Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.’
When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing the week before last, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This second sequence is about the need to draw on deeper powers than instinct or intellect: this is the second part of the fifth post.
It has taken me much longer than usual to reach the end of the journey undertaken by this series of posts. Jack has been swinging from the pendulum of his dilemma more than long enough to see him killed or cured. Some of you were probably wondering whether this would still be a work in progress in 2014.
Anyhow, for those of you who are still with me, this is going to be the journey’s end – whether it results in lovers meeting or Jack making his mind up, we will have to see. Frankly, at this point, I’m not quite sure myself.
Combining Reflection with Consultation
I ended the previous post after examining the process of reflection as an individual experience and preparing myself to consider whether reflection might be possible in some way for a group of people.
Reflection, as an inner process of consulting with our deepest essence, seems to require silence. Reflecting with others demands words, either spoken or written. How are we to reconcile that apparent contradiction?
Well, there is the model of a Quaker meeting where silence, as a group experience, is punctuated by the occasional utterance, when the spirit moves someone to speak. Given that the focus of this sequence of posts has been on decision making, it would not make sense to advocate that model for this purpose, whatever its value might be when harnessed to other aims.
The faith I follow has at the heart if its community and family life a spiritual process which Bahá’ís call ‘consultation.’ It’s important not to confuse this with the common meanings of this word in our society as a whole, for example when we speak of a ‘consultation document’ where all that happens is the canvassing of views prior to some agency deciding on a line of action.
Crucial to factor in is the point that consultation in a Bahá’í sense is rooted in the same detachment that underlies the kind of effective reflection we looked at before.
For those who follow a theistic religious path, while this may prove difficult to do, at least they have decided on what compass and map to use to give them a sense of where to look for God. It’s not so easy for those without such a belief to see the relevance of this advice for them. However, I do believe it is relevant.
We are all capable over sufficient time and with sufficient sincere and dedicated thought to develop an idea of what for us is the highest good, something greater than our own limited values and projects, which are all too often self-interest in disguise. For example, there are those who see the earth in the form of Gaia perhaps, or humanity as an idea transcending arbitrary divisions derived from race, nation, religion or ideology, as the highest good to nurture for which they would be prepared to sacrifice a great deal, maybe everything. Having a credible self-transcending Good to hold in mind in place of a god we can’t believe in, helps us all, theists and atheists alike, let go of our unhelpful attachments in service of the greater good, whether that process takes shape within inner meditation or takes place as part of outward consultation.
Mutually Reinforcing Processes
The purpose is to emphasize the statement that consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion . . .
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 72)
We need to remember what we learned last time about meditation before looking more closely at how the two processes work together. They may be mutually reinforcing: they may even effectively be the same thing!
Meditation, for an individual, seems to be equivalent to consultation for the group. It serves the same purposes and requires and creates the same personal qualities. We want to draw closer to the truth which demands and reinforces detachment. Both meditation and consultation grow from and result in unity, either within the individual or within the group, and in detachment, which may in any case be one and the same process and end-state. Bahá’u’lláh speaks of ‘the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment’ as though they are deeply interconnected if not identical.
When we suspend our assumptions in reflection, separating consciousness from its contents, we receive intimations of a higher and more accurate kind. This sounds remarkably similar to the understanding achieved in consultation. It seems possible, at least in principle, to use meditation to improve our consultation skills and consultation perhaps to practise and refine our meditation. It also raises the question whether consultation, at least in the West, would benefit from more silence.
It’s fairly clear that a reliable awareness of the remedial and active presence in our mind of the Highest Good we are capable of apprehending will entail a great deal of practice, whether we call it God or not. If we can maintain such a sense of this Presence then it is extremely unlikely that we would be inclined pig-headedly to bludgeon our friends, family, colleagues and neighbours into submission with our own opinions when that so clearly interferes with wiser states of mind and spaces for decision making.
There are ways, it needs to be said, in which we can become so over-identified with our limited understanding of that Good, that we are prepared to torture and kill other people in our attempts to bring that understanding into reality. That is the kind of idealism that Jonathan Haidt has pilloried as the trigger for more murders than any individual psychopath could perpetrate in several life times. I am talking here, though, of our ability to generate an idea of the good that widens what Robert Wright calls the ‘expansion of the moral imagination’ or what we could term ‘our compass of compassion’ rather than the narrowing of it in a way that creates a tyrant and torturer.
It may feel like a lifetime’s work to get to the point where we have grasped such an idea and have truly become capable of holding its essence in mind most of the time.
We also have to remain mindful, though we often forget, that investigating the truth is a goal whose pursuit does not guarantee that we will always find it. What we can do though is be resolute in developing increasing levels of humility about the value of our opinions, so that the consensus becomes richer and an ever closer approximation to the particular truth under investigation. Developing that kind of humility in such an opinionated world is easier said than done. Processes of disidentification described in the previous post, if we have practised them in a disciplined way will clearly help us step back from our opinions once we have shared them, and help us listen more objectively to the views of others even when they differ widely from our own.
