Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

Cattle at an illegal settlement in the Jamanxim National Forest, state of Para, northern Brazil, November 29, 2009. With 1,3 million hectares, the Jamanxim National Forest is today a microsm that replicates what happens in the Amazon, where thousands of hectares of land are prey of illegal woodcutters, stock breeders and gold miners. Photograph: Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images

Recent research has prompted me to consider moving towards a vegan diet. I was nearly there anyway, in that I eat soya yoghurt and use oat milk, rather than the dairy versions. Cheese has been my Achilles heel. I have now found many acceptable vegan cheeses and hope also to persuade myself to use soya milk in coffee. A step at a time! I will be returning to this topic more fully next month. Below is a short extract from the triggering article: for the full text see link.

Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.

The new research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.

The new analysis shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Other recent research shows 86% of all land mammals are now livestock or humans. The scientists also found that even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing.

. . .

The study, published in the journal Science, created a huge dataset based on almost 40,000 farms in 119 countries and covering 40 food products that represent 90% of all that is eaten. It assessed the full impact of these foods, from farm to fork, on land use, climate change emissions, freshwater use and water pollution (eutrophication) and air pollution (acidification).

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.


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A few days ago there was an insightful post on the Bahá’í International Community website by Daniel Perell, explaining the compelling need for us to operate on the basis of our interconnectedness. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

The body politic has been likened to the human body: its advancement as a whole is best served by the collaborative functioning of its subsidiary parts. In a world becoming more interdependent by the day, the importance of these ties is clear. Yet, today, it seems like the individual parts each function for themselves, not the whole. The transformation required for humanity to continue to advance calls for a profound reassessment of the parts—the various constituency-based identities we hold so dear.

This is not to undermine healthy forms of identity. The legitimate pride members might feel about advances made by their group, or the power of collective action taken around shared concerns, could be likened to strengthening muscles or increasing lung capacity within the body. These dimensions of human existence are helpful insofar as they work in service of the whole. But to the degree that attachment to limited definitions of “we” undermine collective well-being, they are no longer productive.

This is not an issue of parochialism alone. Clearly, it is problematic if I care primarily for those who are demographically similar to me, and exclude others from my circle of concern. Yet a more subtle challenge lies at the structural level. More and more, we recognize that a roomful of people who are all committed to the advancement of humanity in its entirety will, nonetheless, struggle to the degree that their efforts are pursued through the paradigm and machinery of constituency constructs.

From a historical perspective, the capacity to conceptualize humanity as an organically united whole is both recent and quite revolutionary. Our ancestors gradually developed more expansive notions of identity as society was organized at wider and wider scales. But, by and large, a global vision was not required for the species to advance. Today, human activity in one corner of the world can have profound effects in another. If we ignore the reality of our unity, we do so at our own peril.

Given the historic changes of the past two centuries, it is not surprising that our social institutions struggle. Most were initially established to serve a geographically limited, and often relatively homogeneous, population. Those numerous systems and structures were then gradually linked to one another through the web of treaties, agreements, and institutions known today as the multilateral system. These were steps forward, to be sure. But today’s patchwork system of rigid sovereignty overlaid over increasingly fluid and cross-cutting identities is altogether insufficient, whether at the global, national, or even local level.

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One hour’s reflection is worth seventy years’ pious worship.Mirror 1

Bahá’u’lláh: quoting a hadith in the Kitáb-i-Íqán

It seems a good idea to republish this sequence from almost six years ago to complement the recently completed sequence on transcending the crocodile within and providing more detailed background to its thinking. This is the fifth of six.

Three Crucial Factors

There are at least three other crucial factors in the mind-work process over and above what we have dealt with in the previous posts: Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity. They are qualities that the mind-worker must have from the start. The names for these qualities are used in an existential model of mind-work. (Reflection is also a core quality of the Bahá’í spiritual process and has been discussed at length in other posts on this site, as has consultation which can be fairly described as a process of group reflection.)

Reflection, relativity and relatedness as discussed here are the antidotes to three forces of fixity – drowning, dogmatism and disowning — which I discussed in detail in the article on The Art of Reflection (there I discussed in depth collaborative conversation, a term I borrowed at the time from Anderson and Swim) in This is Madness. The forces of fixity are common when we function in survival mode. Psychotic experiences in people who need help from Mental Health Services are very threatening. Being in survival mode is therefore very much the norm for many of them. Creating a situation that feels safe is of paramount importance. Otherwise it can be very difficult to mobilise the forces of flexibility.

Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity are the core of the mind-work process. They will need some further explanation. They are what the mind-worker models and what the client can either develop further or discover how to use. If the mind-worker lacks them the process of mind-work is likely to remain locked in unproductive disputes that tend to drive the client further into his private world. The client may or may not demonstrate them at the beginning but should increasingly do so as the mind-work progresses.  The better the mind-worker models them the more likely it is that the client will begin to use them too. These qualities are what consolidate and generalise the process of change. They ensure that the process of mind-work becomes a permanently transformative one. If the client does not develop these abilities there is likely to be no real sustainable progress.

These three capacities combine with the relationship aspects in different ways – trust, containment and authenticity – each of which contributes something special and important to the therapeutic process. They may have an order of importance which is discussed later in that without Trust it may be impossible to develop Containment and without Trust and Containment Authenticity may be impossible. Eventually the client will certainly need to acquire and evince Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity, without which he will never make his own any clarity that comes from the mind-worker.

What, in the Relationship, Makes Change Possible?

The Plane of Authenticity

Clarification and Congruence (see earlier posts) are two sides of a square mind-space, so to speak, which is completed by Reflection and Relativity, two concepts which are also related. The combination constitutes what we might call Authenticity.

Let’s take reflection first. Reflection is the capacity to separate consciousness from its contents (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. We become capable of changing our relationship with them and altering their meanings for us. We may have been trapped in a mindset. Through using and acquiring the power of reflection, we do not then replace one “fixation” with another: we are provisional and somewhat tentative in our new commitments which remain fluid in their turn. Just as a mirror is not what it reflects we are not what we think, feel and plan but the capacity to do all those things. Knowing this and being able to act on it frees us up: we are no longer prisoners of our assumptions, models and maps.

The principal focus of reflection in mind-work is often upon our models of reality and upon the experiences which give rise to them and to which they give rise in return. This is especially true of “psychosis.” The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict and opens us up to new experiences: the adaptation and change that this makes possible enhances the potential usefulness of our models and their connected experiences. It is the antithesis of drowning where we are engulfed in our experiences and sink beneath them.

The ability to reflect, one part of our repertoire of tools for transformation, enables us to achieve our own clarification without depending upon another mind-worker. If a mind-worker does all the reflecting she is just giving people fish: if she can help someone discover how to reflect, she has taught him to fish. In combination with its sister quality, relativity, it becomes a powerful tool indeed. The antidote to chronic dogmatism, another of the forces of fixity, is relativity. Being dogmatic seals us off from new evidence which makes it hard to change our minds even when we are wrong.

It is not surprising that Reflection and Relativity are interconnected. By placing our models and assumptions mentally in brackets or inverted commas, which is a necessary first step towards reflecting upon them, we inevitably acknowledge, at least implicitly, that we have no monopoly on the truth, that we understand and experience the world at best imperfectly from a particular viewpoint or perspective which is only relatively true. This is not the same as saying there is no truth out there and any viewpoint is as good as any other. We refine the usefulness and accuracy of our simulations of reality partly at least through a process of comparing notes with others in consultation or, as I call it here, collaborative conversation.

We can, and as mind-workers we must, become almost as sceptical of our own position as we tend to be of other people’s.  Any other posture is unhelpfully dogmatic in this context. The extent to which I should then explicitly endorse the client’s position is still an issue of debate. Peter Chadwick, for instance, in his book Schizophrenia: a positive perspective, contends that it would not have been at all helpful to him to have staff endorse his beliefs in supernatural influences at the time he was experiencing extreme psychotic phenomena, even though he still holds those beliefs to be valid now that he is well: had they been endorsed by staff at the time he might have killed himself.

Authenticity matters because without it the clarity necessary for effective action and coping is unlikely to become possible. Client and mind-worker could well remain in a warm and sympathetic muddle that leads nowhere. As we will see in a moment though, without the warmth of an accepting relationship, authenticity and its resulting clarity can seem far too dangerous to risk.

Without a clear sense of uncertainty about absolute truth radical authenticity of the kind required here may prove impossible. An example from my own work serves to illustrate this well. A client was convinced the devil had a purpose for him. He was very concerned about whether I believed in the devil or not. He pressed me in almost every session for an answer. In the end, concerned to be congruent, I told him I did not. He broke off mindwork. I reflected on this afterwards. It became apparent to me that I had spoken from a position of dogmatic and unreflecting identification with my views about the devil. It would have been more authentic to acknowledge that, as a fellow human being struggling to make sense of the world, I couldn’t know for sure whether the devil existed or not. I could have shared with him, if he had pushed me further, that I had chosen to operate in my own life on the assumption that the devil did not exist. This would not, I think, have broken the relationship in a way that made further work I possible.

