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Posts Tagged ‘Bahá’í Faith’

My mind . . . . .
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘Prayer for My Daughter‘)

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the second of three. The first came out on Monday: this is the third and last.

A World-Embracing Vision

A central concept in Bahá’í discourse, as could be inferred from previous posts, is the heart. This is used to refer to the core of our being. It is not purely emotional, though emotion is an important factor.

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

(Persian Hidden Words: No. 3)

It also involves insight. Bahá’u’lláh uses the phrase ‘understanding heart’ on a number of occasions.

There is more to it even than that. In previous posts about the self and the soul I have explored the implications of the way that Bahá’u’lláh describes the heart either as a ‘mirror’ or a ‘garden.’ I won’t be revisiting those considerations here but they are relevant to this theme.

I want to look at another angle on the heart which Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly refers to.

In the Hidden Words (Persian: No.27) He writes:

All that is in heaven and earth I have ordained for thee except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory; yet thou didst give My home and dwelling to another than Me and whenever the manifestation of My holiness sought His own abode, a stranger found He there, and, homeless, hastened to the sanctuary of the Beloved.

The meaning is clear. Like an addict we fill our hearts with junk as an addict blocks his receptors with heroin so that the appropriate ‘occupant’ is denied access and we do not function properly. We are in a real sense poisoned.

sunset-21Bahá’u’lláh is equally clear about the advice He gives:

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

(Gleanings: CXIV)

Though it is easier said than done, of course, this has several important implications.

We are often divided within ourselves, worshipping more than one false god. We are divided from other people when we perceive them to be worshipping other gods than ours. This warps the proper functioning of the heart. It prevents us from becoming ‘a true upholder of His oneness,’ people who see all of humanity as our business and behave accordingly.

Bahá’u’lláh observed:

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: pages 164-165)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá developed the same theme:

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 76)

Note that transcending such divisions within and between people is linked with a unifying devotion to an inclusive and loving God: if we worship an exclusive and narrow god our divisions and conflicts will be exacerbated.

There is a key passage in the Arabic Hidden Words (No. 68) which assists in helping us understand the spiritual dynamics here:

Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.

Oneness and detachment are inextricably linked. Only when we detach ourselves from false gods can we integrate all aspects of ourselves, bring our divided loyalties together under one banner, and see ourselves at one with all humankind. When we dismantle the barriers within us we can also dismantle those between us. Only then can the expression of unity come from the depths of our being and manifest itself in actions and words that are a seamless fabric of complete integrity harmonised with all humanity. The process of striving to achieve this state in this physical world is a slow and painful one but cannot be evaded if we are to live a full and fulfilling life, as against an empty, sterile and potentially destructive one. Above all it involves expressing a sense of common humanity in action regardless of how we feel sometimes: positive values are a better guide to consistently positive action than feelings that can shift swiftly from light to dark and back again.

Without such a radical integration we will not be able to achieve the world embracing vision required of us if the problems confronting our civilisation are to have any hope of resolution. Anything less runs a very strong risk of perpetuating prejudice, conflict, discrimination and all the evils such as pogroms that have their roots in such heart-felt and deep-seated divisions.

We must be careful not to substitute some limited idea of God of our own devising for the limitless experience of love that is the one true God beyond all description. That way hatred lies. It is the ‘rose’ of love that we must plant in the garden of our hearts, not its daisy or its dandelion, though either of those would certainly be better than the stinging nettle of animosity, but probably not up to meeting the challenges that this shrinking and diverse world is currently throwing at us.

Planting the most inclusive and embracing flower of love in our hearts that we are capable of is the indispensable precursor to the positive personal transformation of a radical kind that is demanded of us now.

The Method

Without some plan of action, what I have described may well of course turn out to be empty rhetoric. Every great world religion has described in detail the steps we need to take to perfect ourselves once we have placed its message in our heart of hearts.

Buddhism is perhaps the clearest in its ways of doing this, with its four noble truths and eightfold path. Also its system of psychological understanding is second to none, which is perhaps why current psychological approaches to distress are borrowing so heavily from it, for example in the concept of mindfulness.

The Baha’i Faith is a much younger tradition but is unique in combining recommendations for individual spiritual development, such as prayer and reflection (in the sense I have discussed in detail in previous posts) with prescriptions for expressing spiritual understanding collectively in the special conditions of the modern world. There are two key components of this.

First, consultation, which is a spiritual and disciplined form of non-adversarial decision-making. Second is a way of organising a global network of like-minded people, which combines democratic elections with authority held collectively by an assembly. There is neither priesthood nor presidency. The system allows for a flexible process of responding to what we learn from experience: there is nothing fossilised about it.

I believe there is much to learn from the Baha’i model that can be successfully applied in our lives whether we decide to join the Baha’i community or not. The learning is readily transferable to almost any benign context.

An Appeal to our Better Selves

After such a long post as this, now is not the time to go into this in detail but the many links from this blog will introduce these ideas in accessible form. I intend to return to this aspect of the issue in due course.

I would like instead to close with the words of a powerful message, sent by our governing body at the Baha’i World Centre to the world’s religious leaders in 2002. It stated in its introduction:

Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in the path; to cite a particular painful fact, it has long lent its credibility to fanaticism.

They continued:

The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It is surely unnecessary to cite in detail the horrors being visited upon hapless populations today by outbursts of fanaticism that shame the name of religion.

All is not lost, they argue:

Each of the great faiths can adduce impressive and credible testimony to its efficacy in nurturing moral character. Similarly, no one could convincingly argue that doctrines attached to one particular belief system have been either more or less prolific in generating bigotry and superstition than those attached to any other.

They assert their conviction:

. . . that interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

And they close with the following appeal:

The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind.

This is work that we can all support, wherever we are and in whatever God we do or do not believe. We should not just leave it to our leaders.

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The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the second of three. The first came out on Monday: the last will come out tomorrow.

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

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For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Tomorrow’s post will be looking at a recent critique of economics. This 2015 extract from an article by David Langness on Bahá’í economics therefore seems timely: for the full post see link.

The Baha’i Faith, unlike most other Faiths, offers the world a specific set of economic principles. Designed to promote justice, fairness and unity, those spiritual Baha’i principles do not advocate any of the currently existing economic models of capitalism, socialism or communism. Instead, the Baha’i economic ideals combine the best and most workable features of those systems with a balanced, spiritual approach that endeavors to deeply diminish the impact of the human struggle for existence.

In the modern world our lives have come to depend on struggle and competition, rather than unity and cooperation. Driven by the fear of hunger and poverty, many people suffer when their souls perceive the world’s predominant law as a Darwinian struggle for existence, rather than a harmonious and loving human unity.

The Baha’i teachings say that humanity can better organize its economic systems to minimize our struggle and attain our unity. Rather than a harsh and absolute dependence on the theory of the survival of the fittest, we can look to the spiritual aspects of our nature and find ways to reduce and eliminate the suffering that comes from dire need:

The fourth principle or teaching of Baha’u’llah is the readjustment and equalization of the economic standards of mankind. This deals with the question of human livelihood. It is evident that under present systems and conditions of government the poor are subject to the greatest need and distress while others more fortunate live in luxury and plenty far beyond their actual necessities. This inequality of portion and privilege is one of the deep and vital problems of human society. That there is need of an equalization and apportionment by which all may possess the comforts and privileges of life is evident. The remedy must be legislative readjustment of conditions. The rich too must be merciful to the poor, contributing from willing hearts to their needs without being forced or compelled to do so. The composure of the world will be assured by the establishment of this principle in the religious life of mankind.

Abdu’l-BahaThe Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107.

This primary Baha’i economic teaching, repeated in many places and contexts by Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, asks humanity to work together to eliminate the extremes of poverty and wealth. Such a voluntary redistribution of resources does not envision just a simple legislative remedy or coercive, mandatory economic adjustments, however. Instead, it envisions a spiritual reformation of the relationship between the rich and the poor, a new sense of unity and fellowship and interaction, a realization that we are all one human family.

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snow

As I am dealing at the moment with my attitude to psychiatry it seemed worth re-publishing this from 2013, whose section on Journals Revisited describes the kind of disillusioning encounter that reinforced my scepticism about psychiatry as a complete and satisfying explanation of mental health problems. I had always felt the context of such problems was always more complex than unsupported speculations about brains and genes.  

I was recently at a national Bahá’í meeting. Within two hours of getting there, three people at least had asked me had I done my story for the Histories Project website yet. My first response was that the story of my becoming a Bahá’í – well, it was more of a declaration of intent, meaning that I intended to work at treading the Bahá’í path as effectively as I could – was basically fairly boring.

That didn’t seem to convince anyone so I stopped trying to explain that as a bookworm I didn’t have a dramatic encounter with a charismatic speaker, a life-changing mystical experience or participate in a totally mind-blowing meeting. I just read a book, then bought some more books and read them double quick, met a few warm and accepting people to ask questions of, then decided it made sense and joined the Bahá’í community. Something like that. It’s why I’ve never blogged about it in detail really. Anyway when I got back from the meeting I set about writing my story (eventually, if I pass it on, you’ll find it on the UK Baha’i histories site).

Journals Revisited

In doing so, I had to go back through my journals of that time and check out some dates. Shades of Becket’s Krapp’s Last Tape again (see earlier post). Becket’s monologue situation is that ‘It is Krapp’s 69th birthday and he hauls out his old tape recorder, reviews one of the earlier years – the recording he made when he was 39 – and makes a new recording commenting on the last 12 months.’ I’m just a year late this time.

As I read, I was amazed that I had got one key date wrong – I was still doing clinical placements until the end of September 1982 – I thought the course was all over by July, but that was only the academic bit.

The journal is full to the brim of desultory ruminations on the work I was doing on placement:

2nd September 1982: It has been a wonderful day – ploughed brown earth under the warmth of a mellow sun against a background of subdued green. However, not even such a day can remove the oppressive feel of the mental hospital to me. It is not an oppression that resides in any obvious way in the buildings or the layout even, unprepossessing as those are. Ugliness is not necessarily oppressive. Somehow the spirit exuded by the place as a whole is one of immutable and dehumanising tradition.

Today’s ward round, which I attended as a guest, was an emblem of that. Dr X., who is lugubrious and yet admirably meticulous, was on leave. In his stead was Dr Y, short, greying, shrewd and abrupt, with a slightly disarming affectation of bumbledom to mask the steel of his prompt authority. With him in the driving seat, and Dr W., the Registrar, and Mr Z., a nurse, in attendance, the ward round was steered into oppressive backwaters of psychiatric practice.

Dr W: We can’t give her medication on a 25. It’s illegal.

Mr Z: Since when is it illegal, doctor, to give a patient medication?

Dr W: We can’t on a 25.

Mr Z: If we did only what ’twas legal there’d be few people helped, to my way of thinking.

Dr Y: Should it be a 26 she’s on, d’you think doctor?

Dr W: Yes, I do. She needs medication.

25 and 26 refer to parts of the Mental Health Act at the time. Section 26 allowed you to force someone to take medication, but only if a certain level of risk was reached: Section 25 did not. The patient in question had just been ushered out of conference after delivering a loud long uninterruptible and paranoid harangue. She was clearly not going to agree to take medication voluntarily. What was disturbing was that there was no evidence to indicate that she was a danger to herself and/or others.

I think my somewhat self-righteous anti-psychiatry stance at the time, which had been rooted in my former socialist perspective and shaped by my experience of People Not Psychiatry, may have blinded me to the possible teasing irony of the nurse’s comments in the face of a doctor’s somewhat abrupt and prissy manner. The final point probably still stands though and raises the question of whether I should have brought it up myself at the time – the pros and cons of which it doesn’t appeared to have occurred to me to mention in my account.

This slight distortion of dates was bad enough, but even more surprising was the fact that the journal contained no mention whatsoever of the earlier moment I remember so well.

The Winter of my Discontent

Much of the second year of my Clinical MSc, from late 1981 onwards, was a very testing time. I was undergoing significant upheavals in my personal life and, perhaps as a result of the distress I was feeling, had also made at least one very poor decision, which impacted adversely on others as well as on myself. I was extremely distressed by all this, particularly because I had brought most of this on myself and could also see how others were suffering too. By Christmas, I knew I needed help to sort the situation out and rectify what I could in terms of damage done, but I couldn’t see where to turn.

To my astonishment, in early January 1982, I found myself alone in a snow-bound cottage in the middle of Sussex, a complete unbeliever as I thought, on my knees in tears saying, ‘God, if you exist, please help me now.’ It was a short prayer, if prayer it really was, but it was undoubtedly intensely felt. I was on my knees a lot longer than it took to say those improbable words. Interestingly, I was writing lots and lots of poems at the same time – some of them the best I’ve ever written. The poems don’t mention the prayer either but they were undoubtedly influenced by the weather.

My poetry lacks bravery.
Sunlight on snow
Says everything I need,
But when I go
None will know how,
Under my frost,
Songs were silenced.

Harvest Time

Not a word about the prayer anywhere at all! Very strange! I don’t doubt that it happened but it seemed as though I had devoted acres of paper to recording far less important facts about my life and neglected some really critical moments.

ScruttonPerhaps most surprisingly of all, though I have a huge number of memories about the period of this life-changing decision, most of which I have included in my draft of my story, none of them are in my journal. There is a short two paragraph entry there on 20 December 1982. It reads:

On 25 November 1982 I borrowed Scrutton’s book on the Bahá’í Faith from the library. On Friday 26 November I went down to the Bahá’í centre because, so closely did what was described correspond to my ideal, that I could not believe it. I bought half a dozen books, talked to several people, and soaked up an atmosphere of love more intoxicating than any wine I have ever tasted before.

On 2 December, I declared as a Bahá’í and I’m still utterly convinced I did the right thing. . . . . . [People] feel it could be another one of my transient and embarrassing enthusiasms and can’t understand my need for a religion in the first place. I feel that I will still be a Baha’i in 20 years time. Time will tell.

And, it seems, I am still working at it – after more than 30 years.

Summoning up Remembrance

The absence of evidence in the journal, when considered in the light of how treacherous I have found my memory to be, may indicate that the whole process has been heavily embroidered in my mind. Its treachery came home to me as a result of a conflict between my journal and my memory which I have blogged about before and which I will be republishing shortly.

Friern corridor

The corridor at Friern Barnet (not the hospital referred to in the post though I did work there later). For the picture’s source see link.

When anyone has asked me tell them about situations where my declaration as a Bahá’í brought me into conflict with the assumptions of my profession as a psychologist I was prone to boasting of the time I went for an informal interview for a clinical post soon after I qualified. I was walking with the neuropsychologist, I said, down towards her office. She was dressed in a white coat so she looked like a doctor from the back. The only thing missing was a stethoscope.

As we walked she cast a sideways glance at me and said: ‘Thank goodness Blackmore has finally put paid to the idea of God, don’t you agree?’

‘Not really,’ I distinctly remember saying,’I have an idea about God that I believe in.’

She glared at me and we walked the rest of the short way to her office in silence.

I come out of that version of events reasonably well and believed, until late last month, that this was exactly what happened. Until, that is, I read my journal of that period looking for the page reference. Imagine my feelings when I discovered, in my own hand-writing, an almost completely different version of events. First of all it happened in September. I didn’t hear about the Baha’i Faith until November. First hole below the waterline. I wrote:

She wore a white coat [at least I got that right] with her name written on a badge. My revulsion against psychologists who wish to masquerade as doctors was barely containable. And when I heard her mouthing with obvious contempt such things as ‘. . . .people who don’t realise that the mind is separate from the brain’ I did not know what to say. . . . .

All I could say was ‘I haven’t thought about it a lot.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that . . . very sorry . . . I’m very sorry to hear that indeed.’

Quite why I couldn’t fight back I don’t know. Perhaps my feelings were running too high – they were certainly strong by this time. I just wanted to get out, I think.

According to my journal I mumbled some jargon strewn with impressive names but basically ducked the point. I believed the mind was not reducible to the brain but couldn’t say so.

The accounts, though they have a kernel of common truth, couldn’t be more different. When I had become a Baha’i I did speak out but definitely not then and not in the way I convinced myself it had happened. I clearly didn’t want to remember my craven evasion so I backdated my eventual moral courage and believed my own propaganda.

This might have been another reason why I have been so reluctant to go public with the story of my joining the Bahá’í community. How much of what I thought I remembered was, in fact, accurate?

To my relief, my memory of the basic details I quoted above was correct, which is encouraging.

Less Surprising than I thought?

What was still surprising, and which I had also forgotten, was how preoccupied with spiritual issues I had been in the months between my conditional prayer and my decision to join the Bahá’í community. I wrote copiously on the topic and it would be tedious in the extreme to quote everything but it’s worth sharing a taster, I think. At the end of August that year I wrote (emphasis in the original):

I have a burning desire to wipe the slate of my life and mind completely clean – and begin again differently – to polish my mind until it shines smooth and clear, revealing the true grain of its essential nature to the world and reflecting the world in the clarity of its shine.

The closeness which which this resembles quotations from Bahá’í Scripture feels slightly uncanny:

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

(The Seven Valleys: page 21)

Not exactly the same, obviously, but strangely parallel. Revisiting journals is an oddly unsettling but also somewhat reassuring experience. I think on the whole the surprises it triggers make it worthwhile – at least now and again. I’m not sure I would want to do it too often!

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A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It leadeth the way and guideth.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Gleanings: CXXXII)

Picking up from where the last post left off, I need to explain how I am learning to balance the competing priorities of my life.

As I explained earlier, not only is there sometimes a conflict between my introverted preferences, such as for reading and writing, and my need to operate in the world outside my head, but there can also be a clash between my desire to read and my desire to write. The symbol I’m developing to express a way of balancing these needs is of the wheel I want my life to run on.

There is no way I can avoid an action of some kind. Even doing nothing is a form of action. So, action has to be the rim of the wheel, the surface in constant contact with the road my life is taking.

However, I have to recognise that constantly, unremittingly, huge swathes of time are being taken up with experiences of various kinds, whether internally generated or externally triggered. The bulk of them are processed unconsciously, and in addition most of what is conscious will be rapidly forgotten, possibly almost undigested.

However, as I see it, if I do not ruminate on the most precious parts of it I will fail to learn the crucially important lessons they can teach me. So, I must build firmly into the structure of my life’s wheel the reinforcing elements of reading, writing, meditation and consultation (I have dealt elsewhere with the mutually reinforcing power of consultation and meditation, so I won’t repeat it all here). The conclusion I arrived it was this:

It seems possible, at least in principle, to use meditation to improve our consultation skills and consultation perhaps to practise and refine our meditation. It also raises the question whether consultation, at least in the West, would benefit from more silence.

We know it requires detachment. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Paris Talks (page 174):

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

One possible way of conceptualising detachment, or at least a result of it, is freedom from our animal nature as described here. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote (Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 207):

Regarding the statement in ‘The Hidden Words’, that man must renounce his own self, the meaning, is that he must renounce his inordinate desires, his selfish purposes and the promptings of his human self, and seek out the holy breathings of the spirit . . . . ..

Meditation, then, might help us achieve the detachment necessary for consultation. Consultation will almost certainly strengthen our ability to be detached and thereby facilitate our meditation. They are clearly not unrelated disciplines sharing as they do this same outcome.

We also have to be open to the views of other people when we consult and, in my case, to the Bahá’í Scriptures when I meditate upon them or to the promptings of our higher self when we commune with it in meditation. So these two skills are not all that different either: they both enhance our understanding of reality.

In the end, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that meditation will help us consult and consulting will help us meditate.

Last but by no means least, the strong axle to which the spokes of this wheel are attached, and around which it revolves, is reflection, in all the various senses I have explored in detail on this blog, including its meditative aspect and its way of enhancing our detachment. With this in its proper place not only will I be able to balance my various priorities better, but I will also be able to deal more wisely with what happens when my scripts are triggered.

The forces that impelled me to formulate this particular recipe were: first of all in the present the need to escape from the still active counterproductive patterns I’ve described in the first post of this sequence; next, came what I have learned from the various approaches that helped me step back enough from them to think hard about them in the past, including the years of therapy and Buddhist meditation; and last of all, what still sets the seal on my current perspective is the combination of insights from existentialism and my life-changing encounter with the Bahá’í Faith, which has set my overall direction in life every since.

I have described my reasons for making this leap of faith in a sequence of posts. The short answer to the question, ‘Why did I make that choice?’ is this. I was bowled over by how closely everything I had understood in my exploration of the Bahá’í Faith mapped onto what I already believed. It was what I felt I had been searching for almost all my adult life: an egalitarian meaning system that combined activism with spirituality in a way that absolutely prohibited the use of force, or any other dubious means, to persuade others of its truth. When I was asked if I wanted to join the Bahá’í community, unless all I had protested that I believed was pure hypocrisy, I surely had to put my money where my mouth had been all those years. So I did. My closest friends predicted I’d be out again in six months. It was just another of my fads. Yet here I still am 35 years later.

So, I am aware that to complete the context in which the wheel operates, I need a compass and a map. In a previous post I explained my model of the compass of compassion. This was my conclusion:

Because the earth has a magnetic field that helps us find our right direction it wasn’t hard to see that a compass, already more than half-way to compassion in its spelling, was a good way of remembering the key value that underpins every other spiritual value in all faiths, and which in Bahá’í terms emanates from the three unities of the essential oneness of God, religion and humanity, blurred as our perception of those may sometimes be. The other meaning of the word ‘compass’ is also a reminder, as is the image of our world from space, to widen the embrace of my compassion to include all life and perhaps even the earth itself, an imperative need as Robert Wright describes it.

Bahá’u’lláh also has a most interesting way of linking a compass with kindness that suggests I might be on the right lines here (Gleanings: CXXXII):

A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It leadeth the way and guideth.

I am not going to pretend that the compass we have chosen will always make it easy to decide what is the right thing to do and provide us with a strong enough motivation to do it. We are human and sometimes our moral energy flags. Also a moral compass built on a system of values is more complex than a material compass. Values are arranged in a hierarchy. On occasions we need to decide that a higher value trumps a lower one. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gives a simple example of this (Bahá’í World Faith, page 320):

If a doctor consoles a sick man by saying: “Thank God you are better, and there is hope of your recovery,” though these words are contrary to the truth, yet they may become the consolation of the patient and the turning-point of the illness. This is not blameworthy.

He says this even though lying is condemned outright by Him in other quotes to be found at the same link.

Now for the map.

It should also be obvious that the map I have chosen is that drawn up by the Divine Cartographer, Bahá’u’lláh, whose organising principle is unity. One of the most challenging statements relating to the need to live the principle of oneness comes in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the Arc project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

I have faith that this compass and that map will lead me to generate enough wisdom by the processes I describe to help me climb as high as I am able up the mountain of truth so that, God willing, I can more fully recognise our interconnectedness and act accordingly, helping to build a better world in the process, I trust.

Good luck to you all in your search for your compass and your map. Don’t forget to use a trustworthy wheel for the wagon of your life as you journey on.

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Folk who write poetry are interested in stress-testing the language almost to destruction, to determine the poundage it can bear before it cracks.

(From John Glenday‘s Poetry Hero in the Autumn 2011 issue of the Poetry Society‘s Poetry News)

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 first of four relatively brief posts on the subject.

After examining briefly some possible reasons for supposing a puzzle is good for a poem and looking at the risks that being too puzzling entails, in this sequence of posts I am going to consider one or two examples of where, for me, the puzzles destroy the poems.

The two earlier posts on the experience of poetry indicate clearly that I’m with Glenday when he writes (ibid):

The way to inspiration lies through an intuitive examination of the physical world because everything means helplessly more than itself.

He quotes the poet Charles Wright in support:

To look hard at something, to look through it, is to transform it,
Convert it into something beyond itself, to give it grace.

(Looking Around III)

This sits well with mystical ideas such as those in the Writings of the Bahá’í Faith:

Every created thing in the whole universe is but a door leading into His knowledge, a sign of His sovereignty, a revelation of His names, a symbol of His majesty, a token of His power, a means of admittance into His straight Path. . . .

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh: LXXXII)

(The link to the post below on A World in a Grain of Sand explores this further)

But can the wrenching of language he refers to, which is presumably meant to serve this end, go too far?

John Fuller, a poet I have greatly enjoyed reading, discusses this problem in his engaging book Who is Ozymandias? (and other puzzles in poetry). He helped me to see where my problem lies though I do not share his exact point of view.

He has a very positive take on puzzles (op cit: page 3):

We know very well that most obscurities in poetry soon or eventually begin to respond to the light of the reader’s intelligence, and that it is an intrinsic part of the pleasure of’ poetry to be able to unravel difficulties and to solve puzzles.

He does though acknowledge that this comfortable relationship with such puzzles as poetry poses can break down rather badly (ibid):

Despite this comforting principle, there are a few problems about wilful obscurity in poetry, and I shall deal with some of them in the course of this book. For the moment it remains to examine a little further the reader’s relationship with the poet who is responsible for the puzzles that for a time confound him. Is the poet in some sense a superior person to the reader, leading him on just for the sake of it? Is it possible that the poet sometimes doesn’t know what he is doing and is asking for some sort of mindless complicity on the reader’s part? Is it all serious and worthwhile or is it a pointless game? Such needling questions are often, I believe, lurking behind the reader’s occasional impatience with poetry, and though they may be irritating to poets, it is important that they be addressed.

When I am confronted by much modern poetry, these questions rarely go away for me and I am often irritated. I experience what he describes as ‘brick wall moments’ more often than he does, it seems (op cit: pages 10-11):

Still, the puzzles in Thomas are often enticing enough to require our attention. If we can find more meaning in them than we suspected was there, we dignify the poem. If it is in some sense more our own meaning than the poet’s, we are usually generous enough to wish to share it with the poet, as though we could let him know that his own half-conscious instincts have been successful. In the matter of intention, we want to give the poet the benefit of all doubt. And he, in turn, is felt to sanction our interpretation. Until, that is, we encounter the brick-wall moment when we may temporarily concede the puzzle. The reader will probably recollect experiences of this unhappy state of affairs, perhaps with the work of early Thomas or late Hill, perhaps much of the time with John Ashbery (though these are by no means extreme cases).

It may be no coincidence that I gave up doing the Guardian Crossword at more or less the same time as I resumed an intense interest in poetry. I’m pretty sure I went to poetry for satisfactions altogether different from those provided by crossword puzzles.

Fuller discusses many poems. In the next post, I’ll take one of those poems, one that isn’t hugely puzzling but where, apart from its bleak theme, the puzzle seems to be its main attraction, before moving on, in the the third post on this issue, to another poem where the puzzle seems about all there is to the poem. Neither example is as taxing as those written by the poets he singles out above. Incidentally, I’d add Basil Bunting to my list of brick-wall poets: interestingly, Fuller doesn’t even mention him.

I’ll throw in a good poem in each post just to ease the pain a bit, but be ready for a headache none the less. Bring an aspirin.

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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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