Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’


As a result both of my recent Three Brains Revisited sequence and partly as a result of being asked a few weeks ago about what my model of meditation is overall, I was moved to go back to my attempt of many years ago to create a set of experiences that captured what I thought I was seeking to do in periods of quiet reflection, contemplation or meditation (delete as appropriate!). I was surprised to find that not only did my explanation of what I thought I was doing hold up remarkably well to current inspection, but also the exercises I had devised to create the right experiences have also stood the test of time and I am still drawing on them even to this day. So, it felt worthwhile to share at least a sample of what I worked on at that dim and distant time. So, here, unedited apart from the removal of my then contact details, is the introduction. I haven’t changed the wording even though those of you who  are reading this may be thousands of miles away and therefore unable to ever attend any workshop on this topic I ever run again, but the spirit of it holds. Without trying the exercises the words won’t really come alive.

In devising the exercises I drew on Buddhist, psychosynthesis, mindfulness, existential, and meditation practices. (I know Buddhists explain that there is no self, but I’ve covered that one in detail elsewhere and that debate is not important here!) Where I remember the exact source I will try to acknowledge it.



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My rediscovery of Keats’s close affinity with Buddhism caused me to trawl back through my posts on poetry, with a vague memory that I’d been somewhere like this before. And sure enough I had. This pair of posts from 2011 is covering related ground – the first came out yesterday. This is the second and last.

In the previous post on this topic we ended with DH Maitreyabandhu‘s attempt to create a test of the value of a poem (The Further Reach – page 61, footnote):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

He moves on in the remainder of his article in the Poetry Society magazine, Poetry Review, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):

Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.

I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.

What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):

John Keats July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).

Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative-  beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’

This, it could be said, is where I begin to lose my grip on his meaning but where I most want to grasp it fully. I want to grasp what he goes on to say because I believe – and not just because my religion says so – that religion and science are like the two wings of a bird. We need them both if we are to live wisely and well, but to use them properly we have to integrate our understanding of their different  approaches to the truth. Maybe there is a transcendent position, as Jung would say, that dissolves their apparent differences and from which we can see their essential unity. I’m not sure this is what Maitreyabandhu is getting at, but I hope so. Let’s see where he goes from here. I can already feel the rope of his meaning slipping through my fingers.

He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):

He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.

Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).

It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):

Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.

This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’

He then begins to tease this out (page 68):

Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.

But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc — breakthroughs into new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.

Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

I still don’t feel I have completely understood all that he is trying to say but I do hope that I haven’t introduced too much distortion or dilution into my attempt to convey the tenor of his inspiring exploration of the nature of imagination and its role in poetry. I am looking forward to integrating his insights more deeply into both my practice of writing and my practice of compassion.

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DH Maitreyabandhu

Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.

(The Master & his Emissary: page 115)

My rediscovery of Keats’s close affinity with Buddhism caused me to trawl back through my posts on poetry, with a vague memory that I’d been somewhere like this before. And sure enough I had. This pair of posts from 2011 is covering related ground – the second piece will be posted tomorrow.

Right now I am deeply grateful to someone whom I had never heard of two weeks ago.

As part of my recent plan to re-engage more with poetry, I rejoined the Poetry Society, and already I am glad I did. The last issue of their magazine contains a profound article by Maitreyabandhu.

Alison Flood wrote in the Guardian in 2009:

Maitreyabandhu, who has been ordained into the Western Buddhist Order for 19 years, says his love of poetry began when a friend read him the first five verses of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy. “It was one of those moments when one discovers a new ecstasy, even a new calling. After that I read and re-read Shelley and Keats obsessively and used their poetry to explore ancient Buddhist themes,” he said. “WH Auden says, ‘The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us’. The same could be said of Buddhism. I approach poetry, in one sense as a distillation of peak experience, in another as finding meaning in the everyday – as such, poetry has become another strand of my spiritual practice.”

