Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’


On the way to the venue the first morning

Last weekend I was fortunate to be able to participate in a meditation weekend at Builth Wells. The experience was organised so that three facilitators shared their sense of how the meditative faculty might be facilitated with three groups of about fifteen people who moved from facilitator to facilitator over the course of the weekend.  Hopefully everyone found something from among the experiences shared that helped them move further down the road of exploring this special state of mind. I thought it might be worth sharing the basic notes used to structure the sessions I was involved in. So, here they are with a few pictures thrown in for good measure. 

First Session

Overview (15 minutes)

The wine of renunciation must needs be quaffed, the lofty heights of detachment must needs be attained, and the meditation referred to in the words “One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship” must needs be observed . . . .”

(Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 238 US edition, page 152 UK edition)

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. 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. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No. 68)

This weekend gives an opportunity to explore different approaches to what is usually referred to as meditation. Many years ago, when I was exploring Buddhism, I discovered that it might not be wise to advocate any one form of meditation as suitable for everyone. A school of Tibetan Buddhism had an approach that surprised me at the time. Each novice monk or nun who enrolled in this order was each given their own unique meditative path on the grounds that no two people will benefit from exactly the same process. Each mantra and each mandala were created specially for each acolyte.

The Bahá’í position is in part the same. We do not teach any particular form of meditation though we are all encouraged to meditate. We each have to discover our own best path.

As a psychologist I am well aware that we all differ in crucial respects that will affect our preferred meditative path. Some of us are very visual and can summon up vivid pictures in our minds – I’m not one of those for sure; others respond most strongly to hearing with a feeling for the sounds of words even when they repeat them silently in their minds; others are labelled kinaesthetic, and I am one such, and respond best of all to sensation and movement, so exercises such as following the breath work well for them.

The aim, though, of all approaches to meditation is to enable us to quieten the mind, separate our consciousness from the constant film show and chatter we have learned to mistake for who we really are, and gain increased awareness of our true spiritual core, hidden behind these veils.

One of the images used in the Bahá’í Writings to help us understand this is the mirror: it is interesting therefore that we find the word ‘reflection’ also used to describe the skill we are seeking to learn. Not only do we have to cleanse the mirror of dirt before it can reflect exactly what is before it, we need to understand as well that if the mind is like a mirror it is also never what is reflected in it.

In this way we can avoid two deadly traps.

When we have turned the mirror of our hearts and minds towards worldly things we can make the mistake of assuming that the reflection of this material version of reality is who we really are and what the world is really like. When we do this we are caught in a trance that keeps us shackled to materialism.

When we have cleansed the mirror of our heart, and it is turned towards the world of the spirit and has begun to reflect the glory we find there, we can make the mistake of thinking we are glorious. The pride that follows will destroy us spiritually. We have to realise we are not the glory. We are only a channel for this spiritual power, just like a mirror that shines the sun’s light into a dark cave.

As you may have already worked out by now, the meditative approaches I will be sharing play to my relative strengths: they involve sensations and sounds, especially words. If, by trying these out patiently over a reasonable period of time, they clearly do not work for you, that is not a problem. There will be an approach that works for you somewhere, and hopefully you will find pointers in that direction during this weekend.

I just would like to add that in the Bahá’í Faith we don’t see this kind of private reflection as the only spiritual discipline. We also believe that when people come together, whether as family, as friends or in some form of work environment, and consult with one another to solve a problem or make a plan, this consultation works best when it draws on the same state of detachment as we can develop in meditation, and when it does it is a spiritual process too. We cannot compare our different views of reality effectively and develop a new understanding if we are so attached to what we think and feel we are unable to hear and learn from what others say.

As a result of the consistent practice of these twin disciplines, in a context of awareness that all living things are deeply interconnected, we will be able to achieve a level of consciousness that increasingly corresponds to what Bahá’u’lláh describes in the second quote at the head of this hand-out, where ‘the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment’ are manifested. We will then be more capable of effectively addressing the problems that face us all at this crisis point in our civilisation.

