Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

Grave & Courtyard v2

We’ve had another meeting of the Death Cafe again – only 11 people this time, but still a good solid number.

The main topics we covered were assisted dying, suicide and, towards the end, reincarnation.

The latter was triggered by my recent reading of James G. Matlock’s book, Signs of Reincarnation. Give that I have dealt with this topic at some length already on this blog, why did I go back to look at it again.

Well, basically, I felt I would implementing a double standard if I criticised, as I frequently do, materialists for refusing to look at the evidence for a spiritual reality because they have ruled it out in advance as impossible, and I then refused to look at newly described evidence organised under a different model for a concept like reincarnation because I have decided I do not believe in. That would smack of hypocrisy.

So I bit the bullet and bought the book. We are hopefully going to have another look at that at a later meeting of the Death Cafe as I was only half way through the book when I brought the matter up at the end of the meeting.

I’ve now finished it and he has not changed my mind, but I respect his careful review of the most convincing evidence and his preference for letting the evidence shape the theory not the theory warp the evidence.

He summarises his basic position near the end of the book by stating (page 258):

The workings of reincarnation are often presumed to lie in metaphysical obscurity. In reality, as I have tried to show, the process is probably fairly simple, at least in outline. The stream of consciousness that animates a body during life continues into death, and persists through death, until it becomes associated with (possesses) another body, generally one not yet born. The consciousness stream is composed of both subliminal and supraliminal strata, the former bearing memories and various traits we may subsume under the heading of personality, the latter representing conscious awareness. Once in possession of its new body, the reincarnating mind customises it by adding behavioural and physical effects through psychokinetic operations on its genome, brain, and underlying physiology. At the level of conscious awareness, there is a reset, as the mind begins to interact with its new body and brain. Amnesia sets in, the subconscious blocking conscious memory of the past in what it considers to be its own best interests. The influence of the past is expressed behaviourally, however, and at times the subconscious permits memories to erupt into conscious awareness.

I must thank him also for pointing me in the direction of another model that seems at first sight to map more closely only my own perspective (page 233 – my emphasis):

The [Archetypal Synchronistic Resonance – Mishlove & Engender 2007] model emphasises the hidden nexus of meaning underlying seemingly disparate events and may have some utility in explaining unverified past-life memories, past-life regression, and past-life readings that tap into a client’s mind if these relate to deep psychological processes and psychic connections between people rather than to the memory of previous lives.

Matlock feels this model is inadequate to explain ‘solved reincarnation cases.’

The middle paragraphs of the second of two posts on reincarnation show how closely I t corresponds to the clause in bold.

Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick, in their excellent book Past Lives, have a whole section on this very issue. . . .[T]hey refer to (page 278) . . . the ‘Cosmic Memory Bank.’ They describe ‘field theories’ and refer to Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of ‘morphic resonance.’ They add (page 279):

If memories (information) are held in this way they would exist independently of the brain and therefore be accessible to another brain which ‘resonated’ with them.’

A model along these lines is still my preference, even though Mishlove is clearly a convert (page xiv), and even though I’ve ploughed through some of Stevenson’s work, as I indicated I would, and now Matlock’s sophisticated theory as well.

I may have time to explain that more fully later. For now, suffice it so say that I cannot see quite why the kind of affinity between a deceased consciousness and a newly generated one that the Fenwicks describe could not psychically impact upon a developing foetus just as strongly as a migrating soul might do. The only data that needs some explanation are the experiences people report of a soul in transit visiting them to declare where they intend to be reborn. Given that communications from a spiritual realm tend to be experienced in ways that are influenced by culture, that may not hole my hoped for theory below its waterline. I’lll be giving more thought to that as time goes on.

The next meeting of the Death Cafe will be at 6 pm on Wednesday 14 August at the Courtyard Theatre Hereford.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Redwood trees in Guerneville, California. Photograph: Gabrielle Lurie/The Guardian

Yesterday’s Guardian published an intriguing article by that raised a glimmer of hope about our resolution of the climate crisis. There would still be much to do in the short time we’ve got, and it may not constitute some kind of miracle solution. However, it looks as though it could avert some of the worst effects, if we had the resolution to devote resources to its implementation. Below are some short extracts: for the full article, see link.

