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As usual I’m going to take a break for most of this month. The footfall on this blog is light over summer so I’ll pick up again at the end of August with some thoughts about Emily Dickinson.

Happy holidays to every one!

 

 

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The artist’s inborn talents, developed abilities, innate and acquired qualities of character, personal inclinations, and the degree of spiritual maturity obtained at a given point in . . . life, along with the characteristics [they] may have assimilated from [the] national culture, [the] local culture, and the surrounding geography and climate – all such factors combine to guarantee a dazzling and most attractive diversity in artistic self-expression.

(Ludwig Tuman Mirror of the Divine – page 118)

The Mad Woman in the AtticI was complacently reading my way through The Mad Woman in the Attic in pleasant anticipation of my moments with Middlemarch as the high spot of their analysis of women writers in Victorian England, when my worldview was overturned. I was going to have another Mansfield Park and Daniel Deronda experience, possibly on a larger scale.

The final chapters of this uneven but brilliant book deal with poetry.

I already knew that, in so far as when I had bought the book I had read the final chapter on Emily Dickinson with some interest. What I had not expected was to be blown away by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the penultimate chapter I had previously vaulted over. After all I’d read all her good stuff, hadn’t I? Sonnets from the Portuguese especially was the critics’ favourite, and mine till now perhaps. As a lover of Robert Browning’s poetry, I also knew enough about her life to realize she’d never attempted anything as ambitious as his The Ring & the Book, had she?

How wrong could I be?

Aurora LeighAurora Leigh

Gilbert and Gubar flagged up Aurora Leigh after a lengthy consideration of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. They describe it as Barrett Browning’s ‘masterpiece’ (page 575), going on to explain why:

It is so much better than most of its nonreaders realize, but also because it embodies what may well have been the most reasonable compromise between assertion and submission that a sane and worldly woman poet could achieve in the nineteenth century.

Along the path of their relatively brief exploration of this poem, there were small gems of insight quoted that rang bells for me, but not dramatically as yet. They quote her as writing (page 577) ‘Art is much; but love is more,’ and ‘Art’s a service.’

They clarify that the story she tells in blank verse concludes with what seems to be (page 579) ‘a perfect compromise between the docility required by Victorian marriage and the energy demanded by poetry.’ They describe how Barrett Browning places her transformative vision in the male character’s mouth so as to make it more acceptable to her Victorian readership (ibid):

Part of this poet’s compromise consists in her diplomatic recognition that Victorian readers may be more likely to accept millenarian utterances from a male character.

It is only when they quote this millenarian vision that the full import of this poem struck me with full force:

                                                       The world’s old,
But the old world waits the time to be renewed,
Toward which, new hearts in individual growth
Must quicken, and increase to multitude
In new dynasties of the race of men;
Developed whence, shall grow spontaneously
New churches, new economies, new laws
Admitting freedom, new societies
Excluding falsehood: He shall make all new.

And, as I discovered via Wikipedia, it’s divided into nine books. Nine! A very special number for Bahá’ís!

‘I have to buy this book,’ I thought, and immediately found a Norton annotated edition on the web which I decided to order via my local Waterstones on the following Monday (this all happened too late on Saturday to dash down and do it straightaway, and ordering on the web forfeits the stamps on my loyalty card).

Patience! Patience!

Before I take this further I need to share the next sequence of events.

What made it even more amazing was that, having decided to buy a copy as soon as possible, the following day, the Sunday, my wife and I visited a National Trust property — Berrington Hall — and, after wandering the grounds and having a cup of coffee, we finally found the second hand bookshop there, which my wife was encouraging me to look into in case they had the book. I thought the chance of that was so very slim I nearly didn’t bother.

But I was amazed to find at the second attempt, after nearly leaving the shop, a slim copy of the book tucked away on the next-to-bottom shelf of the last stack. How weird and unlikely is that, for such a little known and not very popular book!

IMG_4107

It wasn’t the exact edition I wanted, which I still might buy for the notes and letters it contains, but for the price of £1 how could I possibly resist? It seemed to confirm my own strong feeling that I was meant to read it.

