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Light & Lamp

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

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

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

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

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

There are two caveats to bear in mind here.

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

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

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

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

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 61)

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

Not to give up hope quite yet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gleanings: page 343: CLXIV)

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

Flowers near the Shrine

Flowers near the Shrine of the Báb

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

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

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

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

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

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

kenmare-reflections2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buddha in Blue jeans-1

Downloadable at this link

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

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

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

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

(Gleanings: page 164-166: LXXXIII)

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

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

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

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

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 162)

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

Red rose 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 196)

WILLIAM BLAKE

William Blake (for source of image see link)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3rd 'I' v5

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Biological Foundations of Emotion

ledoux

Joseph Ledoux – for source of image see link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a. of Anger

Goleman

Daniel Goleman – for source of image see link

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

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

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

b. of Disgust

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

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

rwanda genocide tutsi skulls

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

c. of Shame

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

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

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

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

d. of Fear

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

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

350px-Spiny_Lizard_-_Houston_Zoo

Spiny Lizard (for source of image see link)

So what?

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

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

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

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Grave & Courtyard v2

After my meeting at the Death Cafe on Wednesday I thought I’d check how long I’d been attending. When I checked for my earliest post from May 2016 it confirmed what I had thought –  I’ve been attending for just over three years now.

After that first meeting, as an intro, I wrote:

It was a pleasant walk yesterday evening to the Courtyard. It was an obvious venue to choose in some respects. It’s accessible, and connected in most people’s minds with pleasant memories of films, plays and shows. Just the sort of place to attract people to an event.

There was a catch though. Who wants to go to a Death Cafe? Would the magnet of the venue be enough to overcome the unmentionable word’s repellent effect?

Well, it seems that it was.

There were nine of us turned up for the experience. Admittedly, it sounded from what was said that even those who tried had failed to persuade any of their friends to come along as well. Incredulity combined with revulsion seemed the order of the day for most people.

That was one of the topics we explored together. Why was our society so reluctant to talk openly about death?

It should some as no surprise that the same topic came up again at Wednesday’s meeting.

I wanted to post briefly about this last meeting for two reasons.

The first is that attendance has picked up again after a brief but extreme drop a few months back. There were fourteen people there, though one person only made it half an hour before the end. We discussed how we might be able to attract not only a bigger group but also some younger members. The two or three young people who did attend for a short while no longer come. Some Death Cafes in other places do report a higher proportion of younger people at their meetings. So, I thought posting about the Hereford Death Cafe again might just possibly strike a chord with some younger readers, if I have any of course!

The second reason is that a good friend recently shared with me a fascinating YouTube video of an interview with Peter Fenwick concerning end of life phenomena (see below). I was eager to share news of it at the meeting as well as pass round his book on the subject – The Art of Dying. I have barely started the book as yet, having only just picked it up from our local Waterstones after ordering it via the store, but I explained some of the ideas on the video.

When I had walked up to the till to order, I was confronted with a polite young lady asking how she could help.

‘I have a book to order with a very depressing title.’

‘What’s that?’

The Art of Dying, by Peter Fenwick.’

The young lady at the till showed an unexpected interest in the subject.

‘That sounds really interesting.’

‘It certainly looks it. His YouTube video covers a huge range of things, from NDEs to understanding what stages people go through in the dying process.’

‘I’m really interested in that kind of stuff,’ was the unexpected response.

‘Me too,’ I enthused. ‘That’s why I attend a local Death Cafe. We can explore this kind of thing quite freely.’

She was too deeply into searching for the book on her computer to bite on that hook. Better luck next time, may be.

Anyway, I thought it worth sharing the video which is well worth a look and flagging up the continuing existence of the Hereford Death Cafe, still at the Courtyard every month, usually on a Wednesday. The next meeting is from 6 till 8 pm on 10 July. A list of all their events including Death cafes can be found at https://www.st-michaels-hospice.org.uk/events/calendar/. Maybe see you there?