The Plane of Trust

Relativity shares a space with Relatedness. This term was chosen because it began with an ‘r’! Perhaps openness is a better word. Ernesto Spinelli (1st Edition: 1994) uses the expression “ownership.” Either way, along with Warmth, Encouragement (both discussed in earlier posts) and Relativity, it helps develop Trust, a crucial component that the client must eventually bring to the therapeutic process, and along with Empathy, Solidarity and Reflection it helps the client develop the ability to contain, rather than disown or act out, his inner experiences. The relation between Trust and Containment we will return to in a moment.

First of all we need to know what Relatedness is. Relatedness, in this context, is the capacity to consciously acknowledge and relate to what we are experiencing. It is the antidote to disowning, the last of the forces of fixity. It makes us sufficiently accessible to relationships with people and things to learn to accommodate to as well as assimilate experiences, to make appropriate adjustments to our selves or to our circumstances. If we disown parts of experience we become a prey to it, just as Ian was a prey to his repressed pain which turned into hostile or destructive voices. Anything we disown controls us while eluding our influence to change it in any way. What we are open to we can affect even though it may also affect us directly in its turn.

Trust comes first. We need to trust someone sufficiently to feel the strength flow into us from her Solidarity, to be able to know that she understands how we feel but will not therefore dump us or summon undermining and unwanted help, and to see how she feels confident enough to open up to what she feels about us and subject it to careful Reflection.  This is what gives us the opportunity to learn that we can contain our experiences and change our relationship with and understanding of them.

How do we develop Trust?

First of all, we need to feel the warmth of the mind-worker, her unwavering and unconditional valuing of us. Next, we need to sense her relativity, that she knows the incompleteness and inadequacy of her understanding and can suspend judgement and criticism indefinitely until it is really constructive to share (not impose) it. Then, we need to experience her encouragement, which unfailingly rewards our efforts to apply what we have discovered to our problems. Last but by no means least, we need to see her relatedness, her unthreatened openness to all experience, which allows us to become more aware of other dimensions of our own experience.  These things together make it possible for us to trust other people, our experience and ourselves. Without this making and sustaining change becomes almost impossible.

The Plane of Containment

This mind-space comprises empathy, solidarity (both discussed in an earlier post), relatedness and reflection. If someone is standing beside us in our struggles, giving us comfort, understanding what we are going through, and showing an open and reflective attitude to the revelations we share, it helps us to contain what might otherwise be too scary and/or disturbing to contemplate. What we cannot contain, we find it almost impossible to reflect on and process. Containment therefore plays a central role in the therapeutic process.

In our culture we are all too prone to either repression (convincing ourselves we’re not experiencing something when we are) or acting out (expressing whatever we are currently experiencing and ignoring the consequences until it is too late). Containment is the creative third way and a key to change.

An inability to contain experiences of a disturbing nature accounts for much substance abuse, self-harm and dependency on mind-altering subscription drugs. Containment is often not possible outside a set of supportive relationships of the kind I am attempting to describe.

Furthermore, if we cannot trust anyone, and perhaps least of all ourselves, we cannot contain what frightens us or threatens to overwhelm us. So perhaps without Trust there is no Containment. And without Trust and Containment, Authenticity will be impossible, I suspect. Any life-lie will seem a tempting port in the storm of life if distrust and disowning rule the mind.

In the next post I will attempt to pull this all together.

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It seems a good idea to republish this sequence from almost six years ago to complement the current sequence on transcending the crocodile within and providing more detailed background to its thinking. This is the fourth of six.

Many people have grappled with defining what mind-workers ought to do. Two “orts” emerge as favourites: rapport, as described by Carl Rogers, and support, as outlined by David Smail. My idea of the mind-working process starts from but does not end there. We will also have to consider other factors of crucial importance if the client is going to be able to take over and keep going the process of transformation for himself. These factors will be described in more detail in the next post: I’ll be using terms rooted in existential therapy but the key underlying concept is present in a strong form in my Faith tradition.

