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Posts Tagged ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá’

Language is the medium of the poet. One has only to turn to the words of  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to discover its purpose: “. . . the function of language is to portray the mysteries and secrets of human hearts. The heart is like a box, and language is the key.”

(Roger White on Poetry and Self-Transformation in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald, page 8)

Sometimes I feel that my literary tastes are locked into the Nineteenth Century and before. My recent post on Farley and Roberts’s book Death of the Poets has reminded me of my problem with modern poetry, something I’ve been avoiding recently. I may have to take another look: until I do, this republished sequence explains clearly where and why I got stuck before. This is the last of four relatively brief posts on the subject.

Incredible as it may seem, there is a link that Fuller is able to make between the skeletal ‘Ties,’ discussed in the previous post, and a full-blooded poem by Thomas Hardy, During Wind and Rain. The link is the reference to ‘white storm birds.’ John Fuller, in his book Who is Ozymandias?, describes Hardy’s poem as (page 213) a ‘celebrated account of sacred family moments, seasonal change and death.’ Clearly the fact that we don’t know who precisely ‘He, she, all of them’ are does not diminish the human impact of the poem in the slightest. There is enough of the living tissue of human experience there to make what it describes come alive in the reader’s mind.

They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no ; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

This is not one of Hardy’ best poems but it clearly illustrates that anonymous pronouns need not confuse and putting some flesh on the bones, far from weakening its effects, adds to a poem’s power to convey an experience.

I’d like to end though on one of Hardy’s best and most popular lyrics to illustrate another important point for me which is that accessibility is not incompatible with depth.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited ;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

In the end I have chickened out of tackling the two poets who challenge me the most – Bunting and Hill. I felt that it would be better to use poems where every reader of this post can easily find a brave attempt to bring them to life and judge for him or herself whether I have been unfair. In the end, Fuller, in spite of my liking for him as a poet and my respect for his having attempted what I regard as the impossible, fails to convince me I am wrong. I will continue to look with great suspicion at poets who, to huge adulation in some cases, parade before us as though it were a living poem what I see as a bag of bones. The Emperor in this case not only has no clothes: he does not even have any flesh.

If I am right this is a confidence trick which is seriously damaging the potential poetry has for stirring the hearts of the generality of readers to higher understandings of the human predicament, as I believe Hardy’s does in spite of his own bleak view of what to him is our pointless universe. Every failure to fulfil the potential of a poem is such a waste, such a betrayal, and I regret such failures deeply when I come across them and find reading them immensely frustrating, in case you hadn’t noticed.

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Even with such a lesson before him, how heedless is man! Still do we see his world at war from pole to pole. There is war among the religions; war among the nations; war among the peoples; war among the rulers. What a welcome change would it be, if only these black clouds would lift from off the skies of the world, so that the light of reality could be shed abroad! If only the darksome dust of this continual fighting and killing could settle forever, and the sweet winds of God’s loving-kindness could blow from out the well-spring of peace. Then would this world become another world, and the earth would shine with the light of her Lord.

(Selections from the Writings of‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Page 276: Addressed to the readers of The Christian Commonwealth, 1 January 1913)

Sometimes I feel that my literary tastes are locked into the Nineteenth Century and before. My recent post on Farley and Roberts’s book Death of the Poets has reminded me of my problem with modern poetry, something I’ve been avoiding recently. I may have to take another look: until I do, this republished sequence explains clearly where and why I got stuck before. This is the second of four relatively brief posts on the subject.

The first poem I want to consider, of the ones Fuller discusses in his book Who is Ozymandias?, is a war poem. It illustrates one of my difficulties with what I feel are the left brain tendencies of modernism to strip away organic tissue and reduce it to lifeless abstraction (see the first two links in the list at the bottom of this post for more on this issue).

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Randall Jarrell

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

It was, it seems, a popular poem. Presumably the extreme theme helped.

Why don’t I find it satisfactory as a poem? I find myself asking, ‘Is it too abstract for all its apparent “telling detail”? Is it too stripped down?’

Basil Bunting put his advice to young poets on a post card:

Basil Bunting was asked so many times for advice by young poets that he had a postcard printed with his key points:

I SUGGEST
1. Compose aloud; poetry is a sound.
2. Vary rhythm enough to stir the emotion you want but not so as to lose impetus.
3. Use spoken words and syntax.
4. Fear adjectives; they bleed nouns. Hate the passive.
5. Jettison ornament gaily but keep shape

Put your poem away till you forget it, then:
6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.

What exactly is the shape kept here in Jarrell’s poem (and I feel in Briggflatts, or perhaps is should be Brick Flats, Bunting’s supposed masterpiece) when all the jettisoning and cutting have been done? There’s certainly no spare flesh on The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.

The trouble for me is that this process squeezes the life out of a poem leaving only a skeleton. And, perhaps appropriately, perhaps not, that’s all I think we’ve got here in Jarrell’s poem. And how many of us can honestly say that we’d prefer to spend an evening with the skeleton of a friend rather than with the friend in person?

In the end, with a skeleton poem, rather than enjoying the shared creative enterprise offered by an achieved poem, the reader has to perform instead the miracle of raising the dead. We have to exert tremendous effort to put life back into a collection of words that I sometimes suspect might have been more stones than bones to start with. The poet’s desire to pare it all back, even at the risk of creating a brick-wall puzzle, has killed any hope of our finding a poem: even in this case, where the puzzle is not too great, we have a fossil poem at best – bone turned to stone and quite dead – where it would take too much specialist expertise to recreate a sense of the living original.

Maybe that’s what the poet wanted to achieve as an expression of his take on the mechanistic modern world, but it’s not the kind of poem I want to read: it seems to me to capitulate to, rather than effectively protest against the left-brain desiccation of the life world that poetry should, in my view, resist at all costs. The distillation process here has not enhanced the potency of the poem, as the poet perhaps expected, but made it a quisling instead.

So, even when I know what the theme is and can sense the acute tension created by the ball-turret as womb-of-death imagery, it can’t rival the full human impact of such poems as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘ by Wilfred Owen or the deeply unsettling Keith Douglas lyric, where compassion and creativity are deeply fused (see link to Practising Compassion at the end of this post for more exploration of this issue):

How To Kill

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

(There are two brilliant chapters on the war poets, including Keith Douglas, in my recently explored Death of the Poets – pages 155-203.) 