First Experience to Test the Water (20 minutes maximum)

First we need to spend a few moments practising tuning into our body and our breathing so as to begin to process of calming down so we can have the best chance of silencing the chatter in our heads. [Spend a few moments body scanning and following the breath to settle the mind.]

Next, can we all remember the words of part of a song, poem, prayer or piece of prose, which is positive and uplifting? [If so, spend five minutes or so with everyone attempting to maintain focus as they silently repeat the words in their minds.]

Finally for this part, please can we share how that worked for us?

Beginning to Learn How to Separate Consciousness from its Contents

(30 minutes)

At the beginning I mentioned that one goal of meditation, and a very important one, is for us to experience the fact that we are not what we think, feel and intend, anymore than we are who or what we have come to believe we are. This is easier said than done, as I have discovered over the years.

To help us take the first step on this long ladder I have borrowed and adapted an exercise from Psychosynthesis. It has a rather off-putting title: disidentification. Basically, all it means is spending a few moments every day repeating to ourselves a description of the true reality: we are not our thoughts, feelings or intentions. We are instead a centre of pure consciousness and will, as they describe it. [Give out the Disidentification handout adapted from Psychosynthesis to separate out clearly what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá regards as three separate powers of the soul: knowing (here expressed as the basic ability, thought, that rises at its highest to wisdom), loving (here feeling whose highest expression might be termed compassion), and willing (whose highest expression might be the disposition towards altruistic action).Separating the Mirror from its ReflectionsExplain that before we start the exercise itself it is important to spend a few moments grounding ourselves by body scanning and/or following the breath. Spend 15 minutes on this. The link with developing what is termed detachment is fairly clear, I hope.

At the end, we can take a few minutes to share our experiences and reflect upon them.

Using a Mantram (25 Minutes)

There are many ways we could now choose to help us move nearer to the goal of achieving awareness of pure consciousness. As I explained earlier, my own meditative experiences have focused on words and sensations. Following the breath has always helped me quieten my mind down preparatory to using other powerful techniques.

This next method is deceptively simple but very effective, in my view.

We all have heard of the mantram, I’m sure: a short phrase or even a single word or sound that is repeated silently in the mind for significant periods of time in meditative practice and then can be used in other situations to help us calm down and become grounded. An excellent explanation of this method can be found in Eknath Easwaran’s rewarding book on meditation: Meditation: common sense directions for an uncommon life.

He first of all makes clear that he does not see meditation as a kind of hypnosis nor any kind of navel gazing or rumination (page 9):

[Meditation] is, rather, a systematic technique for taking hold of and concentrating to the utmost degree our latent mental power. It consists in training the mind, especially attention and the will, so that we can set forth from the surface level of consciousness and journey into the very depths.

He speaks of ‘the great discovery’ (page 24-25):

As long as we identify with the body and the mind we bob around on the surface level of consciousness, chasing after the fleeting attractions of life outside us.… now, in profound meditation, we drop below all that and become concentrated on one thing and one thing alone: our true identity. In this absorption, this great gathering within, we break through the surface of consciousness and plummet deep, deep into our real nature.

He recommends the mantram as something portable, that need not be confined to the quietness of a room set aside for meditation. He explains the origin of the term (page 59): the word is linked to ‘the roots man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” The mantram, repeated regularly for a long time, enables us to cross the sea of the mind. An apt image, for the mind very much resembles the sea. Ever-changing, it is placid one day, turbulent the next.’

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

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

He feels that (page 70) ‘the mantram works best when we repeat it silently in the mind with as much concentration as possible.’ He’s not in favour of counting with beads or linking it to the breath because it divides attention. He also feels strongly that once we have chosen our mantram we must stick with and not keep chopping and changing it.