The Rogerian Triad

Carl Rogers

First there is the old faithful – the so-called Therapeutic Triad! I have used the word ‘therapist’ here because it is the one Rogers chooses. I’ve mentioned my doubts about the word in an earlier post of this sequence.

The Therapeutic Triad of Carl Rogers consists of genuineness (or congruence), empathy and warmth (or unconditional positive regard). Though it is very well known it perhaps needs a brief comment here. Carl Rogers in 1957 described the core conditions required of the mind-worker. To be genuine the therapist must be “freely and deeply ” herself. The therapist must also find herself experiencing “a warm acceptance of each aspect of the client’s experience as being a part of that client” if she is to experience “unconditional positive regard.” Empathy is “to sense the client’s private world as if it were your own.” For this to be effective the client must perceive “the acceptance and empathy which the therapist experiences for him.”

This triad can be summarised as Rapport, one of the “orts” which the mind-worker must bring to the mind-work to make the existential processes possible. This is what the mind-worker brings to the relationship but does not expect the client to apply to his own life.

(Incidentally, I will be using “he” or “we” for a client and “she” for a mind-worker in order to be politically correct, to avoid awkward constructions such as “(s)he” or him/her and to increase the likelihood of our reading at least some of these words from a client’s perspective.) If these qualities were not seen by the client to be present the mind-work would never get going. Rapport may often do no more than make change possible.

Smail’s Triad

Then there is the relatively new one on the block which takes things a bit further. This other “ort”, which can be labeled “Support”, is the Smail Triad, which he introduces in his book “How To Survive Without Psychotherapy” (1996). This is less widely known and will need a bit more introduction. It consists of Encouragement, Solidarity (or Comfort) and Clarification.

Warmth and Encouragement are related but not identical. Encouragement is essential. Smail defines this as:

. . . any kind of influence brought to bear by the therapist on the patient (sic) to try actively to make a difference to the factors that are causing him or her distress.

(A feature of so-called “psychosis” is passivity in the face of experience: encouragement is therefore very important in this context. Also such people have typically been facing deeply discouraging experiences for many years.) By encouragement the mind-worker responds positively to the efforts of her client to apply what he has discovered in mind-work. Praise is, for me, a key component.

Solidarity is, according to Smail, “one of the most potently therapeutic experiences to be had,” even though in itself it changes nothing. It is derived from sharing your deepest fears and most shameful secrets with a ‘valued other’ who does not immediately heap blame or scorn upon you, but who instead listens patiently and sympathetically to what you have to say.

It is something one human being gives to another by uncritically and supportively, but not blindly, standing beside him in his difficulties. It should but perhaps does not go without saying that this does not mean leaping in and drowning in there with him.

In the words of Smail (page 213):

Solidarity with others is both one of the most significant and, all things considered, the most available forms of power for ‘ordinary’ people.

David Smail

For people with a label of psychosis it is significantly less available and we should not underestimate the corrosive effects of that unavailability upon a person’s well-being. Solidarity is also what stops the praise and encouragement from being experienced as patronising. The mind-worker stands alongside, not above, the client. To feel that we are not alone in our troubles and that some one appreciates our efforts has a power to keep us going and bring about success that should not be underestimated.

Though Solidarity and Empathy have much in common they also are not the same thing. Solidarity involves standing with somebody as he struggles to act. Though it implies the mind-worker knows how the client feels, solidarity also implies action whereas empathy might only sit nearby and commiserate with how difficult it must feel.

Clarification is also crucial. People in distress are often confused. Simple questions and straightforward feedback are often all that is needed to dispel the fog. Sometimes another map of the world needs to be gradually introduced, again as a colleague and fellow human being, not as a superior being from her pedestal.

Smail (page 42) feels that there is,

. . . in principle at least, not a great deal of difficulty in arriving at an acceptable account of how people come to be as they are and what are the origins of their distress. Where difficulties do arise is in knowing what is to be done with this information. The idea that ‘insight’ leads automatically to cure, while figuring largely in many patients’ expectations, has long been recognised to be problematic by therapists.

The glib assumption, that to be clear is to be able to change, places an unrealistic degree of responsibility upon the client. Part of Smail’s solution is to emphasise solidarity and encouragement: the rest of what he stresses may be summarised under the idea of taking proper account of the power of environment in creating and alleviating difficulties. The extent to which an oppressive environment cannot be changed sets limits on the degree of change we can bring about.