Research shows a trillion trees could be planted to capture huge amount of carbon dioxide

Planting billions of trees across the world is by far the biggest and cheapest way to tackle the climate crisis, according to scientists, who have made the first calculation of how many more trees could be planted without encroaching on crop land or urban areas.

As trees grow, they absorb and store the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving global heating. New research estimates that a worldwide planting programme could remove two-thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by human activities, a figure the scientists describe as “mind-blowing”.

The analysis found there are 1.7bn hectares of treeless land on which 1.2tn native tree saplings would naturally grow. That area is about 11% of all land and equivalent to the size of the US and China combined. Tropical areas could have 100% tree cover, while others would be more sparsely covered, meaning that on average about half the area would be under tree canopy.

. . .

Crowther emphasised that it remains vital to reverse the current trends of rising greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and forest destruction, and bring them down to zero. He said this is needed to stop the climate crisis becoming even worse and because the forest restoration envisaged would take 50-100 years to have its full effect of removing 200bn tonnes of carbon.

. . . 

The study, published in the journal Science, determines the potential for tree planting but does not address how a global tree planting programme would be paid for and delivered.

. . . 

“Without freeing up the billions of hectares we use to produce meat and milk, this ambition is not realisable,” he said. Crowther said his work predicted just two to three trees per field for most pasture: “Restoring trees at [low] density is not mutually exclusive with grazing. In fact many studies suggest sheep and cattle do better if there are a few trees in the field.”

. . . 

However, some scientists said the estimated amount of carbon that mass tree planting could suck from the air was too high. Prof Simon Lewis, at University College London, said the carbon already in the land before tree planting was not accounted for and that it takes hundreds of years to achieve maximum storage. He pointed to a scenario from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 1.5C report of 57bn tonnes of carbon sequestered by new forests this century.

Read Full Post »

Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Kitáb-i-Íqán: pages 68-69)

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

Road less travelled

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

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

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

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

They go on to speak of the importance of commitment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kenmare-reflections2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Light & Lamp

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

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

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

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

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

There are two caveats to bear in mind here.

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

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

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

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

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 61)

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

Not to give up hope quite yet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gleanings: page 343: CLXIV)

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

Flowers near the Shrine

Flowers near the Shrine of the Báb

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

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

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

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

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

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

kenmare-reflections2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

The renovated market in Preston, Lancashire, 2018. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Earlier this week there was a thought-provoking article by Andy Beckett on the Guardian website. Below are some short extracts: for the full article see link.

There is a dawning recognition that a new kind of economy is needed: fairer, more inclusive, less exploitative, less destructive of society and the planet. “We’re in a time when people are much more open to radical economic ideas,” says Michael Jacobs, a former prime ministerial adviser to Gordon Brown. “The voters have revolted against neoliberalism. The international economic institutions – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund – are recognising its downsides.” Meanwhile, the 2008 financial crisis and the previously unthinkable government interventions that halted it have discredited two central neoliberal orthodoxies: that capitalism cannot fail, and that governments cannot step in to change how the economy works.

. . .

[The idea of a] “democratic economy” is not some idealistic fantasy: bits of it are already being constructed in Britain and the US. And without this transformation, the new economists argue, the increasing inequality of economic power will soon make democracy itself unworkable. “If we want to live in democratic societies, then we need to … allow communities to shape their local economies,” write Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill, both prolific advocates of the new economics, in a recent article for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) – a thinktank previously associated with New Labour. “It is no longer good enough to see the economy as some kind of separate technocratic domain in which the central values of a democratic society somehow do not apply.” Moreover, Guinan and O’Neill argue, making the economy more democratic will actually help to revitalise democracy: voters are less likely to feel angry, or apathetic, if they are included in economic decisions that fundamentally affect their lives.

The new economists’ enormously ambitious project means transforming the relationship between capitalism and the state; between workers and employers; between the local and global economy; and between those with economic assets and those without. “Economic power and control must rest more equally,” declared a report last year by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a radical London thinktank that has acted as an incubator for many of the new movement’s members and ideas.

. . .

