Archive for October, 2015


On the way to the venue the first morning

Last weekend I was fortunate to be able to participate in a meditation weekend at Builth Wells. The experience was organised so that three facilitators shared their sense of how the meditative faculty might be facilitated with three groups of about fifteen people who moved from facilitator to facilitator over the course of the weekend.  Hopefully everyone found something from among the experiences shared that helped them move further down the road of exploring this special state of mind. I thought it might be worth sharing the basic notes used to structure the sessions I was involved in. So, here they are with a few pictures thrown in for good measure. 

First Session

Overview (15 minutes)

The wine of renunciation must needs be quaffed, the lofty heights of detachment must needs be attained, and the meditation referred to in the words “One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship” must needs be observed . . . .”

(Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 238 US edition, page 152 UK edition)

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No. 68)

This weekend gives an opportunity to explore different approaches to what is usually referred to as meditation. Many years ago, when I was exploring Buddhism, I discovered that it might not be wise to advocate any one form of meditation as suitable for everyone. A school of Tibetan Buddhism had an approach that surprised me at the time. Each novice monk or nun who enrolled in this order was each given their own unique meditative path on the grounds that no two people will benefit from exactly the same process. Each mantra and each mandala were created specially for each acolyte.

The Bahá’í position is in part the same. We do not teach any particular form of meditation though we are all encouraged to meditate. We each have to discover our own best path.

As a psychologist I am well aware that we all differ in crucial respects that will affect our preferred meditative path. Some of us are very visual and can summon up vivid pictures in our minds – I’m not one of those for sure; others respond most strongly to hearing with a feeling for the sounds of words even when they repeat them silently in their minds; others are labelled kinaesthetic, and I am one such, and respond best of all to sensation and movement, so exercises such as following the breath work well for them.

The aim, though, of all approaches to meditation is to enable us to quieten the mind, separate our consciousness from the constant film show and chatter we have learned to mistake for who we really are, and gain increased awareness of our true spiritual core, hidden behind these veils.

One of the images used in the Bahá’í Writings to help us understand this is the mirror: it is interesting therefore that we find the word ‘reflection’ also used to describe the skill we are seeking to learn. Not only do we have to cleanse the mirror of dirt before it can reflect exactly what is before it, we need to understand as well that if the mind is like a mirror it is also never what is reflected in it.

In this way we can avoid two deadly traps.

When we have turned the mirror of our hearts and minds towards worldly things we can make the mistake of assuming that the reflection of this material version of reality is who we really are and what the world is really like. When we do this we are caught in a trance that keeps us shackled to materialism.

When we have cleansed the mirror of our heart, and it is turned towards the world of the spirit and has begun to reflect the glory we find there, we can make the mistake of thinking we are glorious. The pride that follows will destroy us spiritually. We have to realise we are not the glory. We are only a channel for this spiritual power, just like a mirror that shines the sun’s light into a dark cave.

As you may have already worked out by now, the meditative approaches I will be sharing play to my relative strengths: they involve sensations and sounds, especially words. If, by trying these out patiently over a reasonable period of time, they clearly do not work for you, that is not a problem. There will be an approach that works for you somewhere, and hopefully you will find pointers in that direction during this weekend.

I just would like to add that in the Bahá’í Faith we don’t see this kind of private reflection as the only spiritual discipline. We also believe that when people come together, whether as family, as friends or in some form of work environment, and consult with one another to solve a problem or make a plan, this consultation works best when it draws on the same state of detachment as we can develop in meditation, and when it does it is a spiritual process too. We cannot compare our different views of reality effectively and develop a new understanding if we are so attached to what we think and feel we are unable to hear and learn from what others say.

As a result of the consistent practice of these twin disciplines, in a context of awareness that all living things are deeply interconnected, we will be able to achieve a level of consciousness that increasingly corresponds to what Bahá’u’lláh describes in the second quote at the head of this hand-out, where ‘the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment’ are manifested. We will then be more capable of effectively addressing the problems that face us all at this crisis point in our civilisation.

First Experience to Test the Water (20 minutes maximum)

First we need to spend a few moments practising tuning into our body and our breathing so as to begin to process of calming down so we can have the best chance of silencing the chatter in our heads. [Spend a few moments body scanning and following the breath to settle the mind.]

Next, can we all remember the words of part of a song, poem, prayer or piece of prose, which is positive and uplifting? [If so, spend five minutes or so with everyone attempting to maintain focus as they silently repeat the words in their minds.]

Finally for this part, please can we share how that worked for us?

