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How to live: Peterson’s self-help book, 12 Rules for Life, is offered as ‘an antidote to chaos’. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

Last Monday I read about an intriguing interview with Jordan B Peterson on the Guardian website. Given that I have recently stated that spiritually oriented psychologists are almost as rare as the Phoenix, I may have to eat my words. Peterson may say some things I don’t quite agree with, but more often that not what he says about giving life meaning resonates strongly with me. I think I will have to buy his book. I can hear my shelves groaning with the weight of that thought. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

It is uncomfortable to be told to get in touch with your inner psychopath, that life is a catastrophe and that the aim of living is not to be happy. This is hardly the staple of most self-help books. And yet, superficially at least, a self-help book containing these messages is what the Canadian psychologist Jordan B Peterson has written.

His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is an ambitious, some would say hubristic, attempt to explain how an individual should live their life, ethically rather than in the service of self. It is informed by the Bible, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Dostoevsky – again, uncommon sources for the genre. . .

Peterson’s worldview is complex, although 12 Rules makes a heroic attempt to simplify it into digestible material. It might be encapsulated thus: “Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.

“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

. . . “It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

But how do we build meaning? By putting it before expediency. Which is quite close to simply “acting right”. Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.

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Let those who hear our voices be aware
That night now reigns on earth. Nocturnal listeners,
The time you hear me in is one of darkness,
And round us, as within us, battle rages.

(David Gascoyne, from Night Thoughts in Collected Poems, page 135)

David Gascoyne

Till now, I probably hadn’t read my way through Gascoyne’s work in its entirety since 1982 when I purchased Robin Skelton’s edition of his collected poems, sometime before I found my way to the Bahá’í Faith.

For the first time in heaven knows how many years I’m listening to Beethoven as I work at my laptop on this post – his Pathétique, First Movement.

And why is that?

What is the reason for these changes? Perhaps even more importantly why do they seem so important to me? I’ll take the first of those questions right away, leaving the second for the next post.

Regular readers of this blog will find some repetition of earlier posts here, but I need to repeat the main ideas briefly in order to make sense of what has happened.

Basically, the reading of The Forty Rules of Love. It is the equivalent of my Dancing Flames dream in its impact.

Dancing Flames Dream

Let’s take the dream first, which I had in 1980 towards the end of my first degree in psychology, when I was doing a full time job as Deputy Manager of a Day Centre for people with mental health problems as well as studying for the BSc part-time. I’ve blogged about it at some length before so I will cut to the chase here.

The key moment in the dream was when my car broke down. I clambered out to look under the bonnet to see what was wrong. It seemed like a routine breakdown. When I lifted the bonnet though everything changed. I didn’t recognize what it was at first— then I saw it was a golden horn. I mean the instrument, by the way, not the sharp pointed weapon of the rhinoceros. The engine was underneath the horn. When I removed the horn I could see the engine was burning.

A chain of associations, many of them involving Yeats’ A Prayer for my Daughter, explained that the golden horn represented the arts, and most especially poetry and song. The bottom line for me was that the dream was telling me in no uncertain terms that I was working too hard in the wrong way, and had sold out poetry/song for prose, heart for intellect, and intuition for reason and most of all the dream was emphasising that this choice was ‘breaking down,’ that perhaps even the car, a symbol of a mechanical approach, was the wrong vehicle to be relying on so exclusively.

Further reflection led me to feel that the spirit (petrol in terms of the dream) fuels (gives life to) my body (the engine of the dream). When I channel the flames of life appropriately there is no danger. However, if we, as I clearly felt I had, allow the patterns of work and relationships to become inauthentic and detached from our life force, we have bartered the ‘Horn of Plenty’ and

. . . every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellow full of angry wind.

(Yeats in A Prayer for my Daughter – stanza 8).

I shifted the focus then to art in general stating that art is an external representation of an inner state which is sufficiently expressive to communicate to other human beings an intimation of someone’s else’s experience of the world. Art not only conveys the artist’s experience but also lifts the understanding of both poet and reader to a higher level.

In a way poetry at that time was my substitute for religion. In 1980, I wrote:

Poetry is my transcendent value or position. It gives me a perspective from which I can view the ‘complexities’ of my ‘mire and blood’ with less distress.

When I found a religion, which gave me a sense that seemed to offer some hope of walking the spiritual path with practical feet, thereby balancing intuition and reason, efficiency and love, I ceased to monitor carefully the way I was treading the path. To extend the metaphor by imagining that my heart was my left foot and my head the right, each governed by the opposite side of the brain, I lost sight of whether I was using both feet. I didn’t notice that I had begun to limp. My left foot was growing weaker.

