Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

In March, before lockdown, I was invited to give a talk at St Mary’s church, Tyberton, a village in the Golden Valley near to Hereford. This is the text of the talk more or less as delivered. I ad libbed a few extra bits of explanation on the day but have not included them here. I also cut the talk short just before the final two paragraphs quoted here. I’d gone past my allocated ten minutes so I thought it better to quit while I was ahead! Those paragraphs didn’t add much anyway. I had no idea, when I gave this talk, how important the connection between interconnectedness and resilience would become in such a very short period of time.

As you probably already know, the Bahá’í Faith is being persecuted in Iran, its birthplace. Our world governing body, the Universal House of Justice, has exhorted the Bahá’í community in Iran to response with “constructive resilience”[1].

Where might the roots of this resilience be found?

Bahá’u’lláh wrote that ‘No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united,’ and saw this as the source of the ‘discord and malice . . . apparent everywhere.’ He reminded us that instead we should not regard ‘one another as strangers.’ We ‘are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.’ [2] We are all, Bahá’u’lláh says, ‘created . . . from the same dust’ and must learn ‘to be even as one soul,’ so that from our ‘inmost being, by [our] deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’[3]

This is why I, as a Bahá’í, feel that the roots of resilience are to be found in a recognition of our interconnectedness. To quote the Universal House of Justice again, this time from a message addressed in 2001 to those gathered for the official opening of the Terraces on Mount Carmel, ‘Humanity’s crying need . . . calls  . . . for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’

No get out clause there!

Unfortunately all too often the divisions within us and between us, which the Universal House of Justice describes in the same message as the ‘struggle among competing ambitions,’ blinds us to this truth. we are prisoners of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes as ‘the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire.’[4]

How are we to remedy this?

This is a problem that all the great world religions have grappled with, and the Bahá’í Faith recognizes that, which is what unites us across all faiths when they are properly understood. I am though going to focus here only on what the Bahá’í Faith can contribute to this desperately needed healing process, if our divisions are not going to bring about our complete destruction.

First of all Bahá’ís believe that we need to cultivate reflection in order to achieve a degree of detachment from not just the material side of existence, but also from the distorted perspectives within our own minds. If we cannot do that at least to some degree, we cannot then use the process of consultation, where we sit down with people of different views to compare notes and enhance our understanding of reality. Only in this way can we find better solutions to the problems that bedevil us.

A saying of Islam quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states that ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.[5]‘Reflection’ is also variously translated as meditation, remembrance or contemplation.

What does it mean exactly in practice?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá helps us here, when he states, ‘‘This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. . . . Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . . The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror.’[6]

What exactly are the implications of this? What are the possible similarities between our mind and a mirror?

The most important similarity is that a mirror is NOT what is reflected in it. Our mind, our consciousness, is not its contents. We are not what we think, feel, sense, plan, intend, remember, or imagine. We are the capacity to do all of these things. However, none of these products of our mind is necessarily real or true. They are mostly transient products of our brains.

We need to learn to step back from them all and look at them from the position of consciousness in all its purity, the closest we can get to God, to the Ground of Being, if you prefer that expression. At the very least we can connect more closely with what Bahá’u’lláh refers to many times in His Writings as our ‘understanding heart,’ a phrase that captures the critical need for us to balance our verbal analytical left-brain thinking, which has spawned our technical advances which are both a blessing and a curse, with our holistic and intuitive right-brain processes, which cannot be easily captured in words and are therefore often lying half-hidden on the edge of consciousness.

In that state of stepping back, we still know what we think and feel, and who we think we are, but we are no longer so identified with those ideas that we cannot listen open-mindedly to what other people have to say that might enrich our understanding. Only when we do this, and it takes constant practice, can we truly consult with others about the nature of reality, the truth about our problems, and develop better ways of dealing with them.

We can consult at last.

Paul Lample explained it like this: ‘[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.’[7]

Then, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, this will show us ‘that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’[8] He also emphasises that detachment, of the kind I have attempted to describe, is one of the essential prerequisites to the effective use of consultation. Which is why, as Lample explains, ‘‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’[9]

Reflection helps us become more inwardly united and more closely connected with the divine or spiritual realms, and so we can become more united with others in our efforts to deal with problems within our family, our community, our nation and even our world as whole.

As a clinical psychologist, working in the local NHS, I found these insights of great value.

How so?

Well, I was working with a group of patients who are still regarded by many people as ‘not like us.’ They were people who carried the label schizophrenic or psychotic. They’re not like the rest of us, right? Wrong. Oh so wrong.

The basic principle of the Faith that we are all in essence one helped me see their common humanity. But more than that even. It helped me learn how their strange beliefs and hallucinations were rooted in their life experiences, how they made sense in that context once I had had the patience and humility to explore that with them and with their loved ones.

And even more than that through the disciplines of reflection and consultation, a kind of Bahá’í interpersonal yoga, I could earn their trust because I did not mock their beliefs or belittle their experiences of voices and visions, which allowed them to share their inmost thoughts, from which I learned to make sense of what they were experiencing. From there we could compare notes as equals and they could begin to find other explanations for what was happening to them.

For example, to stop thinking you are being tormented by powerful demons, who have the power to hurt you, helps you get back control of your own mind and life. I didn’t have to challenge the experience in itself, only the destructive explanations they had understandably developed for it, such as the power of the voices to harm them. Then they could move on.