Detachment as the Key Process
Is this becoming one of those counsels of despair which can seem so characteristic of the spiritual life? Can we only consult if we are completely detached? If not shouldn’t we bother?
Perhaps though detachment is more of a process than an end-state at least in this life.
We need to consider the possibility that consultation is also a process that can help us become more detached. If so, it’s goal is clearly more than simply the investigation of truth. It is a spiritual discipline in itself and leads to personal as well as group transformation. It perhaps could rightly be called a Bahá’í yoga from which everyone, whether Bahá’í or not, could benefit from practising – even an accomplished meditator.
Meditation, then, might help us achieve the detachment necessary for consultation. Consultation will almost certainly strengthen our ability to be detached and thereby facilitate our meditation. They are clearly not unrelated disciplines sharing as they do this same outcome.
We also have to be open to the views of other people when we consult and to the Bahá’í Scriptures when we meditate upon them or to the promptings of our higher self when we commune with it in meditation. So these skills are clearly not all that different: they similarly enhance our understanding of reality.
In the end, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that meditation will help us consult and consulting will help us meditate. It certainly seems to me that meditation and consultation used in conjunction as the Bahá’í Faith recommends would constitute a wrecking ball of sufficient power to bring even the most obdurate of our dividing walls crashing to the ground and pave the way for greater unity within and between us. Such a degree of unity is imperative if we are to become capable of solving the problems that currently confront us.
Consultation has links with justice, too complex to go into now, which add further strength to this position:
To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.
(From Section II: The Prosperity of Humankind)
Increasing our Leverage
Where does all this leave us?
Once conversation between reflective minds is possible two powerful tools, implied in all that has been said above, can become available. First, some space will have been created between consciousness and its contents, and secondly there is a chance for more than one mind to be brought to bear upon the experiences. The space can be used for people to compare notes as equals – as two human beings, both with imperfect simulations of reality at their disposal, humbly and tentatively exchanging ideas about what is going on, with no one’s version being arbitrarily privileged from the start. There is a wealth of information that suggests most strongly that this process of collaborative conversation (Andersen and Swim), of consultation in the Bahá’í sense (see John Kolstoe), of inquiry (see Senge), of interthinking (see Mercer), can achieve remarkable results: Neil Mercer talks of the crucial function of language and says:
[I]t enables human brains to combine their intellects into a mega-brain, a problem-solving device whose power can be greater than that of its individual components. With language we are able not only to share or exchange information, but also to work together on it. We are able not only to influence the actions of other people, but also to alter their understandings. . . . . Language does not only enable us to interact, it enables us to interthink.
I’d like to slightly alter the wording of one sentence there to capture the essence of what I think I’m describing:
We are able not only to influence the actions of one another, but also to alter one another’s understandings.
I feel that the conditions that I have sought to describe in this sequence of posts go a long way towards making effective interthinking possible. Effective interthinking and meditation as a spiritual practice are closely related activities. Perhaps neither can unfold in their best and most constructive form in the absence of the other.
Where does all this leave Jack?
It’s hard to imagine that he would take easily to dream work. However he has been practising meditation. This could give him a head start in the sense that he should have an excellent platform from which to move towards more effective reflection. He might find the Disidentification exercise both attractive and useful as he moves towards finding other perspectives on his conflicted ideas.
If he were to begin to achieve some skill in stepping back to some degree even from his most cherished beliefs, he might be ready to consider approaching his brother Sam for a consultation on the question of a loan for a new business. Whether that gets him anywhere will depend not only on how well he has mastered the new skills but also on whether Sam is prepared to get on board with them to his best ability as well. If they got stuck consulting alone they might be able to move forwards in consultation with a trusted and objective third person. Mediation is a widely used model that builds on this possibility – an interesting word that looks like meditation if you’re reading too fast,
In a way we are all in the same boat. We are none of us experts in or masters of these new techniques. Even skilled practitioners of meditation may find it testing to exercise the skills they’ve learnt in a new way involving interaction with others. That’s no reason not to try of course.
So perhaps we ought to leave Jack to apply these principles as best he can and worry instead about how we can practice and make use of them ourselves.
If it helps, it might be a good idea to have a listen to Neil Mercer should you have skipped the video above. What he says both endorses the value of true consultation in the sense I have been discussing it and suggests that it probably should be taught in schools. In my view, the same is true of meditation.
I am very aware that there are some puzzling issues, particularly around the question of the ‘heart,’ that I have skated over in this sequence because of the main theme I wanted to explore, which was where and why in my view Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 model breaks down. (I am aware, though, that consultation with its dependence on language must draw on System 2 as well as upon the heart in the sense I have been exploring it.)