A rag rug

The Dream of the Hearth

My dream of the hearth, which I have also explored at length on this blog, helped me redress this imbalance.

This was the dream:

I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.

The emphasis which it placed on the idea of the heart and the earth being connected, and as a place where the peat of spirit could be burned safely to warm the body’s home and energise me for constructive action, was critical. Even so I still found it hard not to let my left brain leanings tilt me out of kilter.

The Forty Rules of Love

And here I am again with another reminder, which I have recently described, and which I see as yet again telling me I must give more attention to my heart.

During a conversation high above the plains of India, in Panghgani, as I recently described, one of my companions mentioned a book I’d never heard of: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. I wrote the title and the author down, but didn’t think much more of it at the time.

It was only later that a synchronicity occurred that suggested that the conversation in Panchgani might have had more to it than I thought.

I was lamenting to my wife that I should have brought more books. I had finished the two massive tomes I’d brought with me. I thought they’d last the whole trip and possibly beyond. Three weeks, with not much other work to do, can gobble up more pages than I realized.

A few hours later there was a knock on the door.

‘It’s a parcel for you,’ my sister shouted.

‘For me?’

‘Yes, for you.’

I went to the door and signed for the package the postman handed over.

I looked at the label. It was from the person who had recommended the book by Shafak. I could tell immediately the parcel contained a book. And it

It resonated strongly with me as I read it on the plane home.

The book was clearly a labour of love, and the ‘rules,’ even though not to be found in that form in the words of Shams of Tabriz or Rumi, feel authentic in the sense that their original roots are in the ground of Rumi’s writing even if they have now been transplanted into a modern soil. And to be honest the rules don’t really read as rules most of the time: they are more like attempts to pin down some eternal truths about spiritual reality which we can use to guide our conduct if we wish.

A story with a different version in the book can be found in Wikipedia:

One day Rumi was reading next to a large stack of books. Shams Tabriz, passing by, asked him, “What are you doing?” Rumi scoffingly replied, “Something you cannot understand.” (This is knowledge that cannot be understood by the unlearned.) On hearing this, Shams threw the stack of books into a nearby pool of water. Rumi hastily rescued the books and to his surprise they were all dry. Rumi then asked Shams, “What is this?” To which Shams replied, “Mowlana, this is what you cannot understand.” (This is knowledge that cannot be understood by the learned.)

This again at least to some extent relates to the right (heart) and left (head) brain issue. Even more importantly though is the fact that the book illustrates powerfully the impact on Rumi of this encounter. It is confirmed by all the stories that have come down through time. It catapulted Rumi from scholar to poet.

I have finally twigged one of the main causes of the strong impact on me of this book, which initially puzzled me more than  a little. It wasn’t just to do with its spirituality. Reading it has forcefully catapulted me back to the consideration of poetry, and a particular kind of poetry at that.

More of that and David Gascoyne next time.

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Just Visiting

This is the last of four poems triggered by visits to India. This is republished from early 2016.Just Visiting

 

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There was an interesting article on the future of work in Friday’s Guardian.  Considered in the context of Walker’s book on sleep, which argues that Western society at least is dangerously sleep-deprived, pictures of the future along the lines of those in this article should be viewed as not hopelessly Utopian dreams but the potential source of desperately needed remedies. Well worth a read. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Work has ruled our lives for centuries, and it does so today more than ever. But a new generation of thinkers insists there is an alternative.

Work is the master of the modern world. For most people, it is impossible to imagine society without it. It dominates and pervades everyday life – especially in Britain and the US – more completely than at any time in recent history. An obsession with employability runs through education. Even severely disabled welfare claimants are required to be work-seekers. Corporate superstars show off their epic work schedules. “Hard-working families” are idealised by politicians. Friends pitch each other business ideas. Tech companies persuade their employees that round-the-clock work is play. Gig economy companies claim that round-the-clock work is freedom. Workers commute further, strike less, retire later. Digital technology lets work invade leisure.

In all these mutually reinforcing ways, work increasingly forms our routines and psyches, and squeezes out other influences. As Joanna Biggs put it in her quietly disturbing 2015 book All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work, “Work is … how we give our lives meaning when religion, party politics and community fall away.”

. . . Our culture of work strains to cover its flaws by claiming to be unavoidable and natural. “Mankind is hardwired to work,” as the Conservative MP Nick Boles puts it in a new book, Square Deal. It is an argument most of us have long internalised.

But not quite all. The idea of a world freed from work, wholly or in part, has been intermittently expressed – and mocked and suppressed – for as long as modern capitalism has existed. Repeatedly, the promise of less work has been prominent in visions of the future. In 1845, Karl Marx wrote that in a communist society workers would be freed from the monotony of a single draining job to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner”. In 1884, the socialist William Morris proposed that in “beautiful” factories of the future, surrounded by gardens for relaxation, employees should work only “four hours a day”.

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the early 21st century, advances in technology would lead to an “age of leisure and abundance”, in which people might work 15 hours a week. In 1980, as robots began to depopulate factories, the French social and economic theorist André Gorz declared: “The abolition of work is a process already underway … The manner in which [it] is to be managed … constitutes the central political issue of the coming decades.”

Since the early 2010s, as the crisis of work has become increasingly unavoidable in the US and the UK, these heretical ideas have been rediscovered and developed further. Brief polemics such as Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” have been followed by more nuanced books, creating a rapidly growing literature that critiques work as an ideology – sometimes labelling it “workism” – and explores what could take its place. A new anti-work movement has taken shape.

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The view from Table Land in Panchgani

Having looked at a couple of the rules that I resonated to from the gift I received of Shafak’s book, now for the thornier issue of whether this list of rules can be found in this form in the works of either Rumi or Shams.

Before I tackle that perhaps it’s best to explain how I come to be looking this gift horse in the mouth in this way.

Most people who know me well have at times encountered this kind of reaction.

Maybe they said something like, ‘You must try this remedy/life skill/unusual food. It really helps your [fill in the appropriate complaint].’

Instead of responding, ‘Thank you so much for telling me about that. I’ll go out and buy some straightaway,’ I tend to ask: ‘Where did you find out about this?’

And when they tell me, I often ask what evidence did this source provide to support the claim that it is effective. Need I go on?

My compulsive checking extends to all kinds of information. As I explain to those who complain I don’t trust them, ‘If I don’t trust my own memory, why would I trust anyone else’s.’ (See my two posts on memory for more.)

My response is the same to extravagant claims of any kind in any domain, and that includes the literary, the psychological, the spiritual and so one.

So, even though I was completely absorbed in the novel, which helped me pass part of the time in a long flight back from India (the whole journey took more than 24 hours thanks to fog in Delhi, but more of that another time perhaps – it was very hard though resisting reading on as we waited for more than four hours on the airport for our connection, but I was determined to save it for the plane), I just couldn’t simply accept that the author was conveying in an unadorned fashion the wisdom of Shams or Rumi. I had to check it out.

I am still in the process of reading through once more the various translations I possess of Rumi’s poetry. I have also done a few trawls of the internet. It’s pretty clear that the idea of forty rules is not to be found in the original works.

One response on the Quora website from Michael Bielas sums that aspect up quite well:

I have been studying the Mathnawi of Rumi for 20 years, with increasing delight. Neither Shams nor Rumi spoke about “rules” involving love. Indeed, Rumi points out the absence of rules in the realm of love. Rules belong in the realm of the ego, the animal nature. The author puts many of her own words into the mouths of Shams and Rumi, presenting a fictional novel, exploiting the popularity of this wonderful mystical friendship.

I also had a careful look through all the references to 40 in the index of Annemarie Schimmel’s book about Rumi, The Triumphal Sun, and found no reference to forty rules of any kind. Early on though there were some related ideas on the same page as a reference to a statement by Rumi, concerning the Mathnavi, that ‘forty camels would not be able to carry this book if he were to tell everything in his mind.’

These ideas concern Rumi’s views on the relationship between words and reality, including love (pages 48-49). Schimmel states:

The poet can only express the husk, but the kernel, marrow, is meant for those who can understand.

She goes on:

Rumi has often tried to solve this riddle of the relation between words and meaning, experience and expression, but always returns to the feeling that words are merely dust on the mirror of ‘experience,’. . and the true meaning, the ‘soul of the story,’ can be found only when man loses himself in the presence of the Beloved when neither dust nor forms remain.

I particularly love the short quote from Rumi she includes here: “The word is a nest in which the bird ‘meaning’ rests.”

This riddle is one that haunts me also as a soon-to-be published poem illustrates.

In a way all this doesn’t matter because the book was clearly a labour of love, and the ‘rules’ feel authentic in the sense that their original roots are in the ground of Rumi’s writing even if they have now been transplanted into a modern soil. And to be honest the rules don’t really read as rules most of the time: they are more like attempts to pin down some eternal truths about spiritual reality which we can use to guide our conduct if we wish. The book also brings to life the relationship between these two seekers after Truth, albeit in an imaginative form based fairly loosely in places on the few possible facts we might have about them. And in the end I feel the author has honoured the fact that Rumi’s sensibility is spacious enough to contain most of us somewhere, rather as Shakespeare’s does.

A good example for me to use to illustrate what she has done to bring their lives to life concerns Rumi’s books.

In case anyone is unclear about how important my books are to me I am including a photograph of what amounts to about 33% of my collection. I’m also adding in a poem on the subject for good measure (see end of post).

Now that we’ve got that clear, it should not be too difficult to work out why two particular episodes from the novel drew me in more strongly than most.

The first concerns Rumi and his wife. This is the event told from her point of view (page 167):

I learned the hard way just how much his books meant to him. Still in our first year of marriage, while I was alone at home one day, it occurred to me to dust the library. . .

That afternoon I dusted and cleaned every book in the library.… Only when I heard a dry, distant voice behind me did I realise how much time I had spent there.

‘Kerra, what do you think you are doing here?’

It was Rumi, or someone who resembled him – the voice was harsher in tone, sterner in expression. . .

‘I am cleaning,’ I muttered, my voice weak. ‘I wanted to make it a surprise.’

Rumi responded, ‘I understand, but please do not touch my books again. In fact, I’d rather you did not enter this room.’

After that day I stayed away from the library even when there was no one at home.

While my protectiveness of my books does not quite extend that far – my wife can come into my study whenever she wants as long as she doesn’t dust my books – I know where Rumi was coming from.

The second incident was more traumatic. Here it is told again from his wife’s point of view (pages 204-05):

I was churning butter by the hearth in the kitchen when I heard strange voices out in the courtyard. I rushed outside, only to witness the craziest scene ever. There were books everyplace, piled up in rickety towers, and still more books floating inside the fountain. From all the ink dissolving in it, the water in the fountain had turned a vivid blue.

With Rumi standing right there, Shams picked a book from the pile… eyed it with a grim expression, and tossed it into the water. No sooner had the book submerged than he reached for another. This time it was Attar’s The Book of Secrets.

. . . I couldn’t understand for the life of me why [Rumi] didn’t say anything. The man who once reprimanded me for just dusting his books was now watching a lunatic destroy his entire library, and he didn’t even utter a word. . .

‘Why don’t you say anything?’ I yelled at my husband.

At this, Rumi approached me and held my hand tightly. ‘Calm down, Kerra, please. I trust in Shams.’

Giving me a glance over his shoulder, relaxed and confident, Shams rolled up his sleeves and started to pull the books out of the water. To my amazement, every single book he took out was as dry as a bone.

The version of this in Wikipedia is rather different:

One day Rumi was reading next to a large stack of books. Shams Tabriz, passing by, asked him, “What are you doing?” Rumi scoffingly replied, “Something you cannot understand.” (This is knowledge that cannot be understood by the unlearned.) On hearing this, Shams threw the stack of books into a nearby pool of water. Rumi hastily rescued the books and to his surprise they were all dry. Rumi then asked Shams, “What is this?” To which Shams replied, “Mowlana, this is what you cannot understand.” (This is knowledge that cannot be understood by the learned.)

This is a good illustration of how Shafak takes the raw material of legend and embeds it in a narrative, endowing it with both psychological and spiritual significance. In this instance it did more than hold my attention: I winced at the whole idea.

I found her book a fascinating read and am grateful that a postman knocked on the door of my sister’s flat in Mumbai bearing this unexpected and rewarding gift. Reading it sent shivers down my spine in places, something I associate with intuitive or spiritual resonances, which might go some way towards explaining why I continued to shiver in a sweater in Panchagani during the deep exchange of ideas. There was more to the Prospect conversation than its apparent content at the time. I was on the way towards having another mind-changing, heart-affecting encounter with a book – but none of us knew that at the time, I suspect. I am coming to think that this experience is, in part at least, reinforcing the message of my Dancing Flames dream, one that I keep losing sight of under the pressure of practical demands on my time. If so, this is the third reminder: hopefully it’s third time lucky! More of that another time perhaps.

Given Rumi’s testing experience with Shams and his books, there’s a touch of irony here, I think. I’ve acquired another item for my book-hoard, making the idea of throwing them into water even harder to contemplate. So much for a book about the Rules of Love enhancing my detachment. I’m a very long way from Rule 33:

While everyone in this world strives to get somewhere and become someone, only to leave it all behind after death, you aim for the supreme stage of nothingness. Live this life as light and empty as the number zero. We are no different from a pot. It is not the decorations outside but the emptiness inside that holds us straight. Just like that, it is not what we aspire to achieve but the consciousness of nothingness that keeps us going.

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Panchgani

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