Preston’s hilltop city centre, which had been fading for decades, now has a refurbished and busy covered market, new artists’ studios in former council offices, and coffee and craft beer being sold from converted shipping containers right behind the town hall. All these enterprises have been facilitated by the council. Less visibly, but probably more importantly, the city’s large concentration of other public sector bodies – a hospital, a university, a police headquarters – have been persuaded by the council to procure goods and services locally whenever possible, becoming what the Democracy Collaborative calls “anchor institutions”. They now spend almost four times as much of their budgets in Preston as they did in 2013.

The council leader is Matthew Brown, an intense, angular 46-year-old who was partly inspired to enter politics by seeing Benn on television as a teenager. “What we’re doing in Preston is common sense, but it’s also ideological,” Brown told me, when we met in his sparse office. “We’re living through a systemic crisis of capitalism, and we’ve got to create alternatives.” By doing so – especially at a time when local councils are supposed to have been hugely weakened by government cuts – Preston is in small but visible ways undermining the authority of neoliberalism, dependent as it is on the insistence that no other economic options are possible.

The council, Brown continued proudly, was “supporting local small businesses rather than big capitalists”. It was using its “leverage” as a procurer to make businesses behave more ethically: pay the living wage, recruit more diverse staff. And it was aiming to make the city a place where cooperatives were mainstream rather than niche: “My intention is to get them to 30%, 40% of our economy.”

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

I know you will say I brought this on myself. Nobody asked me to tackle this issue in public. I have only myself to blame. I wanted to know more clearly what is meant by Bahá’u’lláh’s expression ‘ the understanding heart.’  I decided to go public with my struggles to do so. Now I’m not so sure that was such a great idea after all. I’m not at all convinced I can deliver in a way that advances anyone’s understanding more than a few millimetres at best. Some people may even feel I’m taking them back a step or two.

Anyway I said I would have a go, so let’s get on with it.

I have so far been tackling the easy bit. I’ve clarified that the heart in the sense Bahá’u’lláh meant could not be reduced to our gut feelings, or possibly even to our feelings of any surface kind.

Buddha in Blue jeans-1

Downloadable at this link

Interestingly, Tai Sheridan touches on this distinction in his pamphlet Buddha in Blue Jeans (page 7): ‘Your feelings are your heart and gut response to the world.’

The heart obviously does not mean our thoughts, though the thoughts we have, which relate to our beliefs about the world and what it means, can trigger a whole host of diverse feelings. Given that our view of the world is probably a kind of cultural trance, it’s not likely to be the pathway to our understanding heart.

What we discover about the nature of the understanding heart should not be too grandiose, that’s for sure. Though wiser than our other faculties, it will be a fallible and limited organ nonetheless. Bahá’u’lláh makes that abundantly clear. We can’t even use it to understand a key aspect of our own mind let alone more abstruse mysteries:

Consider the rational faculty with which God hath endowed the essence of man. . . . . . Wert thou to ponder in thine heart, from now until the end that hath no end, and with all the concentrated intelligence and understanding which the greatest minds have attained in the past or will attain in the future, this divinely ordained and subtle Reality, . . .  thou wilt fail to comprehend its mystery or to appraise its virtue. Having recognized thy powerlessness to attain to an adequate understanding of that Reality which abideth within thee, thou wilt readily admit the futility of such efforts as may be attempted by thee, or by any of the created things, to fathom the mystery of the Living God . . . . . . This confession of helplessness which mature contemplation must eventually impel every mind to make is in itself the acme of human understanding, and marketh the culmination of man’s development.

(Gleanings: page 164-166: LXXXIII)

He leaves us with the paradox that we would we wiser to recognise our limitations in this respect. This may be a good place to start in our investigation of what an understanding heart would be like if we were aware of it. We’d know what we couldn’t know. We’d have a realistic sense of humility in the face of the unknowable. We would probably not be saying that it could not exist because I can’t measure or physically detect it. 

What then do we need to do to get closer to a state of mind that might allow us to get in touch with our understanding heart, which Gurdjieff in his way, and Bahá’u’lláh in His, assure us that we potentially can do?

This is where we leave the easy bit behind. Bahá’u’lláh writes:

When a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading unto the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. . . . . . He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 162)

We are in difficult territory here. First of all, we have the need to dispense with every trace of love as well as hate. At the same time we have to take account of what Bahá’u’lláh says in other places. For example: ‘In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire loosen not thy hold.’ This is from the Persian Hidden Words (PHW: 3).