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Adib_Taherzadeh

Adib Taherzadeh: for source of image see link

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

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

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

We ended the previous post reflecting that Erich Fromm does not deal with a crucial basic question in his explanation of why we are so prone to espousing destructive beliefs: do we fall so easily into the quicksand of debased frames of reference and divided attachments because we think that matter is all that matters, is all there is in fact? ‘Abdu’l-Bahá clearly thinks so. If that is so, then this belief is perhaps one of the key delusions that Bahá’u’lláh is referring to when He says: ‘the [people’s] superstitions [have] become veils between them and their own hearts and kept them from the path of God.’ We need to find out, if possible, what might make such a ‘delusion’ so prevalent if it is false? Also what does He mean by the ‘heart’ that we are ‘veiled’ from?

To even begin to answer those questions in words on a page, I am going to have to draw on wiser writers than me to get me started.

Why Hidden?

First, there will be the question of whether the world is set up in such a way that the spiritual dimension is hidden. Bahá’u’lláh is clear that it is hidden, and there appear to be good reasons for that. Knowing what the next life is like can create a desire to move there straight away. J E Esslemont quotes the words of Bahá’u’lláh in his book (page 189):

Blessed is the soul which, at the hour of its separation from the body, is sanctified from the vain imaginings of the peoples of the world. Such a soul liveth and moveth in accordance with the Will of its Creator, and entereth the all-highest Paradise. . . .  If any man be told that which hath been ordained for such a soul in the worlds of God, the Lord of the throne on high and of earth below, his whole being will instantly blaze out in his great longing to attain that most exalted, that sanctified and resplendent station.

That these are not idle words is illustrated by the story of the man who became able to see the spiritual realm and as a result wanted to die. Adib Taherzadeh refers to the event twice in his four volume account of Bahá’u’lláh’s life, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. I have pulled the references together from Vol 1 Ch 8 page 103 and Vol 2 Ch5 page 112:

The story of Dhabíh is that of a passionate lover. The object of his adoration was Bahá’u’lláh, Who had ignited within his breast the fire of the love of God, a fire so intense that it began to consume his whole being. Eventually he reached a state where he would neither eat nor drink. For forty days he abstained from food. Unable, at last, to check the crushing force of love which pressed upon his soul, he came one day, at the hour of dawn, to the house of Bahá’u’lláh and for the last time swept its approaches with his turban. After performing this task, he paid a visit to the home of Áqá Muhammad-Ridá where he met some of the friends for the last time. Later he obtained a razor, went to the bank of the Tigris and there turning his face towards the house of Bahá’u’lláh, took his life by cutting his throat. . . . . Dhabíh took his own life because he was intoxicated by the wine of the presence of Bahá’u’lláh, Who had enabled him to witness the glory of the spiritual worlds of God. This cannot be compared with ordinary suicide, nor can this episode be taken to mean that Bahá’í belief condones the taking of one’s own life. On the contrary, suicide is strongly condemned in the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh and is clearly against His Teachings.

. . . . . One day [a witness wrote], they brought the news of the death of Siyyid Ismá’íl of Zavárih. Bahá’u’lláh said: ‘No one has killed him. Behind many myriad veils of light, We showed him a glimmer of Our glory; he could not endure it and so he sacrificed himself.’ Some of us then went to the bank of the river and found the body of Siyyid Ismá’íl lying there. He had cut his own throat with a razor which was still held in his hand. We removed the body and buried it.

It would be unwise to see this story as unique or as a parable meant to illustrate something else. Pim van Lommel in his book Consciousness beyond Life (page 206) quotes a modern example of basically the same experience:

After a few days in an extremely critical condition, during which the doctors informed her family that she was unlikely to pull through, [a patient] suffered a cardiac arrest. At that moment she had an NDE, which she describes fully below. She was successfully resuscitated but remained in a critical condition and somehow became aware of her “hopeless” situation. She was desperate to return to the loving environment that she had just visited. In her desperation she managed to bite her breathing tube in half, thus precipitating an apnea.

She was again resuscitated and was able to describe the whole sequence of events.

