Archive for January, 2014

This makes interesting watching. It probably needs to be taken in the context of such data as Paul Collier adduces in his excellent books The Bottom Billion and Wars, Guns and Votes, but Nye deserves to be heard in the points he makes rather more dispassionately than some of those who have commented on his video at YouTube.

Collier’s points, however, cannot be lightly dismissed either:

Without aid, cumulatively the countries of the bottom billion would have become much poorer than they are today. Aid has been a holding operation preventing things from falling apart. . . . . The statistical evidence generally suggests that aid is subject to what is called ‘diminishing returns.’ . . . The first million dollar is more productive than the second, and so on.

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Metamorphosis v2

For source of image see link

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I know you will say I brought this on myself. Nobody asked me to tackle this issue in public. I have only myself to blame. I wanted to know more clearly what is meant by Bahá’u’lláh’s expression ‘ the understanding heart.’  I decided to go public with my struggles to do so. Now I’m not so sure that was such a great idea after all. I’m not at all convinced I can deliver in a way that advances anyone’s understanding more than a few millimetres at best. Some people may even feel I’m taking them back a step or two.

Anyway I said I would have a go, so let’s get on with it.

I have so far been tackling the easy bit. I’ve clarified that the heart in the sense Bahá’u’lláh meant could not be reduced to our gut feelings, or possibly even to our feelings of any surface kind.

Buddha in Blue jeans-1

Downloadable at this link

Interestingly, Tai Sheridan touches on this distinction in his pamphlet Buddha in Blue Jeans (page 7): ‘Your feelings are your heart and gut response to the world.’

The heart obviously does not mean our thoughts, though the thoughts we have, which relate to our beliefs about the world and what it means, can trigger a whole host of diverse feelings. Given that our view of the world is probably a kind of cultural trance, it’s not likely to be the pathway to our understanding heart.

What we discover about the nature of the understanding heart should not be too grandiose, that’s for sure. Though wiser than our other faculties, it will be a fallible and limited organ nonetheless. Bahá’u’lláh makes that abundantly clear. We can’t even use it to understand a key aspect of our own mind let alone more abstruse mysteries:

Consider the rational faculty with which God hath endowed the essence of man. . . . . . Wert thou to ponder in thine heart, from now until the end that hath no end, and with all the concentrated intelligence and understanding which the greatest minds have attained in the past or will attain in the future, this divinely ordained and subtle Reality, . . .  thou wilt fail to comprehend its mystery or to appraise its virtue. Having recognized thy powerlessness to attain to an adequate understanding of that Reality which abideth within thee, thou wilt readily admit the futility of such efforts as may be attempted by thee, or by any of the created things, to fathom the mystery of the Living God . . . . . . This confession of helplessness which mature contemplation must eventually impel every mind to make is in itself the acme of human understanding, and marketh the culmination of man’s development.

(Gleanings: page 164-166: LXXXIII)

He leaves us with the paradox that we would we wiser to recognise our limitations in this respect. This may be a good place to start in our investigation of what an understanding heart would be like if we were aware of it. We’d know what we couldn’t know. We’d have a realistic sense of humility in the face of the unknowable. We would probably not be saying that it could not exist because I can’t measure or physically detect it. 

What then do we need to do to get closer to a state of mind that might allow us to get in touch with our understanding heart, which Gurdjieff in his way, and Bahá’u’lláh in His, assure us that we potentially can do?

This is where we leave the easy bit behind. Bahá’u’lláh writes:

When a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading unto the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. . . . . . He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 162)

We are in difficult territory here. First of all, we have the need to dispense with every trace of love as well as hate. At the same time we have to take account of what Bahá’u’lláh says in other places. For example: ‘In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire loosen not thy hold.’ This is from the Persian Hidden Words (PHW: 3).

Red rose 2

I am clearly unable to give an authoritative explanation of how these two sets of statements can be reconciled. They clearly indicate that we must not be too simplistic here. They probably suggest that doing verbal pyrotechnics would not be as good an idea as meditating upon these two quotations for a long period of time until they sink into the depths of our consciousness as a result of which we may come to benefit from the whisperings of our understanding heart if we are patient and attentive enough.

For now, all I can say is that it reactivated the same puzzlement in me as when I read how Buddhism suggests we have to relinquish even the desire for enlightenment as we meditate if we are ever to achieve it and the compassion and wisdom that are its fruits. How was I supposed to persist for years in meditation without any desire for what was supposed to result?

