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Archive for the ‘Identity & Society’ Category

Last year I played with the idea of a community of inner selves in a sequence of posts I called My Parliament of Selves. I’ve also dealt with this idea in less personal terms.

I called into question the idea of an automatically unified and integrated self. A vast body of theory, clinical practice and research has accumulated which calls this assumption gravely into question. Split brain research and resulting theories, clinical experiences with multiple personalities and auditory hallucinations, as well as psychoanalytic theory (Freud and Jung especially) and its offspring are all useful starting points in revising a simplistic view.

For instance, Berne, the founding father of Transactional Analysis, saw us as beings organised into at least three different semi-autonomous and incompletely conscious subselves. These he called the Parent, the Adult and the Child. The extent to which these subselves are in harmonious cooperation is one of the determinants of well-being.

A model of therapy often used in coordination with Transactional Analysis is the Gestalt Therapy of Fritz Perls whose most fundamental tenet is that we are divided beings seeking to become whole. His therapy is a form of consultation between conflicting aspects of the person.

I am also aware of the literature which deals with not just dissociated multiple personalities but also mediumship.

None of that prepared me for the shock I felt on revisiting a diary entry of mine from early 2000, which recorded some dream work I had done. I was looking for some notes I took at about that time on the subject of near-death experiences. This was something altogether different.

One way of working a dream, as I have described elsewhere, is the Gestalt technique of assuming the role of a dream element, whether that be a person or a thing and speaking in its voice. In the dream the night before the entry was made I had seen myself reflected in a mirror as a woman, so, when I woke, I worked on the dream by stepping into her presence and speaking her thoughts.

The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mt Fuji (for source of image see link)

‘So you have found me at last,” she says out of her mirror. “Do you like what you see? Will you turn away from me again? My delicacy looks vulnerable and you do not trust me in your world. You do not trust me to be your guide. You think I’ll come to harm. I am not so delicate as you think. Or you fear I’ll bring you to harm. Look at my eyes – a deep deep black. I am in a way your soul. I am the unacknowledged strivings of your truest self. I am beauty. I am truth. I am life. I am love. I am your connection with the infinite. Through me you can know what lies out of your reach otherwise. I know what feeds your spirit and what does not. I am the repository of all the rich experiences you have ever known. Who do you think listens to this Chopin you are playing right now? Who responds to the views of Mount Fuji? Why do you never give me the time truly to savour those wonders? Why do you always wrench me away into the arid distractions of your daily unlife? Why when you usually write this journal do you never wait for me to have my say? Why do you fill it will the froth that floats on top of your mind? Is my path too steep for you? Do you fear your being will not bear the strain of it? Do you fear that paying attention to my concerns will make you careless of your responsibilities in the world? That is not true. Working in the world from my perspective will be richer and more telling.

‘When I look back over your day I can explain why you were so silent for so much of it. Do you remember your thoughts about suffering? All the people that you encountered [she names them but it is best I do not for reasons of confidentiality] – they all speak to the same issue. Suffering is not what we think it is. Its fire turns the clay of our imperfections to flawless china; suffering perfects the soul and enables it to rise to its highest destiny.

‘You do not believe that. I can feel the writhing of your disbelief. You revolt against the idea of bearing such sorrows and such pains in this world. You feel you could not ever do so. You want to evade such pain. That may be your good fortune – to avoid it — but it should not blind you to the purpose of suffering in others. Even those who bear it badly will see how they were blessed when they discard their body and ascend. Even if you had been able to think what I am saying you could not have shared it and what you did think was so negative and bleak there was no point in saying it. So you stayed silent and felt sad. If you have truly learned your lesson from this – which I doubt – you will not turn your back on me again. Try what this life is like – the life lived in full consciousness of me.’

The power of this took my breath away. What’s more I was stunned to realise that I had forgotten the whole encounter entirely, even though I wrote it down so fully at the time and added: ‘I would like to pledge that I will explore the world from this perspective to the best of my ability. But can I do so?’

My doubts were clearly well-founded.

