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Archive for November, 2011

DH Maitreyabandhu

Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.

(The Master & his Emissary: page 115)

Right now I am deeply grateful to someone whom I had never heard of two weeks ago.

As part of my recent plan to re-engage more with poetry, I rejoined the Poetry Society, and already I am glad I did. The last issue of their magazine contains a profound article by Maitreyabandhu.

Alison Flood wrote in the Guardian in 2009:

Maitreyabandhu, who has been ordained into the Western Buddhist Order for 19 years, says his love of poetry began when a friend read him the first five verses of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy. “It was one of those moments when one discovers a new ecstasy, even a new calling. After that I read and re-read Shelley and Keats obsessively and used their poetry to explore ancient Buddhist themes,” he said. “WH Auden says, ‘The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us’. The same could be said of Buddhism. I approach poetry, in one sense as a distillation of peak experience, in another as finding meaning in the everyday – as such, poetry has become another strand of my spiritual practice.”

In the two years since then he has moved to a place from which he can write about poetry and spirituality with a degree of wisdom I have rarely encountered before. He is grappling with a set of interrelated issues that have preoccupied me for many years: the value of imagination, the nature of creativity and its relationship with compassion, the purpose and nature of poetry and the light all of this might shed on mind/brain processes. I have achieved some clarity about some of that but the angle that he views these issues from will be invaluable in moving my thinking forwards, I suspect. (For more on some of my own struggles so far see the links at the bottom of the page.)

I have long been aware that imagination, rather like fire, is a good friend but a dangerous enemy. I remember vaguely, from my days as a student of English Literature, Coleridge’s distinction between fancy and imagination. I have pondered on the dichotomy the Bahá’í scriptures point up. On the one hand we have imagination as a power of the human spirit as described by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

Man has . . . spiritual powers: imagination, which conceives things; thought, which reflects upon realities; comprehension, which comprehends realities; memory, which retains whatever man imagines, thinks and comprehends.

(Some Answered Questions: page 210)

On the other hand, we have ‘vain imaginings’ that are not to be trusted.

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.

(Tablets of  Bahá’u’lláh: page 58)

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges?

He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):

I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. 1 want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.

He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):

At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . .  Fancy, to use the words of Iggy Pop, is just “The same old thing in brand new drag” ‑ the usual contents of experiences but put together in unusual, arbitrary combinations. It has all the impact of novelty, and is typified by the kind of poetry that juxtaposes a zebra, a hypodermic syringe, an orange and a stick of underarm deodorant. With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.

Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):

Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. In other words, imagination selects and transforms the data of experience, giving it new depth and purchase. … to illuminate meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.

Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.

He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.

Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end reminded me of a passage, in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which has remained with me ever since I read it more than 30 years ago. He makes a distinction between two types of stimuli (page 269):

What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. [Such stimuli invite you to become] actively interested, seeing and discovering ever-new aspects in your ‘object’ . . . by becoming more awake and more alive.

The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.

While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.

The rest of the article, to which I shall return later, concerns itself with the light which aspects of Buddhist philosophy shed on this whole problem. I shall do my best to convey what he is saying even though I’m not sure I understand it yet myself.

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The first crossword puzzle, created by Arthur ...

The First Ever Crossword Puzzle

One of the highest services [poets] perform is to reacquaint us with our true feelings which we put away in our need to manipulate our workaday world.

(Roger White from Poetry and Self-Transformation in The Creative Circle - page 3)

The combination of a butterfly mind, a long todo list and a busy calendar has made it hard for me sometimes to find a space for reading poetry. So, I made a resolution recently to choose unread books of poetry off my shelves, one at a time, to read from cover to cover no matter how long it takes.

The first poet to fall victim to this rather mechanical process is UA Fanthorpe (UA stands for Ursula Askham, by the way). I recently bought her New and Collected Poems. It’s not been easy to keep to my resolve. My creativity seems to find its most consistent expression in the fabrication of excuses over why I cannot do something so simple. I have stuck to it though. I’ve managed to stop production at the procrastination factory long enough to get to page 409 out of 508.

Along the way there have been deserts, pages and pages of poetry that failed to touch me either because my mood was not right or maybe the poems in question were less than her best. But her best poems become oases that more than compensate for the Saharan passages.

As one such oasis gives an interesting slant on my rant against puzzle poetry, I thought it well worth including.

