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hyacinthI recently was involved in a series of workshops at Builth Well in Wales. I thought it worth sharing the materials used. The first set came out last Thursday, and second last Monday: this is the last. What the simple presentation of these materials fails to capture of course is the wealth of insight that comes from exploring the riches contained in the quotations used. The only way of accessing that would be to try approaching them in the same way.

Prayer

Magnified, O Lord my God, be Thy Name, whereby the trees of the garden of Thy Revelation have been clad with verdure, and been made to yield the fruits of holiness during this Springtime when the sweet savors of Thy favors and blessings have been wafted over all things, and caused them to bring forth whatsoever had been preordained for them in the Kingdom of Thine irrevocable decree and the Heaven of Thine immutable purpose.  I beseech Thee by this very Name not to suffer me to be far from the court of Thy holiness, nor debarred from the exalted sanctuary of Thy unity and oneness.

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.  This is my highest aspiration, mine ardent desire, O Thou Who rulest all things, and in Whose hand is the kingdom of the entire creation.  Thou, verily, doest what Thou choosest.  No God is there beside Thee, the Almighty, the All-Glorious, the Ever-Forgiving.

Bahá’u’lláh

Practice Planting

Sow the seeds of My wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of the heart.

(Bahá’u’lláh PHW No 33 – see also No 78)

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

(Bahá’u’lláh – PHW – No 3)

Know verily that the purpose underlying all these symbolic terms and abstruse allusions, which emanate from the Revealers of God’s holy Cause, hath been to test and prove the peoples of the world; that thereby the earth of the pure and illuminated hearts may be known from the perishable and barren soil. From time immemorial such hath been the way of God amidst His creatures, and to this testify the records of the sacred books.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Kitáb-i-Íqán UK Edition – page 32)

Memorising

Socrates was very concerned about the invention of the alphabet and the reading it brought with it. He feared that human memory would be destroyed. What he would have had to say about the iPhone and the internet I can barely begin to imagine.

The Bahá’í Faith attaches great importance to memorising quotations from the Writings. There are several reasons for this, including the usefulness of such quotations in conversation to convey the ideas of the Faith in their original form rather than in one’s own translation. Another key reason, in addition to the benefits of enhancing the power of our memory, something which our reliance on electronic devices is seriously diminishing, is that the internalisation of truths in this way changes our inner being to some degree. We can enhance that effect by using, in our quiet periods of meditation, the quotations we have memorised.

These are significant benefits, as Eknath Easwaran explains in his excellent and accessible book Meditation: common sense directions for an uncommon life

Among the advice he gives is this (pages 39-40):

In meditation, the passage becomes imprinted on our consciousness. As we drive it deeper and deeper, the words come to life within us, transforming all our thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds. . . . . As you commit a new passage to memory, it is good to spend some time reflecting on the meaning of the words and their practical application to your life. But please don’t do this while you are actually meditating. . . . . And avoid choosing passages that are negative, that take a harsh and difficult view of the body, of our past mistakes, or of life in the world. We want to draw on our positive side, our higher Self, and the passages should move you to become steadfast, compassionate, and wise.

Lasse Thoresen, in his thoughtful book Unlocking the Gate of the Heart which explores meditation from a Bahá’í viewpoint, reinforces basically the same idea (pages 91-92):

Whether we are conscious of it or not, a passage we know by heart will always be with us wherever we may go, whether we are asleep or awake. We have fed our subconscious with the words of God, allowing them to work within us and appear in our consciousness when we have need for them, perhaps as a part of new insight.

It seemed a good idea therefore to introduce a technique for making memorising easier.

This is the method:

Reminder about How to Learn Passages: 

  1. Read the passage once. Then divide it into convenient short sections, each equivalent to a line of poetry.
  2. Now read the first section out loud. Take your eyes from the page and immediately say the section again. Glance back to make sure you got it right. If you made a mistake, try again. Now do the same with the second section. Repeat the procedure for every section in the passage.
  3. Go back to the beginning. This time, read the first two sections out loud, look away and repeat them aloud. Check. If you made a mistake, try again. Now move onto the next two sections, going through the whole passage two sections at a time.
  4. Repeat the passage three sections at a time, then four sections at a time, then five and then six. By the sixth pass, no matter how long the passage, you will have memorised it.
  5. Recite the whole passage just before going to bed at night.
  6. Crucial: stop thinking about the passage. Your sleeping mind is very important for memory.
  7. The next day, you should find (after a glance at the first section to bump-start your memory) that you can recite the whole passage.

In using this method I have found it important, if I am to retain the whole passage permanently, I need to slowly reduce the frequency of repeating it over a reasonable period of time. At first, perhaps for a week, I repeat it every night. Then every other, then every third night and so on until I repeat it only once per week. I can then choose to use it whenever I wish in my daily meditations. It is important to keep it fresh by revisiting it occasionally, maybe once every month or two in this way.

I hope everyone found some time to use the method described to commit a quote to memory. We will now look at an approach to using a memorised passage in quiet reflection.

Using a Memorised Passage

EaswaranThis may prove to be the hardest part of this set of experiences. It involves using a passage that we have learned by heart. Our culture tends to despise rote learning and describes it as learning ‘parrot fashion.’ (Not that I have anything against parrots. They’re very bright for a bird.) As a result many of us nowadays do not feel confident when trying to learn anything by heart, and are probably not very motivated to do so anyway as we think it a waste of time.

Parroting facts may really not be very useful if we do not understand their underlying meaning as a result of careful, creative and independent thought. Spiritual words though operate on many different levels, as Easwaran’s guidance quoted earlier explains. We need also to bear in mind another point.

We cannot keep on using the same passage indefinitely (pages 39-40):

Using the same passage over and over is fine at the outset, but in time, the words may seem stale. You may find yourself repeating them mechanically, without sensitivity to their meaning. I suggest you memorise new pieces from [various religious] traditions so you will have a varied repertoire.

