intermittent connection with my subliminal mind. No mystical moments or experience of my Soul – so far as I’m aware at least. I could’ve been bathing in bliss, I suppose, and just not realised it. In any case it wouldn’t count for present purposes if I didn’t know it.

In fact, it seems that nothing much has changed since May 1982, when I wrote in my diary, after about a year of consistent meditation:

I have been astonished at the power of meditation to help me bring about fundamental changes in my thinking and orientation…, and all that without any dramatic experiences within the period of meditation. In fact, even the simplest aspects of meditation are a hard struggle – maintaining the posture, following the breath, passive watchfulness and not fidgeting. It takes all my concentration to achieve any one of those for the briefest period.

I think I might have been selling myself short a bit there.

There seemed to have been a flicker of something more significant a few days later when I commented:

I finally achieved an experience unlike any other. I felt my being forced open by something which dissolved my boundaries, physical and mental. There was, for a brief moment, neither inside nor outside. My self as I knew it shrank to a few fragments clinging to the edges of this something which ‘I’ had become or which had become me or which I always am deep down. I was frightened. I dared not quite let the experience be.

Although there was a repeat of that some weeks later, I came to feel that it was probably an artefact of the way my breathing slowed as my meditation got deeper, and I have never been able to entice any such experience without reducing my breathing in a way that creates a blending sort of buzz in my brain that goes nowhere and probably means nothing.

So, when it comes to writing about the True Self I’m going to have to rely on the testimony of others even though perhaps the main purpose of meditation for me is to achieve contact with that part of me which is really all that matters about me, if it exists as I believe it does.

Not exactly brimming with confidence, am I?

The ‘No Self’ Issue

I am aware that I have already posted at some length on the ‘No Self’ position so I’ll rehash that quickly now before moving onto slightly different ground. Last December I posted on this issue, looking at Sam Harris’s argument in An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality that there is no ‘real self,’ and concluded:

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to something Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.’

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

Setting aside my sense, which I have explored at length elsewhere, that the mere existence of consciousness warrants a transcendent explanation, where does this leave me now?


For source of image see link.

NDEs and OBEs

In that post I launched into a consideration of the evidence that suggests the mind is not reducible to the body/brain and it may even survive bodily extinction. Elsewhere I have explored at length the evidence Near-Death-Experiences (NDEs) provide to support the idea that the mind or consciousness is not dependent upon or reducible to the brain.

There are also examples in the NDE literature that in those states of consciousness people have access to levels of understanding far beyond those accessible in ordinary consciousness. For example, a respondent to Raymond Moody wrote (quoted in Ken Ring’s Lessons from the Light – page 177):

One big thing I learned when I died was that we are all part of one big, living universe. If we think we can hurt another person or another living thing without hurting ourselves, we are sadly mistaken. I look at a forest are a flower or a bird now, and say, ‘That is me, part of me.’ We are connected with all things and if we send love along these connections, then we are happy.

Right now in this post, though, I am looking for any evidence that suggests there are people who have connected with that transcendent aspect of themselves outside the NDE context and that this is something the rest of us might be able to achieve at least momentarily and possibly at will in our ordinary lives. I also would like to examine evidence that might indicate that by experiencing this Mind we can access levels of wiser understanding than are available in ordinary consciousness.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, out-of-body experiences, while sometimes giving access to factual information at least anecdotally, do not seem to bring moments of deep insight. Experimentation is largely focused on seeking examples that will point towards mind/brain independence but not I think towards wisdom and ‘illumination.’


For source of adapted image see link


The lives and experiences of the great mystics provide inspiring examples of direct access to a transcendent realm and the wisdom it enshrines. Evelyn Underhill, in her book Mysticism, summarises it as follows (page 23-24):

Of all those forms of life and thought with which humanity has fed its craving for truth, mysticism alone postulates, and in the persons of its great initiates proves, the existence of the Absolute, but also this link: this possibility first of knowing, finally of attaining it. It denies that possible knowledge is to be limited (a) to sense impressions, (b) to any process of intellection, and (c) to the unfolding of the content of normal consciousness. The mystics find the basis of their method not in logic but in life: in the existence of a discoverable ‘real,’ a spark of true being, within the seeking subject, which can, in that ineffable experience which they call ‘the act of union,’ fuse itself with and thus apprehend the reality of the sought Object. In theological language, their theory of knowledge is that the spirit of man, itself essentially divine, is capable of immediate communion with God, the One Reality.

The quote from the Bahá’í Writings at the head of this post suggests that something like this is possible, though Bahá’í Scripture also points out that the Great Being we refer to as ‘God’ is not in fact reducible to what we can experience, no matter how advanced we are spiritually, even though that experience can give us a sense of what the Great Being is like – the attributes, to use a Bahá’í expression.

Unfortunately, systematic scientifically acceptable studies confirming the objective validity of such mystical moments are as rare as hen’s teeth. Even when claims are made for replicable brain changes that correlate, for example, with deeply stable and focused attention, it’s usually on the back of something like 19,000 hours of practice (see Matthieu Ricard’s Altruism – page 251). Such a person is described as ‘relatively experienced.’ To be really good at effortlessly sustaining such focused attention an average of 44,000 hours is required.

As I generally manage to meditate for something like 20-30 minutes only each day, to reach those larger numbers would take me 241 years. So, it’s a relief to read (pages 252-53) that even ‘eight weeks of meditation on altruistic love, at a rate of thirty minutes per day, increased positive emotions and one’s degree of satisfaction with existence.’

Silence participants

Participants in ‘The Big Silence‘ (see my comment)


At this late stage of an imperfect life, I consider my chances of attaining anything remotely close to that kind of effortless attention, let alone contact with the divine within, to be vanishingly small, so I think it more realistic to focus on a more modest objective.