In the two years since then he has moved to a place from which he can write about poetry and spirituality with a degree of wisdom I have rarely encountered before. He is grappling with a set of interrelated issues that have preoccupied me for many years: the value of imagination, the nature of creativity and its relationship with compassion, the purpose and nature of poetry and the light all of this might shed on mind/brain processes. I have achieved some clarity about some of that but the angle that he views these issues from will be invaluable in moving my thinking forwards, I suspect. (For more on some of my own struggles so far see the links at the bottom of the page.)

I have long been aware that imagination, rather like fire, is a good friend but a dangerous enemy. I remember vaguely, from my days as a student of English Literature, Coleridge’s distinction between fancy and imagination. I have pondered on the dichotomy the Bahá’í scriptures point up. On the one hand we have imagination as a power of the human spirit as described by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

Man has . . . spiritual powers: imagination, which conceives things; thought, which reflects upon realities; comprehension, which comprehends realities; memory, which retains whatever man imagines, thinks and comprehends.

(Some Answered Questions: page 210)

On the other hand, we have ‘vain imaginings’ that are not to be trusted.

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.

(Tablets of  Bahá’u’lláh: page 58)

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges?

He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):

I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. 1 want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.

The Endless Enigma 1938 by Salvador Dali (for source of image see link)

The Endless Enigma 1938 by Salvador Dali (for source of image see link)

He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):

At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . .  Fancy, to use the words of Iggy Pop, is just “The same old thing in brand new drag” ‑ the usual contents of experiences but put together in unusual, arbitrary combinations. It has all the impact of novelty, and is typified by the kind of poetry that juxtaposes a zebra, a hypodermic syringe, an orange and a stick of underarm deodorant. With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.

Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):

Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. In other words, imagination selects and transforms the data of experience, giving it new depth and purchase. … to illuminate meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.

Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.

He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.

Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end reminded me of a passage, in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which has remained with me ever since I read it more than 30 years ago. He makes a distinction between two types of stimuli (page 269):

What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. [Such stimuli invite you to become] actively interested, seeing and discovering ever-new aspects in your ‘object’ . . . by becoming more awake and more alive.

The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.

While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.

The rest of the article, to which I shall return later, concerns itself with the light which aspects of Buddhist philosophy shed on this whole problem. I shall do my best to convey what he is saying even though I’m not sure I understand it yet myself.

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Mindful Eye Earth Heart

Given the emphasis I placed on compassion in yesterday’s review of Buddha’s Brain, I felt this earlier post might be of interest.

I said at the end of an earlier post that I might, in addition to quoting from Karen Armstrong, risk revealing some of my own strange ways of holding onto the few spiritual insights I’ve acquired recently, hence the rough and ready cartoonish graphic at the head of this post (more of that in a moment).

So here goes on both counts.

The roots of what I am going to describe go back a long way but it would make for a very long post indeed to go into them as well. For present purposes what is important is a play on three words that were forced on my attention in some dreamwork I did and in my study of the Bahá’í Writings: heart, earth and hearth. Removing the ‘h’ from one or the other end of ‘hearth’ creates the other two words. This word play only works in English but its effect is powerful for me.

This is for several mutually reinforcing reasons.

Bahá’u’lláh reminds us of the value of the earth:

If true glory were to consist in the possession of such perishable things, then the earth on which ye walk must needs vaunt itself over you, because it supplieth you, and bestoweth upon you, these very things, by the decree of the Almighty. In its bowels are contained, according to what God hath ordained, all that ye possess. From it, as a sign of His mercy, ye derive your riches.

(Gleanings: CXVIII)

And He warns us of the dangers of taking it for granted, especially for those who profess wisdom but fail to practice it:

[Of those who profess belief but do not practice) . . . . . ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you.

(Persian Hidden Words: No. 20)

He refers to the earth in terms that remind us of how we should feel if we are true to our spiritual natures. He points out that acquiring the qualities of earth will make our being fertile for wisdom:

O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge.

(Gleanings: CLII)

The same quotation goes on to make reference to fire. Both fire and earth are strongly related to the human heart in Bahá’í Scripture.

Bahá’u’lláh compares our hearts to a garden which needs seeding and tending:

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

(Persian Hidden Words: No. 33)

And He gives us more guidance still as to what else to plant there:

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

(Persian Hidden WordsNo: 3)

Given that Buddhism regards wisdom and compassion as two sides of the same coin, there may be no difference between them at the spiritual level.