There are many ways of interpreting this persona or sub-personality. Jung’s idea of the anima is perhaps the first to spring to mind. One website defines the anima as follows:

The anima is both a personal complex and an archetypal image of woman in the male psyche. It is an unconscious factor incarnated anew in every male child, and is responsible for the mechanism of projection. Initially identified with the personal mother, the anima is later experienced not only in other women but as a pervasive influence in a man’s life.

Jung did not see this as the soul in the way my sub-self forcefully asserted herself to be.

The anima is not the soul in the dogmatic sense, not an anima rationalis, which is a philosophical conception, but a natural archetype that satisfactorily sums up all the statements of the unconscious, of the primitive mind, of the history of language and religion. … It is always the a priori element in [a man’s] moods, reactions, impulses, and whatever else is spontaneous in psychic life.[“Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i, par. 57.]

And the depth and power of the spiritual insights my mirror-self articulates, especially concerning suffering, seem at odds with all that is written about the anima.

The link with suffering might be giving me a clue to where some of the passion of the persona derives from. I have explored at length how my parent’s grief over my sister’s death four years before I was born scorched my early years.

In addition, the rebukes she spits out about my not devoting time to immersing myself in deep experiences resonates with my work over the years on improving my powers of reflection (see diagram at the foot of this post for my latest perspective on this).

None of this though quite accounts for the sense of a whole personality expressing itself in this outburst – a personality to whom I have denied expression, something I have failed to integrate. I have consigned her to fulminating under the surface most of the time. The anger is searing.

It is possible that the persona was not in fact the anima at all, but rather something more akin to another concept Jung explores in his essay on the mana-personality (Collected Works, Volume 7, page 236). It is something around which the ego unconsciously revolves rather as the earth circles round the sun. He writes:

I call this centre the self.… It might equally well be called the ‘God within us.’ The beginnings of our whole psychic life seem to be inextricably rooted in this point, and all out highest and ultimate purposes seem to be striving towards it.

The Society of Friends refers to ‘that of God within us.’ Bahá’u’lláh Himself writes (AHW: 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

In The Seven Valleys He quotes ‘Alí, the Successor to Muhammad, as saying:

Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

There is at least one fully articulated model of therapy that incorporates a sense of a higher self and seeks to help us connect with it: this is Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis, which I have explored in various places on this blog. A coloured adaptation of his basic diagram illustrates this perspective clearly enough for now.

Clearly I need to take great care before jumping to the conclusion that this passionate dream element was definitely my Higher Self summoning me to better things. Even so, I also need to think hard before yet again dismissing this experience irretrievably to an  archive shelf somewhere deep in my memory store.

Perhaps a bit of reflection would help?

There is one other theory that might conceivably apply but which has much that feels dubious about it. I will take a look at that hopefully next week. The explanation is a strange mixture of ideas that resonate with and idiosyncrasies that repel me. I want to dig a bit deeper at least in terms of the best bits.

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Free Trade Hall, Manchester. (For source of image see link)

I rediscovered this from among some discarded drafts from the past – or do I mean the future? It is personally as well as historically significant that this address will have been given there. At the turn of the 19th century my grandfather had his leg amputated and could no longer work as a railway signalman. As a result his two eldest children, 14 and 16 years old respectively, had to leave school so they could earn enough to keep the family. Whenever they could they scraped together the money to take him on special occasions to hear the music that he loved at the Free Trade Hall.  As it resonates with my recent post with a link to a review of The Econocracy, it seemed worthwhile giving it an airing now. If I live long enough I’ll probably re-blog it on the date it will be delivered if things continue to go badly.

Last night, Professor Ben Trend delivered the following address to an appreciative audience of financial consultants in the Free Trade Hall, which has been recently reclaimed for use by the meritocracy as a concert hall. It partly replaced a performance of a well-loved selection of the favourite scenes from La Traviata[1] which was cancelled after soprano Lira Carissima had understandably declined surgery for a ruptured appendix. Professor Trend stepped forward at the last minute to place her sacrifice in its full context and in a fine gesture agreed to halve his fee of £300,000.