The skeleton problem is not the only barrier between me and much of modern poetry, though it is perhaps the most important. Fuller lists many others including borrowed characters and troublesome titles. Next time I’m going to consider a particularly irritating habit which seems to me to make even less sense than reducing the words of a living poem to a pile of bones.

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'Void Devouring the Gadget Era' by Mark Tobey

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

An unexpected ‘like’ alerted me to the existence of this post which I had completely forgotten. As I am planning to post a short sequence next week on the theme of consciousness – whether it is spirit, mind or brain – this post from 2010 seemed too closely related not to be repeated!

In a recent post I reviewed Iain McGilchrist‘s thought-provoking new book The Master and His Emissary. The night before last I watched a DVD, Food, Inc, about the American food industry (more of that in a moment). The images and information the film conveyed reminded me immediately of the nightmare world McGilchrist feels will be created by the untrammelled operation of the utilitarian left-hemisphere.

Towards the end of his book, McGilchrist spells out simply and clearly some of the characteristics of that world:

Skills . . . would be reduced to algorithmic procedures . . . which could be regulated by administrators. . . . Increasingly the living world would be modelled on the mechanical. . . . When we deal with a machine, there are three things that we want to know: how much it can do, how fast it can do it, and with what degree of precision. . . . In human affairs, increasing the amount or extent of something, or the speed with which something happens, or the inflexible precision with which it is conceived or applied, can actually destroy. But since the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of What, quantity would be the only criterion that it would understand. The right hemisphere’s appreciation of How (quality) would be lost.

(page 430)

He also quotes the work of Berger and colleagues (1974). When a society becomes dominated by technology they predict the development of what they call ‘mechanisticity’ and other distortions of the human spirit. This means:

. . . the development of a system that permits things to be reproduced endlessly, and enforces submergence of the individual in a large organisation or a production line: ‘measurability’, in other words the insistence on quantification, not qualification; ‘componentiality’, that is reality reduced to self-contained units, so that ‘everything is analysable into constituent components, and everything can be taken apart and put together again in terms of these components’; and an ‘abstract frame of reference’, in other words loss of context.

(page 430)

He summarises Gabriel Marcel as speaking of:

. . . the difficulty in maintaining one’s integrity as a unique, individual subject, in a world where a combination of the hubris of science and the drive of technology blots out the awe-inspiring business of conscious human existence, what he refers to as ‘the mystery of being,’ and replaces it with a set of technical problems for which they purport to have solutions.

(ibid.)

Ultimately, ‘[m]orality would come to be judged at best on the basis of utilitarian calculation, at worst on the basis of enlightened self-interest’ (page 431).

The DVD ‘Food, Inc‘ gives us a vivid insight into just how ‘enlightened’ that self-interest has already turned out to be.

The trailer below gives only a faint flavour of the power of the film:

The advert for the film, also on YouTube, packs a somewhat stronger punch but could not be embedded here. There is, though, no substitute for sitting through a rather harrowing 90 minutes to convey the full horror of the reality to which blinkered left-brain processes reduce us when they are unmoderated by the empathic big picture the right-brain brings to bear.

It is fascinating to see how Schwartz’s book, which I also reviewed recently, shows how a different path has led him to similar conclusions. He writes in his co-authored book, The Mind & the Brain (page 276):

Stapp made the point that there is no stronger influence on human values than man’s belief about his relationship to the power that shapes the universe. . . . When the scientific revolution converted human beings from sparks of divine creation into not particularly special cogs in a giant impersonal machine, it eroded any rational basis for the notion of responsibility for one’s actions. We became a mechanical extension of what preceded us, over which we have no control.

This view is permeating our culture, he feels:

The view that people are mere machines and that the mind is just another (not particularly special) manifestation of a clockwork physical universe [has] infiltrated all our thinking . . .

(page 258)

In his view, it accounts for all ‘our moral decrepitude’ because

. . . materialism as a world view . . . . holds that the physical is all that exists, and that transcendent human mental experiences and emotions . . . are in reality nothing but the expressions of electrical impulses zipping along neurons.

(ibid.)

This simplistic world view then refuses to acknowledge that there is a ‘mental force’ (i.e. a ‘physical force generated by mental effort’, which is not itself material – page 295) by means of which ‘through intense effort we can resist our baser appetites’ (page 257).

Such a reductionist world view is many million miles apart from the Bahá’í view that, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expressed it:

. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

(Some Answered Questions)

Not only that. Volition, He explains, is a special characteristic not found in matter:

Man possesses certain virtues of which nature is deprived. He exercises volition; nature is without will. For instance, an exigency of the sun is the giving of light. It is controlled — it cannot do otherwise than radiate light — but it is not volitional.

(Promise of Universal Peace)

It seems as though this defective world view, which we can as a shorthand label materialism, which thrives when the left hemisphere cuts free of the right, is a significant part of the answer to a critical question religious faith poses to us:

Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself?

(Arabic Hidden Words: number 13)

The question which confronts us all is: ‘What am I going to do about it?’

This blog is part of my attempt to work out an answer.

The Bahá’í view at its core contends that, if we are to have an impact, we all need to find ways of working together rather than alone. We have to recognise our essential unity with everyone else, with all life everywhere,  before these problems can be properly addressed. Obviously, once that sense of oneness begins to be established, the more of us there are using it as an operating principle the greater our impact will be.

It seems to me that the thrust of McGilchrist’s position is that it will take nothing less than the combined energies of our entire being to empower us to succeed in this struggle, the humane wisdom of the right brain moderating the blind utilitarianism of the left, the wing of true religion and the wing of true science working together to lift us off the ground. This level of energy will only be available when we are at one and in harmony within ourselves. The vision required for this level of personal integration is spiritual not material in origin. Not until sufficient numbers of people invest great efforts of ‘mental force’ over long periods of time to lift themselves to this level will the healing of our society become possible.

Even so, such integration of the psyche is possible if the requisite effort is made and people are successfully making comparable efforts every second of every day. The great spiritual traditions as well as the latest developments in neuropsychology, underpinned in Schwartz’s view by modern physics, combine to confirm that this must and can be done.

We don’t have to let the machine mentality take over the world completely. More and more of us can join in building towards the critical mass of effort that will create a tipping point. Hopefully, in ever increasing numbers, we will.

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Reflecting Evil

Reflecting Evil

These [perfect] mirrors are the Messengers of God Who tell the story of Divinity, just as the material mirror reflects the light and disc of the outer sun in the skies. In this way the image and effulgence of the Sun of Reality appear in the mirrors of the Manifestations of God. This is what Jesus Christ meant when He declared, “the father is in the son,” the purpose being that the reality of that eternal Sun had become reflected in its glory in Christ Himself. It does not signify that the Sun of Reality had descended from its place in heaven or that its essential being had effected an entrance into the mirror . . . .

Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

Emp Civil

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

We have discovered how far Rifkin’s case against religion seems largely to be based on his dislike of Christian teachings, especially concerning the existence of Satan, the Fall of man,  and the resultant denigration of the body. He is aware that other religious teachings do not fall into what would be for him the same trap.

For example, he feels that the Gnostic gospels were more empowering and benign (page 238) and finds close parallels ‘between Jesus’s teachings as expressed in the Gospel of Saint Thomas and Hindu and Buddhist teachings at the time.’

He develops this theme (page 239):

. . . the Gnostics viewed Jesus as a human being who had achieved enlightenment. There is no talk of him performing miracles or referring to himself as the son of God or any recollection of Jesus dying for the sins of a fallen humanity.

Then he states his case (page 240):

For the Gnostics, ignorance of one’s true self, not sin, is the underlying cause of human suffering. Therefore, the key to unlocking the divine in each person is self-knowledge through introspection.

And he has a view of Jesus to match (page 241):

The critical question is whether enlightenment comes from fully participating in the world around us in all of its vulnerability and corporeality or by withdrawing to an inner world removed from the vulnerability of corporeal existence. The historical Jesus was fully engaged in the world.

He acknowledges the positive impact of Christianity (page 246):

The Christian empathic surge lasted a mere three centuries; but in that time it made an incredible mark on history. By A.D. 250 the number of Christians in Rome alone had grown to fifty thousand people.

Goethe, Kant and Schopenhauer

He, in the same way as many others, dates from the time of the Enlightenment the demise of religion as an effective force in society. He locates a key figure as embodying an inspiring post-Enlightenment empathic spirit – secularised empathy, if you like: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (page 307):

If one were to have to choose a single individual who most embodied a cosmopolitan view of the world and a universal empathic sensibility, Goethe would be an easy pick.

His subsequent commentary explains exactly the nature of Goethe’s appeal for Rifkin. He fuses empathy with biosphere concern (page 308):

Goethe felt that the purpose of living was to enrich life and that man is endowed with a special appreciation of life – a heightened consciousness – so that he might steward all that is alive. . . . Breathing nature in and out was the way one takes in nature and remains connected to the larger whole.

It is here that the roots of Rifkin’s model of empathy and biosphere consciousness becomes most explicit (page 309):

With Goethe, we see the secularisation of the empathic impulse, embedded in the embodied experience and that includes not only human society but all of nature. His empathic view is truly universal in scope.

His critique of Kant remains firm. He condemns his take on the Golden Rule (page 347):

Left behind is any heartfelt connection to another’s plight as if it were one’s own; the desire to comfort them because of a felt understanding of one’s common humanity.

He prefers Arthur Schopenhauer (page 348):

Schopenhauer argues that the moral code that accompanies theological consciousness is purely prescriptive. If human nature is “fallen,” as the Abrahamic religions suggest, then there is no moral basis within an individual’s being that would predispose him to do the morally right thing. God’s commandments, therefore, are a prescriptive device telling human beings that this is the way they “ought” to behave if they are to be rewarded by God’s grace and not punished by his wrath.

He is indeed hanging his condemnation of religion as a positive redemptive influence almost exclusively on the hook of a particular religion’s interpretation of Genesis. I suspect there is a rope around the throat of his argument here. He feels that he can now locate our redemption in that same physical nature he is convinced that religion is revolted by (page 349):

After deconstructing Kant’s categorical imperative, Schopenhauer offers a detailed description of moral behaviour that he argues is embedded in the very sinew of human nature – with the qualification that it needs to be brought out and nurtured by society if it is to be fully realised. He argues that “compassion” is at the core of human nature.

Is Being Embodied Enough?

Robert Wright

Robert Wright

However, in my view, and I suspect in the view of many members of many religions throughout the world, there is no need to make his leap of logic and deny a transcendent realm in order to explain why human beings can be compassionate. Even evolutionary theory – for example in the thinking of Robert Wright and Michael McCullough – plainly discerns how the development of empathy is wired into our brains and selected for in successful cultures.

Robert Wright sees this in evolutionary terms. In his book The Evolution of God, he discusses how the expansion of the moral imagination (page 428) can ‘bring us closer to moral truth.’

His line of argument will not appeal to everyone: it’s probably too materialistic for many religious people and too sympathetic to religion for many materialists. He states:

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest, similar to one of Rifkin’s reservations about the Golden Rule. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (pages 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

Beyond RevengeMichael McCullough in his exploration of our dual potential for revenge and forgiveness, Beyond Revenge, sees them as hard –wired (page 132):

Revenge and forgiveness… are conditioned adaptations – they’re context sensitive. Whether we’re motivated to seek revenge or to forgive depends on who does the harming, as well as on the advantages and disadvantages associated with both of these options.

Empathy, also hard-wired, plays its part in determining what will happen (page 148):

One of the best ways to take all the fun out of revenge, and promote forgiveness instead, is to make people feel empathy for the people who’ve harmed them. In 1997, my colleagues and I showed that when people experience empathy for a transgressor, it’s difficult to maintain a vengeful attitude. Instead, forgiveness often emerges. . . . When you feel empathic toward someone, your willingness to retaliate goes way down.

This material potential may be a necessary condition for empathy to grow further in our increasingly global civilisation. Even if religion is not the enemy, do we need it? The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.

Rifkin clearly feels it’s the best hope we’ve got, even though one of his key witnesses wasn’t sure where empathy comes from (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

He nonetheless builds an ideal of interconnectedness as far as possible in these purely material terms. He sees civilisation as having a key role in realising this potential (page 362):

While we are all born with a predisposition to experience empathic distress, this core aspect of our being only develops into true empathic consciousness by the continuous struggle of differentiation and integration in civilisation. Far from squelching the empathic impulse, it is the dynamics of unfolding civilisation that is the fertile ground for its development and for human transcendence.

He wheels out the atheist’s favourite philosopher to administer what he hopes will be the kiss of death to any hope of the transcendent (page 382):

Nietzsche went after both the theologians and the rationalists, saying that it was time to give up the illusion that there exists something called “absolute spirituality” or “pure reason.”