John Hick also adduces a very compelling reason that appeals to a mind like mine that has never had even a glimpse of what that man or woman saw or Eben Alexander, amongst many others who came back to describe their near death experience, had access to. Hick, in his book The Fifth Dimension, contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to  believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

He talks also (page 114) of the materialism of our current ‘consensus reality.’ Naturalism has created the ‘consensus reality’ of our culture. It has become so ingrained that we no longer see it, but see everything else through it.

CharlesTart

Charles Tart (for source of image see link)

Consensus Trance

Given the hidden nature of spiritual reality and our freedom to choose what we believe or seek to teach others to believe, there is also therefore the immense power of social influence at work on what we experience and how we experience it. This is where we come to the fascinating work of Charles Tart in his book Waking Up.’ I will be quoting from him at some length.

He begins by contending (page 9) that ‘Consciousness, particularly its perceptual aspects, creates an internal representation of the outside world, such that we have a good quality “map” of the world and our place in it.’ He doesn’t mince words when he describes what he feels is an important correlative of this (page 11): ‘Our ordinary consciousness is not “natural,” but an acquired product. This has given us both many useful skills and many insane sources of useless suffering.’

He chooses to introduce a phrase that captures this (ibid):

. . . [For the phrase ordinary consciousness] I shall substitute a technical term I introduced some years ago, consensus consciousness, as a reminder of how much everyday consciousness has been shaped by the consensus of belief in our particular culture.

This is obviously closely related to Hick’s idea of  ‘consensus reality.’

There is a consequence of this, if it is true, which relates to the idea I am seeking to explore here: I want to get a better sense of what the veil is that Bahá’u’lláh refers to. Tart obliges with a step in the right direction (page 25): ‘By mistakenly thinking he is really conscious, [a person] blocks the possibility of real consciousness.’

This capacity for what Tart regards as our automated consciousness is not all bad, rather in the same way as Kahneman has explained in his idea of System 1 thinking, but its downside is potentially highly destructive. Tart writes (page 31-33):

The ability to set up some limited part of our sensitivity and intelligence so it automatically performs some fixed task with little or no awareness on our part is one of humanity’s greatest skills – and one of his greatest curses. . . . . . . . Mechanical intelligence can often be useful for utilitarian purposes, but it is dangerous in a changing and complex world. The mechanical, automated stereotypings we know of as racism, sexism, and nationalism, to use just three examples, are enormously costly. Automatised perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and reactions to one situation frequently get associated with the automatized perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and reactions to other situations, so we can be lost for long periods – a lifetime in the most extreme cases – in continuously automated living.

In a way that parallels Bahá’u’lláh’s ‘veils’ of delusion and superstition, Tart sees consensus consciousness as on a disturbing continuum (page 102): ‘We can view illusions and hallucinations as extreme points on the continuum of simulation of the world.’

He continues (page 59):

. . . . one of our greatest human abilities, and greatest curses, is our ability to create simulations of the world . . . . These simulations, whether or not they accurately reflect the world, can then trigger emotions. Emotions are a kind of energy, a source of power.

He begins then to unpack the full implications of his metaphor (page 85): ‘normal consciousness will be referred to as consensus trance; the hypnotist will be personified as the culture. The “subject,” the person subjected to this process, is you.’

He doesn’t give us much room to wriggle off the hook here. The state of mind he goes onto to describe is not an enviable one (page 95):

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.

He goes onto to describe the full picture but I think this quote conveys enough for us to move onto the next stage of his argument.

3rd 'I' v6

Trance Breaking

First though it is important to pull into the frame a model he is drawing on for his idea of more appropriate functioning. He is influenced heavily in this by the work of Gurdjieff, a charismatic figure whose ideas are as intriguing as his character is difficult to read. Tart summarises what he finds useful (page 150):

Gurdjieff’s concept of man as a three-brained being, then, specifies that there are three major types of evaluation: intellectual, as we ordinarily conceive of it, emotional, and body/instinctive. . . . . [A] lack of balanced development of all three types of evaluation processes is a major cause of human suffering.