When you understand that a river is a flower
You have begun. Friday, of course, is a man,
And a duck means nothing. Victim of gin
Is not an alcoholic, nor revolutionary
Political. Cardinals, favourite standbys,
Are always news. The Mayfair Railway’s wiry,
And the 6-50′s found in the first three villains.
Night’s a dark deranged thing. Possibly, we hear,
Perhaps, can be, are warnings; damaged isn’t serious . . .
(page 278: New & Collected Poems)
This is not a brick wall puzzle poem. It is perfectly clear what the poet is doing – she’s embedding crossword clues into her lines.

The simple ones at the start make sure we’re in no doubt about what she’s doing. Later, the clues get more testing. This group – “And the 6-50′s found in the first three villains./Night’s a dark deranged thing. Possibly, we hear,/Perhaps, can be, are warnings . .” – took a few re-readings to disentangle. Sadly I’m still stuck on the solutions to:

. . . . . . . . . . . . Cardinals, favourite standbys,
Are always news. The Mayfair Railway’s wiry . .

Any help forthcoming in the comments section below would be greatly appreciated.

Why would she include clues in this way?

Because the voice of the poem is a person with a dying child using crossword puzzles to console herself during the long hours of waiting in the hospital. The experience of the clues in the first stanza helps draw us into the this same state of mind.

This adds poignancy to such later passages as (pages 279-280):

. . . My baby’s local language
Is anguish. Shrieks are all she says.
I pray. Frank pays: neither does any good.
Only the reliable riddle that comes each morning,
Its answer the day after. (More
And more cavalry casualties? (8,6)
Mounting losses.) Although it comforts,
Each answer bears my darling’s dying too.

William Tyndale, just before being burned at t...

Tyndale's Burning at the stake

The reference to prayer is interesting. Though she mercilessly mocks superstitious and self-righteous piety along with other unappealing frailties, her ability to identify with deep and compassionate spirituality in even the most distant places is uncanny as is shown by her moving dramatic monologue in the voice of William Tyndale, whose early translations provide the foundations of the King James version of the Bible. The words are spoken as he waits for death in a cold and candleless prison cell:

But I watch too,
As once I stood on Nibley Knoll and looked
Out over moody Severn across the Forest
To the strangeness of Wales, Malvern’s blue bony hills,
And down on the dear preoccupied people
Inching along to Gloucester, the trows with their sopping decks
Running from Bristol with the weather behind them
And none of them knowing God’s meaning, what He said to them,
Save filtered through bookish lips that never learnt
To splice a rope or fill a bucket. So I watched,
And saw the souls on the road, the souls on the river,
Were the ones Jesus loved. I saw that. Now I see
The landscape of my life, and how that seeing
Has brought me to this place, and what comes after.
(Page 296: op. cit.)

Because a dying child and religious persecution are still part of our lived experience, these poems are deeply moving. The intermittent reinforcement of priceless gems like these will certainly see me to page 509 of this book and be enough to spur me on to the next, I hope.

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"Inciting Hatred: Iran's Media Campaign to Demonize Baha'is"

Last Sunday the Huffington Post published a major piece by Kishan Manocha, Director of the Office of Public Affairs of the Bahá’í Community of the United Kingdom, explaining the latest developments in Iran’s persecution of the Bahá’í community. Below are some extracts from the article.

The tide of persecution in Iran is rising. In a fresh wave of attacks against the Bahá’í community – Iran’s largest religious minority – three women were arrested on spurious charges of activity against national security following terrifying raids on 16 homes in the city of Rasht. In Semnan, around 10 Bahá’í-owned shops were sealed up by authorities. Business licences were cancelled. Such tactics are not random; they are moves in an ongoing campaign to impoverish Iranian Bahá’ís and make their lives untenable.

These abuses underline the recent statement of Dr Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, that Iran’s persecution of the Bahá’ís is among the most “extreme manifestations of religious intolerance and persecution” in the world today.

Experience shows that Tehran is shrewd, vindictive, and dishonest enough, to ramp-up persecution while the world’s attention is diverted. Syria and the nuclear question must not push Iran’s human rights tragedy off the agenda.

Oppression in Iran is widespread; women’s activists, political activists, Kurds, Sunnis, others whose views are not shared by the state, and even the lawyers who defend them, suffer at the hands of the government’s security and legal apparatus. The recent sentencing to death for apostasy of Youcef Nardakhani, a Christian pastor, on the basis of his Muslim ancestry, is a stark example of the contempt with which the government holds the rights of its people. The rank hypocrisy of President Ahmadinejad’s recent assertion of Iran’s “ethics, humanity, solidarity and justice” on the world stage is plain to see.