After all, we all go psychotic at night in our dreams. We could many of us have ended up psychotic if life had treated us badly enough early on. The brain is good at creating illusions and delusions. In fact, a book I read recently by Tom Oliver, an agnostic scientist, explains, on the basis of strong evidence, that the prevalent idea in the West that we are a separate disconnected and individual self is a delusion, so we’re all a bit psychotic already really.

All we have is simulation of reality, a kind of trance induced in us by our culture – a materialistic, competitive and divided one in our case. And the only way we can ever correct our false perceptions and mistaken beliefs is to work together with others who do not think the same to transcend them. (And I would now add that if ever there was a time to internalise that lesson for the rest of our days on this earth, this is it.]

The mnemonic I use to remind me of all this is to say to myself ‘I must take CARE:’ the ‘C’ stands for consultation, and the ‘R’ for reflection, but embedded in a context of action and experience. It doesn’t work just at the level of theory.

As I final joke against myself I must admit that the ‘R’ also represents what are for me the three ‘Rs’ of reading, writing and reflection. Without books to breath in with and pens to breath out with my mind would suffocate, and I would never be able to consolidate my reflections into memorable and useful form. So I must thank you all for providing me with an excuse to read, reflect and write even more. Thank you for your patience in listening.

Footnotes

[1]. This phrase was first used in September 2007 in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’í students deprived of access to higher education in Iran.
[2]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 163.
[3]. The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 68.
[4]. Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76.
[5]. Hadith quoted by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Íqán (page 152 UK Edition and page 237 US edition).
[6]. Paris Talks – pages 174-176.
[7]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 215.
[8]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá cited in a letter written by Shoghi Effendi, to the National Spiritual Assembly of Persia, 15 February 1922).
[9]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 212.

Read Full Post »

Coronavirus Structure (for source of image, see link)

Perhaps it is not surprising that, during lockdown, I should be revisiting books that I have already read as well as reading new ones.

What I didn’t expect was to find that a book by John Hatcher, published in 1994, would contain passages that resonate so strongly with me 26 years later.

I’m going to focus primarily on a handful of quotations from the last third of his book. I am not going to insult any reader’s intelligence by labouring the point and attempting to spell out in detail why I find these ideas so powerfully relevant right now.

In Chapter 7 of The Arc of Ascent, after exploring in depth how the concept of unity in the Bahá’í Revelation, combined with an understanding of the need for a sense of connection with God to be translated into personal action ideally in the context of an effective organisational structure within the religion, he begins to spell out some of the obstacles in the way if humanity as a whole is to benefit from comparable insights.

Near the start of the chapter he explains:[1]

. . . while the generality of humankind may readily acknowledge their desire to abolish warfare, to protect the environment and create a sane and just administration of human affairs, the power to bring about a reformation in human governance resides largely in the hands of a small cadre of thoroughly entrenched political leaders, most of whom seem perfectly willing to sacrifice the public good to secure their own self-interest. And while some of these leaders may die off or be replaced, the ones who take their place seem little different.

Self-interest, as he acknowledges, can extend beyond the merely personal to, for example, an economic niche, a racial identity or a nation state. Even when extended in this way it is divisive and will not help heal our world of its problems.

As he spells out:[2]

. . . we can conclude that the first requisite for the initiation of a world system of social management is the increasing awareness on the part of constituent governments that when the world is contracted into one integral organism, it is impossible to pursue the narrow interests or well-being of member states apart from the health and well-being of the global community as a whole.

The prescience of the comments Hatcher quotes from Shoghi Effendi’s Citadel of Faith, written between 1947 and 1957, is spine-tingling:[3]

The woes and tribulations which threaten… are partly avoidable but mostly inevitable and God-sent, for by reason of them a government and people clinging tenaciously to the obsolescent doctrine of absolute sovereignty and upholding a political system, manifestly at variance with the needs of the world already contracted into a neighbourhood and crying out for unity, will find itself purged of its anachronistic conceptions . . .

In 1941 Shoghi Effendi was writing an equally important statement – The Promised Day Is Come. There he spelt out clearly the reasons for concluding that the world is now essentially one country while also clarifying that he is not denigrating ‘a sane and intelligent patriotism.’ In his view, this ‘declaration’ proclaims ‘the insufficiency of patriotism, in view of the fundamental changes effected in the economic life of society and the interdependence of the nations, and as a consequence of the contraction of the world . . .’,[4]

Hatcher shares the Guardian’s view that ‘fiery tribulations,’[5] such as the Second World War, need to occur to motivate humanity and raise our consciousness to the necessary higher level. War is only one example of many possible tribulations. Hatcher, perhaps hinting at an awareness of a threat that Shoghi Effendi probably could not have specifically anticipated so early in the century, states:[6]

. . .some event or series of events must suddenly make all self-interest synonymous with planetary survival.

However, Shoghi Effendi’s criteria from Citadel of Faith could embrace that possibility as they include ‘[a]dversity, prolonged, worldwide, afflictive, allied to universal destruction’ whose impact will ‘stir the conscience of the world . . .’ and ‘precipitate a radical change in the concept of society.’  In summary, in the words of a letter the Guardian wrote:[7]

[Calamities] are to teach the nations, that they have to view things internationally, they are to make the individual attribute more importance to his moral, than his material welfare.

Hatcher quotes a letter from Shoghi Effendi[8] stating that ‘it seems only intense suffering is capable of rousing men to the spiritual efforts required’ to achieve political unity.