Red rose 2

I am clearly unable to give an authoritative explanation of how these two sets of statements can be reconciled. They clearly indicate that we must not be too simplistic here. They probably suggest that doing verbal pyrotechnics would not be as good an idea as meditating upon these two quotations for a long period of time until they sink into the depths of our consciousness as a result of which we may come to benefit from the whisperings of our understanding heart if we are patient and attentive enough.

For now, all I can say is that it reactivated the same puzzlement in me as when I read how Buddhism suggests we have to relinquish even the desire for enlightenment as we meditate if we are ever to achieve it and the compassion and wisdom that are its fruits. How was I supposed to persist for years in meditation without any desire for what was supposed to result?

Bahá’u’lláh’s phrase ‘the rose of love’ suggests that He might be pointing us towards the possibility that there are many kinds of love but only one that would be compatible with realising the truth. It feels to me that the many feelings of ‘love’ that I have experienced, even when I have thought it was the love for God, might well be the nettles and thistles of love which the Kitáb-i-Íqán seems to be telling me I have to weed out of my heart. The same pattern may be true also of the ‘nightingale of affection and desire:’ I’m stuck with the crows and ravens perhaps, not even the robins.

I could of course be hopelessly off the mark, though my inference here is given some credibility by the fact that the comparison between the nightingale and the Messenger of God is often made in the Bahá’í Writings, for example: ‘ the Nightingale of Paradise singeth upon the twigs of the Tree of Eternity, with holy and sweet melodies, proclaiming to the sincere ones the glad tidings of the nearness of God,’ and one rose in particular is described in exceptional terms:

In the Rose Garden of changeless splendour a Flower hath begun to bloom, compared to which every other flower is but a thorn, and before the brightness of Whose glory the very essence of beauty must pale and wither.

What is unarguable is that the path I have to tread to get in touch with my understanding heart will be long and arduous, though infinitely rewarding.

I am reminded of Margaret Donaldson‘s book Human Minds. Part of her contention in this deeply rewarding book is to argue that our modern so-called developed society has chosen to value and promote the arduously won insights of mathematics and the scientific method  over the equally arduously won insights of the meditative traditions. In both cases most of us do not test or investigate in depth for ourselves the insights won: we simply trust the experts.  

We also fail to appreciate that the arduously won insights of the meditative traditions are equally testable and replicable as those of hard science for those prepared to devote enough hours to the acquisition of the requisite skills.  Because our society encourages the latter, we have scientific adepts in abundance: because it is suspicious of the former, accomplished mystics are hard to come by. We are out of balance and will eventually pay the ultimate price if we are not already beginning to do so.

Bahá’u’lláh has no doubt about the benefits of the path of search he advocates:

Then will the manifold favors and outpouring grace of the holy and everlasting Spirit confer such new life upon the seeker that he will find himself endowed with a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind. . . . . . Gazing with the eye of God, he will perceive within every atom a door that leadeth him to the stations of absolute certitude.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 196)

WILLIAM BLAKE

William Blake (for source of image see link)

We are in the world of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:

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.

And Wordsworth’s ‘sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.’ When mystics and so many poets agree we would have to be arrogant indeed to dismiss out of hand the possible truth of what they describe.

Donaldson also refers interestingly to the views of Iris Murdoch on the value of art and imagery to this process of deepening understanding (op.cit.: page 230):

Murdoch . . . . . defends art as giving us ‘intermediate images’ and argues, correctly I think, that most of us cannot do without the ‘high substitute for the spiritual and the speculative life,’ that it provides. But she also recognises that images can lead to a full stop if they are taken as being ‘for real.’

This sounds like the mistake we all might be making, which is to take what we sense for what truly is.  Basic science scuppers that in any case. Colour is not in the object, nor is it even in the eye, but in the mind of the beholder. We translate a particular wavelength of light into red, blue, green and so on. Red could just as easily have been experienced as blue. The colour allocation is arbitrary and not inherent in the object.

Science even carries us as far as understanding that solid objects have more empty space than matter in them. It is the force that particles exert that creates the illusion of solidity. It is not then quite such a huge leap of imagination to suppose that atoms could be doorways to a deeper reality if only we could detach ourselves sufficiently from the delusions and attachments of consensus reality.