Nietzsche argued that there is ‘only a perspective “knowing”. . .’ I won’t rehearse here all the thinking that has been done to confirm that, while it is true that all I have is my perspective, it does not mean that we have proved there is no transcendent realm. I’ve explored this, for example, in the sequence of posts on William James, whose point of view is succinctly captured by Paul Jerome Croce in his masterly Science & Religion in the Era of William James (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

Absence of evidence therefore would not be evidence of absence, but in any case there is a wealth of evidence Rifkin is choosing to ignore here, as we have briefly touched upon above.

I realise that just as it is impossible for Rifkin conclusively to prove that any hope of empathic rescue from our current predicament must come from our material nature because that is all there is, I cannot conclusively prove to everyone’s satisfaction that

(a) this could never be sufficient, and

(b) that is OK because we can draw upon transcendent powers.

That though is what I believe.

When I was a child my father asked me to imagine what it would be like if a man stood with each of his feet in a bucket, grabbed the handles and tried to lift himself off the ground. In my view, all the evidence so far points to our being in a similar predicament: I find it impossible to believe we can mobilise what would be the necessary level of vision, self-sacrifice and sustained co-ordinated action over centuries to turn round our descent into self-destruction and climb back from the brink of extinction by our own unaided efforts.

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

A Ground of Being

In any case, whatever you think about that point, I feel there is even more convincing evidence that we do not have to rely only on ourselves. There is a transcendent dimension or foundation to reality and we can learn to draw upon its powers. In religion-neutral language we can speak of a ground of being, inherently conscious, inherently loving, inherently wise, that we can learn to connect to.

Amit Goswami, the physicist, in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe, confirms the mystic insight and vividly conveys his sense of it:

So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”

And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science. You see, the prevalent notion — even among people like David Bohm — was, “How can you ever do science without assuming that there is reality and material and all this? How can you do science if you let consciousness do things which are ‘arbitrary’?” But I became completely convinced — there has not been a shred of doubt ever since — that one can do science on this basis.

And he is not the only scientist to have reported such an experience (see link).

There are those who feel that this can be done as an individual through meditation without drawing upon any spiritual tradition or organised religion. I certainly agree that we can move a long way forwards in this way, but for me there is a distinction between the profound insights granted to the Founders of the great world faiths, no matter how far the followers may have strayed from the original path, and those insights a mystic can achieve.

To explain this clearly we need to start from the idea stated in the quotation at the head of this post. The Founders of the great world religions are like stainless Mirrors in which we can see reflected what is the closest approximation to the reality of God that we are capable of apprehending.

However, our hearts, which are, as a friend once expressed it, the experience of our soul in consciousness, are also mirrors which we can polish until they reflect as perfectly as we are able, but not as perfectly as a Messenger of God, the Sun of Reality if we choose to point them in that direction.

We therefore have two responsibilities: the first is to polish or rather burnish the steel of our heart’s mirror (it’s not a modern mirror!) so it can reflect more faithfully and, the second is to turn it towards the Sun of Truth. If we turn it in worship towards lesser gods it will become tarnished again (Bahá’u’lláh – from The Seven Valleyspage 21):

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

That, it seems to me, defines the difference between a mystic and a Messenger of God. Each Messenger of God has given us guidance appropriate to the time in which we live that will enable us to perfect our heart, as far as we are able, and perfect our world – rebuild our civilization if you like.

The Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, has already unpacked very clearly what this must mean to us (see my earlier post on Working for a Divine Arkitect). When the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were complete, the following words were read at the opening ceremony:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

While Bahá’ís have a model for how this task might be accomplished, it is not a task for Bahá’ís alone. It would be impossible. All people of good will across the planet need to play their part according to their sense of what is required of them.

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when we have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted. Pray God that moment will not come too late for us.

Rifkin has done his best in this impressive book to suggest one possible path towards a secure future. Those who follow his line of thinking and put it into practice will surely do some good. They could do so much more, it seems to me, if they had faith in an effectively benign power higher than the planet we are seeking to save and which needs our urgent help.

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Mirror 1

The perfect soul of man—that is to say, the perfect individual—is like a mirror wherein the Sun of Reality is reflected. The perfections, the image and light of that Sun have been revealed in the mirror; its heat and illumination are manifest therein, for that pure soul is a perfect expression of the Sun.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá – Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

People will probably not feel an urgency to transform the current disordered world into a spiritually enlightened global civilisation unless they gain an appreciation for the true nature of reality.

(John Fitzgerald Medina Faith, Physics & Psychology – Page 52)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

We have looked in reasonable detail at Jeremy Rifkin’s important analysis of the relationship in our culture between empathy and entropy, at his model of levels of consciousness where he pins his best hope for our survival on what he terms ‘biosphere consciousness,’ and his outline of where child rearing practices might produce the most responsibly empathic outcome within an essentially materialistic approach to reality.

I found his book valuable, thought-provoking but in one respect deeply flawed. There are no prizes for guessing where I think the flaw is to be found.

Embodied Experience Alone?Emp Civil

He is not just attacking a belief in the transcendent, it is true. Reason is in his rifle sights as well (page 141):

Both fail to plumb the depths of what makes us human and therefore leave us with cosmologies that are incomplete stories – that is, they failed to touch the deepest realities of existence. That’s not to dismiss the critical elements that make the stories of faith and reason so compelling. It’s only that something essential is missing – and that something is “embodied experience.”

We soon find ourselves in the currently prevalent default mode of reductionism whose limitations I have discussed elsewhere at length (page 163):

Human beings have created religious images of the future in part as a refuge against the ultimate finality of earthly existence. Every religion holds forth the promise of either defeating time, escaping time, overcoming time, reissuing time, or denying time altogether. We use our religions as vehicles to enter the state of nirvana, the heavenly kingdom, the promised land. We come to be believe in reincarnation, rebirth, and resurrection as ways of avoiding the inevitability of biological death.

While I accept that organised religion has not helped its case by its history of intolerance and cruelty in the name of some travesty of godhead. As Greg Hodges puts it in a recent post: ‘It takes a willful ignorance of history to deny . . . . that much of what humanity remembers about its collective past centers around large-scale, religiously-legitimized violence.’

Isn’t it just possible though that we might believe in transcendent realities such as an afterlife because there happens to be some hard evidence to suggest that there is really something in these ideas? Let’s take Pim van Lommel as one possible example of carefully gathered evidence that strongly suggests, at the very least, that consciousness cannot be adequately explained by brain activity alone and is therefore extremely unlikely to be a purely material phenomenon. The crux of his case can be captured in a few quotations from his book Consciousness beyond Life (pages 132-133):

The fact that an NDE [near death experience] is accompanied by accelerated thought and access to greater than ever wisdom remains inexplicable. Current scientific knowledge also fails to explain how all these NDE elements can be experienced at a moment when, in many people, brain function has been seriously impaired. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.

Pim van Lommel

Pim van Lommel

What kind of evidence does he adduce in support of this proposition? The most telling kind of evidence comes from prospective rather retrospective studies, ie studies where the decision is taken in advance to include all those people who have undergone resuscitation within the context of several hospitals and question them as soon as possible, ie immediately afterwards, and then again later after a set period of time. This is a more powerful methodology than retrospectively finding people who claim to have had an NDE and interviewing only them.

The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved (page 140):

Within a four-year period, between 1988 and 1992, 344 consecutive patients who had undergone a total of 509 successful resuscitations were included in the study.

And for the strength of the evidence those numbers provided (page 159):

The four prospective NDE studies discussed in the previous chapter all reached one and the same conclusion: consciousness, with memories and occasional perception, can be experienced during a period of unconsciousness—that is, during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity and all brain functions, such as body reflexes, brain-stem reflexes, and respiration, have ceased.

The conclusion van Lommel felt justified in drawing followed naturally on from that evidence (page 160);

As prior researchers have concluded, a clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.

What is important to emphasise here is that the precise conditions under which each NDE was experienced were completely, accurately and verifiably recorded, something not possible in a retrospective study: van Lommel is clear (page 164) that ‘in such a brain [state] even so-called hallucinations are impossible.’

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

For those who find vivid individual experiences more compelling, that is just about all of us, one of the best examples is the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander in Proof of Heaven. I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

On this issue, Rifkin’s cart may well be in front of his horse (page 168):

It should also be noted that where empathic consciousness flourishes, fear of death withers and the compunction to seek otherworldly salvation or earthly utopias wanes.

NDEs have been shown to increase empathy and reduce the fear of death over and over again, except in the case of the minority of examples of distressing NDEs (see Nancy Evans Bush for a rigorous study of those phenomena.) I’m not sure where his evidence is that empathy is greater where all forms of transcendence are denied.

He is aware of a void in the credibility of his position and has to locate awe elsewhere than in the transcendent he resumes to acknowledge (page 170):

Empathic consciousness starts with awe. When we empathise with another, we are bearing witness to the strange incredible life force that is in us and that connects us with all other living beings. Empathy is, after all, the feeling of deep reverence we have for the nebulous term we call existence.

I find this slightly muddled in any case. The first sentence implies that awe kicks off empathic feelings, whereas it is clear he feels that empathy creates awe. In any case I am not convinced by his empathy/awe connection.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

The Golden Rule & the Fall

As a convinced advocate of the Golden Rule and aware of its roots in the Axial Age which saw the dawn or significant development of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, and Taoism, I am uneasy with his take on this key stone of almost every moral arch. He sees the Golden Rule as self-interested because, by observing it, according to his version of religion, we buy paradise when we die. Kant, in his view, almost rescued it but not quite (page 175):

Immanuel Kant make the rational case for the Golden Rule in the modern age in his famous categorical imperative. . . . . First, “Act only on that maxim that can at the same time be willed to become a universal law.” Second, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” Although Kant eliminated the self-interested aspect of doing good that was so much a part of most religious experiences, he also eliminated the “felt” experience that makes compassion so powerful and compelling.

Rifkin does acknowledge that Judaism endorses the the universal application of the Golden Rule (page 214):

Lest some infer that the Golden Rule applies literally to only one’s neighbours and blood kin, the Bible makes clear that it is to be regarded as a universal law. In Leviticus it is written: “[T]he stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

He acknowledges that the Axial Age (page 216) was ‘the first budding of empathic consciousness.’

But he does not regard with favour what happened next (page 236-37):

Unfortunately, the universal empathic embrace extended to all human beings became increasingly conditional over the course of the next several centuries with the introduction of the devil into human affairs. The devil played virtually no role in Judaism. Satan came on the scene in the form of a demon, shortly after the crucifixion, among some Jewish groups. But the devil as a key player, pitted against Christ and the Lord, with the vast power to deceive, sow seeds of chaos, and even challenge the power of God, was a Christian invention.

Certainly the take on the serpent in Judaism seems more subtle than the Christian one

A very enigmatic figure in this story is the snake. What kind of animal is this that speaks and tempts Adam and Eve? Actually, it is hard for us to imagine the primordial snake, since part of the snake’s punishment was a metamorphosis of what and who he is.

Before the sin of Adam and Eve, we find the snake described in detail in the Bible. He is depicted as “cunning,” he speaks to Eve, he walks, and he even seems to have his own volition and will. After the sin, he is punished in that he will now crawl on his stomach, his food will be dirt, and there will eternal enmity between himself and man. What was the snake originally, and what did he do to deserve such a downfall?

Most kabbalistic commentators equate the snake with the Yetzer Hara — the self-destructive tendencies to move away from God.4 What is the function of the Yetzer Hara? Why were such tendencies created? And why was a snake chosen to represent this?

The purpose of God’s creating the world was to bestow goodness on mankind. The ultimate good is to not give someone a gift, but to empower him to accomplish on his own. Imagine someone training for the Olympics with his coach serving in the role of the opponent. If the coach does not oppose him with all his strength and wiles, the athlete will be upset with him. And when the student manages to overcome the coach, the coach is happy at his own downfall — since it is his role to finally be vanquished.

The Yetzer Hara is our coach. Any rational person would desire a worthy opponent to overcome. Therefore the original snake was almost human, walking on legs, speaking intelligently, and able to present a world view alternate to God’s. In that sense, the snake is the ultimate servant of God and man. He is the force which gives us the ability to choose between two worldviews — as long as the choice is balanced and the snake is not too difficult to overcome.

When the choice was between intellectual and sensual, the snake needed to be able to tempt man with a sensual experience. However, he needed to clothe it in the guise of the rational and objective truth. Therefore the snake was almost human in his abilities.

When man failed that test, the snake himself needed to undergo a metamorphosis. He needed to become the obstacle and temptation for a different humanity, who now could be easily led astray. Therefore the intelligent rational snake becomes a dirt dwelling mute creature.

Nancy Evans Bush makes it clear in her book that hell is a concept introduced by Christians and promulgated most powerfully in the mistranslations of sheol in the King James version of the Bible.

We will be looking in the next post at how much his aversion to the theological hinges on these Christian variations on that theme as well as where that then leaves us in terms of reversing our descent into the abyss.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Laying the groundwork for global civilization calls for the creation of laws and institutions that are universal in both character and authority. The effort can begin only when the concept of the oneness of humanity has been wholeheartedly embraced by those in whose hands the responsibility for decision making rests, and when the related principles are propagated through both educational systems and the media of mass communication. Once this threshold is crossed, a process will have been set in motion through which the peoples of the world can be drawn into the task of formulating common goals and committing themselves to their attainment. Only so fundamental a reorientation can protect them, too, from the age-old demons of ethnic and religious strife. Only through the dawning consciousness that they constitute a single people will the inhabitants of the planet be enabled to turn away from the patterns of conflict that have dominated social organization in the past and begin to learn the ways of collaboration and conciliation. “The well-being of mankind,” Bahá’u’lláh writes, “its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

As we have seen in the posts on levels, Rifkin draws on Stanley Greenspan’s child developmental model Emp Civil(page 106-110: see link for more detail) involving six stages which can be summarised as sensation/security, relation, intention, self/other-awareness, emotional ideas and finally emotional thinking. Disruptions, for example to attachment, during these stages will create problems later. The development of empathy in the growing child depends upon the quality of care received (page 110):

Greenspan… is clear that ‘the ability to consider the feelings of others in a caring, compassionate way derives from the child’s sense of having been loved and cared for herself.’

This post will look more closely at Rifkin’s thinking on this issue and about how to facilitate constructive maturation in our children.

Child Rearing

He begins by looking at the effects of deprivation (Page 20):

What had been missing in . . . foundling homes was one of the most important factors in infant development – empathy. We are learning, against all of the prevailing wisdom, that human nature is not to seek autonomy – to become an island to oneself – but, rather, to seek companionship, affection, and intimacy.

He unpacks the implications (page 66):

The infant begins life, according to Suttie, with an inchoate but nonetheless instinctual need to receive as well as give gifts, which is the basis of all affection. Reciprocity is the heart of sociality and what relationships are built on. In reciprocity is blocked, the development of selfhood and sociability is stunted and psychopathology emerges.

Not surprisingly he brings attachment theory into the mix. Situations of parental dislocation can lead to maladaptive patterns of either ‘anxious’ or ‘avoidant’ attachment. More empathic parental relating has a better outcome (page 78):

The more securely attached infants grew up to be the more sociable adults. They were more sensitive to others, shared higher levels of cooperation with peers, and developed more intimate relationships. What those children all shared in common was a highly developed, empathic consciousness.

It should be no surprise that mechanistic attempts to remedy defects in parental child rearing habits has not proved much help (page 167):

In the 1980s and 1990s psychologists and educators introduced the notion of “quality time” into family relationships. The idea was for parents to set aside a few minutes in their otherwise overburdened and busy day to get back “in touch” with their children. The forced efficiency of these structured intimate encounters often defeated the purpose of the exercise. Deep relationships require nurturing and suffer when yoked yoked to the dictates of o’clock.

As a result we come very close in Rifkin’s next description to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s explanation of what would happen in a truly spiritual society (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahápage 133):

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.

Rifkin states (page 177):

While primitive empathic potential is wired into the brain chemistry of some mammals, and especially the primates, its mature expression in humans requires learning and practice and a conducive environment. Moral codes, embedded in laws and social policies, are helpful as learning guides and standards. But the point is that one isn’t authentically good because he or she is compelled to be so, with the threat of punishment hanging over them or a reward waiting for them, but, rather because it’s in one’s nature to empathise.

Over the next sections of his book he reviews our progress towards a more humane and insightful treatment of children from (page 244) progress under the Roman Empire which came to define infanticide as murder only in 374AD while treatment remained harsh in England well into the 17th Century (page 285-86). There was the Protestant urge to ‘impose patriarchal rule in the home and “break the will” of the child, to ensure his or her piety.’ Later:

. . . the extension of schooling to large numbers of children also subjected youngsters to a merciless routine of flogging by teachers for the slightest violation of decorum or for underperformance. Lawrence Stone reports “that more children were being beaten in the 16th and early 17th centuries, over a longer age span, than ever before.” . . . .

Parents saw corporal punishment as a way to save their children from the devil and an eternity in hell. Their behaviour was in stark contrast to the sentiments of parents in the earlier Italian Renaissance, who came to look on the children as pure, innocent, and uncorrupted.

Things did begin to improve somewhat as the century advanced (pages 286-87). For example, John Locke (1692) was more balanced: ‘while he cautioned against being overly permissive, he was equally opposed to being overly strict and punitive.’ By 1785 (page 288), ‘the practice of swaddling had been eliminated in England. . . . Wet-nursing went out of favour in the latter half of the 18th century in England as new mothers sought to be more attentive and nurturing towards their young. . . . The new expression of motherly affection ensured that the empathic impulse of the period would pass on to children, who will grow up loved and cared for and capable of empathising with others, just as their parents had empathised with that.’

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Child Development

It was only late in the 19th Century that something more recognisably modern began to feature in the ideas around child development (page 388):

It was during the last decade of the 19th century and the first three decades of the 20th century that the concept of adolescence emerged. This was a special temporal domain to which all children – boys and girls – belonged equally. Society came to think of childhood as extending beyond puberty and into the later teenage years. Previously the child graduated to adulthood and the responsibilities that go with it upon reaching sexual maturity. No longer. Now work life was put off and children remained under the nurturing care of parents for a longer period of time.

This concept carried with it a sort of developmental time bomb (page 389):

Although it wasn’t until the 1940s that Eric Erikson coined the term “identity crisis,” the psychological phenomena accompanied the new period of adolescence from the very beginning. Adolescence is about identity crises as much as it is about identity formation.

Identity is partly a question of the priorities around which we organise our lives, the values we hold dearest and the meaning system we have developed. While the evidence suggests that we need to divide the influences that affect those outcomes among our genes, our parents and our peers, there is no doubt that for most of us our parents account for at least 30% of the items in the mix. So, when Rifkin looks at where we are at present with the challenges it brings, he concludes (page 502):

The question is, what is the appropriate therapy for recovering from the [current] well/happiness addiction? A spate of studies over the past 15 years has shown a consistently close correlation between parental nurturance patterns and whether children grow up fixated on material success. . . . If… the principal caretaker is cold, arbitrary in her or his affections, punitive, unresponsive, and anxious, the child will be far less likely to establish a secure emotional attachment and the self-confidence necessary to create a strong independent core identity. These children invariably show a greater tendency to fix on material success, fame, and image as a substitute mode for gaining recognition, except, and a sense of belonging.

The product propaganda known as advertising preys on this insecurity with its deceptive promises that greater wealth and more possessions will fill the void within.

Parents clearly have a critical role to play in how things take shape from here, whether upwards towards the light or downwards towards the dark (page 504):

Making the transition from a pioneer to a near-climax society and a truly sustainable economic area hinges on a far more self-conscious approach to parenting to prepare youngsters with deep pro-social values that will allow empathy to grow and the lure of the market to be tempered.

Schooling

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Parenting is not the only consideration of course. He makes a bold claim (page 550):

The American public school system has leaped ahead of their counterparts in other countries by initiating a critical reform in the educational system, whose purpose is to better prepare future generations for the responsibilities attendant to creating social capital.

In the past 15 years, American secondary schools and colleges have introduced service learning programs into the school curriculum – a revolutionary change that has altered the educational experience for millions of young people.

Not everyone appears to share this rose-tinted view of the matter. John Fitzgerald Medina, in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, is particularly sceptical. He bases his assessment on solid research (page 325):

David Purpel, an educator and author of The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education: a Curriculum for Justice and Compassion in Education… contends that the educational system is so enmeshed in the corrupt status quo that it consistently fails to address societal problems and that due to its slavish emphasis on grading-mongering and competition, it primarily acts like a giant socio-economic sorting machine that maintains and even exacerbates race and class separations between people.

Purpel is not the only witness Medina calls to the stand in his case against the current system of education in America (page 327):

Professor of education Clifford Mayes explains that the powerful influence of behaviourism shifted the field of education from an endeavor based on a strong sense of spiritual and moral calling to a technical job based on the tenets of classical science… Under the influence of industrialisation, schools and teachers were expected to serve and to promulgate the “cult of efficiency” and the “scientific management” of people and organisations.

Even if we accept that attempts are being made to introduce empathy-inducing elements into educational and training programmes in the States the blinkered way these are sometimes implemented undermines their efficacy, as Timothy Wilson testifies. The research he reviews in his excellent short book Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change points towards the critical importance of incorporating a community service component into any remedial programme for children and young people manifesting behavioural problems (page 131):

The fact that policymakers learned so little from past research – at huge human and financial cost – is made more mind-boggling by being such a familiar story. Too often, policy makers follow common sense instead of scientific data when deciding how to solve social and behavioural problems. When well-meaning managers of the QOP [Quantum Opportunities Programme] sites looked at the curriculum, the community service component probably seemed like a frill compared to bringing kids together for sessions on life development. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But common sense was wrong, as it has been so often before. In the end, it is teens… who pay the price…

Rifkin explains what for him is the power of these socially engineered interventions (page 551):

The exposure to diverse people from various walks of life has spurred an empathic surge among many of the nation’s young people. Studies indicate that many – but not all – students experience a deep maturing of empathic sensibility by being thrust into unfamiliar environments where they are called upon to reach out and assist others.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

A Fork in the Road

Not for the first time in his book, he comments on the fork in the road that lies ahead (page 581):

The rap on today’s young people in the age group that stems from toddlers to young adults in their early 30s (everyone born after the mid-1970s) is that they are coddled, overexposed, overindulged, told they are special, believe that to be the case, are self-centred – “it’s all about me” – and trapped in their self-absorbed inflated self-esteem. We are also told, however, that they are more open and tolerant, less prejudiced, multicultural in their views, nonjudgmental, civic-and service-oriented, and more collaborative than any other generation in history. . . .

Is it possible that today’s young people are caught between both poles…? . . . . Yes, but with the qualification that the newest data shows a trend away from the ‘it’s all about me’ phenomenon and prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s . . . .

Exactly which way the dice will fall is not yet predictable (page 589):

The situation is anything but clear. While there are some among the younger generation who dream of personal fame, there are as many others just as devoted to community service and assisting those less fortunate. The likely reality is that the younger generation is growing up torn between both a narcissistic and empathic mind-set, with some attracted to one and some to the other.

Clearly parenting and schooling are crucial components in the creation of a compass and a map that will enable our children to choose the wiser route in life. What is disturbing is the vicious circle clearly at work if we do not rise to this challenge. The effects of unwise and unfeeling parenting will be further confounded by mercenary and mechanistic education systems. This combination will produce parents who will bring up more damaged children, and voters who will continue to elect governments that enthusiastically perpetuate education systems designed to create cogs for the machine of the global market. Building a more benign civilisation begins with our children who are “the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future.” (Universal House of Justice: Ridván 2000) We need to change our approach and we need to change it soon.

Rifkin places his hopes for the future on the development of biosphere consciousness, a motivating force whose limitations I explained in the previous post (page 601):

Children are becoming aware that everything they do – the very way they live – affects the lives of every other human being, our fellow creatures, and the biosphere we inhabit. They come to understand that we are as deeply connected with one another in the ecosystems that make up the biosphere as we are in the social networks of the blogosphere.

He feels this hope is given added strength by the interventions being mounted in schools (ibid.):

Now the new emerging biosphere awareness is being accompanied by cutting edge curriculum [sic] designed to help young people develop an even deeper sense of interconnectivity and social responsibility at the level of their personal psyches.

. . . . . the new pedagogical revolution is emphasising empathic development. In April 2009, The New York Times ran a front-page article reporting on the empathy revolution occurring in American classrooms. Empathy workshops and curriculums [sic] now exist in 18 states, and the early evaluations of these pioneer educational reform programmes are encouraging.

I feel we need to read what follows with a balancing sense of the countervailing forces also at work within the very same educational system. Medina writes (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

I am not convinced that we can leave to our schools the work of spiritualising the awareness of our children and making them more attuned to the suffering of others and how to help, hence the strong Bahá’í emphasis within our communities placed upon the training of children and youth – something we offer to the wider community as well without in any way seeking to recruit people to our ranks. We simply want to find ways of helping young people become more community-oriented. I will be republishing relevant posts later this week that go some way towards articulating the Bahá’í view of the matter.

Rifkin sees it differently from Medina  (page 604):

Tens of thousands of students have gone through the Roots of Empathy program. What educators find is that the development of empathic skills leads to greater academic success in the classroom. . . . Empathic maturity is particularly correlated with critical thinking. The ability to entertain conflicting feelings and thoughts, be comfortable with ambiguity, approach problems from a number of perspectives, and listen to another’s point of view are essential emotional building blocks to engage in critical thinking. Gordon makes the telling observation that “love grows brains.” . . . [ Mary Gordon writes]:

“The Roots of Empathy classroom is creating citizens of the world – children who are developing empathic ethics and a sense of social responsibility that takes the position that we all share the same lifeboat. These are the children will build a more caring, peaceful and civil society, child by child.”

To be fair, Rifkin is not completely blind to the obstacles (pages 604-05):

. . . because empathic engagement is the most deeply collaborative experience one can ever have, bringing out children’s empathic nature in the classroom requires collaborative learning models. Unfortunately, the traditional classroom curriculum continues to emphasise learning as a highly personal experience designed to acquire and control knowledge by dint of competition with others.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Cooperation not Competition

He argues, as Michael Karlberg does in Beyond the Culture of Contest, that we must replace competition with cooperation if we are to rise above our current challenges. Karlberg describes in far more detail than is possible to include here an alternative model, based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is (page 131 – my emphasis):

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

Rifkin even defines one of the fruits of cooperation in similar terms to the values Bahá’ís place on true consultation as a spiritual process (page 605):

Collaborative education begins with the premise that the combined wisdom of the group, more often than not, is greater than the expertise of any given member and by learning together the group advances its collective knowledge, as well as the knowledge of each member of the cohort.

The Bahá’í view is expressed as follows (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahápage 320)

The members [of a Spiritual Assembly] must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should any one oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.

Coda

Rifkin closes by emphasising once more the importance of our recognising our links with nature (page 611):

In the case of our Palaeolithic forebears, fear of nature’s wrath, as much as dependency, conditioned the relationship. To reparticipate with nature willingly, by exercising free will, is what separates biosphere consciousness from everything that has gone before. . . .

Schools across the United States are already beginning to extend the classroom into the outdoors through their service learning programs, internship programs, and extended field trips. Reaffiliating with the biosphere is an empathic experience that has to be felt as well as intellectualised to be meaningful. It also has to be practised.

This sequence of posts so far has attempted, admittedly rather selectively, to give a sense of Rifkin’s overall argument, pointing out, where it seemed appropriate, its strengths and its weaknesses, but by and large letting Rifkin’s own words speak for his position.

The next and final pair of posts will look at what seems to me to be his most glaring omission – the role of religion in turning around our slide towards self-destruction.

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Pilgrim’s Progress

Remember the saying: `Of all pilgrimages the greatest is to relieve the sorrow-laden heart.’

(‘Abdu’l-BaháSelections 52)

‘Who is my neighbour? My neighbour is all mankind.”

(Seamus Heaney: The Spirit Level,  page 28)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing this post and a sequence on The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson.

For those who might have been holding their breath since my last post on the subject, I did in the end manage to finish Jonathan Stedall‘s Where on Earth is Heaven?

The last chapter was particularly resonant. It looks at how gloomily the world is portrayed in the news and seeks to redress the balance. He believes our ‘capacity for empathy is stirring’ (page 532). He refers to books that I feel I will be buying in due time.

Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken is the first one. He sees the current burgeoning of a network of non-profit organisations as ‘humanity’s immune response to toxins like political corruption, economic disease, and ecological degradation’ (ibid.) He quotes, on the same page, Bill McKibben‘s comment on the book:

The movers and shakers on our planet aren’t the billionaires and the generals – they are the incredible numbers of people around the world filled with love for neighbour and for the earth who are resisting, remaking, restoring, renewing, revitalising.

He refers (page 535) to an equally interesting book – The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson (see an earlier sequence). He describes cultural creatives (page 536) as sharing ‘what are often described as feminine values in relation to family life, education, relationships, responsibilities and caring in general.’ They constitute, in the view of the authors, about 25% of the population they studied.

What is currently lacking, he feels, is a way for such people to combine their energies together without compromising their creativity.

I’ll resist the temptation to expand on how much this, for me, is uncannily in synch with the ideals and developing practices of the Bahá’í community. Posts dealing with this are to be found throughout this blog. In this vein, though, Stedall also speaks of a zeitgeist that may be helping us shift in this direction, and, in a fascinating parenthesis, suggests that this effect would be more powerful ‘if the zeitgeist is an actual being and not an abstract concept’ (page 534). And in the end there is a quote (page 357) that could almost have come from a Bahá’í pen:

Today many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself – while something else, still indistinct, were rising from the rubble.

(Václav Havel: 1984)

If we look for them we can find examples, not just of the downside of our predicament, but of the uplifting aspect as well.

Examples of the morally blind side of our nature can carry the seeds of the more positive vision, of course. An example of that is a hit of the moment – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don’t think I am wrenching the implications of its exploration of the blind side completely out of shape by saying that it is a compelling study of where absence of empathy and compassion can take us. It is powerful and effective, if a touch melodramatic in places.

There are also many places where we find a sense of positive potential which does not shirk the reality of the darkness. Blind Side is a good example, a film based on real events. It illustrates perhaps one of the best ways of protecting ourselves against the worst effects of our blind side.

If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo managed to avoid the worst excesses of melodrama (I’m not quite sure where to place the savagery of the rape scene in this: in terms of the film’s moral balancing act, it triggers the ‘girl’s’ revenge while, at the same time, helping us empathise with her rage: I felt manipulated emotionally though), Blind Side is only tinged and not spoilt by the occasional hint of sentimentality. It shows us the power of empathy and how much it can accomplish in the hands of people flawed in many ways as we all are. Our flaws are not a reason to evade this challenge.

And so, finishing Jonathan Stedall’s book, after a few other detours into film, has brought me back to a book I set aside many months ago – another book that inspired and irritated me in about equal measure. This book is Jeremy Rifkin‘s The Empathic Civilization which I think I will now attempt to read right to the end. Where I left off (pages 314-315) he is beginning to tackle the duality Iain McGilchrist explored from the point of view of brain structure:

When it comes to consciousness itself, one is struck by the fact that the human being is both a feeling and thinking animal [I’d prefer the word ‘being’ but there you go – that’s what makes reading Rifkin a bit of a switchback]. Therefore, one of the critical questions in the modern era has been which of the two – feeling or thinking – is the most relevant to understanding ‘human nature”?

How could I possibly resist another bite at this cherry?

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