Beginning to Learn How to Separate Consciousness from its Contents

(30 minutes)

At the beginning I mentioned that one goal of meditation, and a very important one, is for us to experience the fact that we are not what we think, feel and intend, anymore than we are who or what we have come to believe we are. This is easier said than done, as I have discovered over the years.

To help us take the first step on this long ladder I have borrowed and adapted an exercise from Psychosynthesis. It has a rather off-putting title: disidentification. Basically, all it means is spending a few moments every day repeating to ourselves a description of the true reality: we are not our thoughts, feelings or intentions. We are instead a centre of pure consciousness and will, as they describe it. [Give out the Disidentification handout adapted from Psychosynthesis to separate out clearly what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá regards as three separate powers of the soul: knowing (here expressed as the basic ability, thought, that rises at its highest to wisdom), loving (here feeling whose highest expression might be termed compassion), and willing (whose highest expression might be the disposition towards altruistic action).Separating the Mirror from its ReflectionsExplain that before we start the exercise itself it is important to spend a few moments grounding ourselves by body scanning and/or following the breath. Spend 15 minutes on this. The link with developing what is termed detachment is fairly clear, I hope.

At the end, we can take a few minutes to share our experiences and reflect upon them.

Using a Mantram (25 Minutes)

There are many ways we could now choose to help us move nearer to the goal of achieving awareness of pure consciousness. As I explained earlier, my own meditative experiences have focused on words and sensations. Following the breath has always helped me quieten my mind down preparatory to using other powerful techniques.

This next method is deceptively simple but very effective, in my view.

We all have heard of the mantram, I’m sure: a short phrase or even a single word or sound that is repeated silently in the mind for significant periods of time in meditative practice and then can be used in other situations to help us calm down and become grounded. An excellent explanation of this method can be found in Eknath Easwaran’s rewarding book on meditation: Meditation: common sense directions for an uncommon life.

He first of all makes clear that he does not see meditation as a kind of hypnosis nor any kind of navel gazing or rumination (page 9):

[Meditation] is, rather, a systematic technique for taking hold of and concentrating to the utmost degree our latent mental power. It consists in training the mind, especially attention and the will, so that we can set forth from the surface level of consciousness and journey into the very depths.

He speaks of ‘the great discovery’ (page 24-25):

As long as we identify with the body and the mind we bob around on the surface level of consciousness, chasing after the fleeting attractions of life outside us.… now, in profound meditation, we drop below all that and become concentrated on one thing and one thing alone: our true identity. In this absorption, this great gathering within, we break through the surface of consciousness and plummet deep, deep into our real nature.

He recommends the mantram as something portable, that need not be confined to the quietness of a room set aside for meditation. He explains the origin of the term (page 59): the word is linked to ‘the roots man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” The mantram, repeated regularly for a long time, enables us to cross the sea of the mind. An apt image, for the mind very much resembles the sea. Ever-changing, it is placid one day, turbulent the next.’

For him, the mantram links us to (page 60) ‘the supreme Reality,’ whatever we choose to call it:

What matters greatly is that we discover – experientially, not intellectually – that this supreme Reality rests at the inmost centre of our being. . . . the mantram stands as a perpetual reminder that such perfection is within all of us, waiting to flow through our thoughts, words, and deeds.

He feels that (page 70) ‘the mantram works best when we repeat it silently in the mind with as much concentration as possible.’ He’s not in favour of counting with beads or linking it to the breath because it divides attention. He also feels strongly that once we have chosen our mantram we must stick with and not keep chopping and changing it.

In the Bahá’í Faith we are given something we can use in this way if we wish. It is what we call the Greatest Name: Alláh-u-Abhá (‘God the All-Glorious’). We are required to repeat this 95 times every day: it is an obligation to do so. To then also use it as our mantram, a separate though related spiritual skill, seems an obvious step to take, though we are free, of course, to choose something else if we wish.

Those of us here who come from other spiritual traditions, or perhaps no spiritual tradition at all, will have to give some thought to what can be used instead. It is important that, at the very least, the word(s) or sounds(s) chosen do not have any negative connotations. What are for us neutral or relatively meaningless sounds such as ‘Om’[1], can none the less be effective, at least to a degree, as they serve to give the distracted mind something to hold onto to help it turn away from all the chatter and become calmer and quieter.

Words with spiritual meaning for us are preferable, as they also have the effect of facilitating the connection we are seeking to make with the truest core of our being. If words are used they should be no more than a very short phrase such as Easwaran suggests (pages 65-66): Ave Maria, the Hebrew Barukh attah Adonai (‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord), from Islam Allah u Akbar (God is Great), Lord Jesus Christ, or Om mani padme hum (‘the jewel in the heart of the lotus’). Easwaran feels strongly (page 70) that we should ‘choose a mantram that has been sanctified by long use – one of proven power, that has enabled many men and women before [us] to realize the unity of life.’