Just in case it seems as though this enthusiasm is a misguided response to one pair of critics, I’ll end with a quote or two from the introduction to my newly acquired and priceless one pound purchase. Cora Kaplan writes (page 11):

In spite of its conventional happy ending it is possible to see it as contributing to a feminist theory of art which argues that women’s language, precisely because it has been suppressed by patriarchal societies, re-enters discourse with a shattering revolutionary force, speaking all that is repressed and forbidden in human experience.

In terms of the plot of the poem as she sees it, the blinding of the main male character, after the manner of Rochester in Jane Eyre (page 24), ‘simultaneously robs him of his “manly” image and his masculine, mechanical projects for social improvement.’ Shades of McGilchrist here again.

Kaplan also clinches the idea explored by Gilbert and Gubar, that Barrett Browning goes a long way towards integrating male power with feminine sensitivity by quoting approvingly her lines (page 27):

                                   Either sex alone
Is half itself and in true marriage lies
Nor equal nor unequal: each fulfils
Defects in each…

While she feels the poem is weak in the way it deals with the issues of class, she endorses its great value (page 35):

. . . [F]or all its difficulties the poem remains radical and rupturing, a major confrontation of patriarchal attitudes unique in the imaginative literature of its day.

One critic sourly complained that it was 2000 lines longer than Paradise Lost. So, it is clearly a work that merits comparison with the lengthy masterpiece her husband wrote in his grief after her death.

And this view was reinforced, in my opinion, as I read through the poem and found many passages such as this one, which confirms that Barrett Browning was firmly behind the view that art should balance the material with the spiritual (Book 7, lines 763-769):

                                         Natural things
And spiritual,—who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points.

As it stands at this point, although I feel my high regard for George Eliot’s work, most especially Middlemarch, is completely justified, I clearly have failed to give due consideration to a major poet, someone I have so far dismissed as a minor artist working on a miniature scale, somewhere below Jane Austen’s ironical description of her own work as ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.’

Time to remedy that, I feel.

I’ll pause at this point having marshaled at least some evidence that the feminine mindset probably does have the capacity to create a more balanced portrait of reality both in prose and in poetry than has so far come easily to men in our machine-minded left-brain culture.

And just to prove that the spirit of Barrett Browning is by no means dead, and was not just carried briefly albeit powerfully by the likes of Sylvia Plath, I’ve just read these words in Gillian Clarke’s Collected Poems (page 49):

        Our airing cupboards
are full of our satisfactions.

The gulls grieve at our contentment.
It is a masculine question.
‘Where,’ they call ‘are your great works?’

At a time when conquest and aggression have lost their credibility as means of solving difficult problems, qualities in which women are strong, such as the capacity to link intuition to the other rational processes, and facility with networking and cooperation, are gaining importance. Thus as increasing numbers of women are admitted into centers of decision-making, consultation is being enlightened by fresh perspectives; a new moral and psychological climate is spreading, enabling new dynamics of problem-solving to emerge. The inclusion of women thus directly affects the pace and success of the peace-building process.

(Bahá’í International Community, 1993 March 15, Women and the Peace Process)

The Mad Woman in the AtticPicking up from where I left off last time, I was after evidence of some kind that the feminine take on the representation of reality might be more balanced than the masculine. I thought I’d found that principally in a key chapter on George Eliot.

Before plunging into The Mad Woman in the Attic‘s treatment of Middlemarch, her masterpiece, I’ll take a brief detour into Austen territory (Chapter 5).

Early in the chapter Gilbert and Gubar capture an essential quandary for women at the time (page 162):

All women may be, as she is, split between the conflicting desire for assertion in the world and retreat into the security of the home – speech and silence, independence and dependency – Austen implies that this psychic conflict can be resolved.

Austen battled to solve this dilemma in her fiction. I recently read Mansfield Park for the first time, having been deterred by a sense that it was considered a flawed work by too many critics, partly because of Fanny Price’s supposedly unprepossessing character. In reading the book for myself, I saw her as complex and strong. According to Gilbert and Gubar she may have a key role in Austen’s attempt to deal with her quandary (page 165):

Recently, two feminist critics have persuasively argued that, when Fanny refuses to marry for social advantage, she becomes the moral model for all the other characters, challenging their social system and exposing its flimsy values.

One of the most unconvincing aspects of this novel is the rapidity and suspicious neatness with which Austen ties up all the loose ends, wherever possible into marriage knots. The authors’ take on that pattern, which they claim is not unique to this book, is intriguing (page 159):

Many critics have already noticed duplicity in the “happy endings” of Austen’s novels in which she brings her couples to the brink of bliss in such haste, or with such unlikely coincidences, or with such sarcasm that the entire message seems undercut.

Much else that they say suggests that Austen was unable in the end to resolve her dilemma in her fiction, though she was acutely aware of how fiction was failing to do so in a way that left her dissatisfied. Her last novel, Persuasion, imbued as it is with yearning, pins down the main problem when she creates the discussion between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville, in which Anne explores ‘her sense of exclusion from patriarchal culture’ (page 179):

‘men have had every advantage of us in telling their story… The pen has been in their hands.’ Anne Elliot will ‘not allow books to prove anything’ because they ‘were all written by men.’

I want to leap now over several chapters, all fascinating and mostly concerned with the Brontës, to one key chapter (Chapter 14) which focuses on one of my favourite novelists and her greatest book: George Eliot and Middlemarch. Until I read further in their book I thought Eliot had gone as far as it was possible for a woman to go at this period of history.

Right at the start of the chapter Gilbert and Gubar captured my deep interest by quoting Margaret Fuller, an American journalist, critic, and women’s rights advocate (page 479): ‘Will there never be a being to combine a man’s mind and woman’s heart…?’ They write of Eliot’s ‘commitment to heart and hearth’ and the ‘tension between mind and heart’ in her life and writing.

They describe Eliot (page 482) as being drawn to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s emphasis on ‘the need for men to develop “feminine” receptivity, specifically that of female nurturance.’ More even than that, in a way that resonates with the Bahá’í position on the equality of men and women, they point out that (ibid):

Stowe’s revolutionary books insist that maternal sensations and feminine powerlessness alone can save a world otherwise damned by masculine aggression.

They see the central concern of Eliot’s work, almost from the very start (page 484), as wanting ‘to expand our faith in the redemptive possibilities of compassion.’ They also amplify on this (pages 498-9):

Eliot dramatizes the virtues of a uniquely female culture based on supportive camaraderie instead of masculine competition. . .

Eliot’s fiction . . . associates women with precisely the traits she felt industrial urbanized England in danger of losing: a commitment to others, a sense of community, an appreciation of nature, and a belief in nurturing love.

She realizes she harbours this problem within herself as well. It is not just outside her (page 500):

[S]he is fundamentally concerned with the potential for violence in the two conflicting sides of herself that she identifies as the masculine mind and the feminine heart.

MiddlemarchIn Middlemarch she explores these tensions through character and plot. For example (page 508) ‘if Casaubon represents the intellectual bankruptcy of criticism and the arts, Tertius Lydgate tells as much about the moral mediocrity of the sciences.’ Bulstrode, plotting murder, is part of her portrayal of the dark side, which she carefully counterbalances with the light. Rebecca Mead in her engaging book, The Road to Middlemarch argues that, while Bulstrode in Middlemarch, exemplifies what happens when protestations of piety are betrayed in corrupt action, the Reverend Camden Farebrother is the touchstone of genuine religion and morality (page 227):

He delivers pithy sermons, which draw listeners from parishes other than his own, but his religion is shown in how he treats others, rather than how he preaches to them.

In examining acts (page 517) of ‘sympathetic identification between women’ she links them with ‘a perspective on life that widens as the heroine escapes what the novelist depicts as the ultimate imprisonment, imprisonment within the cell of the self.’ Also for a character, not surprisingly a female one, tuning into nature can allow her to ‘obtain . . . a sense of “the largeness of the world.”’ This leads Dorothea, the main character of Middlemarch, to a ‘realization that she is herself a part of “that involuntary, palpitating life’” outside her self. In the end the widowed Dorothea abandons the wealth inherited from her oppressive husband and marries again for love.

In discussing Eliot’s role as narrator they argue that she transcends the conflict that held Austen back (page 523):

Meditative, philosophical, humorous, sympathetic, moralistic, scientific, the narrator presents her/himself as so far above and beyond the ordinary classifications of our culture that (s)he transcends gender distinctions. Doing in a woman’s way a traditionally male task of knowing, Eliot makes such gender-based categories irrelevant. Because her voice sympathetically articulates opposed perspectives, because it is highly provisional and tentative even as it risks generalisations, this narrator become an authentic “we,” a voice of the community that is committed to accepting the indeterminacy of meaning, as well as the complex kinship with people and things.

They feel she manages this without discounting the hard reality that in Victorian society ‘female characters’ are ‘forced to live within conventional roles.’

Eliot feels (page 528) that women have a ‘special capacity for altruism,’ but, the authors feel, if Dorothea (page 530) does ‘not escape the confining maze of social duties and definitions, this is because no such transcendence seems possible or even necessarily desirable in Eliot’s world.’

So, even though Eliot had accepted certain limitations as inevitable, I think the authors make a strong case for supposing one female author at least achieved an almost miraculous balance in her writing between apparently irreconcilable opposites.

I think, as I have explored previously on this blog, that she strove to go even further.

Daniel DerondaI shared my astonishment about the time I finally came to read her grossly under-rated final novel, Daniel Deronda published in 1876.

It strives to achieve an integration of two divergent cultures, of two distinct ways of life, of two sometimes seemingly contradictory worldviews – the Jewish and the Christian – into a transcendent pattern at a higher level than the component parts could achieve alone. I may be going too far in seeing in it glimpses, from an imperial island in the 19th Century, of what the world needs now in the 21st.  I feel it is, if only partially realised, a truly admirable striving towards a more world embracing vision – another and greater example of the way her concerns so consistently anticipate ours.

It seems to me an amazing attempt to see where the world might be going. Frederick Karl expresses it intriguingly, unbiased as he is by any desire to read Bahá’í thought backwards into her text (though Tolstoy had heard of the Bahá’í Faith, there is no evidence Eliot had living so early as this in the Faith’s history – page 547):

The Jewish and Christian elements [of the novel] link as a historical, temporal unity. If we view the novel in this perspective, we can connect the two plot strands into a universal entity or into a generalised human struggle reaching for some transcendental level, a form of ultimate health.

He goes onto describe her as (ibid.) ‘reaching towards some cure for the Western world as for herself,’ and failing in the attempt. Most critics, perhaps rightly, also feel she has failed and the two threads of understanding expressed in the two plot lines fail to blend as she would have wished, and the novel is irremediably split.

On the other hand, what she was striving for needed to be attempted and, I feel, there is so much depth and vigour in what she has succeeded in expressing that the novel is a richly rewarding read. As such, it took my breath away when I read it only a few years ago. The unsympathetic assessment of the book by the critics had put me off, in the same way as I had been steered away from Mansfield Park, and I regret that.

I was about to discover another discounted and neglected classic that I regret not having read much sooner. More of that next time.

[A] fact of equal importance in bringing about international peace is woman’s suffrage. That is to say, when perfect equality shall be established between men and women, peace may be realized for the simple reason that womankind in general will never favor warfare. Women will not be willing to allow those whom they have so tenderly cared for to go to the battlefield. When they shall have a vote, they will oppose any cause of warfare.

(From The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912, p. 167)

tenant-of-wildfell-hallLos Solitarios in the end led me to the idea that the feminine perspective may create a more balanced result in the novel.

Three novels immediately sprang to mind at the time as having combined darkness with light in a more balanced way.

First of all was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The journal of the heroine is a disturbing description of an abusive marriage. Helen mistakenly marries the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington, and laments (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interested me particularly was the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Her novel integrates her faith with her art in way that adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that many will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable. This gels with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s analysis (more of them in a moment – page 80):

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) is generally considered conservative in its espousal of Christian values, but it tells what is in fact a story of woman’s liberation.

So, even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

I concluded that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: another book that comes close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Mucha brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih (‘The Pure One’), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

I felt it necessary to also include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows ‘even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order’ (Slate).’

I concluded that the blending of art and spirituality clearly can be done, and, if those three books are anything to go by, a strong focus on the consciousness of the characters depicted does not require a reductionist approach.

In addition, for me at least, they combined the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in my memory. If an author strays too far from some form of narrative it is possible he might diminish the long-term impact of his book on the reader.

Interestingly, I noted, all three books were by women authors.

The key point was that art, in my view, should create an experience that deepens our understanding of reality without unduly distorting it. Paradoxically, feminine writers are more effective in that respect than masculine ones, it seems. (It may be that ultimately I mean writers of a female cast of mind regardless of ostensible gender.)

I felt that I needed to digest this insight and test its validity against a re-reading of several authors before I leapt to a firm conclusion that those with a feminine cast of mind seem to hold the balance between spirit and matter, plot and consciousness, better on the whole than those whose orientation is more macho.

The Mad Woman in the AtticThe Mad Woman in the Attic 

It may be synchronicity, or simply coincidence, depending on your outlook, but it wasn’t long before the world pressed that button again. I couldn’t resist watching yet another adaptation, on the BBC this time, of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Because I soon realised they had made some tweaks to the text with which I was not comfortable (for example knocking at least 20 years off Count Fosco’s age), I dug out my copy and set to reading it again. I was even more enthralled with the book than with the adaptation. This was no more than I expected. There were at least two reasons for this. First, there was the sensitive portrayal of a strong female character, which broke the 19thCentury stereotype, and secondly the narrative was captured only through the eyes of the various characters – there was no omniscient narrator. In addition, there was at least one strong statement reinforcing the oppressed woman’s point of view. Marion Halcombe bursts out in frustration at one point:

Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace — they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship — they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return? Let me go, Laura — I’m mad when I think of it!”

It perhaps not surprising then that reading this led me to revisit Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Mad Woman in the Attic. At first I simply checked what they had to say about The Woman in White (pages 619-20):

Anne Catherick’s white dress, which gives Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White its title, suggests the pathos of the Victorian child-woman who clings to infancy because adulthood has never become a viable possibility. Even more than her half-sister and double, Laura Fairlie, Anne is completely dependent and naïve, so much so that she falls victim to the machinations of that impostor-patriarch Sir Percival Glide, who imprisons her . . . in a madhouse.

They contend, in their review of the literature of the period, that ‘Anne’s white dress tells a realistic story of female powerlessness.’ They ask whether Emily Dickinson’s anxiety about madness – expressed in poems like I felt a Funeral in my Brain – [could] owe anything to the madness of fictional characters like Anne Catherick, Miss Havisham, and the Lady of Shalott. They ask, ‘Was her white dress in any sense modelled on the white costumes nineteenth century novelists and poets assigned to such women?’ Their final touch is to say, that ‘white is the colour of the dead.’

This proved to be an irresistible cocktail of elements. I had to read the book again from the beginning, wondering as I did so why I had never finished it at the first attempt.

I won’t be attempting to convey even a distillation of all that they say in their 650 pages. I planned originally to cherry-pick quotes from what they write about two of my favourite novelists: Jane Austen and George Eliot. There was though a surprise in store, as you will see, that derailed that plan. However, for now I will simply capture one of their basic theses in a handful of quotes.

In their introduction, as an example of the constricting disservice paid to women writers in the 19thcentury, they pick up on the sanitised image of Emily Dickinson purveyed by John Crowe Ransom (page xxi) who described her as a ‘prim little home-keeping person.’ Their view is very different:

On the contrary, hers was ‘a Soul at the white heat,’ her ‘Tomes of solid Witchcraft’ produced by an imagination that had, as she herself admitted, the Vesuvian ferocity of a loaded gun.

The skewed tradition of authorship was noted even as early as Chaucer, in the words of the Wife of Bath (page 11):

By God, if women hadde writen stories,
As clerkes han withinne hir oratories,
They wolde han writen of men more wikednesse
Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.

They punningly point out the extent of female incarceration in literary stereotypes (page 13):

As a creation ‘penned’ by man, moreover, woman has been ‘penned up’ or ‘penned in.’ As a sort of ‘sentence’ man has spoken, she was herself being sentenced . . .

This disempowered version of femininity had not just been internalised, to the detriment of woman’s thought and writing: it had been destructively acted out in many ways in the social sphere, not least in terms of the self-harming image women felt compelled to express (page 25):

The aesthetic cult of ladylike fragility and delicate beauty –- no doubt associated with the moral cult of the angel-woman —  obliged ‘genteel’ women to ‘kill’ themselves… into art objects: slim, pale, passive beings whose ‘charms’ eerily recalled the snowy, porcelain immobility of the dead. Tight-lacing, fasting, vinegar-drinking, and similar cosmetic or dietary excesses were all parts of a physical regimen that helped women either to feign morbid weakness or actually to ‘decline’ into real illness.

Hopefully, that is enough to get the main point across.

This posed a double challenge to women writers. First, how were they to shake off their internalised distortions of their true nature to find a voice of their own, and, secondly, how were they then to use that voice to convey something beyond the prevailing caricatures of femininity that (quoted on page 25) Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh summarised as the ‘ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch and sprite.’

I’m not going to attempt to convey the full complexity of their approach overall. I’ll use a very abbreviated summary of their take on two books to illustrate why that would be impossible in a short sequence of blog posts. They examine what they see as the roots of two nineteenth century classics, Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, along with a detailed explanation of how Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë each used their novel to assert their own take on the matter.

Frank & Wuther provenance v3

They borrow Gertrude Stein’s expression ‘patriarchal poetry’ to capture the zeitgeist of the 19th Century and earlier. In this early literary tradition women are portrayed as either angelic or satanic, the authors suggest. They feel the latter derives from the role of Eve in the fall of man and the former is the role on offer to women to ensure that no one can mistake them for the latter. In the perpetuation of this simplistic and constricting take on femininity, Milton played a key role, in their view, principally through the influence of Paradise Lost. Shakespeare does not escape unscathed. King Lear portrays both aspects with nothing in-between: on the one hand Goneril and Reagan are on the Satanic side of the equation, whereas Cordelia represents the angelic possibility. This tree of descending influences represents the genealogy of Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights.

It would distract from my main purpose here to go into more detail. I simply wanted to convey something of the full range and complexity of their scholarly and feminist perspective on the literature of the 19thcentury before homing in, in the next post, on at least two writers that concern me more at this point.

As an interesting post script, I came across a recent reminder that the symbolism of white is by no means dead. A friend gave me the heads up that she was exhibiting at the Hereford College of Art Graduation celebration. My head was ringing with many bells in the light of my recent reading when I saw her piece. It’s called The Shape of Absence (see below for a picture of part of it) and, I think, attempts to capture that elusive sense of a hidden presence behind ordinary objects.

The Shape of Absence (for source of image see link)

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

Prayer

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

Ignite, then, O my God, within my breast the fire of Thy love, that its flame may burn up all else except my remembrance of Thee, that every trace of corrupt desire may be entirely mortified within me, and that naught may remain except the glorification of Thy transcendent and all-glorious Being.  This is my highest aspiration, mine ardent desire, O Thou Who rulest all things, and in Whose hand is the kingdom of the entire creation.  Thou, verily, doest what Thou choosest.  No God is there beside Thee, the Almighty, the All-Glorious, the Ever-Forgiving.

Bahá’u’lláh

Practice Planting

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

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

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

(Bahá’u’lláh – PHW – No 3)

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

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

Memorising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the method:

Reminder about How to Learn Passages: 

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

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

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

Using a Memorised Passage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Useful Links

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

Part 2 (Part 1 came out last Monday)

George H 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . . . . . .

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

Then the pain of loss when each dream was over.

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

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

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

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

‘Have you had the second dream?’

‘No, but I can’t wait any longer.’

There was a silence. What was he thinking?

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

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

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

. . . . . . . . .

She drove round to John’s after lunch.

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

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

She passed him a typewritten sheet of A4.

He quickly glanced through it.

‘The Everyman George Herbert then.’

‘Yes.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Definitely.’

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

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

They picked up the note to read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

John read her words over her shoulder.

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

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

He shrugged.

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

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

She nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . . . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow she will apologise to John.

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

Prayer

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

Bahá’u’lláh

Practicing Weeding the Garden

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

Spot It

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

Step Back

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

Stop It

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

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

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

Swap It

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eknath Easwaran

Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunset in Builth