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Archive for March, 2017

Leaks

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A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It leadeth the way and guideth.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Gleanings: CXXXII)

Picking up from where the last post left off, I need to explain how I am learning to balance the competing priorities of my life.

As I explained earlier, not only is there sometimes a conflict between my introverted preferences, such as for reading and writing, and my need to operate in the world outside my head, but there can also be a clash between my desire to read and my desire to write. The symbol I’m developing to express a way of balancing these needs is of the wheel I want my life to run on.

There is no way I can avoid an action of some kind. Even doing nothing is a form of action. So, action has to be the rim of the wheel, the surface in constant contact with the road my life is taking.

However, I have to recognise that constantly, unremittingly, huge swathes of time are being taken up with experiences of various kinds, whether internally generated or externally triggered. The bulk of them are processed unconsciously, and in addition most of what is conscious will be rapidly forgotten, possibly almost undigested.

However, as I see it, if I do not ruminate on the most precious parts of it I will fail to learn the crucially important lessons they can teach me. So, I must build firmly into the structure of my life’s wheel the reinforcing elements of reading, writing, meditation and consultation (I have dealt elsewhere with the mutually reinforcing power of consultation and meditation, so I won’t repeat it all here). The conclusion I arrived it was this:

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.

We know it requires detachment. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Paris Talks (page 174):

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

One possible way of conceptualising detachment, or at least a result of it, is freedom from our animal nature as described here. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote (Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 207):

Regarding the statement in ‘The Hidden Words’, that man must renounce his own self, the meaning, is that he must renounce his inordinate desires, his selfish purposes and the promptings of his human self, and seek out the holy breathings of the spirit . . . . ..

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, in my case, to the Bahá’í Scriptures when I meditate upon them or to the promptings of our higher self when we commune with it in meditation. So these two skills are not all that different either: they both 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.

Last but by no means least, the strong axle to which the spokes of this wheel are attached, and around which it revolves, is reflection, in all the various senses I have explored in detail on this blog, including its meditative aspect and its way of enhancing our detachment. With this in its proper place not only will I be able to balance my various priorities better, but I will also be able to deal more wisely with what happens when my scripts are triggered.

The forces that impelled me to formulate this particular recipe were: first of all in the present the need to escape from the still active counterproductive patterns I’ve described in the first post of this sequence; next, came what I have learned from the various approaches that helped me step back enough from them to think hard about them in the past, including the years of therapy and Buddhist meditation; and last of all, what still sets the seal on my current perspective is the combination of insights from existentialism and my life-changing encounter with the Bahá’í Faith, which has set my overall direction in life every since.

I have described my reasons for making this leap of faith in a sequence of posts. The short answer to the question, ‘Why did I make that choice?’ is this. I was bowled over by how closely everything I had understood in my exploration of the Bahá’í Faith mapped onto what I already believed. It was what I felt I had been searching for almost all my adult life: an egalitarian meaning system that combined activism with spirituality in a way that absolutely prohibited the use of force, or any other dubious means, to persuade others of its truth. When I was asked if I wanted to join the Bahá’í community, unless all I had protested that I believed was pure hypocrisy, I surely had to put my money where my mouth had been all those years. So I did. My closest friends predicted I’d be out again in six months. It was just another of my fads. Yet here I still am 35 years later.

So, I am aware that to complete the context in which the wheel operates, I need a compass and a map. In a previous post I explained my model of the compass of compassion. This was my conclusion:

Because the earth has a magnetic field that helps us find our right direction it wasn’t hard to see that a compass, already more than half-way to compassion in its spelling, was a good way of remembering the key value that underpins every other spiritual value in all faiths, and which in Bahá’í terms emanates from the three unities of the essential oneness of God, religion and humanity, blurred as our perception of those may sometimes be. The other meaning of the word ‘compass’ is also a reminder, as is the image of our world from space, to widen the embrace of my compassion to include all life and perhaps even the earth itself, an imperative need as Robert Wright describes it.

Bahá’u’lláh also has a most interesting way of linking a compass with kindness that suggests I might be on the right lines here (Gleanings: CXXXII):

A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It leadeth the way and guideth.

I am not going to pretend that the compass we have chosen will always make it easy to decide what is the right thing to do and provide us with a strong enough motivation to do it. We are human and sometimes our moral energy flags. Also a moral compass built on a system of values is more complex than a material compass. Values are arranged in a hierarchy. On occasions we need to decide that a higher value trumps a lower one. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gives a simple example of this (Bahá’í World Faith, page 320):

If a doctor consoles a sick man by saying: “Thank God you are better, and there is hope of your recovery,” though these words are contrary to the truth, yet they may become the consolation of the patient and the turning-point of the illness. This is not blameworthy.

He says this even though lying is condemned outright by Him in other quotes to be found at the same link.

Now for the map.