We need to spend a few moments now quietly deciding what passage we are going to use. Then, after grounding ourselves as usual, we can begin 10-15 minutes of meditation on the passage we have chosen. This is the third practice to help us internalise what we are learning and making sure the seeds are properly planted in the garden of our hearts.

How should we do this? As Easwaran points out (page 32), we have to find the pace that suits us best: ‘the space between words is a matter for each person to work out individually.… If the words come too close together, you will not be slowing down the mind… If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together…’

If we find our mind has wandered, we should, without getting irritated with ourselves, begin the passage again at the beginning. This teaches the mind that it cannot get away with wandering: there is a price to pay. In these early stages we should consider ourselves very successful if we can meditate in this way upon a text for five minutes without losing our concentration. Our aim over a period of months could be to increase their concentration span to something like 20 minutes. Clearly this would enable us, if we wished, to memorise longer passages for reciting, rather than repeating the same short text.

After that a few moments of reflection can follow, first of all on the meditation we have just done, and then upon the whole experience.

Among the hoped for results of all these experiences is a felt sense as well as intellectual understanding of how a mantra and meditation upon scripture help us move away from our identification with our conditioned patterns of thought and feeling to connect with our deepest self, a connection that will enable us to tune in more effectively to the people around us. As a result of this we will be able to respond to them as they are and in terms of what they need rather than to what we think they should be, as well as being able to learn from them what will help us grow in our turn.

Useful Links

  1. For finding quotations: http://reference.bahai.org/en/
  2. For general information: http://www.bahai.org
  3. For interesting topics: http://bahaiteachings.org
  4. For more on the Understanding heart, see the whole sequence beginning https://phulme.wordpress.com/2017/07/14/an-understanding-heart-16-divided-we-fail/
  5. For more on tuning into the heart see this post from a longer sequence: https://phulme.wordpress.com/2016/07/24/the-third-i-45-whispers-from-the-heart-3/
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Sunset in Builth

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Dreamproof (2/2)

Part 2 (Part 1 came out last Monday)

George H 3

George Herbert — image adapted from John Drury’s ‘Music at Midnight

After the latest episode of My Parliament of Selves it seemed a good idea to republish another story triggered by the death of a friend three years ago now.

She woke in tears, her heart beating fast. The light was off nowadays but her practised hand went straight to the switch, then the pen and she was soon scribbling fast to catch every detail of the dream.

Only three months in and she had had her first dream. She couldn’t believe how excited she was. How long would it be before the next one?

Why had he had to phone? Why didn’t she see him face-to-face? Why was he cut off? Why did he say he wasn’t supposed to be ringing yet?

Never mind. At least she’d heard from him. It was definitely his voice. She’d know it anywhere. Maybe it was really him and not just a construct from her memories. She would know soon enough when the second dream came and she could check out what was said against the contents of the packet.

At first she began to enjoy the routines of her life more because of the lift the dream had given her. Her yoga began to raise her spirits again. The children at her school, where she worked in the reception class, almost made her feel hopeful, though she never lost a background sense of sadness that she and Alistair had never been able to create a child of their own. She still steered clear of his family and friends most of the time: the elephant of his absence always stood between her and them, though he was never mentioned.

Only in her evenings alone and most of all just before she went to bed, did the grief hit her hard once more. She couldn’t listen to her favourite songs. They were mostly his as well. The first chords turned the sadness of six foot breakers into tsunamis of distress.

Still, she slept in hope each day, and every morning woke in disappointment.

As the weeks crept by at snail’s pace hope faded and her spirits began to sink. She went out less, except to work. Her thoughts darkened. She wondered how long she could endure this uncertainty. Surely, anything would be better than this – even the sure knowledge that her first dream had been wrong.

. . . . . . . . .

It was six months later. There’d been no other dream containing Alistair bearing a message of any kind – just fleeting moments of wish fulfilment when she saw him apparently alive again and with her in their home, cooking at the stove surrounded by more pans than they had ever owned, rinsing pots over the sink under the sunlight running from the taps, and sitting contentedly in the garden with his coffee and his book with yellow swallows darting overhead.

Then the pain of loss when each dream was over.

As she emptied the dishwasher after breakfast, she came to a decision. She wouldn’t wait any longer. She didn’t want all this focus on her dreams anymore.

She’d had a dream and got a message about the contents of the package. If it was right it would confirm that his mind lived on. If not, she was no worse off, and the uncertainty of waiting for the second dream wasn’t helping. Perhaps he wasn’t going to be allowed to come again. That’s what his message implied, or at least it might be so long in the future she couldn’t bear it. No, she’d go to see John, today if possible, and find out what was in the packet.

She picked up the phone. The dialling tone buzzed on for quite some time and she was just about resigned to hearing the answer phone when John’s voice cut across: ‘Hi, Dorothy.’

“Hi, can I come over. I want to open the packet.’

‘Have you had the second dream?’

‘No, but I can’t wait any longer.’

There was a silence. What was he thinking?

‘Are you sure about this? You know me. I don’t believe in this whole mad idea anyway, but you probably do and Alistair certainly did. If you come now you’re going against what he asked you to do. You could feel bad about this later.’

‘Yes, I’m sure. I’ve had the one dream with a clear message. That should be enough. It’ll either be right or wrong. Either way, that will be the same whether we open the package now or next year.’

‘Well, if you’re really sure . . . ,’ John tailed off.

. . . . . . . . .

She drove round to John’s after lunch.

He made a cup of coffee for them both before sitting down at the dining room table with the packet in front of them. It was quite small, about book size. This was encouraging. Any larger or smaller and she would have begun to regret her decision and might have changed her mind. But no, this looked good. She should carry on.

‘Right,’ she said as she sipped her coffee. ‘As I remember, Alistair said I must tell you what is in the packet before we open it. So, I’ve brought my transcript of the dream for you to read, so you can get the full context.’

She passed him a typewritten sheet of A4.

He quickly glanced through it.

‘The Everyman George Herbert then.’