For me, the physical environment within which the mind functions can be both outside (society, unemployment, lack of cash, poor housing etc) and inside (brain structure, chemistry, hormones etc) the individual. The degree to which these variables can operate effectively to bring about change is affected by environment, but that is a topic too large for present consideration.

Transferring Ownership

The process of clarification provides us with the easiest bridge from the “orts” to the factors we mentioned earlier which enable the client to keep the transformation process going because the client has to have more ownership of clarification than of the other qualities in these groups of three.

Support, even in the context of a good rapport, can only make change possible but it doesn’t tell us how to make sure it will happen in the first place and then continue in the right direction in the absence of the mind-worker. These qualities do not become the instruments the client will use himself to bring about change nor are they the results of changes taking place. They are composed of the essential prerequisites that make positive change processes possible within a relationship. With the possible exception of clarification, if the client lacks them, he does not need to develop them if he does not wish to. However, he needs to sense most of them in the mind-worker.

The Good Samaritan

The Good Samaritan

It perhaps goes without saying that most of these characteristics of the relationship, such as warmth, empathy, honesty, encouragement and solidarity are also emphasised in many spiritual traditions as essential to a proper relationship with other people. The golden rule, which recommends that we treat others as we would ourselves wish to be treated, occurs over and over again across the world transcending barriers of language and culture.

The characteristics I will be discussing in the next post helped me combine practical insights specifically drawn from the Bahá’í Faith with the processes of therapeutic practice. They are key to someone’s being able to carry on the work after the mind-worker has gone.

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I read an interesting article by Yuval Noah Harari in the Guardian some time ago, entitled The New Threat to Liberal Democracy. Astonishingly, from reductionist premises with which I completely disagree, such as that we have no free will, he arrives at the same conclusion as I do about a key mental skill: ‘renouncing the myth of free will can kindle a profound curiosity. If you strongly identify with the thoughts and desires that emerge in your mind, you don’t need to make much effort to get to know yourself. You think you already know exactly who you are. But once you realise “Hi, this isn’t me. This is just some changing biochemical phenomenon!” then you also realise you have no idea who – or what – you actually are. This can be the beginning of the most exciting journey of discovery any human can undertake.’

This is reflective disidentification in effect. More of that in a moment.

The article, from vastly different premises, confirms my feeling that developing the ability to step back from our automatic reactions is a key skill we need to acquire, but our culture militates against it – in fact, all the subliminal influences in our society are working in the opposite direction.

In Tart’s terms, our ‘trance’, and in Bahá’u’lláh’s words our ‘vain imaginings,’ ’superstitions’ and ‘delusions,’ control us, not because we have no will power, but because we fail to tune into the deepest levels of our being and we invest our trust in false gods.

On top of that, our reptilian brain, the amygdala, drowns out the soul’s whispers with its fear and rage.

What follows may not be entirely coherent as it was only recently, while sitting in the garden with a coffee, that an important penny dropped.

I asked myself whether, in my past attempts to look at what narrows the compass of compassion, eg labelling, the reptilian brain, inequality, power differentials etc, I had missed the more generic point that any kind of identification with a feeling, thought, judgement, self-concept, ego function, by definition:

(a) narrows compassion potentially to zero, and

(b) shallows wisdom to the same extent.

Strong identifications of this kind could lead to a container, whose width is compassion and depth is wisdom, to become the size of a thimble – an obvious but useful symbol. Using reflection to remove these false identifications would create an ocean, by comparison. When you add into the mix how reflection facilitates true consultation as a means of enhancing our simulations of reality through a constructive process of comparing notes with others in a spirit of objective exploration rather than adversarial debate, then the potential becomes even greater. The opposite is also true: failure to reflect impedes consultation and fosters conflict, resulting in impoverished representations of reality.

The other important factor is what we choose as our guiding light. As Reitan points out, simply believing we believe in God is not enough: the God we choose to believe in has to be worthy of worship. To make a god out of our ego or a dictator is a fatal mistake. Even our ideals have to be approached with caution, as Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ points out. In his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

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

Another recent article in the Guardian by Michele Gelfand points up the impact of feeling threatened on our openness to others.

His core point in terms of this issue is: ‘Analysing hundreds of hunter-gatherer groups, as well as nation-states including the Aztecs and Incas, we found that cultures that experienced existential threats, such as famine and warfare, favoured strong norms and autocratic leaders. Our computer models show a similar effect: threat leads to the evolution of tightness.’