The very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat of climate change and the totality of its potentially destructive power may just be the trigger to our mobilising a more effective response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning, The Uninhabitable Earth :[9]

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it.

However, in the light of more recent experience, Covid-19 may be a better candidate for this awakening than climate change, because its impact is more immediate.

Despite its tragic consequences and the immense suffering it has caused, if this is the wake-up call enough of us will pay attention to, it could mark a significant turning point, enabling us to reconfigure our priorities and avoid even more horrendous calamities further down the road. If we are to give some positive meaning to all the pain this pandemic is causing, surely we must from now on exert ourselves and make sure society does not slump back into its previous comfortably destructive trance. We owe that at least to those whose lives have been cut short in this pandemic.

I will be developing some of these ideas next month at greater length.

Footnotes:

[1]. The Arc of Ascent page 236. Unless otherwise stated all references are to Hatcher’s book.
[2]. Page 237.
[3]. Page 238: Citadel of Faith is a collection of messages from Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, to the Bahá’ís of the United States.
[4]. Page 238.
[5]. Page 244.
[6]. Page 246.
[7]. Page 247.
[8]. Page 251.
[9]. The Uninhabitable Earth – page 25.

Read Full Post »

Part of one of the four Traherne Windows in Audley Chapel, Hereford Cathedral, created by stained-glass artist Tom Denny. (For source of image see link)

. . . . reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

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

(Bahá’u’lláh Seven Valleys & Four Valleys 1978 US Edition – page 34)

When I was replacing the books of Chinese and Japanese poetry back on my shelves, after my earlier post, I found a pamphlet, The Eye of Innocence, dating back to 2003. I had no memory at all of the Traherne Festival it refers to.

I’ve always had a place in my heart for the poems of Herbert and Marvell, who were writing during the same period as Traherne. In fact, I took the liberty of imitating, but not copying, Herbert’s style and verse form in a poem that attempted to capture my feelings on discovering the Bahá’í Faith after about 20 years of atheism/agnosticism.

The Herbert Poem was Love (III).Mine was Thief in the Night, written in the early 80s but not published in any form until after 2006.

Though mine sounds strained in comparison to Herbert’s, the intensity reflects the strength of my feeling about the unexpected conversion experience at the time. An earlier blog post explores other influences operating unconsciously at the time to shape its imagery. Often, it seems, even the writer does not fully understand their own poem.

I thought Traherne’s only interesting poem was the one beginning ‘I saw Eternity the other night,’ only to discover fairly soon, in my recent investigations, that Traherne hadn’t written it at all: it was Henry Vaughan’s.

Not a good place to start from really.

Anyway I read my way through the pamphlet, fascinated by the poems quoted, but equally intrigued by the passages of prose. Even more startling was the story of how the poems were discovered after his death.

How long do you think it took to find them? Ten years? Twenty? Fifty maybe? Well, he was born in Hereford about 1637 and died in Middlesex in 1674: the main body of his poetry and prose did not begin to surface till 1896-97, a mere 222 years afterwards:[1]

It is the winter of 1896-7. Mr William Brooke is rooting around on the street bookstalls of London looking for interesting literature. In Whitechapel, and Farringdon Road, for a few pence he buys two handwritten manuscripts, one poetry and one prose, in the same hand, but with no author.

After some research Brooke concludes that they are the work of Thomas Traherne and publishes the poems in 1903. Though an agnostic himself, he saw their value which he described in his introduction:[2]

Men of all faiths, even of no faith, may study them with profit, and derive from them a new impulse towards that ‘plain living and high thinking’ by which alone happiness can be reached and peace of mind assured.

Even though his poetry clearly anticipates three of my other much-read poets – Blake of the Songs of Innocence & Experience,Wordsworth of Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, and Gerard Manley Hopkins – I had not bothered to read the small selection of his poems at the end of my Norton Critical Edition of the Seventeenth Century Religious Poets. What a mistake!

Infinity and Eternity

Blake touches powerfully on themes of relevance to Traherne.

For example his Auguries of Innocence famously begins:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Traherne is similarly preoccupied with infinity:[3]

The Heaven of Infancy

It’s Wordsworth’s powerful, and to modern materialistic ears counterintuitive, portrayal of childhood that Traherne seems to anticipate so uncannily. A key stanza from Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, published in 1807 reads:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Traherne got there before him, and threw eternity in for good measure:[4]And many of his other poems, The Salutation for example, dealt with the same theme [ibid]:If we take this second quote literally it sounds quite narcissistic. However, in the context of what we know of his life and what we read in his poems and prose as a whole, I am more inclined to see him as writing about the human predicament as a whole. What he writes is therefore meant to apply to everyone. Sadly the vast majority of us, especially now in the West where capitalist materialism holds sway, are never likely to remember such experiences even if we ever had them, as studies of what are termed reincarnation experiences confirm. Too many children who report such experiences in the so-called ‘developed’ world, are talked out of them so that they fade away until they become irretrievable for most of those who experienced them.[5]

Traherne’s experience was in some ways not dissimilar to this, as he describes in the compilation of his prose:[6]

The first Light which shined in my infancy in its Primitive and Innocent Clarity was totally ecclypsed; insomuch that I was fain to learn all again. If you ask me how it was ecclypsed? Truly by the Customs and maners of Men, which like Contrary Winds blew it out: by an innumerable company of other Objects, rude vulgar and Worthless Things that like so many loads of Earth and Dung did over whelm and Bury it: by the Impetuous Torrent of Wrong Desires in all others whom I saw or knew that carried me away and alienated me from it… And at last all the Celestial Great and Stable Treasures to which I was born, as wholy forgotten, as if they had never been.