Where then do we turn from here in order to progress further in this task?

As the heart, in the sense we are using the word, is a metaphor it is perhaps not surprising that the best way of enhancing our understanding of the term might be through other metaphors. We’re at the cusp where mysticism and poetry intersect, it seems.

We’ve been here before on this blog, with my encounter with R S Thomas. I found his anthology of religious verse published in the 60s, and read in his introduction (page 9):

The mystic fails to mediate God adequately insofar as he is not a poet. The poet, with possibly less immediacy of apprehension, shows his spiritual concern and his spiritual nature through the medium of language, the supreme symbol. The presentation of religious experience is the most inspired language in poetry. This is not a definition of poetry, but a description of how the communication of religious experience best operates.

That is where we look next time, and given that Bahá’u’lláh was both a mystic and an accomplished poet it should be a fruitful but perhaps demanding experience.

Read Full Post »

3rd 'I' v5

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

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

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

The title of this post suggests we are in for a painful operation. Don’t worry though. We can manage this one without anaesthetic.  For some, the technical terms and psycho-jargon in this post will be an anaesthetic in themselves in any case.

Though I find the model that Tart explains, based on his understanding of Georges Gurdjieff, has considerable appeal, I feel that it needs tweaking significantly in terms of the material aspects of body, emotional and intellectual brains and even more significant modification in terms of the spiritual dimension. This post is focusing on the brain aspect of things.

To tackle this I am unashamedly drawing upon the insights of  experts in the field of neuropsychology. What they say goes a long way to confirm Gurdjieff’s sense of how things are but modifies it significantly in my view.

The Biological Foundations of Emotion

ledoux

Joseph Ledoux – for source of image see link

When you start to examine the neurophysiology of feelings it gets quite hard to separate body from emotion as Gurdjieff seems to do, at least in Tart’s explanation of his ideas.  Most of what we term ’emotion’ is generated by brain centres that go back to our evolutionary origins and cannot really be separated from our body. It is easier to see them as ‘gut feelings’ rather than anything higher.

Take a classic text on this subject – Ledoux’s The Emotional Brain. He writes (pages 112-13):

. . . . modern researchers have gone into remote areas of the world to firmly establish with scientific methods that at least some emotions have fairly universal modes of expression, especially in the face. On the basis of this kind of evidence, the late Sylvan Tomkins proposed the existence of eight basic emotions: surprise, interest, joy, rage, fear, disgust, shame, and anguish. These are said to represent innate, patterned responses that are controlled by “hardwired” brain systems. . . . Paul Ekman has a shorter list, consisting of six basic emotions with universal and facial expression: surprise, happiness, anger, fear, disgust and sadness.

People such as Plutchik, he explains, have built on these basic emotions by suggesting they blend to make more complex emotions. It would complicate the picture unnecessarily to go into that in detail here. In any case the idea of more complex emotions being merely blends of more basic ones does nothing to weaken the case I am seeking to make.

The full picture of how sub-cortical brain structures trigger feelings that relate to our physical survival is too complex to go into here. The link that follows will give you a very brief overview if you are interested (The Emotional Centres of the Brain). What I want to do is provide enough information to support my contention that such structures exclusively generate our ‘gut’ feelings which are aimed largely at enabling us to survive long enough to reproduce and protect our offspring until they can do the same. Even if these are blended at higher levels of our brain it would be a mistake to see them as a likely source for impulses that would lead us to transcend our physical nature and tune into a more spiritual dimension.  For that we need to look elsewhere.

Very often if not always the amygdala is involved in all that is going on. Ledoux writes (page 168-69):

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning. It is where trigger stimuli do their triggering.

It is worth while taking a little time to see where some key survival emotions are triggered, even if we have to simplify a little for the sake of brevity. For us, as social beings, survival is not simply a question of reading our physical environment well: we need to be able to interpret our social world effectively also.

I quote at some length from my sources here with little modification, except abbreviating them. The brain structures referred to are all sub-cortical and ancient in evolutionary terms unless otherwise stated.

a. of Anger

Goleman

Daniel Goleman – for source of image see link

Daniel Goleman’s popular book Emotional Intelligence explains what goes on inside our brain and body when anger occurs, causing us to have a flood of angry emotions.  Goleman outlines research undertaken by Psychologist Dolf Zillman who has undertaken much research relating to anger and rage.  Zillman has found that the universal trigger for anger begins with a sense of endangerment to our lives or the lives of those close to us.  This does not necessarily mean physical endangerment, but also includes symbolic threats to self-esteem and dignity such as being verbally insulted, being patronised or put down, and the frustration that comes when we can’t complete a task or goal.