A good and accessible source of guidance for me is to be found in books about Psychosynthesis – take Piero Ferrucci for example. In Chapter 20 of his book What We May Be, in a discussion of Silence (pages 217-226) there are many useful insights that confirm my own experience so far, make me feel less guilty about my interrupted meditations and perhaps point a way further forwards. He writes about the ‘state of intense and at the same time relaxed alertness,’ which comes with silence. He speaks of how ‘insights flow into this receptive space we have created.’ He goes onto explain what might be going on here:

While the mind [in my terms intellect] grasps knowledge in a mediated way . . . and analytically, intuition seizes truth in a more immediate and global manner. For this to happen, the mind becomes at least temporarily silent. As the intuition is activated, the mind is gradually transformed . . . .

He unpacks the kinds of intuition to which we may come to have access: about people and about problems, but beyond that also at ‘the superconscious level’ we can have ‘a direct intuitive realisation of a psychological quality, of a universal law, of the interconnectedness of everything with everything else, of the oneness of all reality, of eternity, and so on.’

Then he makes a key point, which resonates strongly with Iain McGilchrist’s position in The Master & his Emissary, which I touched on in the second post:

Intuition perceives wholes, while our everyday analytical mind is used to dealing with parts and therefore finds the synthesising grasp of the intuition unfamiliar

Intuitions are ‘surprisingly wider than the mental categories [we] would usually like to capture them with.’

He provides a useful list of facilitators of intuition over and above the role of silence. We need to give it attention, as I have already discovered in my own experience. Intuitions often come in symbolic form, as I have found in both dreamwork and in poetry. We have to be prepared to learn the code or language of our intuitive mind and there are no manuals for this: everybody’s intuitive self speaks a different dialect. Last of all we have to keep ‘an intuition workbook.’ Writing an insight down facilitates the emergence of others, and insights often come in clusters if we encourage them in this way.

There is one more priceless potential outcome of this kind of process:

There is, however, one higher goal – higher even then the flower of intuition – to which the cultivation of silence can bring us. While it is rarely reached, it is of such importance that no discussion of silence can be complete without it. I refer to illumination. While intuition can be thought of as giving us a glimpse of the world in which the Self lives, illumination can best be conceived as a complete view of that world. In fact, illumination is the act of reaching the Self and contacting it fully.

So, maybe I am on the right track after all, just not very consistent in my treading of it. I’m encouraged enough by all this to persist and hope that one day, before I move on from this body, I will connect with my true Self and deepen my felt understanding of my purpose here before it’s too late, of what interconnectedness is, and of how to develop a greater depth of more consistent altruism than has been in my power so far.

The Cudgel Fight (for source of image see link)

Goya’s Cudgel Fight (for source of image see link)

For those of us who feel unable to do more and perhaps even more so for those affected by or seeking to change the darkness of the current condition of the world, and especially on this day for those in France struggling to come to terms with what has happened, this prayer seems especially appropriate.

God, my God!  Thou seest how black darkness is enshrouding all regions, how all countries are burning with the flame of dissension, and the fire of war and carnage is blazing throughout the East and the West.  Blood is flowing, corpses bestrew the ground, and severed heads are fallen on the dust of the battlefield.

O Lord!  Have pity on these ignorant ones, and look upon them with the eye of forgiveness and pardon.  Extinguish this fire, so that these dense clouds which obscure the horizon may be scattered, the Sun of Reality shine forth with the rays of conciliation, this intense gloom be dispelled and the resplendent light of peace shed its radiance upon all countries.

O Lord!  Draw up the people from the abyss of the ocean of hatred and enmity, and deliver them from this impenetrable darkness.  Unite their hearts, and brighten their eyes with the light of peace and reconciliation.  Deliver them from the depths of war and bloodshed, and free them from the darkness of error.  Remove the veil from their eyes, and enlighten their hearts with the light of guidance.  Treat them with Thy tender mercy and compassion, and deal not with them according to Thy justice and wrath which cause the limbs of the mighty to quake.

O Lord!  Wars have persisted.  Distress and anxiety have waxed great, and every flourishing region is laid waste.

O Lord!  Hearts are heavy, and souls are in anguish.  Have mercy on these poor souls, and do not leave them to the excesses of their own desires.

O Lord!  Make manifest in Thy lands humble and submissive souls, their faces illumined with the rays of guidance, severed from the world, extolling Thy Name, uttering Thy praise, and diffusing the fragrance of Thy holiness amongst mankind.

O Lord!  Strengthen their backs, gird up their loins, and enrapture their hearts with the most mighty signs of Thy love.

O Lord!  Verily, they are weak, and Thou art the Powerful and the Mighty; they are impotent, and Thou art the Helper and the Merciful.

O Lord!  The ocean of rebellion is surging, and these tempests will not be stilled save through Thy boundless grace which hath embraced all regions.

O Lord!  Verily, the people are in the abyss of passion, and naught can save them but Thine infinite bounties.

O Lord!  Dispel the darkness of these corrupt desires, and illumine the hearts with the lamp of Thy love through which all countries will erelong be enlightened.  Confirm, moreover, Thy loved ones, those who, leaving their homelands, their families and their children, have, for the love of Thy Beauty, traveled to foreign countries to diffuse Thy fragrances and promulgate Thy Teachings.  Be Thou their companion in their loneliness, their helper in a strange land, the remover of their sorrows, their comforter in calamity.  Be Thou a refreshing draught for their thirst, a healing medicine for their ills and a balm for the burning ardor of their hearts.

Verily, Thou art the Most Generous, the Lord of grace abounding, and, verily, Thou art the Compassionate and the Merciful.



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