Also in the Hidden Words are references to the fire in the heart:

The candle of thine heart is lighted by the hand of My power, quench it not with the contrary winds of self and passion.

(Persian Hidden WordsNo. 32)

So for me the idea that earth and heart are one is close to the surface and a dream gave me a potent symbol of that in the hearth, which is a symbol also evoked by the presence of fire in our hearts.

When I first became aware of all these links I dwelt more on the idea of fire than flowers and the earth. That was partly because a punning connection with my first name, Pete, suggested fuel (peat to burn) in the dream I had about a hearth, rather than peat as compost to grow flowers.

There was a lot more mileage in the hearth image than that, of course. For example, it combined the ‘soft’ right-brain qualities of peat with the ‘hard’ left-brain qualities of the iron grate in a way that resonated with what Iain McGilchrist suggests is the need to give both aspects of our being their proper role and function if we are to be balanced human beings creating a balanced civilisation. But I won’t dwell on that just now: I’ve probably said more than enough in previous posts.

Later the other associations with ‘peat’ came more strongly to the surface, particularly as my second name, Hulme, is so close to ‘humus’. They came through so strongly, in fact, that I have come to use the heart-shaped photo of the earth (see the top of the post) as my current reminder of all this. There were no hyacinths or roses handy in the clipart gallery I used, so I made do with tulips, but the point is clear enough. The earth-heart photo also calls to mind very usefully that the ‘earth,’ the dwelling place of all humanity, ‘is but one country.’

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.

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

(Gleanings: CXXXII)

Exposing this personal approach to helping myself internalise and remember what I think I have learnt did seem a bit risky, hence my earlier hesitation. I was encouraged to persist by a moving and amusing TED talk by Brené Brown that my good friend, Barney Leith, shared with me (see the YouTube at the end of this post).

She speaks amongst other things about how our way of dealing with our vulnerability affects our relationships with others, even our whole attitude to life. Those who embrace their vulnerability, her research demonstrates, are more empathic, more authentic and better connected to others. Vulnerability is indispensable to a ‘whole-hearted’ life. So how could I continue to cop out in the light of that? (‘I can think of a few ways,’ said my craven part but I managed to ignore it.)

Well, I’ve left very little room for Karen Armstrong after all. I’ll need to come back to some of the things she says in a later post. Just one quick thought for now.

In her discussion of mindfulness Karen Armstrong, in her book on the twelve steps to a compassionate life, is strongly implying a link between compassion, mindfulness and creativity (page 97):

When you are engrossed in thoughts of anger, hatred, envy, resentment or disgust, notice the way your horizons shrink and your creativity diminishes. I find it impossible to write well when I am churning with resentment.

It would be easy to leap in and say, ‘But what about satire?’ The response there might well be, ‘What is fuelling the anger that drives the satire?’ If it is petty spite arising from wounded vanity, for example, I doubt we would be talking about great satire and this, I think, is what lets down some of Alexander Pope‘s less effective moments. If it is outrage at some monstrous injustice or malpractice, such as led to the writing of ‘Animal Farm‘, ‘1984‘ and  Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal,’ then there’s every chance the satire, rooted as it will be in a deep compassion for and identification with our fellow human beings, will be great satire, standing the test of changing times and changing tastes. Such works all have the capacity to demonstrate a control over difficult material which would be impossible in a state of intemperate rage.

This link she hints at between compassion and creativity has helped me make conscious an inner process that has determined which works of art I keep going back to, such as the plays of Shakespeare, and those I leave behind unrevisited. It is Shakespeare’s compassion that is the flame that brings my moth-mind back to him over and over again.

Take these lines from ‘Measure for Measure‘ (Act 1, Scene 3, lines 85-88):

The sense of death is most in apprehension,
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

This surely is the spirit that should permeate our entire lives.