After paying fulsome tribute to Lira Carissima, to the plain delight of his audience he continued:

Financiers, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is hard for those of us born into the middle of the 21st Century to appreciate how lucky we are. Recently however a document fell into the hands of one of our researchers which brings home very forcefully indeed the extent of our good fortune. It is heart-breaking to read the anguish experienced by the far-sighted writer of this precious fragment of social history. He struggled almost all his working life against the obscurantist philanthropy of the National Health Service. Those of us who have for so long enjoyed the benefits of the Wealth Service may pity, but can barely understand, the true nature of his predicament. A considerable effort of imagination is required here.

Even the well-educated amongst us may find it hard to credit how backward-looking English society was at that time. We all know that the true value of money was poorly understood in those days, but most of us fail to grasp how extremely primitive and sentimental their mind-set was. For example, the belief that human life was in some way valuable in and of itself was still amazingly prevalent.

We have to really struggle to remember that this was a society that saw as somehow tragic the richly meaningful death of a security guard shot as he defended a payroll. The concept of fiscal martyrdom, which comes as naturally to our minds as oxygen does to our lungs, was quite unknown to them. They knew, but saw as regrettable, that human beings could lay down their lives for their wealth in an emergency.

What they could never envisage is what is commonplace nowadays: people, in heroically cold-blood, euthanase when their personal balance of payments in terms of society sinks into the red for more than six consecutive months. Nowadays we take for granted that even those entitled to dialysis, such as Bank Managers, Accountants and Economists, for the most part refuse it because it costs too much. Many of these deeply spiritual people consider that a heart by-pass is, on balance, too high a price to pay for the continuation of their services: it makes them unacceptably expensive to run.[2] This is in touching contrast to the mindless self-interest of those in earlier times who used to cling to life for years regardless of the inordinate expense incurred as a result by the National Wealth, sorry Health Service: it is only fair to add that they were able to do so only with the help of spendthrift medical teams in a context of culpable and widespread collusion on the part of the electorate[3] as a whole.

More far-fetched than almost anything else was their belief that altruism, by which they meant the preposterous impulse to lay down one’s life for another human being, was in some way inherent in the human species, and that it was perhaps not just genetic but had something to do with what they miscalled `spirituality’. (Many such terms have in our day been given their proper meaning: `spirituality’ as every one now recognizes is based upon devotion to wealth and could never lead to such wasteful extravagance as throwing away one’s life, let alone one’s assets, to save, to give a particularly stupid example, the life of a child). It is so long since even the youngest children or the most primitive tribes in this day and age believed such twaddle that we find such widespread delusion absolutely terrifying.

It is for that reason that such a document as the one I present here today is so valuable. The brave person who penned it was a member of a government audit department, the Special Audit Insurance Negotiation Team as it was called: today he would simply be called a `saint’ in recognition of the true derivation of that word. He was at the vanguard, the cutting edge, of society’s evolution towards the present utopia, a word which is no longer a synonym for some non-existent ideal society given that the world we have now created is perfect in every respect.

I leave you now to savour without further interference this evocative fragment of an early, anonymous and pioneering martyr’s story.

The fragment begins half-way down page fifteen of what was clearly a much longer report.

. . . . . . incredible the moral imbecility of medics who continue to pour wealth into keeping alive such haemorrhaging drains on our resources for interminable periods of time. It is self-evident to any responsible citizen that these so-called physicians should themselves be ablated from the body politic as no longer fit for purpose if they collude with a refusal to comply with the current enlightened legislation that requires the immediate auditing of all those who take more than they give from the balance sheet of society. My recommendation is. . .

We are not sure why so little of this moving communication has survived. Communication technology was in those days very primitive, perhaps because they were more concerned to squander resources on people than on progress. Perhaps he was martyred before he could send it and the heretics responsible destroyed all but this last brief fragment: medics were capable of almost any perfidy to safeguard their extravagance. Clearly, under the circumstances, his choice of words was admirably restrained, a testimony to the self-sacrificing professionalism of this devoted group of civil, in every sense of the word, servants. Here, if any were needed, is objective documentary evidence of the barbarism and heartlessness of the people of those days.

The report’s dispassionate language echoes down the centuries touchingly to us here. Let us end on a moment’s meditation in honour of such self-effacing heroism. Thank you for listening.

There was a standing ovation and flowers were donated for Madame Carissima’s re-cycling into fertiliser.

Footnotes:

[1]. Dollazetti’s `La Traviata’ is named after the original singularly tedious opera about human relationships by the nineteenth century hack, Verdi. This modern masterpiece, by contrast, captivates the imagination with its vitality. It tells the story of a young idealist, Owen Gold, as he rides the heights of bliss upon inheriting a small fortune in shares. The most moving scene in the whole opera is between Gold and his stock broker, Sterling Loss (played most recently by baritone Peseta Domingo on top form). Loss breaks the news that overnight the market has crashed and Gold’s shares have become valueless. This tragic turn of events is played out in a bank vault against a haunting backdrop of safety deposit boxes. In this context, with powerful irony, this location comes to symbolize, not so much a nursery of fulfilment, as a mortuary of hopes destroyed. Gold is grief stricken. He contrives to be locked in the vault over the long Easter week-end. The irony here is again masterly. On the Tuesday morning, after several profoundly moving arias which increase in volume and duration as he suffocates, he is found dead among his shares by the cleaners. One cannot help but admire the way a sterile motif in another of Verdi’s seriously outmoded operas, ‘Aida,’ has been so brilliantly echoed to such good advantage – and invested with new meaning at such a high rate of interest!

[2] Professor Trend, under pressure of time, somewhat simplified this issue in the interests of brevity. Our society is in no way arbitrary and unfair. The picture he paints of the average situation needs to be counterbalanced by how we treat the fully deserving. It would be a travesty of justice if we were to revoke the life licence of someone whose contribution to society significantly outweighed his burden upon it. If, for example, an entrepreneur can prove that he is continuing to generate at least twice as much wealth as his treatment is consuming, no matter how expensive it is he will be allowed to continue to exist. It is a matter of pride to us that the vast majority of the richest 2% worldwide live at least twice as long on average as the remaining 98%.

[3]. Electorate is a term long since fallen into disuse along with its sister concept democracy. These archaic and misguided aspects of government involved the barely credible idea that ordinary people were sufficiently intelligent and perceptive to choose their rulers. They even held the view, in those days, that pouring more money into education would make democracy more effective. We long ago recognised that an educated plutocracy was the only sensible arrangement. Rich people who understand economics are the only ones fit to govern for the clear benefit of all.

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My mind . . . . .
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘Prayer for My Daughter‘)

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the second of three. The first came out on Monday: this is the third and last.

A World-Embracing Vision

A central concept in Bahá’í discourse, as could be inferred from previous posts, is the heart. This is used to refer to the core of our being. It is not purely emotional, though emotion is an important factor.

In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love.

(Persian Hidden Words: No. 3)

It also involves insight. Bahá’u’lláh uses the phrase ‘understanding heart’ on a number of occasions.

There is more to it even than that. In previous posts about the self and the soul I have explored the implications of the way that Bahá’u’lláh describes the heart either as a ‘mirror’ or a ‘garden.’ I won’t be revisiting those considerations here but they are relevant to this theme.

I want to look at another angle on the heart which Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly refers to.

In the Hidden Words (Persian: No.27) He writes:

All that is in heaven and earth I have ordained for thee except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory; yet thou didst give My home and dwelling to another than Me and whenever the manifestation of My holiness sought His own abode, a stranger found He there, and, homeless, hastened to the sanctuary of the Beloved.

The meaning is clear. Like an addict we fill our hearts with junk as an addict blocks his receptors with heroin so that the appropriate ‘occupant’ is denied access and we do not function properly. We are in a real sense poisoned.

sunset-21Bahá’u’lláh is equally clear about the advice He gives:

Return, then, and cleave wholly unto God, and cleanse thine heart from the world and all its vanities, and suffer not the love of any stranger to enter and dwell therein. Not until thou dost purify thine heart from every trace of such love can the brightness of the light of God shed its radiance upon it, for to none hath God given more than one heart. . . . . . And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided. Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of any one besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness. God is My witness.

(Gleanings: CXIV)

Though it is easier said than done, of course, this has several important implications.

We are often divided within ourselves, worshipping more than one false god. We are divided from other people when we perceive them to be worshipping other gods than ours. This warps the proper functioning of the heart. It prevents us from becoming ‘a true upholder of His oneness,’ people who see all of humanity as our business and behave accordingly.

Bahá’u’lláh observed:

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: pages 164-165)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá developed the same theme:

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 76)

Note that transcending such divisions within and between people is linked with a unifying devotion to an inclusive and loving God: if we worship an exclusive and narrow god our divisions and conflicts will be exacerbated.

There is a key passage in the Arabic Hidden Words (No. 68) which assists in helping us understand the spiritual dynamics here:

Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.

Oneness and detachment are inextricably linked. Only when we detach ourselves from false gods can we integrate all aspects of ourselves, bring our divided loyalties together under one banner, and see ourselves at one with all humankind. When we dismantle the barriers within us we can also dismantle those between us. Only then can the expression of unity come from the depths of our being and manifest itself in actions and words that are a seamless fabric of complete integrity harmonised with all humanity. The process of striving to achieve this state in this physical world is a slow and painful one but cannot be evaded if we are to live a full and fulfilling life, as against an empty, sterile and potentially destructive one. Above all it involves expressing a sense of common humanity in action regardless of how we feel sometimes: positive values are a better guide to consistently positive action than feelings that can shift swiftly from light to dark and back again.

Without such a radical integration we will not be able to achieve the world embracing vision required of us if the problems confronting our civilisation are to have any hope of resolution. Anything less runs a very strong risk of perpetuating prejudice, conflict, discrimination and all the evils such as pogroms that have their roots in such heart-felt and deep-seated divisions.

We must be careful not to substitute some limited idea of God of our own devising for the limitless experience of love that is the one true God beyond all description. That way hatred lies. It is the ‘rose’ of love that we must plant in the garden of our hearts, not its daisy or its dandelion, though either of those would certainly be better than the stinging nettle of animosity, but probably not up to meeting the challenges that this shrinking and diverse world is currently throwing at us.

Planting the most inclusive and embracing flower of love in our hearts that we are capable of is the indispensable precursor to the positive personal transformation of a radical kind that is demanded of us now.

The Method

Without some plan of action, what I have described may well of course turn out to be empty rhetoric. Every great world religion has described in detail the steps we need to take to perfect ourselves once we have placed its message in our heart of hearts.

Buddhism is perhaps the clearest in its ways of doing this, with its four noble truths and eightfold path. Also its system of psychological understanding is second to none, which is perhaps why current psychological approaches to distress are borrowing so heavily from it, for example in the concept of mindfulness.

The Baha’i Faith is a much younger tradition but is unique in combining recommendations for individual spiritual development, such as prayer and reflection (in the sense I have discussed in detail in previous posts) with prescriptions for expressing spiritual understanding collectively in the special conditions of the modern world. There are two key components of this.

First, consultation, which is a spiritual and disciplined form of non-adversarial decision-making. Second is a way of organising a global network of like-minded people, which combines democratic elections with authority held collectively by an assembly. There is neither priesthood nor presidency. The system allows for a flexible process of responding to what we learn from experience: there is nothing fossilised about it.

I believe there is much to learn from the Baha’i model that can be successfully applied in our lives whether we decide to join the Baha’i community or not. The learning is readily transferable to almost any benign context.

An Appeal to our Better Selves

After such a long post as this, now is not the time to go into this in detail but the many links from this blog will introduce these ideas in accessible form. I intend to return to this aspect of the issue in due course.

I would like instead to close with the words of a powerful message, sent by our governing body at the Baha’i World Centre to the world’s religious leaders in 2002. It stated in its introduction:

Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in the path; to cite a particular painful fact, it has long lent its credibility to fanaticism.

They continued:

The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It is surely unnecessary to cite in detail the horrors being visited upon hapless populations today by outbursts of fanaticism that shame the name of religion.

All is not lost, they argue:

Each of the great faiths can adduce impressive and credible testimony to its efficacy in nurturing moral character. Similarly, no one could convincingly argue that doctrines attached to one particular belief system have been either more or less prolific in generating bigotry and superstition than those attached to any other.

They assert their conviction:

. . . that interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

And they close with the following appeal:

The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind.

This is work that we can all support, wherever we are and in whatever God we do or do not believe. We should not just leave it to our leaders.

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The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the second of three. The first came out on Monday: the last will come out tomorrow.

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

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Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William BlakeSongs of Experience Additional Poem

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the first: the second will come out on Thursday and the last on Friday.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

 

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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A group of seventh graders learning about preparing orchard plots for planting crops as part of the SAT program in Honduras

A couple of days ago an inspiring piece appeared on the Bahá’í World News site to which I was alerted by a friend on FB. Given all the gloom around at the moment it seemed a good idea to try and spread about something more positive, concerning a new approach to learning that will help create well-rounded community-conscious human beings rather than cogs for the wheels of industry and capital. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

WASHINGTON D.C. — In the last twenty years, remarkable strides have been achieved in providing access to education for children around the world. However, research in the field of education is showing that increased schooling has not automatically led to increased learning. The United Nations estimates that 250 million children are not able to read, write, or perform basic math, whether they have been to school or not.

Addressing what it calls a “learning crisis”, the Brookings Institution — a major think tank in the United States-started an initiative in 2015 called “Millions Learning“. The study sought to identify educational interventions where not only access to schools was improving, but also learning itself.

One of the programs featured in the report is the Baha’i-inspired initiative Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial (SAT, or in English, the Tutorial Learning System). Since its beginnings in the 1970s in Colombia, SAT has expanded across Latin America to reach more than 300,000 students, and it has been accredited and recognized by a number of governments.

The “Millions Learning” report highlights 14 educational programs that show increased learning outcomes through innovative approaches to schooling. A major criterion of the study was that these programs could be scaled up in size and implemented in other settings in a sustainable way.

According to Brookings, SAT is “catalyzing an education revolution” by “transforming how education is conceptualized, designed, and delivered.”

“SAT is radically different from the traditional secondary school and high school model, and it is cutting edge in so many ways,” said Jenny Perlman Robinson, author of the case study for the Brookings Institution. “It focuses on skills that are beyond the traditional academic skills, such as moral and character development, and it conceives of learning as something much broader.”

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'Void Devouring the Gadget Era' by Mark Tobey

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

An unexpected ‘like’ alerted me to the existence of this post which I had completely forgotten. As I am planning to post a short sequence next week on the theme of consciousness – whether it is spirit, mind or brain – this post from 2010 seemed too closely related not to be repeated!

In a recent post I reviewed Iain McGilchrist‘s thought-provoking new book The Master and His Emissary. The night before last I watched a DVD, Food, Inc, about the American food industry (more of that in a moment). The images and information the film conveyed reminded me immediately of the nightmare world McGilchrist feels will be created by the untrammelled operation of the utilitarian left-hemisphere.

Towards the end of his book, McGilchrist spells out simply and clearly some of the characteristics of that world:

Skills . . . would be reduced to algorithmic procedures . . . which could be regulated by administrators. . . . Increasingly the living world would be modelled on the mechanical. . . . When we deal with a machine, there are three things that we want to know: how much it can do, how fast it can do it, and with what degree of precision. . . . In human affairs, increasing the amount or extent of something, or the speed with which something happens, or the inflexible precision with which it is conceived or applied, can actually destroy. But since the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of What, quantity would be the only criterion that it would understand. The right hemisphere’s appreciation of How (quality) would be lost.

(page 430)

He also quotes the work of Berger and colleagues (1974). When a society becomes dominated by technology they predict the development of what they call ‘mechanisticity’ and other distortions of the human spirit. This means:

. . . the development of a system that permits things to be reproduced endlessly, and enforces submergence of the individual in a large organisation or a production line: ‘measurability’, in other words the insistence on quantification, not qualification; ‘componentiality’, that is reality reduced to self-contained units, so that ‘everything is analysable into constituent components, and everything can be taken apart and put together again in terms of these components’; and an ‘abstract frame of reference’, in other words loss of context.

(page 430)

He summarises Gabriel Marcel as speaking of:

. . . the difficulty in maintaining one’s integrity as a unique, individual subject, in a world where a combination of the hubris of science and the drive of technology blots out the awe-inspiring business of conscious human existence, what he refers to as ‘the mystery of being,’ and replaces it with a set of technical problems for which they purport to have solutions.

(ibid.)

Ultimately, ‘[m]orality would come to be judged at best on the basis of utilitarian calculation, at worst on the basis of enlightened self-interest’ (page 431).

The DVD ‘Food, Inc‘ gives us a vivid insight into just how ‘enlightened’ that self-interest has already turned out to be.

The trailer below gives only a faint flavour of the power of the film:

The advert for the film, also on YouTube, packs a somewhat stronger punch but could not be embedded here. There is, though, no substitute for sitting through a rather harrowing 90 minutes to convey the full horror of the reality to which blinkered left-brain processes reduce us when they are unmoderated by the empathic big picture the right-brain brings to bear.

It is fascinating to see how Schwartz’s book, which I also reviewed recently, shows how a different path has led him to similar conclusions. He writes in his co-authored book, The Mind & the Brain (page 276):

Stapp made the point that there is no stronger influence on human values than man’s belief about his relationship to the power that shapes the universe. . . . When the scientific revolution converted human beings from sparks of divine creation into not particularly special cogs in a giant impersonal machine, it eroded any rational basis for the notion of responsibility for one’s actions. We became a mechanical extension of what preceded us, over which we have no control.

This view is permeating our culture, he feels:

The view that people are mere machines and that the mind is just another (not particularly special) manifestation of a clockwork physical universe [has] infiltrated all our thinking . . .

(page 258)

In his view, it accounts for all ‘our moral decrepitude’ because

. . . materialism as a world view . . . . holds that the physical is all that exists, and that transcendent human mental experiences and emotions . . . are in reality nothing but the expressions of electrical impulses zipping along neurons.

(ibid.)

This simplistic world view then refuses to acknowledge that there is a ‘mental force’ (i.e. a ‘physical force generated by mental effort’, which is not itself material – page 295) by means of which ‘through intense effort we can resist our baser appetites’ (page 257).

Such a reductionist world view is many million miles apart from the Bahá’í view that, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expressed it:

. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

(Some Answered Questions)

Not only that. Volition, He explains, is a special characteristic not found in matter:

Man possesses certain virtues of which nature is deprived. He exercises volition; nature is without will. For instance, an exigency of the sun is the giving of light. It is controlled — it cannot do otherwise than radiate light — but it is not volitional.

(Promise of Universal Peace)

It seems as though this defective world view, which we can as a shorthand label materialism, which thrives when the left hemisphere cuts free of the right, is a significant part of the answer to a critical question religious faith poses to us:

Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself?

(Arabic Hidden Words: number 13)

The question which confronts us all is: ‘What am I going to do about it?’

This blog is part of my attempt to work out an answer.

The Bahá’í view at its core contends that, if we are to have an impact, we all need to find ways of working together rather than alone. We have to recognise our essential unity with everyone else, with all life everywhere,  before these problems can be properly addressed. Obviously, once that sense of oneness begins to be established, the more of us there are using it as an operating principle the greater our impact will be.

It seems to me that the thrust of McGilchrist’s position is that it will take nothing less than the combined energies of our entire being to empower us to succeed in this struggle, the humane wisdom of the right brain moderating the blind utilitarianism of the left, the wing of true religion and the wing of true science working together to lift us off the ground. This level of energy will only be available when we are at one and in harmony within ourselves. The vision required for this level of personal integration is spiritual not material in origin. Not until sufficient numbers of people invest great efforts of ‘mental force’ over long periods of time to lift themselves to this level will the healing of our society become possible.

Even so, such integration of the psyche is possible if the requisite effort is made and people are successfully making comparable efforts every second of every day. The great spiritual traditions as well as the latest developments in neuropsychology, underpinned in Schwartz’s view by modern physics, combine to confirm that this must and can be done.

We don’t have to let the machine mentality take over the world completely. More and more of us can join in building towards the critical mass of effort that will create a tipping point. Hopefully, in ever increasing numbers, we will.

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