This was exciting to re-read after all these years not just because it is reminiscent of the Three ‘I’s I have been recently exploring. This is more importantly for now where I begin to find my two main lines of questioning coming together. I am trying to understand both the nature of the veils and the nature of the heart, and in particular what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the ‘understanding heart.’

Tart quotes a fable to illustrate more clearly what he means (pages 150-52):

There is an Eastern parable of the horse, carriage, and driver that richly illustrates our nature as three-brained beings and the problems resulting from poor development of each and from imbalance. . . . . .the carriage is our physical body. The horse is our emotions. The driver is our intellectual mind. The Master is what we could become if we provided for the development of our higher nature.

He goes on to describe what he feels, on the basis of Gurdjieff’s model, are the basic ways in which we can develop this higher nature. He emphasises what he calls ‘self-observing’ and ‘self-remembering.’ For reasons that will hopefully become clear, it is not necessary, even if we had the time, to examine those processes in detail. They are in my view in any case closely related to mindfulness and Vipassanā

Vipassanā as practiced in the Theravāda centers on mindfulness, including mindfulness of breathing, combined with the contemplation of impermanence.

The underlying principle is the investigation of phenomena as they manifest in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness highlighted in the Satipatthana Sutta:[15][note 5]

  1. kaya (body or breath),
  2. vedana (feeling tone or sensation)
  3. citta (mind or consciousness), and
  4. dhamma (mind objects/phenomena).

Tart’s conclusion is important to quote though (pages 197-98):

. . . by creating a deliberate centre of consciousness that is outside of the usual automated pattern of identifications and conditions, we create a more awake, less entranced self, the foundation for the Master, with which we can both know ourselves better and function more effectively.

Georges Gurdjieff

Georges Gurdjieff

Higher Centres

It is at this point that things for me get really interesting when it comes to getting a clearer idea of what an understanding heart might be (page 217):

Gurdjieff claimed that in addition [to the three-brained aspects of our being] we have two more centres, the higher emotional centre and the higher intellectual centre. Each of these higher centres is tremendously more powerful and intelligent than the ordinary emotional and intellectual centre, and each operates far more rapidly than the ordinary centres. The higher emotional centre includes what Gurdjieff called “real consciousness,” as opposed to the relative, conditioned morality of consensus trance. Both of these centres are part of our natural heritage as human beings and fully developed and operational, but it takes great work on one’s development to create the third-level foundation for contacting and utilising them.

Even though Gurdjieff has separated emotion from intellect in these higher centres, could this third level relate to the idea of an ‘understanding heart’?

Perhaps Gurdjieff was mistaken to see intellect and emotion as separate in this way at this higher level. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is very clear that the mind is a unity and it is our experience in the body that creates the feeling of separation in terms of its qualities, and Bahá’u’lláh could not be clearer, as we read in the first post, that the heart is ‘one and undivided’ and we should not split its affections.

My own sense is that unity is key here and that we should not be looking for splits and distinctions of this kind in the spiritual realm.

Coda

Before we leave this topic of conflicted feeling and divineness, it is worth going back to Tart’s thoughts on prayer quoted in the earlier post (pages 229-30):

. . . effective petitionary prayer for Gurdjieff, then, is intense and consistent desire and thought. However, most petitionary prayer, formal or unwitting, has almost no effect.

First, because the ordinary person is plagued by shifting identities that have disparate and often conflicting desires, the unwitting prayers of various identities tend to contradict and largely cancel one another.

Second, an obstacle to effective prayer is our inability to be consciously intense.

Effective petitionary prayer would be much more possible to a person who is genuinely conscious, who, at will and for extended periods, deliberately summoned up the intellectual and emotional intensity to pray consciously without distraction. If he prayed from his more integrated and constructive subpersonalities or from his essence, better yet. Praying from the third level of consciousness, remembering yourself while you pray, is the most effective all.

Maybe that’s why I have always found prayer so difficult, more difficult even than mindful meditation on holy scripture.