‘Yes.’

‘Is there any way you could’ve have thought of this yourself and built it into a dream?’

‘Well, I bought the Everyman edition as a birthday present some years back, but it’s one present among many. I could have picked loads of others. I was always buying him books. This was one of his favourites but not the only one and I hadn’t thought about it for years till the dream itself. And there’s no way I could’ve noticed it was missing from his shelves. He had thousands of books and I haven’t begun to sort them yet. Too difficult.’

‘Is that the only copy of Herbert’s poetry he owned?’

‘No, he had two or three others, but none with all the poems in, which is why he specially wanted this one.’

‘ That could prove interesting. So, d’you want to go ahead?’

‘Definitely.’

John popped into the kitchen for a sharp knife to cut open the sellotape. He peeled back the brown paper. There was definitely a book inside. And a handwritten note. And something else – a CD.

This wasn’t quite what she expected. Should she have waited? Why was there a CD in there?

They picked up the note to read.

‘Dear both, if you are reading this you will have opened the packet. I hope you waited, Dorothy, till you’d had both dreams because I misled you. There are two things in here not one. And I planned to tell you about them one at a time. You know there is no sense of time in the next world. The second dream could be a long time after the first in your world but immediately after in mine. I wanted you to be able to tell John about both items, not just one. He’ll be a hard man to convince and I really want to convince him. Anyway, if you didn’t wait for the second dream it’s too late to go back now, because if you’ve seen this you’ll have caught sight of the second item. . . . . .’

Dorthy’s head was swimming. She was so angry with herself for going against what he’d said, but even more angry with him. He was a trickster. She had thought this was all for her but he had set her up to convince John. And now it was all a mess. Still, she had to know whether she was right about the book.

‘What’s the book, John? Am I right about that at least?’

‘Yes. It’s the Everyman George Herbert all right.’

He passed it to her. She opened the fly leaf. Sure enough – her writing. ‘Just your kind of stuff – the poems of a priest. Enjoy! Just don’t expect me to read it.’

Her words sounded a bit sour now, though she had meant them as an affectionate joke at the time. She wondered whether she had hurt his feelings with her more sceptical attitude. Had he picked this book to make that kind of point even after death?

John read her words over her shoulder.

‘Do you think you might have felt guilty about that? The mind holds onto things out of awareness you know. That would be enough to slide it into a dream.’

‘But I wrote that kind of thing all the time in the books I gave him. Why would I feel badly about this one in particular?’

He shrugged.

‘And it’s good that it’s the correct edition of the two or three he had.’

He gave her a quizzical look. ‘Shall we look at the other item?’ he asked.

She nodded.

Handel’s Messiah. She couldn’t remember how many times, through his study door, she’d heard the rousing Hallelujah Chorus or the plangent strains of ‘a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.’

‘I could just as easily have dreamt that one by guesswork – more easily in fact. He played it all the time, for heaven’s sake. Why did I dream of the George Herbert instead?’

‘Well, that would depend upon which affected you most strongly at the deeper levels of your mind,’ John explained patiently, ‘outside your conscious . . .’

‘You know, John,’ she cut in, ‘in your different ways you both drove me nuts. He banged on about the soul and you hit me over the head with the mind all the time. And you know what? None of it makes any sense to me. It never did and it never will. You just can’t prove any of it. God, Freud, the after life, the unconscious. They’re all crap. Just fantasies to try and make sense of the mad mystery of life. I don’t know what I really thought when I dreamt of him, anymore than I know whether I’m going to live on or black out when I die. None of it helps. I just want Alistair back. I just want my old life again.’

She burst into tears once more, wracked by deeper sobs than John had ever heard from anyone in his entire life so far.

. . . . . . . . .

She drove home through winter twilight uncomforted and in a dark and desperate mood. She had no interest in food. She somehow managed to make herself a drink of hot chocolate and crept very early into bed.

It took a long time for sleep to come and with it came disturbing dreams of witches and beheadings. As the sky began to lighten just after dawn her sleep deepened.

She finds herself walking across a stretch of water she half-recognises. It reminds her of the bay in Cyprus where she and Alistair once stayed in the early days of their marriage. The air is warm and though there are waves on the surface of the water she does not trip. In fact, she feels lighter and lighter with every step almost as though she could fly.

Then she is on a hill high above the sea looking down at a sunset, with its darkening reds and golds. There is a boat on the water with purple sails moving fast towards her. The closer it gets the more peaceful she feels. When the boat is half-way across the water, it begins to glide into the air, rising higher and higher as it gets closer to where she stands.

She could swear, as it approaches overhead, that she can see Alistair at the prow gazing down at her and waving. He is too far away to speak but she knows he is not angry with her. She can almost believe that they will meet again.

When she wakes just after a cloudless sunrise, the brightness of the light through the crack in the curtains touches her heart and she knows that she will manage to rebuild her life without forgetting him but healed enough for happiness of some kind to return.

Tomorrow she will apologise to John.

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I recently was involved in a series of workshops at Builth Well in Wales. I thought it worth sharing the materials used. The first set came out last Thursday and the last will come out next Thursday. What the simple presentation of these materials fails to capture of course is the wealth of insight that comes from exploring the riches contained in the quotations used. The only way of accessing that would be to try approaching them in the same way.

Prayer

Create in me a pure heart, O my God, and renew a tranquil conscience within me, O my Hope!  Through the spirit of power confirm Thou me in Thy Cause, O my Best-Beloved, and by the light of Thy glory reveal unto me Thy path, O Thou the Goal of my desire!  Through the power of Thy transcendent might lift me up unto the heaven of Thy holiness, O Source of my being, and by the breezes of Thine eternity gladden me, O Thou Who art my God!  Let Thine everlasting melodies breathe tranquillity on me, O my Companion, and let the riches of Thine ancient countenance deliver me from all except Thee, O my Master, and let the tidings of the revelation of Thine incorruptible Essence bring me joy, O Thou Who art the most manifest of the manifest and the most hidden of the hidden!