He was fortunate, though, to rediscover what could so easily have been permanently lost, a recovery that his poetry is focused on celebrating.

Nature

Last of all we come to nature. In this respect Traherne does not so much anticipate John Clare, a highly regarded self-taught poet of nature, writing at the time of the Enclosures – his connection with Gerard Manley Hopkins is much closer, given the shared spirituality of their priesthood.

Here’s Hopkins, in God’s Grandeur written in 1877, positive about nature but as disenchanted with worldly contaminants as Traherne, even though he could never have read him:Or again in Pied Beauty:Traherne is less concretely specific in his imagery but nonetheless his ardent love of nature displays the same intensity:[7]Apparently, according to Wikipedia, Elizabeth Jennings, a poet I’ve also explored on this blog, was also a fan.

It should be no surprise, then, to hear that I plan to acquaint myself more deeply with Traherne’s prose as well as his poetry – better late than never. It may be somewhat delayed as a trip to Hay-on-Wye to scour its rich mines of second-hand books could be indefinitely postponed by Covid-19 containment measures. Still, ‘such light griefs are not a thing to die on.’[8]

Is God laughing now, I wonder? I’ve lost count of the plans I’ve made that got lost somewhere on the road.

Footnotes:
[1]. The Eye of Innocence – page 4.
[2]. The Eye of Innocence – page 7.
[3]. My Spirit from George Herbert & the Seventeenth Century Religious Poets – page 191.
[4].  Wonder from George Herbert & the Seventeenth Century Religious Poets – page 182.
[5]. For more detail see James G. Matlock’s book, Signs of Reincarnation
[6]. Centuries 3.7 quoted in The Eye of Innocence pamphlet – page 27.
[7]. Wonder from George Herbert & the Seventeenth Century Religious Poets – page 182.
[8] Byron’s Don Juan: Canto II – stanza xvi.

Read Full Post »

Read Full Post »

My solitude shall be my company, and my poverty my wealth.

(Bashō 1693 – quoted in the Penguin Classics Edition – page 45)

This is becoming rather weird.

Until the 9th April I hadn’t watched the BBC4 programme about Dufu, an early Chinese poet (712 – 770). It’s rather bizarre that I had already had the vivid experience of blossom, which I recorded in the poem I’ve just published, with its Chinese and Japanese associations, on the 7th, and then rediscovered Wang Wei (699–759) more recently on the 10th, which led me onto another rediscovery, Japanese this time, which I’ll come to later.

Wang Wei is another solitario, someone who had lost his wife far too early, after the pattern of Machado.

Looking back over his poems in a book bought in the early 70s triggered me to remember the poem Poet in the Country,which I wrote with my tongue in my cheek many years ago, when I was living in Hendon, overlooking a park and its brook. I tracked it in my notebook of draft poems: it was 1983 — just before my 40th birthday and soon after I became a Bahá’í.

Poet in the Country

River mist – no tinge of dawn –
Brackish tang – bird silence –
A specialist in Chinese loneliness –
Exiled – no Emperor to blame.

Even though I had found my Faith, in my diary I was still writing such entries as ‘my life is drained of all meaning by my yearnings for something lost (if it ever existed) in childhood. That’s how my life has been – making me the Chinese specialist in loneliness of my poem.’ Just over a year later I married, which certainly helped change things for the better, but it was only when I went on Pilgrimage to the Bahá’í Shrines in 1987 that I understood more deeply what at least some of those feelings of exile were about. Pilgrimage felt like coming home after a lifetime in exile.

I’ve a number of pared-back poems in that notebook, clearly influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetry – this one from April 1981.

Parting

The cold Plough shines and shines.
The stream’s flow glints.
I walk out, my eyes cloudy.

This refers to that same Hendon brook at a difficult time of my life, when divided affections were causing a great deal of pain.

There is a haiku I’ve always remembered, from the same year, written in my time at the Manor Hospital in Epsom when I was in training to qualify as a clinical psychologist. I can even remember the gravel path I was standing on as I stared towards a faraway copse of trees after a shower of rain.

Walking in Spring

Green mist gleams in distant trees.
I splash through puddles
reflecting cherry blossom.

Cherry blossom again – no surprise there then. Even more importantly, I didn’t know at that point how important the concept of reflection was going to become for me.

I was influenced not just by Wang Wei at this point in my life.

The Japanese Buddhist poet Bashō (1644–1694) was a favourite of mine as well. I don’t think I was consciously trying to pattern the poem on the model described by Noboyuki Yuasa in his introduction to Bashō’s writing when he says of a poem about a frog jumping into a pond that ‘the action thus described is not merely an external one, that it also exists internally, that the pond is, indeed, a mirror held up to reflect the author’s mind.’[1] I think there was a subliminal influence at work though nonetheless.

At the front of my notebook of draft poems I wrote these words of his:[2]

In this mortal frame of mine . . . there is something . . . called a wind-swept spirit for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business.

Elsewhere he refers to the ‘everlasting self which is poetry.’[3]

This led to a more complex poem in February 1982:

Candle in the Night

Flickering Spirit!

Poised like a frightened snake
to wound the dark —

or is it the dog dark
worrying the spirit?

more like a cat

trapping the soul
but taunting it
with illusions of release

before extinction bites.