For the purposes of this experience it is fine to make a provisional choice that can be changed later.

A key point to remember is that repeating a mantram is not like lifting a weight in an exercise regime. The repeated lifting of a weight will strengthen our muscle even if, at the same time, we are thinking about what we had for breakfast or the film we watched last night. Not so with a mantram. If we repeat it on automatic pilot while our mind wanders among the daisies there will be no benefit.

We must insist that our mind focuses on every repetition. If it has wandered we must bring it back, not in anger but firmly nonetheless. The best way to make our minds understand that we mean business is to build in a cost, such as adding on extra minutes of meditation time for every period of distraction longer than brief moment. [Then follows about 10 minutes practice.]

At the end we need to reflect upon how the experience went.

Meditation weekend school

Second Session

Using a Memorised Passage (45 minutes)

This may prove to be the hardest part of this set of experiences. It involves using a passage that we have learned by heart. Our culture tends to despise rote learning and describes it as learning ‘parrot fashion.’ (Not that I have anything against parrots. They’re very bright for a bird.) As a result many of us nowadays do not feel confident when trying to learn anything by heart, and are probably not very motivated to do so anyway as we think it a waste of time.

Parroting facts may really not be very useful if we do not understand their underlying meaning as a result of careful, creative and independent thought. Spiritual words though operate on many different levels, as Easwaran explains (page 9):

An inspirational passage turns our thoughts to what is permanent, to those things that put a final end to insecurity. As we drive it deeper and deeper, the words come to life within us, transforming all our thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds.

This not to say that we can keep on using the same passage indefinitely (pages 39-40):

Using the same passage over and over is fine at the outset, but in time, the words may seem stale. You may find yourself repeating them mechanically, without sensitivity to their meaning. I suggest you memorise new pieces from [various religious] traditions so you will have a varied repertoire. As you commit a new passage to memory, it is good to spend some time reflecting on the meaning of the words and their practical application to your life. But please don’t do this while you are actually meditating.

He adds another crucial piece of advice (ibid.):

. . . avoid choosing passages that are negative, that take a harsh and deprecatory view of the body, of our past mistakes, or of life in the world. We want to draw forth our positive side, our higher Self . . . .

We need to spend a few moments now quietly deciding what passage we are going to use. Then, after grounding ourselves as usual, we can begin 10-15 minutes of meditation on the passage we have chosen. How should we do this? As Easwaran points out (page 32), we have to find the pace that suits us best: ‘the space between words is a matter for each person to work out individually.… If the words come too close together, you will not be slowing down the mind… If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together…’

If we find our mind has wandered, we should, without getting irritated with ourselves, begin the passage again at the beginning. This teaches the mind that it cannot get away with wandering: there is a price to pay.

In these early stages we should consider ourselves very successful if we can meditate in this way upon a text for five minutes without losing our concentration. Our aim over a period of months could be to increase their concentration span to something like 20 minutes. Clearly this would enable us, if we wished, to memorise longer passages for reciting, rather than repeating the same short text.

After that a few moments of reflection can follow, first of all on the meditation we have just done, and then upon the whole experience of the morning/afternoon. Among the hoped for results of all these experiences in a felt sense as well as intellectual understanding of how a mantra and meditation upon scripture help us move away from our identification with our conditioned patterns of thought and feeling to connect with our deepest self, a connection that will enable us to tune in more effectively to the people around us. As a result of this we will be able to respond to them as they are and in terms of what they need rather than to what we think they should be, as well as being able to learn from them what will help us grow in our turn.


[1] In Hinduism, Om is a spiritual symbol (pratima) referring to Atman (soul, self within).

Meditation quintet

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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.

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

Wisdom Traffic LightsRecently I explained how I have come to use a traffic light system to help me remember not to rely on gut instincts unless the situation I am facing is a genuine emergency. This is not because gut instincts are always destructive. There are many stories of heroic reactions to life-threatening dangers resulting in people being rescued from drowning or worse, by split second decisions to act on the part of strangers. It’s simply that when there is no emergency a pause for thought leads to wiser decisions, especially if anger and terror not altruistic concerns are triggered.

While the traffic light system is helpful, I felt the need to develop my model further and have devised as a necessary complement a target system.


Most of the time, as Kahneman explains in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, we operate in instinctive mode (he uses the word intuition which I think is misleading for reasons I have explained at length elsewhere). This is highly adaptive as we would hardly be able to get dressed in the morning before it was time to go to bed if we had not automated every routine task in this way. Where instinct breaks down as a reliable guide about what to do is where the negative emotions of our reptilian brain kick in and/or the situation is complex. Reptilian reactions are the ones centred around rage, fear, shame, disgust and the like. They are what push us in extreme situations to override our sense of common humanity and seriously injure our fellow human beings, either emotionally or physically.