In the Bahá’í Faith we are given something we can use in this way if we wish. It is what we call the Greatest Name: Alláh-u-Abhá (‘God the All-Glorious’). We are required to repeat this 95 times every day: it is an obligation to do so. To then also use it as our mantram, a separate though related spiritual skill, seems an obvious step to take, though we are free, of course, to choose something else if we wish.

Those of us here who come from other spiritual traditions, or perhaps no spiritual tradition at all, will have to give some thought to what can be used instead. It is important that, at the very least, the word(s) or sounds(s) chosen do not have any negative connotations. What are for us neutral or relatively meaningless sounds such as ‘Om’[1], can none the less be effective, at least to a degree, as they serve to give the distracted mind something to hold onto to help it turn away from all the chatter and become calmer and quieter.

Words with spiritual meaning for us are preferable, as they also have the effect of facilitating the connection we are seeking to make with the truest core of our being. If words are used they should be no more than a very short phrase such as Easwaran suggests (pages 65-66): Ave Maria, the Hebrew Barukh attah Adonai (‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord), from Islam Allah u Akbar (God is Great), Lord Jesus Christ, or Om mani padme hum (‘the jewel in the heart of the lotus’). Easwaran feels strongly (page 70) that we should ‘choose a mantram that has been sanctified by long use – one of proven power, that has enabled many men and women before [us] to realize the unity of life.’

For the purposes of this experience it is fine to make a provisional choice that can be changed later.

A key point to remember is that repeating a mantram is not like lifting a weight in an exercise regime. The repeated lifting of a weight will strengthen our muscle even if, at the same time, we are thinking about what we had for breakfast or the film we watched last night. Not so with a mantram. If we repeat it on automatic pilot while our mind wanders among the daisies there will be no benefit.

We must insist that our mind focuses on every repetition. If it has wandered we must bring it back, not in anger but firmly nonetheless. The best way to make our minds understand that we mean business is to build in a cost, such as adding on extra minutes of meditation time for every period of distraction longer than brief moment. [Then follows about 10 minutes practice.]

At the end we need to reflect upon how the experience went.

Meditation weekend school

Second Session

Using a Memorised Passage (45 minutes)

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

Parroting facts may really not be very useful if we do not understand their underlying meaning as a result of careful, creative and independent thought. Spiritual words though operate on many different levels, as Easwaran explains (page 9):

An inspirational passage turns our thoughts to what is permanent, to those things that put a final end to insecurity. As we drive it deeper and deeper, the words come to life within us, transforming all our thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds.

This not to say that we can keep on using the same passage indefinitely (pages 39-40):

Using the same passage over and over is fine at the outset, but in time, the words may seem stale. You may find yourself repeating them mechanically, without sensitivity to their meaning. I suggest you memorise new pieces from [various religious] traditions so you will have a varied repertoire. As you commit a new passage to memory, it is good to spend some time reflecting on the meaning of the words and their practical application to your life. But please don’t do this while you are actually meditating.

He adds another crucial piece of advice (ibid.):

. . . avoid choosing passages that are negative, that take a harsh and deprecatory view of the body, of our past mistakes, or of life in the world. We want to draw forth our positive side, our higher Self . . . .

We need to spend a few moments now quietly deciding what passage we are going to use. Then, after grounding ourselves as usual, we can begin 10-15 minutes of meditation on the passage we have chosen. How should we do this? As Easwaran points out (page 32), we have to find the pace that suits us best: ‘the space between words is a matter for each person to work out individually.… If the words come too close together, you will not be slowing down the mind… If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together…’

If we find our mind has wandered, we should, without getting irritated with ourselves, begin the passage again at the beginning. This teaches the mind that it cannot get away with wandering: there is a price to pay.

In these early stages we should consider ourselves very successful if we can meditate in this way upon a text for five minutes without losing our concentration. Our aim over a period of months could be to increase their concentration span to something like 20 minutes. Clearly this would enable us, if we wished, to memorise longer passages for reciting, rather than repeating the same short text.