Bahá’u’lláh

Practicing Weeding the Garden

schwartzA few years ago I read an excellent book – The Mind & the Brain – by Jeffrey M Schwartz and Sharon Begley. It’s dealing with really serious mental health problems such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). However, I resonated strongly to their Four Step method of managing obsessions and compulsions (pages 79-91) and felt it could be used more widely to dispel almost all intrusive and undesirable patterns of thought and feeling. I was so impressed that I thought it worthwhile eliminating all psychobabble and creating a simple mnemonic so the whole idea was easily remembered and used. This is the first of two weeding techniques.

Spot It

Once I become aware of a ‘Here I go again’ moment that has caused me difficulty in the past, I can set myself the task of spotting the earliest possible warning signs. At first I might only notice that I’m doing it again when it’s already too late to stop myself. But I can reflect immediately afterwards on my recollection of how I got to that point. If I leave it, the memory will fade and I will not be able to bring to mind an earlier warning sign. By repeating this exercise there will come a point where I can spot the cloud before the storm breaks.

Step Back

The second stage is stepping back. It involves reminding myself that the habit is not me. I can change it. Thoughts and feelings are mostly just brain noise that can’t necessarily be trusted: actions are often their equally unreliable product. I can step back.  This makes the next step possible.

Stop It

Once I can spot the approaching storm early enough and step back, I can stop it. The mind’s weather, unlike the climate’s, is in our control, believe it or not.

The trick here is to invent a method that suits me best for pressing the pause button. I might shout at myself inside my head, ‘STOP!’ Or I might imagine a big red button that I press or a lever that I pull down, that brings the gathering storm to a halt. If I try this too late in the process it won’t work and I will have to learn to spot it earlier. At that point I also need to reinforce my sense that this is simply a habit and not who I really am. It’s even better if I can see it as senseless, neural noise, useless and pointless. This helps me realise it can change. The brain is plastic.

Initially while I’m testing out whether I can make this work, I can count very slowly, one slowed down breath at a time, to 90. This is usually enough time for the immediate power surge from the amygdala, at the brain’s emotional centre, to die down. This does not mean it would be a good idea to get stuck right into the situation again and respond. If I can get to 90 at a slow enough pace, I will find I am much calmer if not completely calm.

Swap It

This is the time to activate step three: Swap It. If I simply leave it there, on the pause button, and do nothing else, it won’t be long before my brain starts revisiting the trigger situation and stoking up the storm again. An empty brain will fill itself with the old familiar script if you leave it to itself and the mind will cloud up again.

So, I will have to give some careful thought beforehand about what I will put in place of the void I have created. There are many possibilities.

If all I want to do is to make sure I don’t escalate a row, I could go for a walk round the block, as long as that’s at least a mile from start to finish.

If I want to be sure that I am avoiding a slide into deep sadness, into planning my revenge or into full-blown panic, I will have to substitute a longer, more creative and more absorbing activity. Prayer and meditation are obvious remedies for the spiritually inclined. Gardening or cooking works for some. Playing a musical instrument or painting can do the job. Learning a language or studying something really interesting is another possibility. If all else fails, decluttering the chaos of an attic might work. It’s impossible to say what will work for everyone. We’re all so different.

The mnemonic I use for this series of steps is Spot It, Step Back, Stop It, and Swap It. If we compare our hearts and minds to a garden in need of clearing, this process is analogous to weeding. It can take a bit to time before we can reliably move on to planting, which is the focus of the next session. You may notice that I draw a distinction between the mind and the brain. We may need to explore this briefly if it is not clear why I am making that distinction.

There is a simple practice that gives us a readily portable substitute for any undesirable pattern of thought and feeling. It’s the mantram, the second practice to help us weed our minds.

Eknath Easwaran

Meditation

I owe a better understanding of this idea to Eknath Easwaran and his book on meditation – Meditation: common sense directions for an uncommon life. He advises using quotations as a core meditative means of training our minds (more of that next time). He recommends the Mantram as something more portable, that need not be confined to the quietness of a room set aside for meditation. He explains the origin of the term (page 59): the word is linked to ‘the roots man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” The mantram, repeated regularly for a long time, enables us to cross the sea of the mind. An apt image, for the mind very much resembles the sea. Ever-changing, it is placid one day, turbulent the next.’

For him, the mantram links us to (page 60) ‘the supreme Reality,’ whatever we choose to call it:

What matters greatly is that we discover – experientially, not intellectually – that this supreme Reality rests at inmost centre of our being.  . . . the mantram stands as a perpetual reminder that such perfection is within all of us, waiting to flow through our thoughts, words, and deeds.

He feels that (page 70) ‘the mantram works best when we repeat it silently in the mind with as much concentration as possible.’ He recommends we use the mantram at all moments of stress or simple waiting. It helps keep us calm and, for him, every repetition counts, taking us slightly deeper each time we repeat it with focused concentration. He strongly recommends we use it before we sleep.

The mantram (page 112) is also ‘particularly helpful in the case of hurry, because it gives the restless mind something to fasten on to and gradually slows it down.’ When a mistake triggers a mind bomb (page 113) ‘[t]he best course to follow at that time is to repeat the mantram a few times and recollect yourself so you can proceed at a measured pace.’

A Mantram-style Exercise Based on a Bahá’í practice

Is there a way that, by using words, we can have some confidence that we are replacing a negative thought process with something more positive? Bahá’u’lláh, in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, instructs Bahá’ís to repeat the Greatest Name 95 times each day.

  1. It hath been ordained that every believer in God, the Lord of Judgement, shall, each day, having washed his hands and then his face, seat himself and, turning unto God, repeat “Alláh-u-Abhá” ninety-five times. Such was the decree of the Maker of the Heavens when, with majesty and power, He established Himself upon the thrones of His Names. Perform ye, likewise, ablutions for the Obligatory Prayer; this is the command of God, the Incomparable, the Unrestrained.