I use the term reaction to describe our impulses at this level. For me the target’s guide to determine what I should do is the bull’s eye of this diagram: the True Self. There is no sense, of course, that this is any kind of bull, so the metaphor is in that respect unfortunate. However, it works as a short hand for my present goal.

Rings of Self: Instinctive Reaction

Rings of Self: Instinctive Reaction

Unfortunately it is easier said than done to access this reservoir of wisdom for reasons I’ll come on to in more detail in a moment.

Some would say, ‘Of course. It’s not just hard but impossible because it doesn’t exist.’ Because I haven’t experienced it directly myself I can’t claim to know that it exists. I simply trust that it does.

One of the reasons for this confidence lies in the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 175: Paris Talks):

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate.

It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.

Before I can have any chance of accessing my deepest levels of consciousness I have to learn how to deal with its surface turbulence. Automatic reactions, especially problematic ones, tend to come in potentially predictable patterns: they exert a strong pull and are hard to resist.

Four Step Method

A few years ago I read an excellent book – The Mind & the Brain – by Jeffrey M Schwartz and Sharon Begley. It’s dealing with really serious mental health problems such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). However, I resonated strongly to his Four Step method of managing obsessions and compulsions (pages 79-91). He speaks of ‘the importance of identifying as clearly and quickly as possible the onset of an OCD symptom.’ At that point it is important to ‘Relabel’ it: this means recognising that the symptom is not you but your OCD.

The next step is ‘Reattribution.’ This goes slightly further than Relabelling: ‘the patient then attributes [the symptom] to aberrant messages generated by a brain disease and thus fortifies the awareness that it is not his true “self.”’ Furthermore:

Accentuating Relabelling by Reattributing the condition to a rogue neurological circuit deepens patients’ cognitive insight into the true nature of their symptoms, which in turn strengthens their belief that the thoughts and urges of OCD are separate from their will and their self.

This amplifies mindfulness which ‘puts mental space between the will and the unwanted urges that would otherwise overpower the will.’

This gives patients the chance to Refocus their attention onto ‘pleasant, familiar “good habit” kinds of behaviour.’ Keeping a diary of such activities and their successful use was also found helpful as it ‘increases a patient’s repertoire of Refocus behaviours’ and ‘also boosts confidence by highlighting achievements.’

Mind & BrainThere is one more extremely important step if this approach is to succeed more often than it fails: Revaluing. ‘Revaluing,’ he explains, ‘is a deep form of Relabelling. . . . . In the case of OCD, wise attention means quickly recognising the disturbing thoughts as senseless, as false, as errant brain signals not even worth the grey matter they rode in on, let alone worth acting on.’ One patient of his described them as ‘toxic waste from my brain.’

There is one last consideration to bear in mind. Pattern breaking in this way requires determination and persistence. As Schwartz puts it (my emphasis), ‘Done regularly, Refocusing strengthens a new automatic circuit and weakens the old, pathological one – training the brain, in effect, to replace old bad habits . . . . with healthy new ones. . . . . Just as the more one performs a compulsive behaviour, the more the urge to do it intensifies, so if a patient resists the urge and substitutes an adaptive behaviour, the [brain] changes in beneficial ways.’ He feels we are ‘literally reprogramming [our] brain.’

The implication of this is that the longer we have displayed a pattern we now want to change, the longer it will take us to resolutely practice our chosen substitute before the old habit is completely replaced. As a very rough and ready rule of thumb, for every year we’ve had the problem it will take a month’s intensive practice to get rid of it. What I am convinced of by all the available evidence is that if we want to enough, and practice enough, we can change any pattern we wish to that is in any sense under our voluntary control.

Scwartz feels that the Four Steps constitute a move towards ‘self-directed neuroplasticity.’ For future reference in this sequence of posts, and chiming harmoniously with all my previous rants about the mind not being reducible to the brain, Schwartz concludes with strong conviction that ‘the results achieved with OCD supported the notion that the conscious and wilful mind differs from the brain and cannot be explained solely and completely by the matter, by the material substance, of the brain.’

Stop etc diagram v2Spot It, Stop It & Swap It

I was so impressed that I decided to adapt the Four Step approach somewhat for use with the far less compelling patterns I was typically dealing with in my own life.