Interestingly, in my diary  I was quoting from Yeats’ Byzantium as well, shortly before the writing of this poem:

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

I saw poetry at that time as something that ‘endorses life, accepts death and always affirms.’ The best poetry, possibly, but not all of it.

It was not just their poetry that drew me to them. The power of solitarios, dwellers in solitude, such as Bashō and Wang Wei haunts me even to this day, as my sequence on Los Solitarios testifies.

Poems like Huatzu Hill by Wang Wei, whose Buddhism was a strong attraction for me at the time, were like looking in a mirror:[4]

Flying birds away into endless spaces
Ranged hills all autumn colours again.
I go up Huatzu Hill and come down –
Will my sadness never come to its end?

I must revisit him again, and I must also read more of Dufu as well. I have only a handful of his poems in my Late Tang collection (referred to as Tufu in my Penguin Edition): I don’t remember reading him at the time.

He resonates also:[4]

My ambition, to be pictured in Unicorn Hall:
But my years decline where ducks and herons troop.

The Unicorn Hall refers to his brief experience of thwarted ambition at the Emperor’s Court.

At this time of enforced isolation, for anyone who missed it, Dufu: China’s Greatest Poet, with Michael Wood’s enthralling commentary and Ian McKellen’s quietly powerful renderings of the poems, is well worth catching up with on BBC iPlayer.

Footnotes

[1] Bashō (Penguin Classics Edition – page 33).
[2]. Bashō (Penguin Classics Edition – page 71).
[3]. Ibid: – page 30.
[4]. Wang Wei (Penguin Classics Edition – page 27).
[5]. Poems of the Late Tang (Penguin Classics Edition – page 42).

Read Full Post »

An Ecological Self

I ended the previous post with the following points from Tom Oliver’s book, The Self Delusion.

I am less convinced by his next line of argument based on the ideas of Arne Naess, a Norwegian ecologist, [1]who ‘suggested that to solve environmental problems, our conception of self-identity needs to expand from an ‘egoic self’ to an ‘ecological self’ that encompasses all of the earth’s living systems.’

It’s not the idea in itself that I find implausible as a necessary condition of effective change: my problem is that I don’t find it a sufficient condition as both Naess and Oliver seem to do.

Oliver quotes Naess’ reasoning:[2]

While one is working only within a narrow concept of the self, he argues, environmentally responsible behaviour always relies on altruism, which is too inconsistent to reverse the wide-scale environmental degradation driven by the collective human endeavour. Instead, enlargement of self-identity to an ‘ecological self,’ integrating all those organisms we are impacting, can result in environmental behaviour as a form of self-interest – care for the natural world beyond our immediate bodies becomes an act of love.

On that basis Oliver supports the conclusions expressed in Psychology as if the Whole World Mattered:[3] ‘if the self is extended to include the natural world, behaviour leading to destruction of this world will be experienced as self-destruction.’

I have dealt with related issues at length elsewhere on this blog so I will summarise my unease with this position briefly.

First of all, there is Jeremy Rifkin in his masterpiece, The Empathic Civilisation. His concept of potential human progress maps closely onto Oliver’s:[4]

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal in. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

Altruism

Next comes Matthieu Ricard’s excellent book, Altruism, which is quite clear that altruism is a stable trait, to be distinguished from compassion, which is more of a transient state of mind. Even though I agreed with his position, I was not convinced by the conclusion he reached on that basis. Yes, as he contends, we must move[5] from ‘community engagement to global responsibility.’ To do this it is necessary ‘to realise that all things are interdependent, and to assimilate that world view in such a way that it influences our every action.’ He sees altruism as the key to this transition.

In this long and enthralling book, Ricard has used reason brilliantly to advocate altruism as the solution to our personal and global problems. He would be the first to agree though, I hope, that a conviction in the value of altruism is not going to be sufficient to motivate enough people to rise to the level of sacrifice required for long enough to achieve the necessary effect, and it is highly improbable that enough people would be capable of meditating with the necessary level of intensity for sufficiently long to turn their transient states of compassion into the enduring trait of altruism.

Similarly, simply identifying with the natural world at a purely material level is more likely to disempower us with despair before the enormity of the challenges which our destruction of the planet has presented us with, than empower us to sustain effective effort for long enough and at a high enough level to save ourselves and our planetary home from terminal devastation.

This raises the question, ‘do we not also need a sense of something that transcends not just our sense of self, but also transcends this planet and the life that depends upon it, to give us the strength, confidence, wisdom and perseverance to commit to action long enough to be effective?’

Some Possible Remedies

In spite of these caveats I resonate strongly to much that Oliver says.

There is an inescapable interaction between our level of understanding of our interconnections and that of the systems of which we form a part:[6]

: . . . if we fail as individuals to appreciate our interdependent relationship with nature, we cannot expect our economic system to take into account such interconnections and protect the natural world.

In the end, if we do not change as individuals there will be no change, as the World Wildlife Fund Living Planet 2016 report clearly articulates:[7]

They conclude that mental models of the world – reflecting the beliefs, values and assumptions that we personally hold – influence the design of system structures, the guidelines and incentives that govern behaviours and, ultimately, the individual events that make up the flow of daily life. The leverage points that can lead to genuine lasting change, therefore, are at the level of these underlying mental models – we first need to change ourselves to change the world.