About the repetition of Alláh-u-Abhá, the Universal House of Justice wrote:

Let all experience the spiritual enrichment brought to their souls by this simple act of worshipful meditation.

This would seem like a good place to start. Obviously there are many ways of fulfilling this spiritual obligation. What is clearly important is that is should be done mindfully. Below is an illustration of one possible way of achieving such mindfulness. For those who are not Bahá’í, then any spiritually inspiring word or short phrase can be used instead.

We need to sit comfortably in our chairs, our backs reasonably erect, both feet in contact with the floor and hands lying loosely in our lap. We need to spend a few moments withdrawing our attention from the outside world and instead focusing it on our breathing. This is probably most easily done by resting our full attention on the movement of our diaphragm.

We can use our rate of breathing to pace our use of the Greatest Name (or whatever spiritually significant words we have chosen). In the Aqdas it only says “repeat”, so we may feel that this can be done within the mind alone or that it requires to be said out loud. If we are repeating the Greatest Name or its equivalent for us in our heads it is possible to do so on every in-breath: the virtue of this from a meditative point of view is that we perhaps “inhale” some of its power as we do so.  If we repeat it aloud, it is hard to do so except on the out-breath. For the purpose of this group meditation, it is better to repeat our chosen words in our mind silently.

Of course, for this to completely fulfill our spiritual obligation as Bahá’ís we must perform our ablutions (the ones for our obligatory prayer will do if we are saying the Greatest Name at the same time). We also need to “turn towards God.” This may not prove possible here at this point.

We will simply be trying out one way of replacing brain noise with an uplifting alternative.

There is no need for us in this case to count as we are not attempting to replicate exactly the Bahá’í discipline. Also there is no reason why Bahá’ís should not at other times draw on the power of the Greatest Name to settle our distracted or disturbed minds. Others should feel free to use any spiritually significant alternative in the same way.

When we have finished, we can share how that felt and what we learnt.

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Sunset in Builth

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Dreamproof (1/2)

After the latest episode of My Parliament of Selves it seemed a good idea to republish another story triggered by the death of a friend three years ago now.

Orloj PragueDorothy[1] stared at the piles of paper on his desk. The magnolia just beginning to blossom outside the window proved that it was spring, but this was not the spring clean she had planned. It wasn’t his fault that the desk was covered in notebooks, newspaper cuttings, envelopes, scribbled sheets of A4, and bits of card in various colours. That was her doing.

She had known since the funeral that she would have to clear out his study at some point, but had put it off all winter. The short dark days had made it seem too difficult to tackle such a painful task.

She’d shipped his clothes to the Oxfam shop. He’d never been attached to them and nor was she, but this was different. His study held the heartbeat of his life’s work. She couldn’t face the bookshelves yet, nor the filing cabinet with all his journals in, so she’d attacked his desk with all the venom of her grief. Every heavy drawer was heaved out of its slot and dumped onto the rust-red leather surface until there was no more room.

The mounds reached almost to her chest. Scribbled scraps had fallen onto the carpet. No longer able to stand she sank into his chair just as the tears began once more to slide their customary path down along her cheeks.

Surely this would have to wait until another day. She was just about to get up and leave when her eyes fell on an envelope, originally at the bottom of a drawer but now at the top of the last hoard she had thrown onto the heap.

It had her name on it.

Hesitantly she pulled it towards her. The envelope felt thick and stiff, as though it held a card for her to read. Memories of anniversaries flooded back, of other cards in better days, in Paris in the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa, beneath the Orloj in Prague’s Old Town Square, in Amsterdam with Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum.

With misty eyes, she groped into the top left hand drawer – not one she’d emptied yet as she knew that all it contained were such things as staplers, pens, rulers, scissors and sellotape. And the brass letter opener she needed was there somewhere. Her hand finally detected it.

She slit open the envelope.

Sure enough, a card, with van Gogh’s sunflowers on the front.

“My dearest Dorothy,” it read, “I should have put this somewhere more obvious but I thought it was best to make this task as difficult as I could for obvious reasons. I have given a packet for John to keep until you ask him for it. I am requesting you not to do so until I enter your dreams twice, on two separate nights, and tell you what the packet contains. There is one thing inside that I only want you to find after you have seen me twice in a dream and I have told you what the envelope contains. You must tell John what is inside the envelope before you open it in his presence. In that way we will make it as certain as possible that, if you are right, my continuing life after death is confirmed at least for the two of you, the most important people in my life. Of course, if you are wrong, while it will not prove that my mind is still alive, as I sincerely hope it is at the time that you read this, it does not prove the opposite either. Whichever way this goes, please remember that in this life at least I have loved you more than any other person, place or thing.

“With deepest love, Alistair.”

She could hold back the sobs no longer as her mind carried her back to the late winter morning just over a year ago, after the surgeon had confirmed there was nothing more they could do. Alistair had sat where she sat now, as she stood in the doorway watching him, a steaming cup of coffee in her hand. They had just got up and the heating was only just beginning to loosen the grip of a frosty night.

He had explained to her, with a wide grin on his face, his latest plan.

‘Jesus!’ she spluttered in her drink, ‘You’ve got to be bloody joking.’

‘Why? It’d be a great experiment. If I did come back you’d be so comforted.’

‘But what if you didn’t?’

‘Well, you’d be no worse off than if we didn’t work this plan.’

. . . . . . . . .

John was just biting into a wholemeal biscuit when his mobile rang. It was Dorothy. For a moment he was tempted to ignore it but relented. She didn’t ring often after all.

‘’Hi, Dorothy. How goes?’

‘D’you know what I’ve found,’ she burst out loudly at high speed.

‘Tell me,’ he responded wearily.

‘The card,’ she shouted. ‘The one telling me about the packet Alistair left with you.’

He paused. He’d been dreading this moment.