Once I become aware of a ‘Here I go again’ moment that has caused me difficulty in the past, I found I can set myself the task of spotting the earliest possible warning signs. At first I might only notice that I’m doing it again when it’s already too late to stop myself. But I can reflect immediately afterwards on my recollection of how I got to that point. If I leave it, the memory will fade and I will not be able to bring to mind an earlier warning sign. By repeating this exercise there will come a point where I can spot the cloud before the emotional storm breaks.

Once I can spot the approaching storm early enough I can stop it. The mind’s weather, unlike the climate’s, is in our control, believe it or not.

The trick here is to invent a method that suits me best for pressing the pause button. I might shout at myself inside my head, ‘STOP!’ Or I might imagine a big red button that I press or a lever that I pull down, that brings the gathering storm to a halt. If I try this too late in the process it won’t work and I will have to learn to spot it earlier. At that point I also need to reinforce my sense that this is simply a habit and not who I really am (we’ll come back to defining that more clearly in a later post). It’s even better if I can see it as senseless, neural noise, useless and pointless. This helps me realise it can change.

Initially while I’m testing out whether I can make this work, I can count very slowly, one slowed down breath at a time, to 90. This is usually enough time for the immediate power surge from the amygdala, at the brain’s emotional centre, to die down. This does not mean it would be a good idea to get stuck right into the situation again and respond. If I can get to 90 at a slow enough pace, I will find I am much calmer if not completely calm.

This is the time to activate step three: Swap It. If I simply leave it there, on the pause button, and do nothing else, it won’t be long before my brain starts revisiting the trigger situation and stoking up the storm again. An empty brain will fill itself with the old familiar script if you leave it to itself.

So, I will have to give some careful thought beforehand about what I will put in place of the void I have created. There are many possibilities.

If all I want to do is to make sure I don’t escalate a row, I could go for a walk round the block, as long as that’s at least a mile from start to finish.

If I want to be sure that I am avoiding a slide into deep sadness, into planning my revenge or into full-blown panic, I will have to substitute a longer, more creative and more absorbing activity. Gardening or cooking works for some. Playing a musical instrument or painting can do the job. Learning a language or studying something really interesting is another possibility. If all else fails, decluttering the chaos of an attic might work. It’s impossible to say what will work for everyone. We’re all so different.

The mnemonic I use for this series of steps is Spot It, Stop It, and Swap It. If we compare our hearts and minds to a garden in need of clearing, this process is analogous to weeding. It can take a bit to time before we can reliably move on to planting, which is the focus of the next post.

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domino banks

For the source of the image see link

Given that my recent sequence of posts was partly concerned with our need to learn from past mistakes rather than risk repeating them, it was not reassuring to find that key insiders do not seem to have learned the lessons from the September 2008 banking collapse. A Guardian article by  posted at the end of September deals with this failure in depth. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

The post-Lehman panic was followed by a wave of investigations and reconstructions by journalists, writers and politicians. More than 300 books have been published about the crash in English alone. Every western country held extensive hearings and produced detailed recommendations. Everything you need to know about what is wrong with finance and the banks today is in their reports; the problem is that there is so much more that needs to be explained.

Most areas inside banking had little or nothing to do with the crash, while many players outside banking bore a heavy responsibility, too, including insurers, credit rating agencies, accountancy firms, financial law firms, central banks, regulators and politicians. Investors such as pension funds had been egging the banks on to make more profits by taking more risk. Unless you had a firm understanding of finance, the causes of the crash were very unclear, and this must be part of the reason why the clearest and most urgent lesson of all would get lost or buried: the financial system itself had become dangerously flawed.

After the crash of 2008, ignorance among the general public, reticence among complicit mainstream politicians and a deeply skewed and sensationalist portrayal of finance in the mass media conspired to create the narrative that the crash was caused by greed or by some other character flaw in individual bankers: psychopathy, gambling addiction or cocaine use. (A whole genre of City memoirs sprang up with titles such as Binge Trading: The Real Inside Story of Cash, Cocaine and Corruption in the City. Gordon Gekko returned for a sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and Leonardo di Caprio scored an immense hit playing the title role in The Wolf of Wall Street, about a whoring and cocaine-snorting financial fraudster.)

From there it was a small step to the notion that we can fix finance by getting rid of the “jerks”, as the plain speaking former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond put it. When Diamond was forced to resign in July 2012 over a scandal involving interest rate rigging by his traders, his successor, Antony Jenkins, also promised to focus on changing the culture. And so the same banks that brought us the mess of 2008 eagerly embraced the need for cultural change – which alone should arouse our suspicions. If there is one recurring theme in the many conversations I had with City insiders, it was the need for structural rather than cultural change; not so much different bankers, but a different system.