For the Bahá’ís – a community comprising adherents from all areas and strata of Iranian society – new and mounting afflictions are being endured. Seven Bahá’í educators, who were teaching young Bahá’ís denied access to universities as a matter of policy, were sentenced in September to jail terms of four or five years apiece. The charge – in effect, that they threatened state security by offering education in the sciences and arts – is patently absurd. It cannot be seen as anything other than a blatant act of religious discrimination and a calculated manoeuvre to make the community’s existence unviable. Iran’s prohibition on the attendance of foreign diplomats at the trial, and its refusal to provide written documentation of the verdict, betrays only its own guilt.

Little wonder, then, that on 3 November, the UN Human Rights Committee criticized Iran’s non-compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the country is a state party. An Iranian delegation protested its innocence, claiming that, “no Iranian citizen enjoys priority over others due to his/her race, religion or particular language.”

. . . . . What is more, the government incites hatred against the Bahá’ís from the wider population. The Bahá’í International Community last month released a report on a media campaign that demonizes and vilifies the Bahá’ís. Sanctioned by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, who identified the Bahá’ís as “enemies of Islam” in a speech on 19 October 2010, Bahá’ís are branded variously as “others”, as spies, as the promoters of obscene immorality and armed rebellion, and as the controllers of foreign media such as the BBC. They are the scapegoats for every social ill. Invoking a gross distortion of history, the Bahá’ís are portrayed as a “misguided sect” or as agents of Western and Zionist imperialism. Often they are depicted as ghouls. They are linked to Satanists, the Shah’s secret police, and other organisations inimical to the state. And yet Bahá’í teachings promote peace and unity. Bahá’ís are spiritually obliged to abide by the law. Eschewing opposition to the government, and refusing the mantle of victimhood, they strive as they have always done to contribute to the betterment of their society.

Iran’s intention to extinguish the Bahá’í community is clear. More than 200 Bahá’ís have been executed for their beliefs since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. International scrutiny and pressure has, for now, forced Iran to change tactics; but the government’s campaign to squeeze the life out of the Bahá’í community is otherwise escalating and taking on new forms. It is attempting nothing less than a bloodless elimination of a significant section of Iran’s citizens. . . . .

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The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.

(Albert Einstein)

Thanks to Stephanie West Allen once more I’ve found a YouTube video of Iain McGilchrist, still at the RSA but not illustrated this time. Perhaps as a result it’s a longer talk and covers more of the ground so brilliantly explained in his book. Watch out for the Einstein quote!

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But 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.

(‘Abdu’l-BaháSome Answered Questions, page 208)

Over the period of this blog’s existence I have circled round a number of related issues (see links at the end of this post): mindfulness (Seigel’s book or ACT for example), attentive practice (Syed’s book Bounce and Schwartz on the mind/brain relationship, hemisphere differences (McGilchrist), mindsets (Dweck), adult brain plasticity (Schwartz again), so it was great, thanks to Stephanie West Allen, to get the headsup about a YouTube talk by Iain Stevenson, someone who is an well informed  across most of those areas. I’ve embedded the video at the end of this post. His delivery lacks the charisma of his namesake, Ken, but there is real substance to what he is saying as is born out by the transcript of an interview with him about his latest book, Mind Sculpture, which I also latched onto thanks to West Allen.

It all goes to show that there’s a great deal we can do to build a better brain (and build a better world at the same time, by the way). Much of this work, for me, bears out the notion that the mind can change the brain and as a result lends credence to the possibility that it is not reducible to it: it becomes reasonable then to think that the mind is indeed in some way independent of the brain.

Whether or not you want to go quite that far, and Stevenson might well not, there is much food for thought in both his interview and his talk. The interview covers a lot of the ground I’ve referred to and what is missing is captured in his talk. I won’t spoil the fun by rehearsing it all here. I’ll just say there’s something for everyone including the old and decrepit like me. In the interview, for example, his words on retirement resonated with me most strongly:

Ooh, retirement is a terrible thing, unless you are retiring for something. If you are retiring, saying “It’s all getting too much for me and I just want to put my feet up”, then I think you’d have to be careful or at least you’d have to make plans to be doing something else. I guess in Britain something like 40 per cent of all people over 55 are no longer working — it may not be quite that but it is some enormous number, one of the biggest in Europe — so there are a lot of people who in a sense are stopping work extremely early in their lives. If I had to retire early, I wouldn’t call it retirement even to myself. I’d call it my new career. Now that career might not involve money, it might not involve traditional career ideas. It might be that my new career will be walking or exploring or writing or gardening. I think you have to represent it to yourself as something positive. . . .  There is some evidence that not all but a proportion of age-related cognitive deficits is attributable to the fact that we are not engaging in the learning that we had to do when we were younger. You can’t write off all age-related deficits like that, but a proportion is due to being out of the habit of learning new things.

He has more to say about preserving our faculties in the video.

Also in the video, Robertson describes an ancient and familiar mnemonic device that goes back to Cicero. Help your memory by linking what you want to recall to aspects of a familiar scene, such as a room in your house or the route to work. It’s sold as primarily a visual tool. This makes it virtually useless to me as I have almost no visual memory at all.

When we leave someone’s house after the first visit my wife will say, “Did you see that lovely vase on their side table?”

I’ll invariably reply, “What side table?”

So, I thought this part of his talk would be a write off. But I was wrong. It gave me an idea of how I could use my strongest modality.

He describes memorising a shopping list by making the front door a Kellog’s cornflakes packet and then stepping onto the path and nearly tumbling on the potatoes strewn over it. He was using the kinaesthetic aspects as an add-on to the visual but I immediately saw their potential for me. My memory for movement and sensation is tenacious and I can create a strong sense of such movements from nothing. This could really really work for me. I doubt it’ll get me to the point where I can throw away my iPhone and buy a basic mobile, but I’m going to see just how far it’ll get me with presentations and such.

I expect most of us will find something useful amongst his insights about the brain.

Related articles:

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There is a lot of harmless fun to be had by debunking some of the more fatuous ideas floating around about the brain-mind system. The moon and Mozart have both been given almost paranormal powers over our psyches.

The Education of Achilles (ca. 1772) by James ...

The Education of Achilles

In a recent article a rather more complex issue has been lumped in with these obvious misinterpretations of reality and this is what has triggered this post. Otherwise why else would I return again to this same territory? Please don’t answer that.

Yes, you’ve guessed. It’s the master and his emissary all over again. The piece on the BBC website, trailing a programme that was due to come out on Radio 4 later that day, posted the following:

THE LEFT BRAIN VERSUS THE RIGHT BRAIN

Anatomically, the brain is divided into two halves – the left hemisphere and the right one. There is some division of labour between them.

“There are really big differences between the left and the right sides of the brain,” says Prof Scott.

“But that’s never what people actually mean when you hear the terms used out in a wider discourse. That’s very frustrating.”

From some self-improvement books and business management courses, you might think the two hemispheres are in effect two separate entities.

The left is portrayed as the seat of logic and rationality. The right is described as the font of intuition and creativity. Therefore, if you are a logical person, you use your left brain more. If you are more touchy-feely and artistic, you are right-brained.

According to the myth, we would all be more successful and fulfilled people if we learnt to tap the full potential of both hemispheres.

Prof Scott says individuals do differ in the way they think through problems and reflect on the world, but this has nothing to do with different balances of power between their hemispheres.

“Some people have really good visual imagery. Some people have good auditory imagery. There is lots of variation out there in how we take information in and process it.

“But boiling it down into a left brain ‘logical’ and right brain ‘creative’ approach does not follow from what we see in how the brain operates. Also it also suggests you could be using one hemisphere more than the other and that’s not really how it works.”

I’m not wanting to argue with most of that. I just don’t want that final paragraph in particular to fudge an important issue.

It would be all too easy to suppose that it disposes of McGilchrist’s subtle case about our culture and the way that it over-emphases the strengths of left-brain functioning at the expense of the value of the right-brain’s less verbal and therefore less easily communicable insights about reality. (For much more on this see links below.) I don’t think that this is what the writer is actually saying but it could be interpreted like that and we could all sit back comfortably and continue to mistake our maps for reality even in the face of the disconfirmation whispered to us by our own disquieting intimations.

McGilcrist’s thesis is very clear and compellingly documented (The Master and his Emissary: page 3):

My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture.

We lose track of that insight at our peril. We need to operate out of both parts of our mind, but we all too often don’t. There are ways, though, of helping language preserve its links with the ambiguity and flux of what’s really out there (op.cit.page 115).

Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.

Metaphor is all too often lumped together with myth not only as something we can safely ignore but something no one but an idiot would pay any attention to anyway. It’s interesting that myth has come to mean a misguided fantasy rather than a richly figurative story that helps us understand what could not otherwise be explained.

So, not only does the case put here disturb me somewhat. It’s title points to its Achilles heel. And please don’t tell me the tales of the fall of Troy have nothing to teach us because Achilles couldn’t be what some myths say he was.

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