Is there anything we can do to lift our consciousness to a higher level? Not surprisingly, he mentions the modern favourite:[8]

Long-term mindfulness practice can lead to an overall increase in activity in the areas of the default mode related to self focus.

Both Goleman and Davidson in their book on meditation and Matthieu Ricard in his book on altruism testify to our ability to consolidate transient states of compassion into lasting traits of character by thousands of hours of meditation. It is unlikely that most of us will ever commit to that kind of sustained effort. Oliver looks then at some possible less demanding approaches:[9]

Rather than sitting on our own, we might find that working with others –social learning – can help. Some methods might be familiar to us already, such as green gyms where people work together outside and engage in nature.

Also on offer is the opportunity to dress up as animals or plants:

Outlandish as this may seem, this kind of perspective-taking has been shown to be effective in changing mindsets and genuinely increases environmental concern. . . .  The feelings of empathy induced by this perspective-taking increase the overlap between our self-identity and nature.

Failing either of those we can resort to an alternative approach:[10]

Treating our self-identity like a habit means techniques that help reduce the frequency of bad habits can be effective in preventing this drifting into unhelpful mental state. For example, ‘implementation intentions’ are rules that people plan out ahead for how they will act in a situation when they normally enact bad behaviours.

What this means in practice is rather like the Spot it, Stop it and Swap it mnemonic I explored some time ago after reading Schwartz’s four step method in The Mind and the Brain. I won’t rehash all that just now: for those who are interested the relevant post is at this link.

It will probably be quite challenging to use this kind of method on your sense of who your are. This is where another important skill kicks in: reflection. Reflection is something I have explored at length on this blog both from an existential and a Bahá’í perspective. In part it involves developing the ability to withdraw our identifications with whatever dominant patterns invade our minds, whether thoughts, feelings, memories, worries or even self-concepts to which we have become attached.

Elsewhere, I have discussed the value of reflection. 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.

Interestingly in the same post I also refer back to a previous post that explores the idea of gardening the heart. To my surprise, Oliver resorts to the identical metaphor to make his point as well:[11]

I think of this as analogous to gardening. We are so used in the modern world to rushing around trying to achieve things by sheer strength of will, yet gardening is about creating the right conditions and then being patient and letting nature take the lead. So too, by making time for meditation and contemplation, by balancing our rest, work and exercise, by eating well, we best prepare the soil for our own mental transformation.

All this just before he flags up another issue that comes up in the Bahá’í Writings – the impact of language. Bahá’u’lláh describes the constricting effect of words and language as follows:[12]

The dwellers of the kingdom of names have busied themselves with the gay livery of the world, forgetful that every man that hath eyes to perceive and ears to hear cannot but readily recognize how evanescent are its colours.

Oliver emphasises how central language is to all of us:[13]

For humans, language is our water and as the writer James Caroll said: ‘we swim in language, think in language, we live in language.’

And how much influence it has on how we behave:[14]

Exposure to materialistic messages causes people to adopt materialistic and self-interested values themselves.

It’s clearly never going to be an easy battle to win, the fight to release ourselves from ‘the prison of self’[15] Oliver describes as ‘the self delusion.’

If we do not manage to do so, then we are in deep trouble:

. . . if we cannot shed the self delusion and act with appropriate concern for others and the world around us, then we will face and ecological and climate catastrophe . . .

Final Thoughts

A problem with the challenges we currently face, including the climate crisis and the current pandemic, is that while they demand greater collaboration across divides, they may serve instead to intensify those divides:[16]

From historical studies, cultures have been shown to become tighter in the face of environmental shocks – they become more collective and cooperative internally but develop greater hostility to out-groups.

We can already see where this default pattern is leading us:[17]

 . . . Rich countries build barriers to keep migrants and refugees from poorer countries out.… Rich countries are causing global climate and ecological catastrophe and then building walls to prevent millions of people moving out of inhospitable conditions. In the face of malnutrition and deaths that are ultimately caused by the actions of richer countries, the only way to make such news palatable will be to devalue and dehumanise the people outside the fortress walls –for a start, referring to them as ‘migrants’ or ‘criminals’ rather than ‘refugees’ or simply ‘people.’ . . . News media will explain that it is the failure of their governments causing these problems, even though governing under such inhospitable environmental conditions will be a near impossible task.

This can only get worse: ‘as the global population increases further, taking an inward-looking perspective to protect the in-group will only lead to greater instability . . .’[18]

It is imperative that we find ways of transcending our primate predispositions:[19]

. . .  the natural social reaction to protect the in-group in times of adversity is a cultural adaptation that has become maladaptive in the modern world. If we want to thrive and pass on a habitable world to future generations, we must overcome both our biologically determined egoism and our culturally determined tribalism.

Oliver looks for hope in a well-recognised social pattern, which has too often been a source of distress:[20]

The writer Malcolm Gladwell outlines how trends and behaviours, such as high crime rates, spread unexpectedly rapidly through human populations. These phenomena reach a critical mass in a small subset of the population before a tipping point is reached and they spread like wildfire across the population.… Could we use such social contagion to enable the rapid evolution of a networked sense of self identity among the global human population?

. . . Is changing the mindset of nearly 8 billion humans on the planet in time to solve pressing global sustainability problems a feasible task? When we look at how quickly behaviours and attitudes spread once a tipping point is reached, I feel hopeful that such a transition could occur.