“Sometimes I feel as if finance has reacted to the crisis the way a motorist might after a near-accident,” said the City veteran at a small credit rating agency whose wife had almost chucked his phone into a lake at the height of the panic. “There is the adrenaline surge directly after the lucky escape, followed by the huge shock when you realise what could have happened. But as the journey continues and the scene recedes in the rear-view mirror, you tell yourself: maybe it wasn’t that bad. The memory of your panic fades, and you even begin to misremember what happened. Was it really that bad?”

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Altruism Black EarthThe first post looked at the implications of two books – Altruism and Black Earth – which led me to reflect on the possibility that we might not be immune to a repetition of the horrors of the Holocaust. At the end of the previous post we had reached the point of arguing that it is essential, if our society is to lift its collective consciousness to a more compassionate level, that we focus more intently upon the education of our children.

There are two key areas that determine the direction of a child’s development: parenting and schooling.


Let’s take parenting first, and why it matters.

One main point is, and probably always should have been, fairly obvious, though now we have empirical evidence to back it up. When Jeremy Rifkin in his excellent book – The Empathic Civilisation – looks at where we are at present with the challenges we face, he concludes (page 502):

The question is, what is the appropriate therapy for recovering from the [current] well/happiness addiction? A spate of studies over the past 15 years has shown a consistently close correlation between parental nurturance patterns and whether children grow up fixated on material success. . . . If… the principal caretaker is cold, arbitrary in her or his affections, punitive, unresponsive, and anxious, the child will be far less likely to establish a secure emotional attachment and the self-confidence necessary to create a strong independent core identity. These children invariably show a greater tendency to fix on material success, fame, and image as a substitute mode for gaining recognition, acceptance, and a sense of belonging.

There are also less obvious forces at work as well. Ricard explores the exact relationship as currently understood between evolution and altruism. He looks carefully at the evidence and quotes Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s conclusion from her research that (page 173):

. . . . ‘novel rearing conditions along the line of early hominids meant that youngsters grew up depending on a wider range of caretakers than just their mothers, and this dependence produced selection pressure that favoured individuals who were better at decoding the mental state of others, and figuring out who would help and who would hurt.’

In other words, the fact that newborns interact quickly with a large number of people may have contributed considerably to raising the degree of cooperation and empathy among humans.

Hrdy’s final point of view is very clear (page 174):

. . . without the help of “alloparents,” there would never have been a human species.

We are now breaking that pattern (ibid.):

The notion of “family” as limited to a couple and their children developed only in the 20th century in Europe, and as late as the 1950s in the United States. Before that, most families included members of three generations, comprising aunts, cousins, et cetera.

This carries a significant risk (pages 175-76):

. . . . given empathy and the faculties of understanding others developed thanks to particular ways of taking care of children, and if an increasing proportion of humans no longer benefited from these conditions, compassion and the search for emotional connections would disappear. [Hrdy] questions whether such people “will be human in ways that we now think of as distinguishing our species – that is, empathic and curious about the emotions of others, shaped by our ancient heritage of communal care.”


Is there any sign that our educational systems, not just in the West but also in countries such as China, are working hard enough to counteract a trend towards narcissistic materialism and competitiveness? There is a considerable body of evidence suggesting otherwise.

Of American education John Fitzgerald Medina writes in his hard-hitting Faith, Physics & Psychology (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

Though Jeremy Rifkin sees it more positively and refers to the existence in schools of programmes designed to develop empathy, he is not completely blind to the obstacles (pages 604-05):

. . . because empathic engagement is the most deeply collaborative experience one can ever have, bringing out children’s empathic nature in the classroom requires collaborative learning models. Unfortunately, the traditional classroom curriculum continues to emphasise learning as a highly personal experience designed to acquire and control knowledge by dint of competition with others.

[An example of what Rifkin refers to elsewhere in his book when describing programmes for cultivating empathy is in this clip.]  

An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system, under the influence of Michael Gove and his successors, has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians. Indeed the last Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, deliberately reduced towards zero the importance which Ofsted should give to the emotional wellbeing of students.

An article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

chinese teachers

Chinese Teachers in UK (for source of image see link)

A recent series on BBC television showed clearly how China is walking along the same potentially destructive path. Four teachers came to the UK to prove how the Chinese system is far more effective than ours in boosting academic performance. They emphasised, in their comments on their approach, how China stresses preparing their students to succeed in what they see as an extremely and inevitably competitive world. Their blackboard-based monologues, pumping out facts with no opportunity to experience their living meaning, was reminiscent of the Gradgrind approach to education Charles Dickens satirised in Hard Times:

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘My father as calls me Sissy. sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. . . . Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours. . . .’

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. . . . . .