Not only did he feel guilty that he hadn’t given Dorothy more time and support in these difficult days, but he regarded the whole ‘experiment’ Alistair had set up as a complete waste of time. He’d always known of his dead friend’s obsession with the possibility of the afterlife. They’d had many a conversation in which he’d tried to bring him back to his senses. Nothing had worked. And now he resented the way his friend had dragged him into this pointless charade. It was not only embarrassing but would probably leave Dorothy feeling even more hurt and let down than ever. And he would have to deal with all this.

‘I know the one you mean. Do you really feel we need to go through with this? It’ll drag on for ages and slow down any chance you have of grieving properly and moving on.’

‘Of course we have to go through with it,’ she snapped. ‘He wanted it and it’s what I want as well.’

‘But it’ll only lead to disappointment . . . . ,’ he began.

‘You don’t know that. You believe whatever you want. Believe in nothing for all I care. But I believe something else is possible and this may be the only chance I ever get of proving it to myself at least.’ She stopped. ‘Maybe it’ll change your mind as well.’

‘Fat chance,’ he thought but said nothing.

‘What is it that you want me to do?’

. . . . . . . . .

Dorothy sat at the garden table in the late afternoon sun. Its light scattered off the dimpled glass in snaking patterns. She knew John wasn’t happy to continue with this plan but she was grateful that, out of loyalty to Alistair probably, he was on board with it at least for the time being.

The next big problem was her dreams. She never remembered any. Alistair had banged on endlessly about how everyone dreams, and about how important they were as messengers from ‘the subliminal mind.’ How irritating all that psychobabble was while he was still alive and how much she missed it now.

On the table was a book about dreaming. It was one he had recommended to her many times over the years. She’d always refused to go near it. Well, he’d won the battle in the end. She picked it up and began to read, skimming past the early chapters trying to find where this wonderful advice was about capturing the dreams she felt she never had. Ah, got it. She read more carefully. She had to prime her mind before sleep and ask to be given dreams. Then, if she woke and remembered even the faintest fragment of a dream, she must catch it and write it down even in the middle of the night.

It all seemed a bit mad to her. Was this his way of getting her to do now he was dead, what he could never persuade her to consider while he was alive? Perhaps it wasn’t about proving his mind lived on at all. Perhaps he believed that tuning into her dreams would help her with her grief and the rest of her life without him. Should she ring John and tell him to call it off?

She remembered that Alistair was not a trickster. He didn’t play those kinds of mind games. He was obsessed with near-death experiences and bored you almost to death endlessly explaining them. He almost certainly did want to test this theory out. Maybe he wanted her to value her dreams as well but definitely not instead.

She read on.

That night she placed a pad and pencil next to the bed. She decided to leave the light on as well. Her sleep would be more broken, which might help, and she wouldn’t have to grope for the pencil and risk losing the dream.

This became her nightly ritual for weeks. She faithfully recorded what she could remember of her dreams.

At first mere wisps of smoke with no sign of the fire.

She was on a green train going somewhere. She was trying to make a phone call but the screen of her mobile didn’t work. She was in a meeting with a report to make but she had left her draft at home. She is at the window of a house on fire, helping people to escape.

Slowly, over time the dreams became more detailed and more weird.

She was in what seemed to be a church, sitting on the kind of shiny reddish-brown wooden bench that usually constitutes a pew. There were quite a few people around. Across an aisle there was a bench or barrier with some kind of platform in front of it. It didn’t look like those tombstones found in a church but it was about the same height. There were several people in front of it watching some kind of mythical creature pacing up-and-down, perhaps even dancing. It was of medium height and possibly had wings. A girl, with a bow and arrow in her hands, clearly felt the creature was dangerous and she had to kill it before it harmed someone. She loved the creature dearly and really didn’t want to kill it. She went close to the platform and shot it with an arrow. She had to go so close so as to be sure to kill the creature and not hurt someone else. Dorothy burst out sobbing. She was so intensely sad. She felt embarrassed and, looking round, was relieved to see a skinny girl to her left also holding back her tears on the same bench.

After this dream she woke up feeling something really significant had happened. She didn’t know quite how to go about decoding it. There were tinges of the Cupid legend and ideas of love. There was grief there, and death. Also there was religion with all that implied about faith and the afterlife. She wondered if it meant that she was getting closer to a meeting with Alistair in a dream. She didn’t know who the other girl was – her younger self perhaps?

The following week there was a longer dream.

Dorothy is wandering around a vast campus. The experience is like a fusion of starting university and being at a conference. One moment she is stepping between people sitting on the central steps of a massive auditorium, as she strides down towards the stage to give a talk. Next she is opening doors off corridors into what should be laboratories, lecture halls or seminar rooms, to find people asleep in them in the daytime. She feels they must have travelled vast distances to get here and are jet lagged. Then she is striding long pathways in flat blank spaces outside completely alone and talking to herself. She is feeling really strange and tense. She seems to know no one.

It’s coming up to 5 p.m. She decides to ring home and gets her mobile out. It’s useless. It’s all in Greek. There is a pretty scene of some ancient building depicted on the screen. There is no address book and no way to ring numbers. She is desperate to make the phone call. Her battery is going flat – it’s showing 19% and she doesn’t have her portable charger with her. She finds a group of red phone boxes near something like a factory and goes into one with her change in her hand but can’t understand the slots for the coins. They seem to be specialised for factory-made discs to go into. Then the phone in her booth rings. She hesitates, then picks it up.

‘Hallo,’ she whispers.

‘Hi, love, it’s Alistair.’

Her heart leaps. She can hardly speak.

‘You’ve done it. You’ve come into my dream.’

‘Listen, love. I haven’t got much time. I’m not meant to ring you yet. In the packet is a book – the Everyman edition of George Herbert’s . . . . .’

The phone went dead.

(Part 2: Next Monday)

Footnote:

[1] This was begun after we attended the funeral of a close friend. She was a complete sceptic so in a way this is written partly from her point of view.