My simple unskilled diagram is just the beginnings of my latest attempt to bring that about and realise its full potential in my life as a Bahá’í. It works for me but I can quite see that it might not do the trick for anyone else. Since I first wrote this post I have added the mindful-eye logo I use to the compass. I have put it as the home screen in my mobile phone, so every time I open it I’m reminded of how I wish to be. Preparing my mind in this way seems to attract opportunities to be helpful in small ways. Or maybe it just makes me more able to spot them and respond when they happen. Whatever the reason it has made my few small kindnesses that bit more likely.

Enjoy the talk on vulnerability.

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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‘)

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism.

This is the third and last of the sequence: the second was published yesterday. Next month I will be posting my most recent look at the value of uncertainty, which pays tributes to William James and explains why I feel that a high degree of uncertainty is compatible with my religious faith. The text below goes some way to explain why such a posture is perhaps essential for collective, coherent and determined action.

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. (I have now explored that in depth in a recent sequence of posts.)

There is more to it even than that though. 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. This reflective and consultative system allows for a flexible process of responding to what we learn from experience: there is nothing either fossilised or indecisive about it. It is essentially empirical in the Jamesian sense. It also maps onto the pragmatism explored in John Ehrenfeld’s recent book – Flourishing. It is responsive to experience and, as Ehrenfeld explains (page 132), ‘no one can own an absolutely “true” belief or claim to have the one “right” way to act,’ an openness of mind essential if we are to cooperate together to address the problems that currently confront humanity. There will be more on that attitude tomorrow.

I believe there is much to learn from the Bahá’í model that can be successfully applied in our lives whether we decide to join the Bahá’í 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‘)

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism. This is the second of the sequence: the first was published yesterday

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

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

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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In reading Jeffrey Iverson’s book In Search of the Dead, the trigger for my earlier post on psiI was again brought up against something I have always preferred to ignore – the possibility of reincarnation.

When I was studying psychology in my 30s, and unconsciously searching for a deeper meaning in life than was currently on offer within divisive politics, mainstream religion and modern science, I began to learn meditation. I went to the Buddhist Centre, the home of the Buddhist Society, in Eccleston Square. There I was taught the basics of following the breath, which I still use to this day.

As a ‘lapsed Catholic,’ as it was described then and maybe still, and, as a thwarted activist, having become disillusioned with left-wing politics as well as the politics in general, I felt a bit rudderless. I began seriously to consider becoming a Buddhist. The depth and sophistication of its understanding of psychology and the mind struck me as centuries ahead of anything so-called scientific psychology seemed to have discovered: I was studying an academic way of thought that, though strongly appealing to me because of its subject matter, was still in its infancy while pretending to be almost grown up.

During my investigations of Buddhism, as I tried to decide, I found myself in a large hall – exactly where I can’t remember now – to hear a talk by a Tibetan monk. A diminutive man in maroon and yellow robes walked slowly to the platform, sat down and spoke in a low voice, pausing for the translator to convey his thoughts.

I can remember nothing of what he said except for his conviction that reincarnation involved the possibility of returning as an animal of some kind. I have always found the idea of metempsychosis repellant. For a start, I hadn’t turned my back on a faith that preached eternal hell fire, as did the Catholicism of my boyhood, to adopt one that suggested I might come back as rat. Also, I could see that in cultures that had faith in this doctrine, there is a temptation to explain current hardships, including poverty and physical handicap, in terms of transgressions in a previous life, making it somehow the fault of the sufferer and therefore exempt from compassion.

I left the hall stunned by how this, to me, superstitious version of reincarnation doctrine could hold sway in the minds of those who followed what was in other respects such a subtle and penetrating path.

I continued to meditate but, even though I recognised that reincarnation did not necessarily entail accepting the idea we can come back as an animal, for this and other reasons explored elsewhere, I stepped back from committing myself fully to Buddhism. Becoming a Bahá’í some years later did not involve my accepting reincarnation in this or any routine sense, or my believing in an incredible concept of God either, for that matter.

In the meanwhile I have often stumbled across evidence strongly suggestive of reincarnation. This latest encounter suggests to me that I need to examine more closely how I can accept the genuineness of the evidence while still experiencing such difficulty in accepting the doctrine it seems to point towards.

What does Iverson convey in his depiction of the evidence he examines?

I’ll look briefly at three examples along a continuum of intensity, giving his take on what they show, before explaining my own position.

Straightforward Reincarnation:

Damaged handThe most common pattern seems to involve a young child’s believing (s)he is the reincarnation of a recently dead person. Investigations involve checking the story they tell against the facts of the family, often some distance away, whose lost relative is apparently returned in the body of the child.

The programme checked the story of a boy who was born with no fingers on his right hand (pages 151-152). He claimed he was injured by a fodder chopping machine his father was using when drunk. He was still, at the age of 18, faintly aware of the old identity. The family of the dead man accepted his account because of the few convincing details he was able to give. The conclusion of the investigators was cautious though (page 152-3):

Dr Pasricha told [Iverson] the researchers had found no similar case of deformity in the village. Accidents with fodder chopping machines were few. They had also researched back some generations into the two families and could find no examples of deformed hands. The weaknesses of case, she said, where the relative proximity of the two families and the fact that as a child the boy had given few details of his previous life. The strength of the case was obvious to all – the stark testimony of that mutilated hand!

In this kind of case the child, as (s)he grows up, loses the memories of the past life. Also, often temporarily, sometimes longer, (s)he maintains a sense of two identities without completely identifying with that of the past life. In this particular case, the young man ‘treats both houses as his home’ and in that sense lives with both identities.


Cases of possession are more extreme even than this (pages 156-160). The person is totally identified with the old identity, and refuses adamantly to adopt or even partially accept the new one.

Sumitra is the case Iverson cites. She seemingly died in July 1985 but recovered to insist that she was someone else, A woman who had been murdered two months previously – ‘Don’t call me Sumitra. I am Shiva.’ Her detailed account of her previous life was found to be accurate. The investigators concluded (pages 157-58):

Is it possible the whole story is a hoax, a pretext got up by these peasant farmers, perhaps based upon newspaper accounts of the death of Shiva and the prosecution of her in-laws?

Dr Pasricha thinks it unlikely. One newspaper is delivered to the village and is available for anyone to read. Newspaper reports of Shiva’s death have been analysed and Sumitra has given sixteen correct items of information not carried in press reports:

How then could Sumitra have acquired her information about Shiva’s life? One would need a private detective in Etawah or several accomplices to put together a plot for which no clear motive has emerged in the past five years. The idea of an elaborate con-trick gives a sophistication to simple villagers this is ridiculous to anyone who has been to this inaccessible spot and met them.

There are two issues to note here at this point. First of all, facts were confirmed that Sumitra would not have been likely to access by normal means. Secondly, she was adamant that she was no longer Sumitra and identified completely with her new self. Both these aspects are in need of coherent explanation.


Shanti Devi

Shanti Devi

The case of Shanti Devi (pages 167-175) seems to fall in-between these two ends of the spectrum. When she was eight years old she surprised the world with a credible and confirmed account of reincarnation. She claimed to be the dead Lugdi Devi returned to life. Her claims had been investigated by a committee of solid citizens and she displayed remarkable knowledge of the dead woman’s life in the full glare of the public gaze, so far had the news spread of her remarkable story. This knowledge included the place where the dead woman had hidden a cash box. The widower was convinced, by this and other knowledge, that she was indeed his dead wife returned.

Iverson was unable to meet her. She died two months before he got to Delhi in 1988.

I am placing this as somewhere between a ‘routine’ reincarnation experience and ‘possession,’ whatever that may be, because (page 175):

[T]he child told her questioners that because of her experience as Lugdi Devi, she would never remarry. When Shanti died a few years ago, in her early 60s, she was still a spinster. And her brother told me she retained to the end her total conviction of having lived before as Lugdi Devi.

In fact, I am not really sure that it was not ‘possession.’ Iverson does not categorise it as such, perhaps because she adopted the identity as a child rather than being taken over by it as an adult, and seemed to acknowledge her current identity to some degree at least.

The Original BBC Programme

The video below is of the episode of the original programme that focused on reincarnation. It may help to take a look at this before reading the next post which focuses on a possible explanation of the data which does not involve reincarnation.

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