This maps onto my long explored idea that fear narrows the compass of compassion and makes intolerance and prejudice more likely. The narrower the container, the more likely we are to experience feelings of threat and a strong sense of difference between us and other people.

I’d maybe been putting the cart before the horse in seeing the feelings as ultimately causative rather than secondary. The wider we set our compass of compassion, and the deeper our wisdom becomes, the less likely are we to be fearful, threatened and reactively aggressive. When something disturbing happens and it’s a drop in the ocean you feel no fear. When something happens and it’s a drop in a thimble, all hell spills out.

This may be a two-way street, though, in that fear will reduce the size of our container, just as the smallness of the container is conducive to fear. There is, however, no guarantee that an absence of fear would be conducive automatically to compassion, as the combination of narcissism and fearlessness is found in the psychopath.

Where the process starts may be different for different people in different situations. If it is basically true, however, that fear shrinks compassion and reduced compassion fosters fear, and it seems likely, the dynamic I’ve described would create a vicious circle of a most pernicious and self-defeating kind. I still need to clarify these implications.

This is what I plan to do in a later sequence.

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I recently have a short talk at the Birmingham Interfaith. It seemed worth sharing here as it relates to the current sequence.

Ever since I studied English Literature, and long before I eventually specialised in psychology or discovered the Bahá’í Faith, the words of a poet-priest from the Elizabethan period have stuck in my mind.

John Donne wrote:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

He wrote those words, part of the third of his five satires, during what must have been an agonising period of his life, when he was deciding to abandon the Roman Catholic faith, for which members of his family had died, and become an apostate. By taking this step, he avoided torture and execution and gained a career at the possible cost, in his mind, of eternal damnation.

While the Western world feels it has moved on from such ferocious divisions, the same does not seem to be true everywhere. Also, we should not perhaps feel we are completely free from milder variations of religious intolerance here.

This means that Donne’s message is still relevant.

The most obvious implication of what he says here is that we have to work hard to find Truth.

However, there are other equally important implications, and one of them in particular is crucial to the work of the Interfaith and makes a core aspect of the Bahá’í path particularly relevant for us in our relations both between ourselves and with the wider community.

Within the interfaith, we are all, in a sense, approaching Truth from different sides of this same mountain. Just because your path looks somewhat different from mine in some respects, it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, yours is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth.

Donne clearly felt so at the time he wrote Satire III:

As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion.

It is clear, if this is as true as I think it is, that we would all move faster upwards if we were able to compare notes humbly and carefully.

I think an aspect of the Bahá’í path is particularly useful for this purpose.

It stems partly from our core beliefs that all the great world religions are in essence one at the spiritual level, coming as they do from the same divine source, and that all of humanity is one at this spiritual level, not just at the level of our increasingly global material connections.

Bahá’u’lláh expresses this second form of unity in powerful terms. We are all created from ‘from the same dust’, and he explains why it is important that we recognise this: ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

It’s perhaps important to clarify that the unity He describes is inclusive of diversity: it does not mean uniformity. So, there will be cultural differences affecting our perspectives, creating a need to reconcile them if problems are to be solved.

This radical concept of oneness and interconnectedness is at the root of two Bahá’í practices that relate to our ability to work together in a way that transcends our differences. The skills appealed to me deeply as a way of enriching my therapeutic work with people whose perspectives on life were causing them painful problems.

One practice is shared by just about every religious tradition to some extent, and perhaps most extensively by Buddhism, which has the longest and richest tradition in this area.

This is termed reflection, meditation or contemplation in the Bahá’í Writings. There is one particular fruit of the meditative process that is most relevant here.

This spiritual skill or discipline helps create the necessary detachment and humility for true consultation to take place, because we are able to step back and withdraw our identification from our thoughts and ideas sufficiently to listen sympathetically and open-mindedly to what others are saying.

My experience as a Bahá’í strongly suggests that the detachment necessary for effective consultation between people cannot be achieved easily or possibly at all without this complementary process within each of us. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Son of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith,  describes it at one point as the ‘faculty of meditation’ which ‘frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1972][1] He also uses the terms reflection and contemplation to describe this state of mind. This process is so powerful that a tradition of Islam, quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states, ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ [Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán 1982]

The simplest way of explaining my understanding of what this involves is to use the image of consciousness, or in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms ‘the meditative faculty,’ as a mirror. At one level the mind simply captures as best it can what it experiences just as a mirror captures what’s in front of it.