Tart then goes on to say things to which any Bahá’í, and any other soul convinced of the essential oneness of humanity anywhere, would resonate (page 232):

At times it has been perfectly obvious to me that we are not separate, isolated beings, that we are a part of a divine plan, that our prayers come from our deeper selves, which are also a part of that plan, and that our prayers are answered in ways that are best for our evolution.

Next time we will be looking at how all this relates to what we know about brain function and where that might leave us in the battle to get in better touch with our understanding heart.

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Head Hand & Heart v4

. . . . .the people are wandering in the paths of delusion, bereft of discernment to see God with their own eyes, or hear His Melody with their own ears. Thus have We found them, as thou also dost witness.

Thus have their superstitions become veils between them and their own hearts and kept them from the path of God, the Exalted, the Great.

(Bahá’u’lláhTablet of Ahmad)

. . . . consciousness will be referred to as consensus trance; the hypnotist will be personified as the culture. The “subject,” the person subjected to this process, is you.

(Charles Tart: Waking Up – page 85)

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

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

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

When I set my foot on the Bahá’í path in 1982 there were many things that puzzled and tested me. I have already dealt with one of the main ones – ‘mind is an emanation of the spirit‘ at considerable length. That most certainly was not the only one.

Another was the phrase ‘understanding heart.’ This occurs at least 30 times in currently translated Bahá’í texts. It made no sense to me at all at the time, but it challenged me by its regular occurrence to grapple with what for me was its irreconcilable paradox. The head, in my view at the time, did the understanding: the heart did the feeling. In so far as there was a relationship between them it was better to keep the heart in a subordinate position and let your head rule, OK. Understanding in an emotional sense bordering on thought was found in such expressions as ‘She’s very understanding,’ and had nothing to do with penetrating into the meaning of profound statements about spiritual reality.

I needed to know in what sense my heart could understand what Bahá’u’lláh was talking about better than my head.

I was familiar with apparent profundities such as Pascal’s ‘The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.’ I made sense of them within my frame of reference by dismissing them as nonsense.

It was clear I had an Everest to climb. The muddle in the picture at the head of this post doesn’t convey the half of it. Let’s just say that what my sceptical gaze fell upon was a confused mix of psychological and layman’s points of reference poking through the layered screens of memory and perception that constituted my experience, and here I was, being required to completely revise them in the light of the new perspective I had catapulted myself into accepting.

My first step was to read all the Bahá’í Writings at my disposal – I had no computer, not even a Concordance, at this time. I noted down on index cards every reference to the heart that I could find. There were hundreds of them. I arranged them into various groups. I think this work was probably what brought me to the point where I had the dream I described and explained in a recent post. Sadly, I have long ago shredded them thinking that they had served their purpose, not realising then that I would have need of them now.

Into the mix of my muddled understanding at the time went ideas about reflection. After all Bahá’u’lláh had quoted the hadith ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ These I have also explored at length elsewhere. Reflection was something I saw as very closely related to meditation and heavily dependant upon, if not overlapping with, aspects of detachment.

That was pretty good going really for a recently derailed died-in-the-wool atheist. But, as life went out of its way to prove, it was by no means enough. So I’m back here once more feeling I need to pull together stuff I’ve learned over the years in an attempt to dig even deeper into this paradox.  Sometimes it feels as though the rest of my life might depend upon it in some way I don’t quite understand yet, probably because of the heart problem I’m talking about.

Divided Heart v4

Let me illustrate one place where problems still clearly lurk for me behind the bushes of ignorance with which the garden of my mind is overgrown. Over many months, years even, off and on, I used the following quotation in my morning meditations:

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)

Anyone who reads that carefully will almost certainly recognise one of the key challenges it presents. Do you know anyone personally who answers to the description of possessing an ‘undivided’ heart? I don’t. And I definitely know mine has a variety of allegiances. Books for a start, food, lyric poetry, coffee, songs, murder mysteries, Shakespeare, chocolate – need I go on? I find it hard enough to forego sitting in a chair watching Poirot, as I dunk ginger biscuits in my coffee, even for the sake of the physical heart within me that I know for sure exists and whose earnestly desired ability to beat for a bit longer depends upon exercise and diet. How do I learn to sacrifice all that and much more for the sake of my invisible inaudible insensible but apparently understanding heart in some other sense?

I hope I can make my desperate explorations of this topic clear enough to be of use to others. Even if I can’t, I need to do it any way, and doing it this way, in public, makes me try harder than I would if I did it in private. And after all, you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to.

I know I’m not the only one to be divided against myself. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes it completely clear:

. . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 78)

That he needs to state this at all implies that most of us don’t experience things that way.

The list he also makes, at another point, of things we crave for can apply not just to different people but to the same person who can at different times long for different things, particularly those, like me, of a butterfly-minded tendency, flitting from the marigold of one temptation to the dandelion of another:

Every soul seeketh an object and cherisheth a desire, and day and night striveth to attain his aim. One craveth riches, another thirsteth for glory and still another yearneth for fame, for art, for prosperity and the like. Yet finally all are doomed to loss and disappointment. One and all they leave behind them all that is theirs and empty-handed hasten to the realm beyond, and all their labours shall be in vain. To dust they shall all return, denuded, depressed, disheartened and in utter despair.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá  : page 204)

Waking Up

Charles Tart has a very interesting explanation, the first one he gives in a list of several, for why prayer can so often seem completely ineffective (Waking Up: pages 229-30):

. . . . most petitionary prayer, formal or unwitting, has almost no effect. First, because the ordinary person is plagued by shifting identities that have disparate and often conflicting desires, the unwitting prayers of various identities tend to contradict and largely cancel one another.

This view is indirectly supported by statements in the Baha’i Writings where we are assured of the efficacy of our prayers if we say them ‘with absolute sincerity’ or with ‘pure-hearted devotion.’ Not an easy state of mind and heart to achieve.

It does not take much thought to realise that this mishmash of conflicted attachments probably stems from some deeper cause. Most spiritual traditions would agree that it stems at least in part from what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out: we think that matter is more real and more important than spirit, and our culture is probably further down that road than most.

It does take a bit more unpacking though to grasp why we are so prone to the mistake of investing emotionally in empty vessels, and even why that vulnerability and its context make it so difficult even to see that we are vulnerable at all.

For the beginnings of an explanation of our vulnerability to this trap it’s useful to turn to someone who does not feel we need a faith in anything beyond ourselves. Even the most sceptical might then be prepared to accept this as a valid premise upon which to proceed further, though with caution. Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

For me though his explanation does not go far enough, in one respect in the same way as Kahneman’s does not.

First of all though, it implies that we would all search for a single dominating focus until we found it, but this is so often not the case for so many people. Many are lost in a mist of competing and chaotic distractions with no real focus whatsoever.

The similarity to the deficiency of Kahneman’s two-brain model is that Fromm’s thesis also misses out too much. Even before I accepted the reality of a spiritual realm, something not easily reducible the mechanics of matter and its formulae was thrusting itself upon my attention with an insistence that would not be dismissed. My dreamwork was the main example of this.

Fromm does not deal with some of the basic questions, it seems to me. For example, do we fall so easily into the quicksand, not just of debased frames of reference but also of divided attachments, not least because we are mistaken in thinking that matter is all that matters? If this idea is an illusion it would be as much use to us as individuals and communities as a mirage of water to a man dying of thirst. If it is an illusion, why do so many of us believe it? More of that next time.

garden of earthly delights

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights – for source of image see link

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I am currently going back and re-reading the poetry of Antonio Machado after being triggered by my encounter with The Forty Rules of Love. This process is going to take me some time, so I am republishing three renderings in English which are not so much literal translations of his originals as responses to them which incorporate his imagery seen through the prism of my perspective. They testify to how strongly I resonated to his poetry. This is the second. 

For source of image see link: for the original Spanish click here.

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