It should also be obvious that the map I have chosen is that drawn up by the Divine Cartographer, Bahá’u’lláh, whose organising principle is unity. One of the most challenging statements relating to the need to live the principle of oneness comes in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the Arc project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

I have faith that this compass and that map will lead me to generate enough wisdom by the processes I describe to help me climb as high as I am able up the mountain of truth so that, God willing, I can more fully recognise our interconnectedness and act accordingly, helping to build a better world in the process, I trust.

Good luck to you all in your search for your compass and your map. Don’t forget to use a trustworthy wheel for the wagon of your life as you journey on.

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Obsession

For the original French that triggered this, see link.

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In the area of values, this means that we must learn to value even when we don’t feel like it. We must learn to love even when we are angry, to care even when we are exasperated.

(Steven Hayes et al in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: an experiential approach to behaviour change — page 210)

Picking up on a closing point from the last post, as time went on I came to realise that the bookworm in me had value as part of my 3Rs – reading, writing and reflection. Again this has been explained before, for example in Rings of Self:

For my own purposes I have developed a mock equation as a mnemonic for my preferred approach to deepening my understanding of an issue. This approach, in interaction with experience, involves using meditation as a means of accessing the products of my subliminal thought processes in combination with reading and writing. So, I move in and out of active/passive  engagement with experience through reading, writing and reflection, my three Rs.

Reflection is a term that cuts both ways: it can be used to describe the workings of the intellect – labeled deliberation, in the previous post, to avoid confusion –  or the process of meditation, in which we pull back from identifying with the usual contents of our consciousness. Both processes of reflection and their product are very different from the knee-jerk reactions of instinct described in the first post of this sequence.

So, E + 3R = I, where I = Insight and E stands for Experience. This is one of the roles the writing of this blog is meant to execute.

This led onto the idea, which I’m about to explore, of reflection as a filter and as the core of my process.

Recent developments in my thinking have produced the simple diagram at the head of this post as the most straightforward way of capturing the main issue as I see it when it comes to using reflection as a guide to wise and compassionate action. This acknowledges implicitly that feelings can have complex origins, as explained last time, but it would complicate the diagram too much for present purposes to bring those into the mix now.

This is a different process than the gathering of pollen and nectar from the flowers of experience. What we preserve in terms of our learning about love and wisdom is stored in our hearts and therefore not always explicitly accessible to our heads unless we press the pause button for long enough to quieten our passions down. This is why it is not usually appropriate to act when in the grip of negative or scripted feelings. Negative feelings are more easily identified: rage, pain, fear can be identified as dark and potentially destructive without too much trouble. Apparently positive ones, which can also be scripted, such as the warmth of our attraction to a dangerous person or life path, are harder to detect.

That’s why we need to press the pause button, step back and give ourselves time to reflect.

But how are we to use that reflection time? Part of that is obvious enough. When we have stepped back from scripted feelings we can think about them, almost interrogate them. Where do they come from? When have we felt like this before? What happened next? What do they remind us of? And so on. These can lead us to the kind of understanding of deep-rooted causes we discussed last time.

The answers may help us judge more clearly whether we can trust these reactions in the current situation. The answer is probably that we shouldn’t – or at least not blindly or completely. We need a better compass.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) places great emphasis on the importance of our values as a guide to action. In their book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Hayes et al describe an important distinction between two kinds of valuing (page 208-09):

Among the most important [distinctions] is distinguishing valuing as feeling versus valuing as an action. These two aspects are often thoroughly confused for the client. The example of valuing a loving relationship with one spouse is instructive. One’s feelings of love may wax and wane across time and situations. To behave lovingly (e.g., respectfully, thoughtfully, etc.) only when one has feelings of love, and to behave in opposite ways when the opposite feelings emerge, would be very likely to have problematic effects on a marriage. Yet this is precisely the pickle we are in when values are confused with feelings, because feelings are not fully under voluntary control and tend to come and go. . . . .

In the area of values, this means that we must learn to value even when we don’t feel like it. We must learn to love even when we are angry, to care even when we are exasperated.

There are other aspects of this which are less directly relevant to my current purpose but none the less important. For example, one of the most useful insights I gleaned from Hayes et al’s book concerned their clear definition of a trap you can fall into when you firmly believe you are enacting your values. It’s when you confuse values with goals (page 231).

A value is a direction, a quality of action. By definition, values cannot be achieved and maintained in a static state, they must be lived out.

It is important therefore not to confuse values (why we do things) with the steps we have decided to take to enact them (the what) or even the outcomes that we hope to achieve as a result of those steps. We have to be open to the possibility that this step or that outcome, as we experience working in that way, comes to seem at odds with the value we are seeking to give expression to or with a value we come to realise is more fundamentally important to us than the one we thought we wanted to express.