A deeper implication is that, just as the mirror is not what it reflects but the capacity to reflect, our consciousness is not the same as its contents. To recognize this and develop the capacity to withdraw our identification with the contents of our consciousness, whether these be thoughts, feelings, sensations, or plans, enables us to consult with others effectively and reflect upon, as in ‘think about,’ our experiences, ideas and self-concepts. Once we can do this it becomes easier to change them if they are damaging us or other people.

Acquiring this skill is not easy.

An existential philosopher called Koestenbaum expresses it very clearly in his book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy.

He states that (page 69):

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? True reflection at the very deepest level, it seems to me, has to ultimately depend therefore upon the degree of our reliance upon God, but can also be achieved to some degree by disciplined practice alone.

Koestenbaum is optimistic about our ability to acquire this skill (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection what he means is definitely something closely related to meditation. Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

Reading Koestenbaum has helped to deepen my understanding of this concept.

This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life. In developing that capacity we will have to strive for perfection and be content with progress, as the saying goes.

As a process within the individual, it is complemented by and interacts with the process of consultation, as we will now explore.

Once we can reflect, we can then consult. Interestingly I see this as a two-way street. Just as reflecting more skilfully makes for better consultation, so does striving to consult properly enhance our ability to reflect.

And consultation makes the creative comparison of paths and perspectives possible, as we will see. As far as I am aware no tradition other than the Bahá’í Writings makes this link between these two skills so clearly nor emphasises so strongly the need for consultation as a dissolver of differences and enhancer of understanding both at a practical and a theoretical level.

Why is all this so important?

A statement on prosperity from the Bahá’í International Community, an NGO at the UN, states a key weakness of our culture’s basic approach:

Debate, propaganda, the adversarial method, the entire apparatus of partisanship that have long been such familiar features of collective action are all fundamentally harmful to its purpose: that is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.

Karlberg, in his book Beyond a Culture of Contest, makes the compelling point that for the most part our culture’s processes are adversarial: our economic system is based on competition, our political system is split by contesting parties and our court rooms decide who has won in the battle between defence and prosecution, rather than on the basis of an careful and dispassionate exploration of the truth. The French courtroom is, apparently, one of the few exceptions.

The Bahá’í International Community explain how we need to transcend our ‘respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals.’ They speak of ‘an atmosphere, characterized by both candour and courtesy’ where ‘ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur during the discussion but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued.’

Karlberg describes this alternative model in far more detail in his book than is possible to include here. His approach is based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is that (page 131: my emphasis):

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

It isn’t too difficult to see how all this might be applied to our interfaith work.

Paul Lample, a member of the Bahá’í supreme body, the Universal House of Justice, explains further (Revelation and Social Reality – page 215):

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context. Consultation is therefore, the practical, dialogical means of continually adjusting relationships that govern power, and, thus, to strive for justice and unity.

So, exactly what is this consultation?

Shoghi Effendi, a central figure in the explication of the Bahá’í faith after the deaths of its Founder, Bahá’u’lláh, and His son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as saying that ‘the purpose of consultation is to show that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1922[2]]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out the qualities required of us if we are to consult effectively. These include ‘purity of motive,’ ‘detachment from all else save God,’ (detachment – that key word again that helps us be united), ‘humility,’ and ‘patience.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1978[3]]

It should be clear by now that bringing those qualities to any process of collective decision-making will be made far easier if participants have already begun to master the art of reflection. In fact the link is so strong that Paul Lample, in his book Revelation & Social Reality,expresses it as follows (page 212): ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

In the light of all this, to summarise the core aspects, we could say that consultation as Bahá’ís understand it, is a spiritually based process of non-adversarial decision-making which assumes that:

  • no one person can formulate anywhere near an adequate representation of the truth. In a study group on consultation I facilitated at a Bahá’í summer school in Scotland last year, one of the participants nailed an extremely important point to the wall of our understanding. He said, ‘Being honest is not the same as being truthful. None of us can be sure what the truth is. That’s why we need to consult.’ An important implication of this is that even when we are convinced we are telling the ‘truth,’ we need to have the detachment to accept we might still have got it wrong, objectively speaking. So,
  • groups of people, if they pool their perspectives in a collaborative fashion, formulate increasingly accurate but still never fool-proof approximations to the truth, and
  • today’s formulation, no matter how useful, may be out-of-date by tomorrow.

Only its proper use can be guaranteed to transcend differences and discover the most effective and constructive lines of action.