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

Unfortunately the Chinese teachers’ approach was shown to produce better grades than the UK system. My worry is that it probably does not produce better human beings, even while conceding that our own system leaves a lot to be desired still in that respect.

In addition to the need to build back into the curriculum elements of creativity, morality, and spirituality, there is an additional vital element we must not forget. A service component, something at the core of the Bahá’í approach, is almost certainly crucial to any educational system, not just one for remedial purposes. Compassion has to be linked to action to be fully internalised.

Even if we accept that attempts are being made to introduce empathy-inducing elements into educational and training programmes in the States the blinkered way these are sometimes implemented undermines their efficacy, as Timothy Wilson testifies. For example, the research he reviews in his excellent short book Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change points towards the critical importance of incorporating a community service component into any remedial programme for children and young people manifesting behavioural problems. He was reacting to the fact that an expensive implementation of the programme involving nearly 600 students across several sites failed to produce any of the expected benefits (page 131):

What happened? It turns out that each site was given a fair amount of latitude in how they implemented the QOP [Quantum Opportunities Programme], and none of the sites adopted the entire curriculum. In particular, most of the site managers decided to focus on the mentoring aspects of the program and non-fully implemented the community service component – the very component that we know, from the Teen Outreach and Reach for Health programs, has beneficial effects! Sadly, more than $15 million was spent on a five-year intervention in which a key ingredient (community service) was eliminated. . . .

The fact that policymakers learned so little from past research – at huge human and financial cost – is made more mind-boggling by being such a familiar story. Too often, policy makers follow common sense instead of scientific data when deciding how to solve social and behavioural problems. When well-meaning managers of the QOP sites looked at the curriculum, the community service component probably seemed like a frill compared to bringing kids together for sessions on life development. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But common sense was wrong, as it has been so often before. In the end, it is teens… who pay the price…

For a sense of the what the Bahá’í Approach involves this video is a good introduction. It shows how the Bahá’í emphasis upon engaging young people in the process of child education and community building works in practice.

(Published on 2 May 2013: You can download this film from the Official website: http://www.bahai.org/frontiers/)

It seems to me imperative that everyone, no matter what their circumstances might be, needs at the very least to find whatever ways they can to raise consciousness among their family, friends and contacts, so that more and more people internalise a vision of humanity as one family and understand better how to nurture and sustain people, fellow creatures and the planet. If that can also involve directly relevant action so much the better.

My personal plan

For the foreseeable future I plan to explore, as often as I am able, this whole issue of altruism. In particular I want to understand more fully what factors enable us to widen the compass of our compassion and what factors narrow it.

I am already fairly clear that this will take me back over some familiar territory, though perhaps seeing it through a slightly different lens, but it will also require me to look carefully at some areas I have not explored in detail. Historical texts, for example, have not been my favourite grazing ground in the past – something about the way they marshal information switches me off. However, Snyder’s book has persuaded me I ought to give them another chance as I came to realise, from reading Black Earth, how little I really understood about many of the background factors that shaped the Holocaust. Maybe I also need to revisit some philosophical work that I have previously avoided as too challenging in its approach.

Some bolder experiments in terms of my personal experience might not come amiss either. I doubt that I can fully understand the challenges of this area without stepping into the fire.

What I have realised about this topic is that I can investigate it almost anywhere at any time, no matter what I am doing – perhaps even when I am chilling out in front of some anodyne murder mystery on the television.

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George-MonbiotEarlier this week   flagged up  a study that suggests that humanity is more humane than we think. This is so relevant to the themes of my current sequence of posts I couldn’t resist publishing about it. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Do you find yourself thrashing against the tide of human indifference and selfishness? Are you oppressed by the sense that while you care, others don’t? That, because of humankind’s callousness, civilisation and the rest of life on Earth are basically stuffed? If so, you are not alone. But neither are you right.

A study by the Common Cause Foundation, due to be published next month, reveals two transformative findings. The first is that a large majority of the 1,000 people they surveyed – 74% – identifies more strongly with unselfish values than with selfish values. This means that they are more interested in helpfulness, honesty, forgiveness and justice than in money, fame, status and power. The second is that a similar majority – 78% – believes others to be more selfish than they really are. In other words, we have made a terrible mistake about other people’s minds.

The revelation that humanity’s dominant characteristic is, er, humanity will come as no surprise to those who have followed recent developments in behavioural and social sciences. People, these findings suggest, are basically and inherently nice.

review article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology points out that our behaviour towards unrelated members of our species is “spectacularly unusual when compared to other animals”. While chimpanzees might share food with members of their own group, though usually only after being plagued by aggressive begging, they tend to react violently towards strangers. Chimpanzees, the authors note, behave more like the homo economicus of neoliberal mythology than people do.