Upon the initial trigger, catecholamines are released by the limbic system (amygdala) which immediately put the body into a “fight or flight” mode – that is, preparing the body for some form of action.  Additionally, the trigger also makes the amygdala alert the nervous system to be ready for possible action. This effect lasts much longer than the initial surge of catecholamines, keeping the emotional brain on stand-by for potential arousal, should we need it, further down the line.  This is why people are often more easily annoyed or quick to anger if they have experienced an angry situation recently.

I recognise that Baumeister’s concept of the depletion of will power is also relevant here but I am seeking not to complicate the picture anymore than is necessary to make my basic point,

b. of Disgust

Wicker et al (Neuron, Vol. 40, 655–664, October 30, 2003) performed an fMRI study in which participants inhaled smells producing a strong feeling of disgust. The same participants watched video clips showing the facial expression of disgust. Observing such faces and feeling disgust activated the same sites in the anterior insula and to a lesser extent in the anterior cingulate cortex (see The Emotional Centres of the Brain for an explanation of some of these brain areas). Thus, just as observing hand actions activates the observer’s motor representation of that action, observing an emotion activates the neural representation of that emotion. This finding provides a unifying mechanism for understanding the behaviors of others.

As other important work indicates (follow the links from this post to the work of Chua and Hauser), disgust is an emotion at work in pogroms against out-groups where labelling them as cockroaches, as happened in Rwanda, makes killing them far easier. They are not only no longer human: they are also a disgusting pest that justifies extermination.

rwanda genocide tutsi skulls

Rwanda Genocide – Tutsi Skulls (for source of image see link)

c. of Shame

Petra Michl et al (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access published November 19, 2012: Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study) used a functional magnetic resonance imaging paradigm to look for emotion-specific differences in functional brain activity within a healthy German sample, using shame- and guilt-related stimuli and neutral stimuli. Activations were found for both of these emotions in the temporal lobe. Specific activations were found for shame in the frontal lobe (medial and inferior frontal gyrus), and for guilt in the amygdala and insula. These results, as well as those I haven’t quoted to avoid jargon shock, suggest that shame and guilt share some neural networks, as well as having individual areas of activation. It can be concluded that frontal, temporal and limbic areas play a prominent role in the generation of moral feelings.

This will prove an important consideration when we are looking at possible sources of spiritual understanding. The Bahá’í Writings suggest, in line with these findings, that conscience is not innate but conditioned.

See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 105, pp. 132–33)

d. of Fear

Building on the role of the amygdala, Ledoux explains further (page 174)

the remarkable fact is that at the level of behavior, defence against danger is achieved in many different ways in different species, yet the amygdala’s role is constant. It is this correspondence across species that no doubt allows diverse behaviours to achieve the same evolutionary function in different animals. This functional equivalence in neural correspondence applies to many vertebrate brains, including human brains. When it comes to detecting and responding to danger, the brain just hasn’t changed much. In some ways we are emotional lizards. I’m quite confident in telling you that studies of fear reactions in rats tell us a great deal about how fear mechanisms work in our brains as well.

350px-Spiny_Lizard_-_Houston_Zoo

Spiny Lizard (for source of image see link)

So what?

I may have loaded the dice of my argument rather by placing this quote at the end of the sequence, but I do think there is a case for saying that most of what we regard as our key emotions are reptilian in origin, not even mammalian.

This has all been a necessary but rather long-winded way of preparing the ground for my next post, which attempts to contend that the love spoken of in spiritual texts in not reducible to such feelings as we have looked at so far, anymore than the wisdom found there is the same as intellectual understanding.

So, in my view, even at this basic empirical level, Gurdjieff has separated what should be seen as essentially the same, i.e. the emotional and the body brains. Even more crucially, as we will see, he has possibly separated love from wisdom in hypothesising that there is both a higher emotional and a higher intellectual centre in the spiritual realm. Until next time, then, for those who are still awake!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »