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Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

My recently published sequence of two posts on the power of metaphor suggested strongly that I should publish this sequence again. It is a perfect illustration, in my view, of Lakoff and Johnson’s contention in Metaphors We Live By that (page 193):

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.

In the end, they feel that (page 233) ‘much of self-understanding involves consciously recognising previously unconscious metaphors and how we live by them’ and ‘engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.’  Until I read their words I don’t think I had fully appreciated exactly what I was doing when I grappled with the challenges of understanding what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the phrase ‘understanding heart.’

In an attempt to shed light on what is meant by the phrase ‘understanding heart’ in the Bahá’í Writings, it seemed a good idea to use metaphors to explain a metaphor, given that logical language would probably not be up to the task.

I have reflected so far upon two images, used in the same scriptures, which shed some light on the matter: a lamp/candle/fire and the garden. These two images are not all we have to go on though. The mirror image is equally fruitful to contemplate.

O My Brother! A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

(Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys: pp 21-22)

In previous posts I have discussed the value of reflection, though not in the sense of the way that mirrors reflect, yet the link is interesting. I have drawn on writers such as Koestenbaum who describes how reflection is a process of separating consciousness from its contents. I have used the analogy of the mirror to illustrate what this might mean. What is reflected in the mirror is not the mirror. In the same way what we are thinking, feeling and planning may not be the essence of our consciousness, simply the ‘objects’ that are reflected in it.

This discussion tended to presuppose that the mirror of our consciousness was clean enough to reflect what it was turned towards. This pins down the two essential aspects of the mirror of the heart that concern us here. Let us side-step for now whether the deepest and usually inaccessible levels of consciousness are what Bahá’u’lláh means by the heart: I will return to that topic again shortly.  Let’s consider instead the issues of dust on the mirror and the direction of its orientation.

In Bahá’í terms, as I understand them, turning the mirror of your heart towards debased objects defiles or dirties it.  It therefore has to be cleansed before it can reflect higher spiritual realities even if it is turned towards them.

The mirror referred to in the quote above is one of the ancient kind made of metal. It would need to be burnished with chains not with a soft cloth and polish – altogether more effortful, even painful. And the burnish is defined as love and detachment from all save God. This suggests that we are back with the idea that all the many different attachments we harbour in our hearts, all the different kinds of meaning systems we have devised as lenses through which to experience reality, are just dirt on the mirror of our heart.

It is fairly obvious then that metaphors such as weeding or purifying by fire, as one can do with metals when they’re mined, all add to our idea of what to do and how to do it in order to further this process that is described in terms of a mirror as ‘burnishing.’ We can set aside time to be mindful and locate in our own being the weeds of hatred and envy, for example, and see refusing to act them out and replacing them with kindness and admiration as a kind of weeding or burnishing depending upon what most vividly makes sense to and motivates us. Our minds all work in different ways and there is no one method that suits all.

Whatever method we use to step back from identifying with what impedes us (see link for one example: Disidentification exercise), I feel it could therefore be argued that if we were able to peel back all this dross that veils our hearts from discerning reality for what it truly is we would in effect be unhooking our consciousness from all the curtains that hide reality from us.

Wert thou to cleanse the mirror of thy heart from the dust of malice, thou wouldst apprehend the meaning of the symbolic terms revealed by the all-embracing Word of God made manifest in every Dispensation, and wouldst discover the mysteries of divine knowledge. Not, however, until thou consumest with the flame of utter detachment those veils of idle learning, that are current amongst men, canst thou behold the resplendent morn of true knowledge.

(Kitáb-i-Íqán: pages 68-69)

It’s intriguing that Bahá’u’lláh seems to be saying there that detachment will enhance our understanding of symbolic terms such as the metaphors we are examining here. If I was more detached I would not need to struggle so hard to understand what the metaphor ‘heart’ means in the first place!

Road less travelled

Scott Peck, in spite of his well documented failings as a human being, was one of the first writers I came across who made it clear that love is not just a feeling if it’s a feeling at all in our usual sense of that word. He stated strongly that love is not a feeling: it is a kind of work (The Road Less Travelled pages 116-119):

. . . love is an action, an activity. . . . Love is not a feeling. . . . Genuine love . .  implies commitment and the exercise of wisdom. . . . . In a constructive marriage . . . The partners must regularly, routinely and predictably, attend to each other and their relationship no matter how they feel. . .  Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy takes much the same line (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – pages 218-19):

Marrying because of love is considered quite reasonable in our culture, and love is dominantly thought to be a feeling, not a kind of choice. The feelings of love are extremely unpredictable. We speak of love as if it were an accident; we say that we fall into and fall out of this emotional state, for example. It should not then be a surprise when we fall into and fall out of marriages in much the same way. . . . Consider how much easier it is to keep a marriage vow if marriage is based on a choice to marry and love is considered to be a choice to value the other and hold the other as special.

They go on to speak of the importance of commitment.

It’s taken a long time to get to this point. Better late than never though.

Obviously now one of the things that bedevils our ability to understand what the heart is in a spiritual sense, apart that is from taking it too literally and piling on too much baggage from our culture, is that we base our idea of the heart on feelings that come from the gut. We discount the possibility that the feelings that originate in the heart as the doorway to moral and spiritual progress may not feel like feelings at all in the same way. The feelings from the gut promise much and are so easy to give expression to, lie so close to what we see as our comfort zone, but they all too frequently fail to deliver on their promises and bring profound discomfort in their wake.

The feelings from the heart, on the other hand, compel us upwards, involve effort and even hardship often, but the rewards are beyond my ability to describe – of course, that applies only as long as it’s not for the rewards that we follow them. They seem more to do with enacted values than emotions in the usual sense of that word. We tend to forget that emotions and motives have the same root in the idea of movement. We all too often feel moved without moving, or else set off in the wrong direction!

We need to remember, not just sometimes but always, the words of Al-Ghazali: ‘You possess only whatever will not be lost in a shipwreck.’ Near Death Experiences have a similar message. In Lessons from the Light one woman reports that the being of light sent her back and, when she asked what she should do, she was told that she could bring with her to the next world only what she had learned of love and wisdom. This seems a general lesson from such experiences:

One task that NDErs seem to agree on is to learn about love. We do that in a world limited by time and space where we have to make our choices. Many NDErs will agree we have a free will and we are free to choose our way through our world. But since we are part of a Unity Universe our interconnectedness makes that everything we do has an effect somewhere else. All our actions, even the seemingly insignificant ones, ripple through the universe. They have an effect.

So, in the end, it seems that I will only be able to get a better hold of what it means to have an understanding heart by increasing my level of detachment by way of a strenuous and continuous attempt to live in as wise and loving a fashion as I am capable of.

The evidence from research in neuropsychology is clear now that focused and deliberate effort changes the brain, and some research is said to suggest that years of meditation can lead to a synchronisation of the two halves of the brain that creates a very significant change of consciousness. Given that the left-brain is connected with logic and the right-brain with deep intuition, perhaps this gives some idea of the possible physiological substrate of an understanding heart as well as of the prolonged effort that would be necessary to connect with it consistently in consciousness.

Easier said than done, then, but I suspect I have no choice.

So, it has become clear that the heart cannot be the seat of understanding if we coast comfortably along assuming that it is the natural home of feelings in a conventional sense. If it were, how could the understanding heart, for example, protect the flame of love we are encouraged to kindle there from the gusts of negative feeling that blow from the emotional centres of the brain? If we are treating these feelings as though they are what the heart is evolved to house all the time, we’re in trouble. The heart, in the sense we are concerned with here, can’t both harbour the gales of emotion and at the same time shield us from them. The light of love will end up inevitably and rapidly extinguished.

kenmare-reflections2

This is where the mirror image is so helpful. It assists us in separating out what is part of the heart in its true sense and what is not. An account of a dream I had many years ago might help here.

There is a lake in the mountains. By its shore a rabbit squats munching leaves or grass. Overhead a hawk flies. A slight breeze wrinkles the surface of the lake so the image of the sky and clouds is crumpled too. Only my eye is there to see this scene: I am not aware of my body at all.

To simplify somewhat, as the dream has other implications as well, after some work on its content I came to see it as an image of my mind. The hawk is my anger, the rabbit my fear, the surface of the lake my superficial consciousness. Not only the sky but the hawk and rabbit are reflected in it.

If I see the surface of the lake as who I truly am I will live my whole life a prey to fear, anger and all the other changes in the mental weather – the clouds, winds, rain and so on of my inscape – that disturb and distress me. But in essence I am not these things. They are only the contents of my consciousness just as they are not the lake itself in the dream, only reflections in or perturbations of its surface.

My mind is the lake itself and the more deeply I allow myself to experience its full reality the closer I get to the ground of my being, where the essence of who I truly am is most closely in touch with the foundation of my existence. If I live my life from this level of awareness I will be authentic, I will be who I really am in essence rather than the person I seem to be in appearance: I will be in touch with my understanding heart. Heaven knows, if I persevere sincerely enough for long enough, one day I might even become capable, before I die, of being my understanding heart, at least for fleeting moments here and there. 

Thanks to all those who have stuck with me this far and I’m sorry if the final conclusion seems disappointingly modest after all the high-flown expectations!

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Light & Lamp

My recently published sequence of two posts on the power of metaphor suggested strongly that I should publish this sequence again. It is a perfect illustration, in my view, of Lakoff and Johnson’s contention in Metaphors We Live By that (page 193):

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.

In the end, they feel that (page 233) ‘much of self-understanding involves consciously recognising previously unconscious metaphors and how we live by them’ and ‘engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.’  Until I read their words I don’t think I had fully appreciated exactly what I was doing when I grappled with the challenges of understanding what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the phrase ‘understanding heart.’

So far we have seen that aspects of the idea of the heart as a garden inched us towards a slightly better sense of what Bahá’u’lláh might be seeking to convey when He writes of the ‘understanding heart.’ I have still some way to go though with my struggles to grasp this concept. It keeps slipping through my fingers.

At the end of the last post, I said I felt my best hope of making further progress was to use other metaphors, in this case from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, to help unravel the deeper meanings of the heart metaphor.

There are two caveats to bear in mind here.

Metaphors help us understand but are not in themselves the reality which needs to be understood: this could apply even to the phrase ‘understanding heart.’

Also it may not be possible to translate metaphors fully and clearly into prose descriptions. Often we have to allow the metaphor to sink deep into the mind and then wait for the fragrance of its implications to slowly permeate our consciousness and influence our thoughts. Our culture privileges numbers and prose over imagery, shape and melody as a means of understanding, much to the detriment of right- as against left-brain processes. What I am about to do may therefore be a bit testing for some of us!

There are two other prevalent images for the heart in the Bahá’í Writings apart from the garden: the lamp or candle and the mirror. I repeat, at the risk of being boring: we would do well to bear in mind that we should not mistake these images for the Real, whatever that is. However, reflecting on their implications might get us significantly further.

O brother! kindle with the oil of wisdom the lamp of the spirit within the innermost chamber of thy heart, and guard it with the globe of understanding, . . .

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 61)

Given that I was earlier supposing that wisdom would result from searching to connect with the understanding heart, you may not be surprised to find that I have been discouraged at times to feel that I need wisdom to ignite the lamp of my spirit. What if I haven’t got any wisdom to use in this way?

Not to give up hope quite yet!

I think wisdom is one of those spiritual qualities, like detachment and compassion, that is both an end state and a process, and that no end state we can reach in this life would be the end of the journey in any case. By applying such wisdom as I have to fuel the light of my spirit, however paltry the resulting light may be, will enable me to see significantly further than I would have been able to do otherwise. Seeing further I will become wiser and will consequently have more oil to use next time.

This quote, also, is almost insisting on its relevance to the current exploration by introducing the idea of the ‘globe of understanding’ as a protector of the light. 

This still leaves the problem, though, of knowing what it means to treat the heart as a lamp that needs to be lit in some way. Sometimes the source of this light or fire is love, and sometimes, as here, it is wisdom. Buddhism sees wisdom and love, or compassion, almost as two sides of the same coin.

I find it easier to see love as being the spark that ignites the lamp of the heart. The words of a prayer I memorised very early on after I set my foot on the Bahá’í path express it beautifully:

Ignite, then, O my God, within my breast the fire of Thy love, that its flame may burn up all else except my remembrance of Thee, that every trace of corrupt desire may be entirely mortified within me, and that naught may remain except the glorification of Thy transcendent and all-glorious Being.

My mind teems with ways that this might work: prayer obviously as here, reading the Bahá’í Writings and the Scriptures of other great world religions, helping other living beings, meditating so as to purify the mind of all but the silence which opens the heart to the intuitions of the spirit, and so on. There are many quotations that point in that general direction. For example:

Were any man to ponder in his heart that which the Pen of the Most High hath revealed and to taste of its sweetness, he would, of a certainty, find himself emptied and delivered from his own desires, and utterly subservient to the Will of the Almighty. Happy is the man that hath attained so high a station, and hath not deprived himself of so bountiful a grace.

(Gleanings: page 343: CLXIV)

Wisdom as a spark is harder to fathom. The best I can manage right now is to say that all of the above can also serve to trigger a spark of wisdom.  Perhaps because of the way my mind works, I somehow experience love more often as fire and wisdom as light, though the Bahá’í Writings have no such bias.

Flowers near the Shrine

Flowers near the Shrine of the Báb

The garden image implies that many of the processes that promote spiritual development have a far slower pace than either light or fire would suggest. The image is also powerfully suggestive of how the processes of spiritual growth are an interaction between what we do and what is accomplished by infinitely greater powers that work invisibly on the garden of the heart over long periods of time. It takes only a few seconds to plant a seed, it takes some degree of patience then to nurture and protect it, but by far the greater determinants of what happens in the end come from the soil, the weather and the sun.

When, for example, I read a passage of Scripture I am sowing seeds. When I perform acts of kindness as a result I water that seed. My heart’s garden then benefits with flowers and fruit because of the rich nutrients of the spiritual soil and the energising power of the divine sun. By analogy, these fruits yield further seeds that I can plant if I have the wisdom and caring to do so, and my heart will benefit even further.

It is therefore becoming obvious that no one image captures every facet of the process of spiritual development and no one metaphor conveys all I need to know if I am to grasp what it means to have an understanding heart. Something is becoming clear from the imagery we have looked at so far.

First of all, there is a key feeling and a crucial power of the mind that need to be kindled/planted in our heart, and a sense of that feeling and that power is best captured by the ideas of fire and/or light and seeds and/or flowers. In addition to roses of love Bahá’u’lláh writes of the ‘hyacinths of wisdom.’ Their perfume pervades their surroundings just as light is spread from the lamp and warmth from the fire.

Secondly, that simply lighting the flame or planting the seed is not enough: we have to act to protect the flame or nurture the seed. There is an implication that the fuel that feeds the flame is not of our making even though we are the channel for its reaching the lamp, just as it not our light but the sun’s that enables the plant to grow, flower and fruit. None the less if we do not tend the flame and the flower these other sources of sustenance will not be able to do their work.

Last of all, whatever the understanding heart is it needs to both contain and nurture/protect these candle flames or seeds. In a way, the dream I recently wrote about provided the perfect fusion for me of these two functions. My unconscious mind, may be my soul even, provided the image of the hearth: this one word contains the word we are trying to understand, ‘heart,’ and word to express this dual nature: earth and hearth. Both a hearth and a garden need clearing of those things that will choke the fire and the flowers. Ash and weeds must not be allowed to gather, so watering the flowers or sheltering the fire will not be enough.

kenmare-reflections2

The feeling is growing in me, as I write, that the phrase we are exploring fuses wisdom (understanding) and love (heart) in the highest sense of those two words. If I do not know enough I will fail to prevent either the flame of love in my heart from being extinguished by the gusts of passion blowing from the Sahara of the reptilian self that we described in a previous post, or the seedlings of compassion as they grow in the garden of my heart from falling sick, like Blake’s rose, infected by the pests and parasites of envy, greed and hatred.

It’s probably worth emphasising at this point that I am not arguing that such basic emotions as rage, fear, shame and guilt are always unhelpful and destructive. For instance, a complete absence of anxiety would render us dead in short order. However, excessive anxiety such as experienced in phobic disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder can be completely disabling. In the same way, anger can help us defend ourselves or right wrongs at temperate levels, and make us a murderer in excess.

The problem is when we unreflectingly identify with any of these emotions from the reptilian brain. It’s then that we extinguish the flame of love and shatter the globe of understanding into a thousand fragments. We need to disidentify from these feelings, step back into a calmer place in our minds and, while taking these emotions into account, decide to act without being driven by their pressure to act them out destructively.  We will come back to the nature of reflection in the next post.

So, cultivating an understanding heart is not just about what I do with my mind and heart: it hinges even more perhaps on what I do with my hands and with my tongue, and these patterns of thought, feeling, speech and action need to combine compassion and wisdom in equal proportions.

I have to exert myself to mobilise my current level of understanding of both of these qualities to the best of my ability, no matter how low that level is, in order to lift that level even higher. Operating on the basis of prejudice, greed and any other lower form of feeling or understanding will set me back. 

The garden and the flame though are not the only images we can draw upon to assist us. There is at least one more equally powerful image that Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly uses. More of that next time.

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I recently watched Nadiya’s very moving account of her experience in battling anxiety. The programme is still available on iPlayer and is well-worth watching , living up to all the site’s description of it claims:

Since Nadiya Hussain won Bake Off in 2015 she’s rarely been off our screens. But behind the scenes Nadiya suffers from extreme anxiety and debilitating panic attacks, which she’s had since childhood. For decades, she has kept her anxiety a secret, ashamed to speak out.

She’s never had a proper diagnosis but thinks she has an anxiety disorder, and with around 5 million people suffering from the condition in the UK, Nadiya is not alone.

In this one-off documentary for BBC One, Nadiya sets out to find the cause of her anxiety, exploring the most effective, available treatments, whilst having therapy herself, in the hope of managing her anxiety.

. . . .

Raw, open and honest, this documentary will speak to the millions of people in the UK suffering with anxiety disorders, shining a light and starting a debate about an increasingly pressing issue.

At the time of writing, I’ve still to catch up on David Harewood’s story, but intend to do so as soon as possible.

By some strange coincidence, when I was copying a presentation to a memory stick, I discovered a letter I’d written to someone I was working with who was battling anxiety. The feedback I gave, on the basis of work we had recently done, was very similar to that given by Nadiya’s therapist at one point. My letter dates from 2002 and I have absolutely no idea why it was on the memory stick. I thought it worth sharing here, with all identifying content removed.

I have been doing some thinking since the last time we met.  It seemed a good idea to put down on paper the core ideas that we developed over the last two sessions.  So here goes. If I don’t make things clear, we will have a chance to discuss it next time and we can improve on this first draft.

On the 26thof June we talked about the idea that the original horrible events were like an explosion and that the experiences that you have had since, at least in some respects, are more like echoes of the original explosion rather than new explosions in themselves.  We talked about how important it is to be able to distinguish between a new explosion and an old echo.  They can sound very much alike under certain conditions and at certain times. Distinguishing between them can be very difficult.

In the session that we had on the 2ndof July, I felt very strongly that we had moved further down a very constructive road.  This was very encouraging.

We drew a diagram – in fact two diagrams – which sought to capture what was happening.  We also sought to capture what might be a good antidote to the vicious circle that was carrying you down a spiral of negative feelings into increasingly horrible experiences.I include copies in computer form of those two diagrams.  I would also like to make some comments on those diagrams in case the explanation is easier to follow than the picture.

We agreed that as things presently stand, if nothing changes, you are caught in a vicious circle.  We agreed that the experiences that you have are very negative and very stressful. The stress that they create in you brings about very negative feelings which are often very powerful.  These are predominantly feelings of anger and fear. These negative feelings make your mind more vulnerable to further negative experiences of the kind that triggered the stress in the first place.

On the day, we discussed how the idea that these people who were so abusive of you in the past now have absolutely no power whatsoever to do you real physical damage by mental means.  We agreed that, no matter how the experiences you are having may have been triggered or instigated, they are mental events that cannot produce physical damage. Therefore, even if they are all a product of these other people’s activity, because it is all taking place in your mind no physical harm can result.

In the diagram I drew on the board and subsequently handed to you I realise that I have probably put this idea in the wrong place.  I have corrected that with the diagram you will see with this letter.

As I see it now we can turn the vicious circle into a creative spiral by placing this thought immediately after any stressful experience of those mental phenomena that are troubling you so much.  So, basically, if you have a negative experience immediately follow it by the thought: “These experiences can do me no physical damage whatsoever. I am safe to completely ignore them.”

This should effectively begin to reduce the degree of stress you experience, particularly if you find that idea credible.  If you don’t initially find it very believable it’s my view that repetition will make it increasingly credible as time goes on.  The effect of this will be to reduce the stress, which will in turn reduce the negative feelings, which will in turn reduce your vulnerability of mind, and which will ultimately reduce the intensity and frequency and probably the negativity of the experiences.

Obviously, and this was missing from clear expression in the first diagram, we cannot anticipate all conceivable things that might stress you other than these experiences.  So, there may be times when you will experience some kind of stress in your environment – for instance witnessing a car accident.  This increase in stress will momentarily cause an increase in the negative feelings, a consequent increase in your mind’s vulnerability and a probable increase in the negative experiences that are causing you such a problem.

However, if you can immediately realise that this increase of stress is the cause it will help. You will have the confidence to continue to assert the main idea. Because these experiences can do you no physical damage there is no need to keep on paying them attention, no need to worry about them. It is safe to ignore them. If you can do this you will cut off these experiences at the root and they will begin to fade and wither once more.

Our next meeting will give us a chance to go over the letter and make any alterations that can improve its usefulness. Once we have got a letter to which we both agree you might consider whether it’s useful to give your key worker a copy so that when you meet with her she can help you apply what we have planned.

I look forward to seeing you next time to discuss this letter.

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One of the created phenomena is the dream. Behold how many secrets are deposited therein, how many wisdoms treasured up, how many worlds concealed.

(Bahá’u’lláh: The Seven Valleys page 32)

Triggered

In the middle of April, for the first time in a long while, I had a dream whose intensity strongly suggested it deserved my attention. It went something like this.

I’m in a workshop or seminar. We are trying to check whether we have covered all the books in some kind of long sequence. With difficulty we discover we have missed books 4 and 25 and don’t seem to have copies. I passionately assert that we must complete the sequence. It is the key. Without it we cannot enter (I’m not sure what I’m saying we can’t enter – life? A home? A community or what. I’m not sure I even believe what I’m saying.)

At first sight I was tempted simply to conclude that the sequence referred to a system of study used in Bahá’í communities all over the world as part of a community building process. One key thing at least did not stack up. At this stage there are nowhere near 25 books in the sequence. We’re not even half way there yet.

I struggled to make sense of the dream but failed. As a result I decided to reread Ann Faraday‘s brilliant guide to dreamwork. I won’t explain this in detail here as I’ve blogged about her method at least twice (see these three links).

I interpreted part of her advice as suggesting I should ask my dreaming mind for clarification about what it is I’m missing.

Three days later I got some kind of hints.

In the dream I am with my brother Bill in the family home on the living room sofa, though it’s facing the opposite wall to the one it used to be at, i.e. with our backs to the window now. I have a huge stack of papers, and they are in duplicates of two. They are printed in black. I am separating the duplicates out into separate piles. I give Bill some of the sorted ones. He later piles sorted and unsorted together instead of helping. I am furious. I really scream at him and go into the kitchen.

Mum wants me to apologise. I point blank refuse. She feeds me tomatoes and cheese on a big white plate. It looks very red and round.

I rarely dream of the Stockport house of my childhood, and when I do it’s usually something important. My hearth dream discussed elsewhere is my most transformative experience of that kind.

My associations led me at first down a route that suggested my anger was rational. My brother and I were very different. This can best be illustrated by a story of a visit home that I made in my early thirties. On the train I’d been immersed in Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen. My brother picked me up from the station and when we settled down over a coffee to catch up he asked how my journey had been.

‘Reading a book as usual,’ I told him.

‘We’re always reading. What was your book before I tell you my latest?’

‘It was about Zen Buddhism. What’s your book about?’ I asked, genuinely interested, as contrary to his claim he was not what I considered a great reader.

‘The history of the Panzer tank,’ was his deadpan response.

This more or less says it all.

He did his National Service in about 1948 and loved it. He loved his motor bikes and cars. I’d escaped National Service by one year and the after shadow of the war cast over my childhood made me deeply antipathetic to military matters, even though it was armies that had saved us from invasion. For me, a car was, and still is a rather boring box on four wheels designed to move us with minimum effort from one place to another.

So, at first I thought the dream was saying that in some way in my present life the machine mind within me, that I took him to be representing was wrecking my life. It wouldn’t have been the first dream of this kind that I had had. It turned out not to be quite as straightforward as that, though along the same lines in terms of the dream’s overall impact.

However, demonising my brother in this way did not quite feel right because I was the one who was splitting things up as a machine might do. So I did the Gestalt trick of being him. To my astonishment the following words came out of my mouth in his name: ‘Don’t make the same mistake as I did. You’re disconnecting. Stop it. Don’t analyse so much.’

This was definitely not what I expected from Ann Faraday’s description of the typical Topdog/Underdog conflict (page 152):

Fritz Perls, the ‘finder’ of Gestalt therapy . . . called the internal authority voices the ‘top dogs’ of the mind, trying continually yet fruitlessly to impose their will on the rest of the personality, which then behaves like an ‘underdog’ wanting to keep top dog’s approval and at the same time trying to get his own way.

This is how I had expected the dream to read, making Bill the top dog sabotaging my legitimate attempts to split things up, when in fact the reverse was true. A symbol of the machine mind was warning me of its dangers.

When I checked out further this unexpected understanding seemed to be confirmed by my mother’s perfectly circular plateful of red fried tomatoes, symbolising the organic whole of life, telling me in its red massive traffic light colour to stop splitting and espouse holistic creativity.

When I explored what the sheets of paper had to say the message was unequivocal. Their plea was powerful: ‘We are your means of communication, your messenger, your intermediary with life. Without us you would be disconnected. You know that really. We bring you ideas and information, poems and stories. More than you would ever get from other people directly. We saved you as a child.  We are of course the children of trees, your other close companions. In a real sense we represent who you really are deep down, your Entish self, Peat. Even now you do not understand this well enough, which is why your heart sent you this dream. Everything your brother was you are not. He chains you down inside still to some degree. You fake a self to please him still. It has to stop. Write more. Read more. Do not doubt that this is best. Doing things in the way your brother did is not the kind of action you must take because it betrays who you really are. Explore inside your heart and share what you discover. Apart from that be kind, be wise, protect the earth who is your mother, and assist those in need of your help.’

Bill in the dream is saying essentially the same thing. They were not in contradiction. My anger should have been directed at the apparently still active implanted persona of my brother, whose surface behaviour in the past I was mimicking in the dream by splitting up the papers into piles, and whom I tried to emulate as a child, vainly competing with him to bridge the 14 year gap between our ages.

I may not yet have got to the bottom of this dream, but I’m making progress.

A Fellow Traveller

I don’t know many people who attach as much importance to the dream as I do, so it was encouraging to stumble upon someone at a recent Bahá’í meeting who seemed as enthusiastic as me.

I was moving towards the dinner queue when a lady I didn’t know broke away from the back of the queue to talk to someone several yards behind me. I closed the gap but kept an eye out so she could reclaim her place. By the time she rejoined the queue I was still the last person.

‘You were ahead of me’ I said. ‘Please take back your place.’

‘No, no,’ she demurred. ‘It’s my pleasure.’

‘More like robbery,’ I replied. She grinned. I kept my place.

She commented how expressively I’d read a passage from the Writings earlier.

‘Are you an actor?’

‘Only an amateur in my youth,’ I explained, ‘but I was an English teacher for a while.’

‘That explains it.’

‘Mind you, though I switched careers, I’m still a prize winning pedant.’

Her eyes lit up.

‘That reminds me of a vivid dream I had that still sticks in my mind. I’m marking thousands and thousands of exam papers. I’m correcting what seem like millions of misplaced apostrophes.’

This opened the floodgates and the whole length of the queue and then at a shared table for almost an hour, barely pausing to pick up a mouthful of food from our plates except when the other person was speaking, we poured out example after example of the dreams we’d had or heard about. I can’t remember the last time I had such a long and intense conversation on this subject. My head was buzzing at the end of it and I felt much less of a weird eccentric.

Cryptoamnesia

Before I close this post there is one other point to make. Ever since I discovered more aspects of my Entish self (see link) I’ve been doing a simple meditation, usually to help me calm down when I’m checking my blood pressure. It goes like this:

I am like a tree, my roots firmly in the earth and my branches reaching towards heaven. The trunk of my heart, steady and strong, bridging the gap between them, draws sustenance up from the soil and down from the sky.

You can probably imagine my surprise when I read the following words as I came close to the end of Ann Faraday‘s book. They come from the dreamwork of one of her clients, speaking as a tree (page 254):

 Do you think you’ve been put on the earth for nothing? Do you think you have nothing to learn from it? I am your true spiritual growth – not just nature – the tree of life. With my roots deep in the earth, I learn its secrets and convey them to the heavens; and with my branches high in the air, I learn the secrets of the sky and convey them to the earth. I bring the secrets of the world together – body and soul – and I provide a home in which nature’s creatures can grow, as well as producing life-giving fresh air for them.

I’m almost certain I have not read those words since 1977. I’ve only gone back over sections of the book relating to the basic steps of dreamwork. Cryptoamnesia is indeed an amazing phenomenon.

Back to the Dreamwork

Anyway, better get back to decoding my latest dreams. The most promising one from last night goes like this. I am in a kitchen. There is a bit of a crisis going on. I need to boil the kettle but the black lead from the plug comes up through the sink which is full of water. On the surface of the water there is a yellow foam, dust, or scum, not sure which. I let the water out trying to get rid of the yellow. Then I have to try and make sure there is no water in the socket that goes into the kettle. I don’t want to short out the electrics. I think I’ve managed. I fill the kettle avoiding any yellow as far as I can. I plug it in and it starts to heat but there’s nowhere to rest it apart from the edge of the sink which is precarious. I hold it steady as best as I can. There’s a crowd of people with me round the sink and it’s really tricky.

I haven’t the faintest idea at this point what it’s on about. If I ever find out I’ll let you know. As I’ve moved on to re-reading Montague Ullman and Nan Zimmerman’s Working with Dreams, there’s a good chance I might. My resolve was further confirmed when I read a quote worth remembering from Ole Vedfelt’s A Guide to the World of Dreams (page 47):

In introverted states of consciousness such as self-reflection, creativity, inspiration, relaxation therapy, imagination and, not least, dreaming, we are liberated from the many practical duties of everyday life, thus creating a surplus of capacity to process information. This potentially make space for self organising activities that re-establish balance between the needs of the individual and the demands of the world at large.

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Damian Carrington’s article in Wednesday’s Guardian explores what supplementary steps should be taken to help us hold back global warming to more survivable levels. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

Restoration of forests and coasts can tackle ‘existential crises’ but is being overlooked

The restoration of natural forests and coasts can simultaneously tackle climate change and the annihilation of wildlife but is being worryingly overlooked, an international group of campaigners have said.

Animal populations have fallen by 60% since 1970, suggesting a sixth mass extinction of life on Earth is under way, and it is very likely that carbon dioxide will have to be removed from the atmosphere to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. Trees and plants suck carbon dioxide from the air as they grow and also provide vital habitat for animals.

“The world faces two existential crises, developing with terrifying speed: climate breakdown and ecological breakdown,” the group writes in a letter to the Guardian. “Neither is being addressed with the urgency needed to prevent our life-support systems from spiralling into collapse.

. . .

The signatories include the school strikes activist Greta Thunberg, the climate scientist Prof Michael Mann, the writers Margaret Atwood, Naomi Klein and Philip Pullman and the campaigners Bill McKibben and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, and the musician Brian Eno are also among the signatories of the letter, which was instigated by the Guardian writer George Monbiot.

The group emphasises that natural climate solutions are not an alternative to the rapid decarbonisation of energy, transport and farming. Both are needed, the campaigners say.

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Metamorphosis v2

For source of image see link

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Charles Darwin

‘. . . . The process of evolution was a process of complexification, of moving from relative simplicity and disorder towards relative complexity and order. . . . It was therefore a process of moving from more probable configurations towards less probable configurations.’

John Hatcher quoted by Kitzing in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief (page 203)

Optimisation – the sceptical view

To recap briefly where we got to last time, in considering the issue of evolution, we reach a point where life seems impossibly improbable, yet it exists. Something seems to be driving it to create increasingly complex forms of life, but we don’t know what. Now I come back to the issue of complexity from two atheists’ point of view before looking at the Bahá’í perspective once more.

A key issue that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini deal with in their book What Darwin Got Wrong concerns what they call optimisation.

Put simply (page 81):

Evolution seems to have achieved near optimal answers to questions which, if pursued by the application of exogenous filters to solutions generated at random, as the neo-Darwinist model requires, would have imposed searching implausibly large spaces of candidate solutions. This seems an intractable enigma, unless prior filtering by endogenous constraints is assumed.

The standard neo-Darwinian model won’t work, they conclude (page 85): ‘The picture of a blind search winnowed by selection is utterly implausible.’

They have analysed the endogenous constraints within the genome that I referred to last time and are also aware that basic laws of science add in further limits (page 86):

 . . . it seems that only physico-chemical and geometric constraints can explain the narrow canalisations that natural selection must have explored.… [Otherwise] the space of possible solutions to be explored seems too gigantic to have been explored by blind trial and error.

There are still mysteries that remain unexplained, for example (page 89) concerning the angle of wings:

The angles of effective wing stroke are extremely narrow . . . and one wants to question the process through which this narrow wedge of angles became fixated even before there was any real flight.

They give several other examples of optimisation including the foraging strategies of bees, before moving on to a particularly spectacular one: the example of the wasp that zombifies cockroaches with two strategically perfect injections at the exactly right intervals, prior to making its victim the comatose but still alive host and food supply to its young. They go on to say (pages 90-91 – my emphasis):

Not even the most committed adaptationist neo-Darwinians suppose that all kinds of alternatives have been blindly tried out by the ancestors of the wasp … True: wasps have been around for a very long time (some 400 million years, maybe more) but even this is not a long enough time to try out innumerable alternative behavioural solutions, with alternative possibilities conceivable at each step of the behavioural sequence. What, then? No one knows at present. Such cases of elaborate innate behavioural programs… cannot be accounted for by means of optimising physico-chemical or geometric factors.

There has to be some explanation. Whatever it is science hasn’t found it yet but, as scientists, they understandably place their faith in science none the less (page 92):

The problem of finding optimal solutions to evolutionary problems by filtering candidates generated at random would often be intractable. But, as we have just seen, there are some instances of optimal (or near-optimal) solutions to problems in biology; so, if natural selection cannot optimise, then something else must be involved.. . . factors that the progress of science will in due time reveal.

This is an act of faith even so. We’re in Eric Reitan territory here when he writes in Is God a Delusion? (pages 181-182) that:

 . . . atheism is a matter of faith, . . . a way of seeing the world that they have chosen from an array of alternatives about which reason and evidence have nothing to say. . . . Religious faith . . . involves a choice that is no less rational than theirs.

Complexity and Faith

So, what might a religion have to say about this problem that would be just as rational?

Eberhard von Kitzing writes in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief (page 183):

Just as embryonic development consists in the actualisation of the information stored in its genome, evolution based on the existence of a potential order ‘reveals’ the implicit order encoded in fundamental laws of nature.

. . . Because of the gigantic improbability of the result of evolution by chance, today chance as the primary source of complex life is generally rejected. Most modern evolutionary biologists would agree that pure chance cannot explain the complex order of life.

This seems reasonably concordant with where I left Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini just now. Kitzing goes on (page 185-86) ‘. . . as pointed out correctly by Ward, the gradual appearance of order begs the same level of explanation as its sudden emergence: . . . . If complexity needs explaining, it needs explaining, however long it took to get there!’ adding that (page 192) ‘The origin of complex order by chance alone is too improbable for such a possibility to be taken seriously.’

It should come as no surprise at this point (page 194) to find Kitzing pointing out that ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá proposes the need of a voluntary First Cause to avoid the problem of an infinite regression of causes.’

Picking up on the issue of optimisation, or in his terms ‘complexity,’ Kitzing quotes Hatcher (pages 203-04):

‘. . . . The process of evolution was a process of complexification, of moving from relative simplicity and disorder towards relative complexity and order. . . . It was therefore a process of moving from more probable configurations towards less probable configurations.’ . . . Hatcher concludes that there must be a special kind of force which causes this complexification during the evolution of life on earth.

Hatcher voices the conclusion to which this inevitably leads (page 204): ‘It seems reasonable to call this force “God,” but anyone uncomfortable with that name can simply call it “the evolutionary force”.’

Ultimately (page 206): ‘Although there are differences in the details of the arguments of Hatcher, Ward, Loehle, and the author of this essay, they agree in the conclusion that God’s will is necessary to explain the origin of the complex order of life.’

We each of us have to make up our own minds, on the basis of the evidence as we understand it, where we stand on this issue. My main contention here is to suggest that a religious explanation of evolution is as rational as a materialistic one: to commit to either is an act of faith. Reason alone can only warrant agnosticism.

The Social Consequences of neo-Darwinism:

Having dealt with the main issue, I would like to take a brief look at another aspect that needs to be borne in mind: what has been the impact on culture and society of buying into a neo-Darwinian perspective?

Kitzing makes clear that (page 213):

[‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s] particular interest was in the social and religious consequences of Darwinism as it was interpreted by ‘some European philosophers.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá has not been the only one to voice such concerns.

David Wallace-Wells, in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, speaks of how Social Darwinism appeals ‘to unequal outcomes as “fair” ones, an already familiar one-percenter view.’ In effect, neo-Darwinism works hard to make bllnd competitive selfishness seem  almost rational and certainly inevitable.

In Alas, Poor Darwin, Hilary & Steven Rose strongly express their concerns (page 3):

The claims of evolutionary psychology in the field of biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and philosophy are for the most part not merely mistaken, but culturally pernicious.

One of the many examples in the book comes from Charles Jenks (page 44):

Social Darwinists and John D. Rockefeller . . . argued that, since nature shows the survival of the fittest coming out of competition, then society should make permanent the winners and losers. It is only natural to follow natural selection. In spite of such arguments continuously being shown to be logically false and morally suspect, they are, I believe, being continuously made and especially by those trained to avoid them, academics.

One way to fossilise inequality, I suppose.

There is another delusion whose balloon he seeks to puncture: it’s the deterministic one about free will being an illusion. This is rooted in a reductionist view of the mind which Dorothy Nelkin explains (page 18): ‘Evolutionary psychologists…, [c]onvinced of the centrality of the genes, believe that the mind will ultimately be reduced to material properties…’ Ironically, they proselytise their views in the manner of religious evangelists (page 19): ‘Evolutionary psychologists are missionaries, advocating a set of principles that define the meaning of life and seeking to convert others to their beliefs.’

Charles Jenks then spends a whole chapter subverting the idea that this means all we do is determined either by genes or culture (page 31):

 . . . we actually have three variables: nature, nurture and self organisation. For convenience I will label them genes (G), culture (C) and free will (F).

He argues that sneezing is almost completely genetically determined while artistic creativity is one of the most extreme examples of the exercise of free will.

If there were no free will, and everything was determined, then none of us would be responsible for what we do and should not therefore be held to account for it, a proposition that would make it hard to adhere to any workable system of crime and punishment.

Perhaps as importantly, it would make most of us give up the struggle to overcome tormenting mental states such as depression and obsessive-compulsive drives.

Thankfully there is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that this would be a defeatist delusion. There is a book dealing with a wealth of research that is exactly in line with this.

The Mind & the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley tackles the complexities of the issue in a  most accessible style and marshalls the evidence in an engaging and persuasive way (page 18):

Modern neuroscience is now demonstrating what James suspected more than a century ago: that attention is a mental state . . . that allows us, moment by moment, to “choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, [to] choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense . .

The authors discuss in detail various models of mind, highlighting the problems problems with reductionism (page 40):

The basic principles of evolutionary biology would seem to dictate that any natural phenomenon as prominent in our lives as our experience of consciousness must necessarily have some discernible and quantifiable effect in order for it to exist, and to persist, in nature at all.

They introduce us to Chalmers‘ notion that consciousness can be regarded (page 47) as a “non-reductive primitive,” a “fundamental building block of reality”.

It would be impossible to describe all the evidence they adduce to support the claim that volition is real and its exercise can change the brain, i.e. mind alters matter in this case and it cannot be explained as one part of the brain working on another part.

Crucially, they draw on Schwartz’s work with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who had agreed to combine the therapy with regular brain scans. This work showed (page 90) that “self-directed therapy had dramatically and significantly altered brain function.” His model involves four stages. He concludes (page 94):

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

In case we miss the full implications of this work they spell them out (page 95):

The clinical and physiological results achieved with OCD support the notion that the conscious and willful mind cannot be explained solely and completely by matter, by the material substance of the brain. In other words, the arrow of causation relating brain and mind must be bidirectional. . . . [M]odern quantum physics provides an empirically validated formalism that can account for the effects of mental processes on brain function.

So, there I will leave the matter for now at least.

In my view, it is as rational to believe in a transcendent driver behind the improbable complexities of evolution, as it is to believe we will eventually find a convincing material one. There may also be good reasons for being more alert to some of the more potentially toxic ways a neo-Darwinian perspective has been contaminating our culture.

Over to you.

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