. . . .

So why do we retain such a dim view of human nature? Partly, perhaps, for historical reasons. Philosophers from Hobbes to RousseauMalthus to Schopenhauer, whose understanding of human evolution was limited to the Book of Genesis, produced persuasive, influential and catastrophically mistaken accounts of “the state of nature” (our innate, ancestral characteristics). Their speculations on this subject should long ago have been parked on a high shelf marked “historical curiosities”. But somehow they still seem to exert a grip on our minds.

Another problem is that – almost by definition – many of those who dominate public life have a peculiar fixation on fame, money and power. Their extreme self-centredness places them in a small minority, but, because we see them everywhere, we assume that they are representative of humanity.

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Refugees from Syria pray on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean from Turkey in an inflatable dinghy. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images (for source see link)

In the middle of September the Guardian published a series of reflections from various authors on the issue of refugees. In the light of my current sequence of posts on the possibility of our repeating the Holocaust horrors of the Second World War, there was one, by Mohsin Hamid, that still resonates particularly powerfully for me. All the contributions are well worth reading though. For the full article see link.

For me, as a British and hence European citizen, and also as a human being, the most important question raised by the present crisis is not whether the people of the countries of Europe wish to accept more refugees. Rather, the most important question is whether the people of Europe wish their countries to become the sorts of societies that are capable of taking the steps that will be required to stop the flow of migration.

Simply hardening borders and watching refugees drown offshore or bleed to death on razor wire will not be enough. Europe will have to drastically reduce its attractiveness to refugees. Those who look like refugees will need to be terrorised. They will need to be systematically beaten, rounded up, expelled. Some will need to be killed. The avenues of advancement of those who are not native-born will need to be curtailed by law and by custom – a system of apartheid will need to be instituted. To be of apparent migrant origin in a European country will need to become a fate worse than living in a town or village overrun by bloodthirsty fanatics, by rapacious warlords and thugs.

In such a Europe, the essence of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich will not have been defeated; it will merely have suffered an interruption that lasted a few decades. Many people in Germany, perhaps, recognise this. It could explain the marked difference in the tenor and substance of their country’s response to refugees. They know where fortress Europe will and must lead, what a final solution to the issue of migrant arrivals would entail. . . . .

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To get hospital consultants to agree to his new National Health Service, Nye Bevan had to allow them to mix private work with NHS work. Photograph: PA/Empics Sports Photo Agency

To get hospital consultants to agree to his new National Health Service, Nye Bevan had to allow them to mix private work with NHS work. Photograph: PA/Empics Sports Photo Agency

Anyone who has cringed at Ayn Rand’s rant against the NHS in yesterday’s post will resonate to this Guardian article by GP . Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

. . . . In my work as an NHS GP the corrupting effect of private practice is less immediately obvious, but through my correspondence with specialists I know it still goes on: scans, arthroscopies and follow-up appointments are all more lavishly recommended when the patient is paying, which makes one wonder about the criteria used to recommend them. Recently an angry father insisted I refer his son for consideration of a tonsillectomy after a couple of episodes of tonsillitis. If I want to refer someone to have their tonsils out on the NHS, my local surgeons won’t countenance seeing them unless they meet certain criteria: seven episodes of tonsillitis in the last year, or 10 over the last two years, or three a year for the last three consecutive years. There are good reasons for this: tonsillectomy risks haemorrhage, infection and leaving you more prone to throat problems in the future. Though we all pay for NHS care through taxation, no doctor in the NHS will now remove your tonsils just because you’ve asked them to – that would be considered a grave abandonment of professional standards, and a flouting of evidence-based practice. But the private healthcare market specialises in treatment on demand, and the rules are different over there. When the father repeated his demand at a private clinic the surgeon’s professional reservations melted away and the operation was scheduled within days. The surgeon’s later correspondence contained a tortured justification for tabling the surgery that was painful to read. It must have been painful too for the patient who went on to need NHS hospital admission to address subsequent complications (bleeding and infection). Several of my own clinic appointments were used to deal with the aftermath. There is as yet no reliable mechanism for the NHS to bill private health companies for the expenses incurred when private procedures go wrong.

Private providers sell an image of excellence and efficiency, but that glossy sheen, in the UK at least, is built on the assurance that whenever a patient becomes unprofitable, or presents too much of a risk, the NHS will step in. This is what some of the private companies taking over aspects of NHS care are beginning to discover: profitability is high if you can pick and choose which patients and procedures you deal with, but drops off when you are confronted with providing a comprehensive service for everyone based on need rather than privilege.

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