The unity we all both desire and need is an ideal that may not be possible without true consultation, which is a spiritual discipline not easily or cheaply achieved.

Hopefully we can all agree that these concepts constitute fruitful food for thought, or do I really mean reflection?


[1]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:Paris Talks(Bahá’í Publishing Trust UK – pages 173-176).

[2]. `Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in a letter dated 5 March 1922 written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, published in “Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932”, pages 21-22.

[3]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá –number 43.

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Heart to heart

Humanity’s crying need . . . . . calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.

(From a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001)

This seems worth republishing at this point, given its relevance to nature as an issue in the current sequence.

I had a recent deep discussion with an old friend (of course, I mean old in the sense of ‘known a long time.’) We are close in many ways. We share a similar sense of humour and many core values. However, we are hugely different in our interests – hers practical, mine theoretical – and temperament – she, extravert: me, introvert.

She was completely unable to understand how I could combine a deep love of nature with a completely passive attitude to gardening.

I gave into the temptation to react, which generally involves treading on dangerous ground and attempted to point out that she similarly fails to understand why I spend so much time and energy reading and writing, even though she values some of the ideas that come out of all that effort.

I referred to her passion as horticulture. It’s then that the concept of ‘hearticulture’ came to me in a flash, as a good way of contrasting our intense enthusiasms.

This idea has had a long gestation period though.

First of all there was the slogan used many years ago in the Bahá’í community ‘Uniting the World: one heart at a time’ with the logo that accompanied it (see picture at the head of this post). I used to joke that this meant we were involved in heart-to-heart resuscitation.

Then there was the idea of ‘psy-culturalist’ which I coined in my discussion of my approach to mind-work, more specifically working with those who were experiencing distressing and abusive voices and the delusions that sometimes accompanied them. I wrote:

Because, to do mind-work, I drew on lots of other disciplines and traditions, including philosophy, psychology, biology, religion (especially Buddhism and the Bahá’í Faith) and the arts, I could sometimes feel like giving myself a fancy title such as psy-culturalist. This captures the richness of the traditions I could draw on and also captures the essential purpose of mind-work which is growth. It also meant I didn’t have to label myself a psychologist with its one-sided implication that I study the mind but don’t work with it, nor did I have to call myself a Clinical Psychologist with its implications of illness and therapy, which are insulting to the client.

Psy-culturalist, as a term, has a similar problem to Clinical Psychology. If we think about gardening, it’s a one-way street. Plants, as a general rule, don’t grow people. Mind-work, though, is both reciprocal and reflexive. I grow you and you grow me and we grow ourselves as well!

Flowers near the Shrine

Flowers near the Shrine of the Báb

Thirdly, there was all my pondering on the issue of the ‘understanding heart.’ In that process I attempted to unpack some of the implications of a key image in the Bahá’í Writings: the heart as a garden. I wrote:

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.

I know that the term ‘hearticulture’ could still be seen as one-sided. I’m the gardener and you’re the garden. But in terms of the Bahá’í perspective that would be missing a crucial point: I need to tend my heart, you need to tend yours and we can both help each other in this process. We both can help each other develop a growth mindset, to borrow Carol Dweck’s terminology.

Once we begin to see what this means, every interaction with another human being, or even with an animal, insect or plant, becomes an opportunity to facilitate our growth and the growth of the being with whom we are interacting. And, what’s just as or even more important, they can facilitate ours.

That heart is an anagram of earth just makes the metaphor even more appealing. I have come to realize that hearticulture is my true passion. Everything I do is influenced, perhaps even entirely reducible, to that purpose. I want to understand myself and others better, that’s true, but not just for its own sake, but for the purpose of growth. And if our hearts grow, so will the earth as a whole benefit. When our hearts shrink, the world dies a little. If all our hearts should shrivel completely, the world as we know it would be utterly destroyed. We would wreak such havoc that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be utterly dwarfed by the consequences.

Basically, I have to learn how to expand my heartfelt sense of connectedness so that it embraces the whole earth. I believe that’s what we all need to learn. I want to learn it too, and as fast as I can, but I have discovered over the years that the metaphor of gardening applies here also in a way. I cannot grow faster than the laws of nature and the limitations of my own being allow. To paraphrase a Bahá’í pamphlet on making the equality of men and women a reality, hearticulture will also take love, patience and the passage of frustratingly long spans of time.

But that is not a reason not to persist in the attempt.

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