After that a few moments of reflection can follow, first of all on the meditation we have just done, and then upon the whole experience of the morning/afternoon. Among the hoped for results of all these experiences in a felt sense as well as intellectual understanding of how a mantra and meditation upon scripture help us move away from our identification with our conditioned patterns of thought and feeling to connect with our deepest self, a connection that will enable us to tune in more effectively to the people around us. As a result of this we will be able to respond to them as they are and in terms of what they need rather than to what we think they should be, as well as being able to learn from them what will help us grow in our turn.


[1] In Hinduism, Om is a spiritual symbol (pratima) referring to Atman (soul, self within).

Meditation quintet

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Heart to heart

Humanity’s crying need . . . . . 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.

(From a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001)

I had a recent deep discussion with an old friend (of course, I mean old in the sense of ‘known a long time.’) We are close in many ways. We share a similar sense of humour and many core values. However, we are hugely different in our interests – hers practical, mine theoretical – and temperament – she, extravert: me, introvert.

She was completely unable to understand how I could combine a deep love of nature with a completely passive attitude to gardening.

I gave into the temptation to react, which generally involves treading on dangerous ground and attempted to point out that she similarly fails to understand why I spend so much time and energy reading and writing, even though she values some of the ideas that come out of all that effort.

I referred to her passion as horticulture. It’s then that the concept of ‘hearticulture’ came to me in a flash, as a good way of contrasting our intense enthusiasms.

This idea has had a long gestation period though.

First of all there was the slogan used many years ago in the Bahá’í community ‘Uniting the World: one heart at a time’ with the logo that accompanied it (see picture at the head of this post). I used to joke that this meant we were involved in heart-to-heart resuscitation.

Then there was the idea of ‘psy-culturalist’ which I coined in my discussion of my approach to mind-work, more specifically working with those who were experiencing distressing and abusive voices and the delusions that sometimes accompanied them. I wrote:

Because, to do mind-work, I drew on lots of other disciplines and traditions, including philosophy, psychology, biology, religion (especially Buddhism and the Bahá’í Faith) and the arts, I could sometimes feel like giving myself a fancy title such as psy-culturalist. This captures the richness of the traditions I could draw on and also captures the essential purpose of mind-work which is growth. It also meant I didn’t have to label myself a psychologist with its one-sided implication that I study the mind but don’t work with it, nor did I have to call myself a Clinical Psychologist with its implications of illness and therapy, which are insulting to the client.

Psy-culturalist, as a term, has a similar problem to Clinical Psychology. If we think about gardening, it’s a one-way street. Plants, as a general rule, don’t grow people. Mind-work, though, is both reciprocal and reflexive. I grow you and you grow me and we grow ourselves as well!

Flowers near the Shrine

Flowers near the Shrine of the Báb

Thirdly, there was all my pondering on the issue of the ‘understanding heart.’ In that process I attempted to unpack some of the implications of a key image in the Bahá’í Writings: the heart as a garden. I wrote:

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

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

I know that the term ‘hearticulture’ could still be seen as one-sided. I’m the gardener and you’re the garden. But in terms of the Bahá’í perspective that would be missing a crucial point: I need to tend my heart, you need to tend yours and we can both help each other in this process. We both can help each other develop a growth mindset, to borrow Carol Dweck’s terminology.

Once we begin to see what this means, every interaction with another human being, or even with an animal, insect or plant, becomes an opportunity to facilitate our growth and the growth of the being with whom we are interacting. And, what’s just as or even more important, they can facilitate ours.

That heart is an anagram of earth just makes the metaphor even more appealing. I have come to realize that hearticulture is my true passion. Everything I do is influenced, perhaps even entirely reducible, to that purpose. I want to understand myself and others better, that’s true, but not just for its own sake, but for the purpose of growth. And if our hearts grow, so will the earth as a whole benefit. When our hearts shrink, the world dies a little. If all our hearts should shrivel completely, the world as we know it would be utterly destroyed. We would wreak such havoc that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be utterly dwarfed by the consequences.