The Corona virus pandemic has certainly demonstrated that we can react with amazing speed and spare no expense when confronted with something we recognise as a major life-threatening emergency. I’ve already dealt at length with the challenges of the climate emergency. Perhaps this idea of a possible tipping point being reached in time can be added into the combination of ideas I quoted in the last post of that sequence. Arthur Dahl, whose blog post is linked to the International Environment Forum, a Bahá’í inspired organization for environment and sustainability, summarises what we need to do as follows:

Change ourselves. Addressing our demand for energy is the biggest challenge. When we use an electrical appliance, spend time inside a building, use hot water, travel anywhere in a vehicle, or buy or eat anything, we are contributing to the problem. We need to start today to make sacrifices: drive less, fly less, consume less meat, have fewer children. A plant-based diet reduces a food carbon footprint by 90%. Avoid beef with a carbon footprint three times pork and six times chicken. Tropical fruits imported by air, and cheese are other offenders. Reduce short car journeys; car-pool, bike or walk instead. But one vacation flight would wipe out the benefits of going vegetarian for a year or driving 2500 km less. In your home, replace appliances with energy-efficient models, lower the temperature of hot water, use a low-flow showerhead, do not leave appliances on standby, and dry washing outside. Smart thermostats can reduce household emissions by up to 26%. Moving to a smaller home can cut emissions by 27%. At the office, turning off lights and your workstation when leaving, and unplugging your phone charger, can cut emissions by up to 28%. Working from home in the US can mean driving 77% less.

Above all, there is a lack of political will for the biggest transformation ever. People have to demand these changes with mass movements. This may seem impossible, but we have to try. We need to convince everyone that green alternatives improve our quality of life as well as the environment.

A key issue to getting sufficient people, including those with political and economic power,  to agree that the climate crisis is an emergency.

In the end, even though I find Oliver’s book inspiring and convincing in many respects, I cannot shake off my conviction that, in addition to all the factors and approaches he adduces, if we do not have some sense of the transcendent, including that of a higher power that can reinforce our efforts if we align ourselves with it, we will find ourselves unable to rise effectively to challenges of this magnitude for a sufficient length of time to turn things round. Unlike the Covid-19 challenge, a few weeks or maybe months of concerted action will not be enough, even when we have recognised the climate crisis for what it is and begun to take some kind of effective action.

To close this post, here is a reminder of that, which I use in meditation from time to time, found in these words of Bahá’u’lláh:

Were anyone to affirm that [Nature] is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion. It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp.[21]

Footnotes

[1]. The Self Delusion – page 211.
[2]. The Self Delusion – pages 211-12.
[3]. The Self Delusion – page 213.
[4]. The Empathic Civilisation – page 154.
[5]. Altruism – page 682.
[6]. The Self Delusion – page 216.
[7]. The Self Delusion – page 218.
[8]. The Self Delusion – page 224.
[9]. The Self Delusion – pages 225-26.
[10]. The Self Delusion – page 227.
[11]. The Self Delusion — page 228.
[12]. Gleanings XCVI.
[13]. The Self Delusion – page 230.
[14]. The Self Delusion – pages 231-32.
[15]. Bahá’u’lláh Persian Hidden Words – Number 40.
[16]. The Self Delusion – page 233.
[17]. The Self Delusion – page 234.
[18]. The Self Delusion – page 235.
[19]. The Self Delusion – page 236.
[20]. The Self Delusion – page 246.
[21]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, Lawh-i-Hikmat – page 142.

Read Full Post »

I’m in what must be a shop or a store. There’s a narrow ramp, more like a flat slide, running from ceiling to floor. A huge and silver dying fish slides down to the bottom. Its gills are pumping: it looks desperate to breathe. Other smaller fish follow, with a black seal, who can breath and slithers away.

The big fish starts to slip off the ramp. A tall man pushes it back with his foot. I can’t understand why no one seems to care or have any pity for these dying fish. It hurts and shocks me. After we leave, I wish I’d taken some photos to share on FaceBook.

In reflecting later on this dream, I asked myself whether there was a hint that, with my birth sign as Pisces, this dream is triggered by and reinforcing the message of Tom Oliver’s book about the closeness of our connection with nature, which I’m reading at the moment. Was the dream registering that I am feeling stifled and shocked by our society’s collective lack of compassion for the natural world? ‘To ramp’ can also mean to increase, in this context meaning perhaps ‘get worse.’

There’s much already on this blog about hints I’ve clocked that remind me that I am close to the earth, whether I like it or recognize it or not. My name Pete for a start, with its echoes of ‘peat,’ and the seminal Hearth dream I had with the clear link it literally spelled out between heart and earth.

So, not surprisingly, when I read Tom Oliver’s The Self Delusion, I very much felt on home turf. I’ve already mentioned him in the previous sequence of posts but I ended up feeling I needed to share much more of what he said on this specific issue, if nothing else. If I was in any doubt, the dream gave me an extra shove.

Inner and Outer Connections

Before I plunge more deeply into what he has to about our relationship with the planet, it’s worth mentioning how a key quote from his book resonates with key quotations from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. Oliver writes that ‘it is becoming clear that our inner connectedness affects our capacity for outward connectedness.’[1] Though he goes on to use our relationship with the microbiome within us and the way it ‘affects our psychological self constructs,’ to illustrate his point that ‘there are interactions between our inner and outer ecosystems,’ the echoes with insights from the Bahá’í Writings should not be too easily dismissed, I feel.