Bahá’u’lláh’s phrase ‘the rose of love’ suggests that He might be pointing us towards the possibility that there are many kinds of love but only one that would be compatible with realising the truth. It feels to me that the many feelings of ‘love’ that I have experienced, even when I have thought it was the love for God, might well be the nettles and thistles of love which the Kitáb-i-Íqán seems to be telling me I have to weed out of my heart. The same pattern may be true also of the ‘nightingale of affection and desire:’ I’m stuck with the crows and ravens perhaps, not even the robins.

I could of course be hopelessly off the mark, though my inference here is given some credibility by the fact that the comparison between the nightingale and the Messenger of God is often made in the Bahá’í Writings, for example: ‘ the Nightingale of Paradise singeth upon the twigs of the Tree of Eternity, with holy and sweet melodies, proclaiming to the sincere ones the glad tidings of the nearness of God,’ and one rose in particular is described in exceptional terms:

In the Rose Garden of changeless splendour a Flower hath begun to bloom, compared to which every other flower is but a thorn, and before the brightness of Whose glory the very essence of beauty must pale and wither.

What is unarguable is that the path I have to tread to get in touch with my understanding heart will be long and arduous, though infinitely rewarding.

I am reminded of Margaret Donaldson‘s book Human Minds. Part of her contention in this deeply rewarding book is to argue that our modern so-called developed society has chosen to value and promote the arduously won insights of mathematics and the scientific method  over the equally arduously won insights of the meditative traditions. In both cases most of us do not test or investigate in depth for ourselves the insights won: we simply trust the experts.  

We also fail to appreciate that the arduously won insights of the meditative traditions are equally testable and replicable as those of hard science for those prepared to devote enough hours to the acquisition of the requisite skills.  Because our society encourages the latter, we have scientific adepts in abundance: because it is suspicious of the former, accomplished mystics are hard to come by. We are out of balance and will eventually pay the ultimate price if we are not already beginning to do so.

Bahá’u’lláh has no doubt about the benefits of the path of search he advocates:

Then will the manifold favors and outpouring grace of the holy and everlasting Spirit confer such new life upon the seeker that he will find himself endowed with a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind. . . . . . Gazing with the eye of God, he will perceive within every atom a door that leadeth him to the stations of absolute certitude.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 196)


William Blake (for source of image see link)

We are in the world of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

And Wordsworth’s ‘sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.’ When mystics and so many poets agree we would have to be arrogant indeed to dismiss out of hand the possible truth of what they describe.

Donaldson also refers interestingly to the views of Iris Murdoch on the value of art and imagery to this process of deepening understanding (op.cit.: page 230):

Murdoch . . . . . defends art as giving us ‘intermediate images’ and argues, correctly I think, that most of us cannot do without the ‘high substitute for the spiritual and the speculative life,’ that it provides. But she also recognises that images can lead to a full stop if they are taken as being ‘for real.’

This sounds like the mistake we all might be making, which is to take what we sense for what truly is.  Basic science scuppers that in any case. Colour is not in the object, nor is it even in the eye, but in the mind of the beholder. We translate a particular wavelength of light into red, blue, green and so on. Red could just as easily have been experienced as blue. The colour allocation is arbitrary and not inherent in the object.

Science even carries us as far as understanding that solid objects have more empty space than matter in them. It is the force that particles exert that creates the illusion of solidity. It is not then quite such a huge leap of imagination to suppose that atoms could be doorways to a deeper reality if only we could detach ourselves sufficiently from the delusions and attachments of consensus reality.

Where then do we turn from here in order to progress further in this task?

As the heart, in the sense we are using the word, is a metaphor it is perhaps not surprising that the best way of enhancing our understanding of the term might be through other metaphors. We’re at the cusp where mysticism and poetry intersect, it seems.

We’ve been here before on this blog, with my encounter with R S Thomas. I found his anthology of religious verse published in the 60s, and read in his introduction (page 9):

The mystic fails to mediate God adequately insofar as he is not a poet. The poet, with possibly less immediacy of apprehension, shows his spiritual concern and his spiritual nature through the medium of language, the supreme symbol. The presentation of religious experience is the most inspired language in poetry. This is not a definition of poetry, but a description of how the communication of religious experience best operates.

That is where we look next time, and given that Bahá’u’lláh was both a mystic and an accomplished poet it should be a fruitful but perhaps demanding experience.

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Learning to Fly v3

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3rd 'I' v5

The title of this post suggests we are in for a painful operation. Don’t worry though. We can manage this one without anaesthetic.  For some, the technical terms and psycho-jargon in this post will be an anaesthetic in themselves in any case.

Though I find the model that Tart explains, based on his understanding of Georges Gurdjieff, has considerable appeal, I feel that it needs tweaking significantly in terms of the material aspects of body, emotional and intellectual brains and even more significant modification in terms of the spiritual dimension. This post is focusing on the brain aspect of things.

To tackle this I am unashamedly drawing upon the insights of  experts in the field of neuropsychology. What they say goes a long way to confirm Gurdjieff’s sense of how things are but modifies it significantly in my view.

The Biological Foundations of Emotion


Joseph Ledoux – for source of image see link

When you start to examine the neurophysiology of feelings it gets quite hard to separate body from emotion as Gurdjieff seems to do, at least in Tart’s explanation of his ideas.  Most of what we term ’emotion’ is generated by brain centres that go back to our evolutionary origins and cannot really be separated from our body. It is easier to see them as ‘gut feelings’ rather than anything higher.

Take a classic text on this subject – Ledoux’s The Emotional Brain. He writes (pages 112-13):

. . . . modern researchers have gone into remote areas of the world to firmly establish with scientific methods that at least some emotions have fairly universal modes of expression, especially in the face. On the basis of this kind of evidence, the late Sylvan Tomkins proposed the existence of eight basic emotions: surprise, interest, joy, rage, fear, disgust, shame, and anguish. These are said to represent innate, patterned responses that are controlled by “hardwired” brain systems. . . . Paul Ekman has a shorter list, consisting of six basic emotions with universal and facial expression: surprise, happiness, anger, fear, disgust and sadness.

People such as Plutchik, he explains, have built on these basic emotions by suggesting they blend to make more complex emotions. It would complicate the picture unnecessarily to go into that in detail here. In any case the idea of more complex emotions being merely blends of more basic ones does nothing to weaken the case I am seeking to make.

The full picture of how sub-cortical brain structures trigger feelings that relate to our physical survival is too complex to go into here. The link that follows will give you a very brief overview if you are interested (The Emotional Centres of the Brain). What I want to do is provide enough information to support my contention that such structures exclusively generate our ‘gut’ feelings which are aimed largely at enabling us to survive long enough to reproduce and protect our offspring until they can do the same. Even if these are blended at higher levels of our brain it would be a mistake to see them as a likely source for impulses that would lead us to transcend our physical nature and tune into a more spiritual dimension.  For that we need to look elsewhere.

Very often if not always the amygdala is involved in all that is going on. Ledoux writes (page 168-69):

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning. It is where trigger stimuli do their triggering.

It is worth while taking a little time to see where some key survival emotions are triggered, even if we have to simplify a little for the sake of brevity. For us, as social beings, survival is not simply a question of reading our physical environment well: we need to be able to interpret our social world effectively also.

I quote at some length from my sources here with little modification, except abbreviating them. The brain structures referred to are all sub-cortical and ancient in evolutionary terms unless otherwise stated.

a. of Anger


Daniel Goleman – for source of image see link

Daniel Goleman’s popular book Emotional Intelligence explains what goes on inside our brain and body when anger occurs, causing us to have a flood of angry emotions.  Goleman outlines research undertaken by Psychologist Dolf Zillman who has undertaken much research relating to anger and rage.  Zillman has found that the universal trigger for anger begins with a sense of endangerment to our lives or the lives of those close to us.  This does not necessarily mean physical endangerment, but also includes symbolic threats to self-esteem and dignity such as being verbally insulted, being patronised or put down, and the frustration that comes when we can’t complete a task or goal.

Upon the initial trigger, catecholamines are released by the limbic system (amygdala) which immediately put the body into a “fight or flight” mode – that is, preparing the body for some form of action.  Additionally, the trigger also makes the amygdala alert the nervous system to be ready for possible action. This effect lasts much longer than the initial surge of catecholamines, keeping the emotional brain on stand-by for potential arousal, should we need it, further down the line.  This is why people are often more easily annoyed or quick to anger if they have experienced an angry situation recently.

I recognise that Baumeister’s concept of the depletion of will power is also relevant here but I am seeking not to complicate the picture anymore than is necessary to make my basic point,

b. of Disgust

Wicker et al (Neuron, Vol. 40, 655–664, October 30, 2003) performed an fMRI study in which participants inhaled smells producing a strong feeling of disgust. The same participants watched video clips showing the facial expression of disgust. Observing such faces and feeling disgust activated the same sites in the anterior insula and to a lesser extent in the anterior cingulate cortex (see The Emotional Centres of the Brain for an explanation of some of these brain areas). Thus, just as observing hand actions activates the observer’s motor representation of that action, observing an emotion activates the neural representation of that emotion. This finding provides a unifying mechanism for understanding the behaviors of others.

As other important work indicates (follow the links from this post to the work of Chua and Hauser), disgust is an emotion at work in pogroms against out-groups where labelling them as cockroaches, as happened in Rwanda, makes killing them far easier. They are not only no longer human: they are also a disgusting pest that justifies extermination.

rwanda genocide tutsi skulls

Rwanda Genocide – Tutsi Skulls (for source of image see link)

c. of Shame

Petra Michl et al (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access published November 19, 2012: Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study) used a functional magnetic resonance imaging paradigm to look for emotion-specific differences in functional brain activity within a healthy German sample, using shame- and guilt-related stimuli and neutral stimuli. Activations were found for both of these emotions in the temporal lobe. Specific activations were found for shame in the frontal lobe (medial and inferior frontal gyrus), and for guilt in the amygdala and insula. These results, as well as those I haven’t quoted to avoid jargon shock, suggest that shame and guilt share some neural networks, as well as having individual areas of activation. It can be concluded that frontal, temporal and limbic areas play a prominent role in the generation of moral feelings.

This will prove an important consideration when we are looking at possible sources of spiritual understanding. The Bahá’í Writings suggest, in line with these findings, that conscience is not innate but conditioned.

See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 105, pp. 132–33)

d. of Fear

Building on the role of the amygdala, Ledoux explains further (page 174)

the remarkable fact is that at the level of behavior, defence against danger is achieved in many different ways in different species, yet the amygdala’s role is constant. It is this correspondence across species that no doubt allows diverse behaviours to achieve the same evolutionary function in different animals. This functional equivalence in neural correspondence applies to many vertebrate brains, including human brains. When it comes to detecting and responding to danger, the brain just hasn’t changed much. In some ways we are emotional lizards. I’m quite confident in telling you that studies of fear reactions in rats tell us a great deal about how fear mechanisms work in our brains as well.


Spiny Lizard (for source of image see link)

So what?

I may have loaded the dice of my argument rather by placing this quote at the end of the sequence, but I do think there is a case for saying that most of what we regard as our key emotions are reptilian in origin, not even mammalian.

This has all been a necessary but rather long-winded way of preparing the ground for my next post, which attempts to contend that the love spoken of in spiritual texts in not reducible to such feelings as we have looked at so far, anymore than the wisdom found there is the same as intellectual understanding.

So, in my view, even at this basic empirical level, Gurdjieff has separated what should be seen as essentially the same, i.e. the emotional and the body brains. Even more crucially, as we will see, he has possibly separated love from wisdom in hypothesising that there is both a higher emotional and a higher intellectual centre in the spiritual realm. Until next time, then, for those who are still awake!

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An Iranian woman stands in front of a Pa

Two days ago the Huffington Post published a profoundly moving article by Payyam Akhavan on the suffering of people in Iran. Below is an extract: for the full article see link.

What does this reality of suffering mean for the future of Iran? Where is its promise and power in the face of hatred and violence? The answer comes from the simple voice of a grieving mother that has lost her children. The Mothers of Khavaran, the Mothers of Laleh Park, remind us of a different conception of power, like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who demanded answers from the Argentine military dictatorship for their “disappeared” children. What power can stand in the way of a mourning mother?

Consider the story of Esmat Vatanparast. She was one of the approximately 100 witnesses before the Iran People’s Tribunal — an unprecedented truth commission held in London and The Hague in 2012, at the request of the Mothers of Khavaran. Its purpose was to ensure that the stories of the victims could be told to the Iranian nation and to the world so we learn from the past and build a better future.

There was one moment when all understood the power of empathy to heal us as a nation. As Mother Esmat told the unspeakably terrible story of the many family members she had lost in the mass-executions of 1988, tears streamed from her eyes. Almost everybody in the large audience was crying along with her — green reformists,  monarchists, leftists, nationalists, Kurds and Arabs, Muslims and Baha’is, and so on. The entire Iranian nation was represented in that room and and all were feeling the pain of Mother Esmat. Nobody asked if her 11-year-old nephew, who was hanged together with his father, was of this or that ideology or religion.

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