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IMG_2413I recently was involved in a series of workshops at Builth Well in Wales. I thought it worth sharing the materials used. The second set will come out next Monday and the last next Thursday. What the simple presentation of these materials fails to capture of course is the wealth of insight that comes from exploring the riches contained in the quotations used. The only way of accessing that would be to try approaching them in the same way.

Prayer

O compassionate God!  Thanks be to Thee for Thou hast awakened and made me conscious.  Thou hast given me a seeing eye and favored me with a hearing ear, hast led me to Thy kingdom and guided me to Thy path.  Thou hast shown me the right way and caused me to enter the ark of deliverance.  O God!  Keep me steadfast and make me firm and staunch.  Protect me from violent tests and preserve and shelter me in the strongly fortified fortress of Thy Covenant and Testament.  Thou art the Powerful.  Thou art the Seeing.  Thou art the Hearing.

O Thou the Compassionate God.  Bestow upon me a heart which, like unto a glass, may be illumined with the light of Thy love, and confer upon me thoughts which may change this world into a rose garden through the outpourings of heavenly grace.

Thou art the Compassionate, the Merciful.  Thou art the Great Beneficent God.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Overview

In the Bahá’í Writings the phrase ‘understanding heart’ is used more than thirty times. Of the heart, in various places Bahá’u’lláh uses three images, one of the mirror, one of the lamp and one of the garden. It is on this last that most of the focus will be in this aspect of the weekend course.

In the Persian Hidden Words Bahá’u’lláh writes: ‘‘In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love . . . .’ (PHW: 3). Also in the Hidden Words He speaks of the ‘hyacinths of wisdom’ (PHW: 33), which will grow as a result of sowing ‘the seeds of Divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart.’

It is easy to access the obvious meanings of these passages. We will be exploring as deeply as we can in the time available what implications they might have for how this process might work and what we might do to foster it. This will include unpacking exactly what we think Bahá’u’lláh might mean by the word ‘pure’ in this context.

1. Preparing the Soil of the Heart’s Garden (90 Minutes)

There are three practices that we will be drawing on as we grapple with what the quotations from the Bahá’í Writings mean to us and seek to internalize them.

Reflective Consultation

The first I will introduce now: we will be drawing on it soon. It is a process of group consultation pioneered in Colombia in the early days of the Ruhi Institute. What does it involve? First, people ask for or offer clarification of any words that are difficult to understand.

In turn each person reads a quotation out loud. The one who first reads the quote acts as a group leader for the consultation on that quote.

Then each person re-reads the quote before sharing one response (s)he has to the quote. Every one in turn expresses their responses to the quote in this same way, whether as thoughts, feelings, intuitions or whatever. All group members should at least read part if not all of the quotation even if they feel they will have nothing to share after doing so.

This goes on until all the members feel they have said all that they wish to say or time has run out. There are no right or wrong answers during this process. It is an opportunity to reflect deeply and share the result.

Efforts should be made not to respond to what others have said but simply to focus on one’s reaction at the time one reads the quote again. Attention should be paid to what implications the quote has for our own lives and to suggestions as to how we might apply what we have learned.

The group leader’s only job is to see that everyone follows these rules, i.e. reads the quote prayerfully and shares one (and only one) response without referring to what others have said!

Introduction

When we apply the metaphor of gardening to the cultivation of our spiritual core, the heart, what might be involved? Hopefully, as we explore further, we will develop a stronger sense of what the word ‘heart’ means in this context. For now I suggest we stick to simple basic implications of the image.

What do we do when we garden? We need to clear and prepare the soil. We need to decide what seeds or shoots to plant, and then place them in the ground. We need to tend them afterwards, keeping them out of the frost, for example, and ensuring they receive sufficient water and sunlight.

Also important, though we may not have time to reflect on this aspect this weekend, is the climate that surrounds us. If we have enough sunlight and rain, flowers will bloom and the fruits come in abundance. If the days are dark or there is drought, plants will shrivel and die. In spiritual terms sunlight and water are seen as coming from God, from immersing ourselves in the Writings of His Messengers, from pure-hearted prayer, from a community of seekers and from sincere acts of service. If we deprive ourselves or are deprived of any of these aspects of the spiritual life, which are also ways of tending the seeds we are sowing, we will risk creating a winter or a desert for our hearts. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained:

But instead of this, what has taken place! Men turned away their faces from following the divinely illuminated precepts of their Master, and winter fell upon the hearts of men. For, as the body of man depends for life upon the rays of the sun, so cannot the celestial virtues grow in the soul without the radiance of the Sun of Truth.

(Paris Talks– page 31-32)

Coming back to the main focus of the day, what might preparing the soil of the heart involve?

Practice of Reflective Consultation

To begin our exploration of this let’s use the process of reflective consultation we spoke of earlier on one of the following quotes:

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

(Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh: page 52

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)

What do we feel we have learnt from that process?

Further Considerations

Bahá’u’lláh makes it clear that this process of preparation, purification if you prefer, cannot be avoided.

. . . the lilies of ancient wisdom can blossom nowhere except in the city of a stainless heart. “In a rich soil, its plants spring forth abundantly by permission of its Lord, and in that soil which is bad, they spring forth but scantily.”

(Kitáb-i-Íqán UK Edition– page 122)

Before all else (the friends) must sanctify their hearts and purify their motives, otherwise all efforts in furthering any enterprise will be fruitless.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quoted by the Universal House of Justice in a message: 10 February 1980)

O SON OF BEING! Thy heart is My home; sanctify it for My descent. Thy spirit is My place of revelation; cleanse it for My manifestation.

(Bahá’u’lláh – AHW No 59)

. . . a man should make ready his heart that it be worthy of the descent of heavenly grace.

(Bahá’u’lláh – The Four Valleys page 54)

If we are to weed effectively we need to have some idea of what a weed looks like before we can get rid of it. Perhaps using the same method of reflective consultation will help us glean some insights from the one or both of following quotes.