Basically, I have to learn how to expand my heartfelt sense of connectedness so that it embraces the whole earth. I believe that’s what we all need to learn. I want to learn it too, and as fast as I can, but I have discovered over the years that the metaphor of gardening applies here also in a way. I cannot grow faster than the laws of nature and the limitations of my own being allow. To paraphrase a Bahá’í pamphlet on making the equality of men and women a reality, hearticulture will also take love, patience and the passage of frustratingly long spans of time.

But that is not a reason not to persist in the attempt.

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It seemed a good idea to post this once more in the wake of Monday’s post about Easwaran’s excellent book on the topic of meditation.

Forget about jam and Jerusalem. Marmalade and meditation is the real deal.

Bruce made a significant comment on my review of Iain McGilchrist‘s book about the need for a proper balance between the way the two halves of our brain work together, the left with its word-dependent logic and the right with its creative intuition:

At the time I “found” McGilchrist’s book I was reading concurrently a history of Greek philosophers, a narrative of the development of the “western mind” and a quirky travelogue of discovery of “the psyche of Persia we really don’t know”, searching for something I wasn’t sure existed – a unified view, a coherence that McGilchrist just dropped into my lap . . . .  Best of all, when I put the book down, I find myself more inclined to seek out a wetlands forage for watercress than a newscheck on the internet!

When I read it I felt a twinge of envy at the idea of foraging for watercress in a wetlands habitat. It was only fleeting though. My connection with nature has always tended to be passive rather than active. My interest in gardens, for example, extends only as far as sitting in them with immense pleasure: any actual gardening tends to result in injury or accidental damage. I end up lacerated by thorns or by cutting the trimmer cable in half. This takes the edge of any slight pleasure I might have felt and tips me well over the cliff into aversion.

So, I came to feel, perhaps with a slight sense of smug complacency, that the impact on me of McGilchrist’s insights, though considerable, might extend no further than a bit of meditation laced with poetry. And those who have been following this blog will testify there’s been a lot of poetry recently. I never thought I’d sink to practicalities.

Until, that is, a friend of ours gave my wife a hefty bag of plums. It looked like there were millions of them and they were very small. My wife mentioned something about making jam so I made some excuse about needing to answer a load of emails and disappeared into my study. I was there for what felt like several hours and thought the whole thing would have blown over by the time I came downstairs to make a cup of coffee.

As even Basil Fawlty at his most obtuse would have realised, making coffee requires going into the kitchen, and going into the kitchen, when jam making is in the air, is not a smart move for those who don’t want to make jam. As soon as I walked in I knew I had made a fundamental error. There on the table was a mountain of plums piled carefully in a massive bowl. Within seconds – I’m still not sure how it happened – I was back on my computer looking for recipes for plum jam. One of the drawbacks of Google is that you can find exactly what you don’t want if you make the mistake of looking for it. And I did.

Initially I emailed three of the recipes to my wife and came back downstairs to continue making the coffee.

‘Have you got the recipes, love?’ my wife asked quietly.

“I’ve emailed them to you,’ I said defensively.

‘Couldn’t you print one off?’ came the response.

It was at that point I knew the game was up.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

What I didn’t yet realise was how fulfilling the making of plum jam would be. And how my decision to resume regular and disciplined meditation two months previously had made it possible for me to take pleasure in exactly the kind of fiddly repetitive task that would have driven me to complete distraction just a few short weeks ago. Meditation had enabled me to maintain focus far better, accept the repetition in good spirit, notice with genuine surprise and pleasure the way each rounded fruit was subtly different from the last one and learn by stealth rather than conscious effort how to become more efficient and dextrous at getting every last piece of flesh off even the tiniest the stone. Preparing the plums in this way became a form of meditation in itself, a spiritual discipline that changed my consciousness, heightened my awareness and developed new skills. It changed me in a way that generalises to many things I do from emptying the dishwasher to replying to emails.

And it paved the way for making marmalade. My favourite form of jam.

But before I come onto that perhaps I’d better explain why I started to meditate again so much in earnest.



The Buddhist Society, 58 Eccleston Square. For source of image see link.

It’s true that I have always done some meditation ever since I first learnt at the London Buddhist Society in the early 70s. But it had been a long time since I had done so with the discipline of those early days. It’s also true that for some years the emphasis psychology now places on mindfulness rekindled my interest a little. But I had of late been much more interested in reading about it than really doing it. And the McGilchrist book, while it drew me back to music and poetry, left my pattern of meditation very much as it found it.

In truth, I felt I was far too busy to make the time for anything more than a perfunctory gesture at the task. I had far more important things to do and I raced around doing them until the warnings from my interactions with the world became too strong for me to ignore.

First, in spite of my lip-service to mindfulness, I became so ungrounded by the pace I was keeping up, that I spilt coffee on my lap top and destroyed it. That jolted me more than a little but I still did not fully wake up to my need to change something radically until, late at night a month later, in a haze of fatigue, with my whole close family in the car, convinced I was already on the dual carriageway which was in fact still half a mile down the road, I moved out to pass the slow moving car and trailer ahead of me. I was alerted to my mistake when I saw, with initial incredulity, the headlights of an oncoming car heading straight for me in the distance. I pulled back inside with time to spare more by good luck than good judgement. What shocked me most about this incident was that fatigue had warped my perception of reality so much that what I believed about where I was completely overrode the cues telling me otherwise that were plainly there for me to see and respond to.

I remembered the story about a well-known Bahá’í, Dorothy Baker, who had a serious and almost fatal car-accident on a steep mountain road.

She mused aloud to a friend: ‘I wonder what God is trying to tell me.’

To which the reply came: ‘Dorothy, you drive too fast!’

The same kind of answer came to me in a flash, in the aftermath of this near collision: ‘Pete, you’re driving yourself too fast.’

Carl Jung used to say something like, ‘When life has a message for you, it first of all taps you gently on the shoulder, may be more than once. Then, if you don’t notice, it will slap you in the face. If you still don’t pay attention it will bang you hard in the head.’ This moment was my bang in the head.

It became clear to me that I had to take meditation seriously, slow down and trust that I would still be able to do all that was truly important to do.

So, at the start of every day since then, for half an hour at least, I have practised a form of meditation. (I won’t bore you with the details here but for anyone interested I’ve posted the basic model, as used in a group exercise, at this link Turning the Mirror to Heaven. It also explains how the method can be used alone.)

Initially I found it almost impossible to step back from a very disempowering belief. I believed that making time to meditate, and then using the calm I had generated to slow down my pace of work, would in fact make the whole situation much worse by leaving a trail of neglected tasks in my wake for others to trip over.

And it’s true I’ve had to decline some requests to take on more than I could do, and that was hard. But to my astonishment, almost all the major projects I’ve taken on continue to progress, though it still is hard to trust that the pace is fast enough – but as far as I know there’s no great harm done (‘yet’ says the voice I have to fight every time I meditate or do things mindfully).

And the strangest thing of all is that there has been time to make my own marmalade. I never thought I’d see the day when I would take pleasure in slicing orange peel into thin strips as though I had all the time in the world, my enjoyment marred by only the faintest suspicion that in doing so I must be neglecting something more important.

So my present unprecedented state of mind seems to be thanks to marmalade, McGilchrist and meditation. I still find myself wondering quite often, though, how long it will be before life pricks this bubble too. Some people are never satisfied.

Oh and, by the way, we gave a jar of plum jam to the friend who’d set this whole jam thing going and to my surprise she seemed to love it. Perhaps she was just being polite.

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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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