Also, we cannot always trust the words we think in let alone the feelings we are attempting to describe. This sceptical attitude towards descriptions has to be maintained equally if not more strongly in relation to descriptions of the self (page 182):

. . . when a person identifies with a particular conceptualisation, alternatives to that conceptualisation can seem almost life-threatening. The . . . frame here seems to be “Me = conceptualisation” [i.e. I am exactly what I think I am] and its entailed derivative “Eliminate conceptualisation = eliminate me” [i.e. If you destroy my idea of myself you destroy me]. [Thus], we are drawn into protecting our conceptualized self as if it were our physical self.

To help people step back from such identifications the authors liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board (page 192):

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.

A Plan in the Mind’s Mirror

This relates to the point I made towards the end of the previous post, that sometimes we have to learn to step back from who we think we are to find our True Self. Personally, while I find their analogy helpful, I prefer the idea of a mirror and its reflections. Our mind or consciousness is the mirror and all our experiences, inside and out, are simply reflections in that mirror: they are not who we are, not even the most intense feelings, our most important plans, or the strongest sense of self. We have to learn to see them as simply the contents of consciousness. Only that way can we tune into deeper and wiser levels of our being.

In terms of the issue of enacting our values rather than our feelings, the mind has many tricks it can play to undermine our intentions in this respect. For instance, there is the hypocrisy argument that keeps cropping up. ‘If I’m furious with somebody, it’s just not honest to be nice. I’m just being a hypocrite.’ This neatly lines up fury with principle, and can justify the idea that Oscar Wilde deflates with a skilful pinprick, that there are times when speaking one’s mind is not only a pleasure but a duty.

My strongest response to this mistaken line of reasoning is that it is based on a false identification with the lower self. If all I am convinced I am is my cluster of reptilian emotional residues, then the logic is irrefutable. I must attack viciously or else betray who I really am. But we are not only, or even mainly or most deeply, our reptilian selves.

Even if we only look at this in terms of the material brain, we have higher centres that conform to higher norms. The frontal lobes aren’t there in our heads simply to rubber stamp our animal side: they don’t just stand back and say, ‘You’re right! He insulted you. You’re angry enough. Kill him!’ Well, not unless you are one of those narcissistic sociopaths in prison for murdering the man who drank their Coke without their permission.

There are centres of consciousness in almost all of us that identify with principles of self-control and consideration, and these centres are as much who we are as the animal impulses, if not more so. It takes more effort to enact them, but that doesn’t make them lies. When we behave well no matter how we feel, we are being true to them and they are truly who we are. That is not hypocrisy.

This is where investing our energy into mastering the art of reflection is so important. Without that filter through which to purify our thinking, ridding it of the distracting debris of our conditioning, we will continue to betray our higher self and its transcendent ideals for a downward but easier and enticing path into deeper and more destructive delusions.

It is also probably the key to the skill that I read about many years ago in a book by a Jungian therapist, but can no longer track down. He argued that our society, and perhaps many others as well, offer only two main alternatives when we experience strong feelings: we can either act them out or we can repress them. Neither of these courses of action is usually advisable. Most of us most of the time are not aware that there is a third possibility: to contain the feelings in consciousness. This allows us to use the feelings as information about the situation in which we find ourselves, and also to consider whether we can use them to motivate us to more constructive action than simply venting them would allow for. Containment of this kind, it seems to me, depends upon our capacity to reflect. It may even be an aspect of reflection.

Table of Value Types – Alain Locke. (From ‘Alain Locke and Cultural Pluralism’  – page 105 – by Christopher Buck in Search for Values edited by John Danesh & Seena Fazel)

This all leads me onto the next major issue: how do we best define our values?

We can choose to draw our values from various sources. Alain Locke’s perspective on values theory is as good a way as any to illustrate this. For him, the first African American Rhodes scholar,  ‘human values are central in determining the course of social life’ and the table above illustrates their various possible types or points of origin.

Not only that, but it also may not be as easy as we think to distinguish our feelings from our values. Terry Eagleton touches on some reasons for this in his book Culture and the Death of God (page 41):

The kind of morality [Richard] Price has in his sights can stir men and women to action, but is perilously reliant on sentiment, intuition or moral sense. By contrast, a morality based on Reason is solidly founded, but lacks the power to motivate.

I don’t share his suspicion of intuition, as many previous posts of mine testify, because I don’t equate it with instinct, but I do agree that values are almost always going to have an emotional dimension, or else we would not wish to keep enacting them. Reflection is what helps us check whether we can trust the emotion that is making the value attractive.

Obviously, this act of choosing our values is something we can only do each for ourselves, albeit drawing on ideas from elsewhere possibly in consultation with others. An inescapable criterion which must apply to us all though, it seems to me, is that what we value must not harm others and in fact it should promote the well-being of all life forms.

Apart from that it’s up to us.

What I will describe in the next post briefly is simply what determined my own choices, but along the way I need to explain how I am learning to balance the competing priorities of my life. And this is what brings me to the wheel of life – well, of mine at least: my latest way of holding onto the insights I need to draw on when I’m being triggered, and at other times as well.

Hopefully it will help others devise their own method of doing the same.

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In a Dream

In a Dream

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Beneath the Debris

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