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 purge his breast, which is the sanctuary of the abiding love of the Beloved, of every defilement, and sanctify his soul from all that pertaineth to water and clay, from all shadowy and ephemeral attachments. 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– UK Edition page 123)

O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge. Be ablaze as the fire, that ye may burn away the veils of heedlessness and set aglow, through the quickening energies of the love of God, the chilled and wayward heart. Be light and untrammeled as the breeze, that ye may obtain admittance into the precincts of My court, My inviolable Sanctuary.

(Gleanings No. CLII)

Looking Ahead

In the third session we will be exploring the idea of planting seeds in the garden of the heart. Memorising quotations is a useful tool for this purpose. This is also the second practice we will be using, and the foundation of the third one.  I am hoping that before tomorrow’s session you will be able to find time to look at this idea. Here is a possible way to make it easier for those who find memorizing difficult. The method I am quoting here has been adapted from a way of memorising poetry. I sorry to say that I have no record of whose original idea I have borrowed here.

How to Learn Passages: 

  1. Read the passage once. Then divide it into convenient short sections, each equivalent to a line of poetry.
  2. Now read the first section out loud. Take your eyes from the page and immediately say the section again. Glance back to make sure you got it right. If you made a mistake, try again. Now do the same with the second section. Repeat the procedure for every section in the passage.
  3. Go back to the beginning. This time, read the first two sections out loud, look away and repeat them aloud. Check. If you made a mistake, try again. Now move onto the next two sections, going through the whole passage two sections at a time.
  4. Repeat the passage three sections at a time, then four sections at a time, then five and then six. By the sixth pass, no matter how long the passage, you will have memorised it.
  5. Recite the whole passage just before going to bed at night.
  6. Crucial: stop thinking about the passage. Your sleeping mind is very important for memory.
  7. The next day, you should find (after a glance at the first section to bump-start your memory) that you can recite the whole passage.

If you are not sure what passages to pick to practice on here are two suggestions relevant to that session’s theme.

Sow the seeds of My wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of the heart.

(Bahá’u’lláh PHW No 33 – see also No 78)

Know verily that the purpose underlying all these symbolic terms and abstruse allusions, which emanate from the Revealers of God’s holy Cause, hath been to test and prove the peoples of the world; that thereby the earth of the pure and illuminated hearts may be known from the perishable and barren soil. From time immemorial such hath been the way of God amidst His creatures, and to this testify the records of the sacred books.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Kitáb-i-Íqán UK Edition – page 32)

IMG_4078

Sunset in Builth

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South American silver

Rich deposits of silver were discovered in South America in 1545 and exploited by the Spanish conquistadors. Photograph: Images Group/Rex/Shutterstock

I’ve just bought the book that is reviewed in this recent Guardian article by Mark O’Connell. It is proving even more compelling, than I thought it would be from the review.  Below is a short extract: for the full article, see link.

Raj Patel and Jason W Moore illustrate a ruinous economic system that benefits a minority class.

In the early pages of their book A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, Raj Patel and Jason W Moore ask us to consider the McNugget as the reigning symbol of the modern era. One of their central contentions is that we are no longer living in the Holocene, but in a new geological era they refer to as the Capitalocene – the currently fashionable term “Anthropocene”, they argue, suggests that our current state of ecological emergency is merely the result of humans doing what humans do, whereas the reality is that it flows out of the specific historical phenomenon of capitalism. As a term, then, Capitalocene is designed to nudge us away from evolutionary determinism, and from a sense of collective culpability for climate change, towards an understanding of the way in which the destruction of nature has largely been the result of an economic system organised around a minority class and its pursuit of profit. “We may all be in the same boat when it comes to climate change,” as they put it, “but most of us are in steerage.”

Patel and Moore’s essential argument is that the history of capitalism, and therefore of our current mess, can be usefully viewed through the lens of cheapness. (An earlier, more knottily theoretical work of eco-Marxism by Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, argues that “cheap nature” is as central an imperative of capitalism as cheap labour.)

. . .

One of the most persuasive aspects of Patel and Moore’s argument, in this sense, is their demonstration of the extent to which capitalism’s reliance on cheap labour is itself reliant on what they call cheap care – the domestic work mostly performed for nothing, and mostly by women, that is rarely factored into the cost of labour. Capitalism has created a binary opposition between this care work and the “real work” it makes possible. “Writing a history of work without care work,” they write, “would be like writing an ecology of fish without mentioning the water. It’d be possible, in a limited fashion, but, once you’d realised the omission, hard to continue.”

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Cattle

A cattle farm in Mato Grosso, Brazil. 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock. Photograph: Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

Another Guardian article has motivated me to recommend it, even though I’m treading very lightly on my blog at present. I have always known we have a disproportionate impact on the planet, but grossly underestimated the size of the mismatch, it seems. And, of course, it’s good to see the vegetarian case strengthened by this data! Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

Groundbreaking assessment of all life on Earth reveals humanity’s surprisingly tiny part in it as well as our disproportionate impact.

The world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds.

The new work is the first comprehensive estimate of the weight of every class of living creature and overturns some long-held assumptions. Bacteria are indeed a major life form – 13% of everything – but plants overshadow everything, representing 82% of all living matter. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, to fish and animals, make up just 5% of the world’s biomass.

. . .

The new work reveals that farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. The picture is even more stark for mammals – 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals.

“It is pretty staggering,” said Milo. “In wildlife films, we see flocks of birds, of every kind, in vast amounts, and then when we did the analysis we found there are [far] more domesticated birds.”

. . .

Despite humanity’s supremacy, in weight terms Homo sapiens is puny. Viruses alone have a combined weight three times that of humans, as do worms. Fish are 12 times greater than people and fungi 200 times as large.

. . .

[O]ur impact on the natural world remains immense, said Milo, particularly in what we choose to eat: “Our dietary choices have a vast effect on the habitats of animals, plants and other organisms.”

“I would hope people would take this [work] as part of their world view of how they consume,” he said. ”I have not become vegetarian, but I do take the environmental impact into my decision making, so it helps me think, do I want to choose beef or poultry or use tofu instead?”

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