Bahá’u’lláh makes it clear that ‘No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united,’ and that the ‘evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere.’[2] To make his point clearer Bahá’u’lláh uses a metaphor drawn from nature: ‘Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.’ What makes this even more intriguing is Bahá’u’lláh’s assertion that we all have been ‘created . . . from the same dust,’ and therefore should ‘be even as one soul’ so that from our ‘inmost being, by [our] deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’[3]

When you combine that with another key insight from the Writings, the parallels between the insights Oliver has drawn from science and the insights Bahá’u’lláh has shared from a spiritual perspective run close together, in my view. Bahá’u’lláh wrote:[4]

Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men. There can be no doubt that whoever is cognizant of this truth, is cleansed and sanctified from all pride, arrogance, and vainglory….

Strengthening our Connections with the Natural World

Pursuing his point about the microbiome, Oliver emphasizes how, at this basic level:[5]

people who spend more time in natural environments (as those who feel connected with nature do), are exposed to a greater range of microorganisms and have a more diverse microbiome as a consequence.’

He expands upon the importance of this:

. . . on the one hand how we think and act affects our microbiome, and on the other, . . . the state of our microbiome alters our thoughts and emotions and our ability to feel empathy.

He picks up on the idea of empathy and how the evidence now suggests that our connection with people and with nature are not two separate tendencies:[6]

. . .  there was little support for the distinction between the social altruistic and biospheric clusters of self-identity. Instead, according to environmental psychologist Wesley Schultz, the two cannot be differentiated from a more generalised ‘self-transcendent’ cluster that reflects the degree to which a person includes other people and other living things within their notion of self.

This insight, if applied in action across a sufficiently large number of people, could potentially accelerate the effectiveness of our response, not only to the challenges of the climate crisis but also the distressing social divide of economic inequality. Oliver develops the insight in this way:[7]

So fostering a sense of connection with nature should also address the declines in empathy we see in our individualistic culture.… Narcissism is a major barrier to solving environmental problems, so developing new ways to help people connect psychologically to nature may offer a way to solve the environmental problems and concurrently reduce the interpersonal cruelty that arises from the growing narcissism ‘epidemic.’

Connection Blindness

Our system serves to blind us to these connections and the resulting consequences of our actions. He quotes a basic example:[8]

If we had to rear them in our own gardens, not many people would be prepared to subject birds to the inhumane conditions they suffer in battery farms.

It is of course the size and complexity of our society that exacerbates this problem:[9]

The problem of course is that the longer and more complex the supply chain of a product is, the more diffuse is the moral responsibility, and it is correspondingly easier to disown and forget.

And this extends far beyond the issue of the appalling conditions the animals we plan to eat are confined in. The former UK government adviser and author Steve Hilton says:[10]

We live in an age when the effects of our decisions seem less and less important because we don’t really know what they are. We ‘love a bargain’ but we don’t see the appalling conditions endured by the people who produce a product that can be sold so cheaply.

Also we are not motivated to discover what we don’t want to know because ‘that places a huge burden of moral responsibility on our shoulders.’[11] Given the massive degree of damage we consequently do, this evasion is purchased at an extortionate but almost invisible price: ‘we may feel like our choices have minimal effect…, but the collective impact of our personal choices can be huge.’[12]

A Vicious Circle

A key point he makes flags up the vicious circle that is driven by the dynamic we unwittingly create:[13]

Increasingly, governments adopt laissez-faire free market approaches, assuming long term benefits sought by the public will be reflected in their collective consumer actions (which they clearly aren’t), while individuals think there is no need to curb their own behaviour because governments have an eye on the bigger picture and will intervene to protect society’s long-term benefits (which they often won’t).

. . . It’s a very thorny problem because the moral compass of humans hasn’t evolved to intuitively respond to harmful impacts on such global and long timescales. While in the last few hundred years our transport and trade networks have expanded to encompass the entire earth, our sense of moral responsibility hasn’t kept pace.

An Ecological Self

I am less convinced by his next line of argument based on the ideas of Arne Naess, a Norwegian ecologist, [14]who ‘suggested that to solve environmental problems, our conception of self-identity needs to expand from an ‘egoic self’ to an ‘ecological self’ that encompasses all of the earth’s living systems.’

It’s not the idea in itself that I find implausible as a necessary condition of effective change: my problem is that I don’t find it a sufficient condition as both Naess and Oliver seem to do.

Oliver quotes Naess’ reasoning:[15]

While one is working only within a narrow concept of the self, he argues, environmentally responsible behaviour always relies on altruism, which is too inconsistent to reverse the wide-scale environmental degradation driven by the collective human endeavour. Instead, enlargement of self-identity to an ‘ecological self,’ integrating all those organisms we are impacting, can result in environmental behaviour as a form of self-interest – care for the natural world beyond our immediate bodies becomes an act of love.

I will go into more detail about my reservations in the next post.

Footnotes

[1]. The Self Delusion – page 196.
[2]. Gleanings CXII.
[3] Arabic Hidden Words – Number 68.
[4]. Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Wilmette, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988, page 44.
[5]. The Self Delusion – page 199.
[6]. The Self Delusion – page 200.
[7]. The Self Delusion – page 201.
[8]. The Self Delusion – page 204.
[9]. The Self Delusion – pages 205-06.
[10]. The Self Delusion – page 206.
[11]. The Self Delusion – page 207.
[12]. The Self Delusion – page 209.
[13]. The Self Delusion – page 210.
[14]. The Self Delusion – page 211.
[15]. The Self Delusion – pages 211-12.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »