Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

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

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

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

A World-Embracing Vision

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

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

(Persian Hidden Words: No. 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gleanings: CXIV)

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

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

Bahá’u’lláh observed:

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

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

‘Abdu’l-Bahá developed the same theme:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Method

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

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

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

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

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

An Appeal to our Better Selves

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

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

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

They continued:

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

All is not lost, they argue:

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

They assert their conviction:

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

And they close with the following appeal:

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

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

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

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

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

Ruling passion

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

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

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

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

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

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolerant Devotion

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

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

The implications are fascinating.

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

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

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

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

A Possible Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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O thou who art attracted by the Fragrances of God!

. . .  I read thy poem, which contained new significances and beautiful words. My heart was dilated by its eloquent sense. I prayed God to make thee utter more beautiful compositions than this.

(Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

It may seem strange resurrecting a post on poetry from 2009 amidst sequences on psychosis. If you are interested to know you’ll need to patience to read on almost to the end!

The BBC Poetry Season currently unfolding is causing me to reflect on why I think poetry matters.

There may be a clue for me in how my interest shifted, when I left the Catholic Church, from poetry to novels as my favourite reading matter. It’s true that my disillusion with religion was influenced by poetry as well: one of my favourite poets at the time was Byron. Others, though were Wordsworth, Coleridge, George Herbert, the Tennyson of In Memoriam and Gerard Manley Hopkins — a spiritually troubled bunch maybe but not exactly godless.

Even though I spent another decade teaching English Literature, my love for poetry remained prematurely buried: occasionally I could hear its finger nails scraping at the coffin lid but put it down to rats behind the skirting boards.

When my career change came and I took up with Psychology you would have thought that would be the end of it. The undead in the coffin should have given up the ghost and turned into a corpse. But strangely enough it didn’t. I threw myself enthusiastically into my new calling and was two years into my degree course while working at a day centre for the so-called ‘mentally ill,’ before I had a strange dream to remind me that my love for poetry might be buried but it wasn’t dead.

I can’t now recall all the details but the key moment in the dream was when my car broke down. I clambered out to look under the bonnet to see what was wrong. (This was at a time when I often had to cook the spark plugs in the oven in the morning before the car would start, so at this stage it would’ve been tempting to dismiss the dream as simply revisiting a prosaic daytime anxiety.) When I lifted the bonnet though everything changed. Instead of the engine there was the most beautiful golden horn — the instrument not the sharp pointed weapon of the rhinoceros.

When I woke I knew that something needed explaining here. What on earth was a golden horn doing under the bonnet of my car in place of the engine?

To cut a long story short, the chain of associations led me from music, creativity and song through the horn of plenty as a pun to Yeats‘ moving poem A Prayer for my Daughter.

It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

(lines 33-32)

(Before dismissing this as sexist, it’s important to take into account that there is a particular emphasis on the word ‘fine’ here which, in the context about his worries concerning his daughter’s future, is partly to do with being made proud by beauty and unconcerned about defects of character.)

There is more, fuelled by his experiences with Maude Gonne who was a bit of a fanatic:

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind.

(lines 60-65)

There were obvious surface implications here which I had to consider and weren’t excluded by the main message I finally took away from the dream. It was asking me how I might have undone the Horn of Plenty in some way, perhaps by disowning something important to me that the dream was trying to remind me of. What might an ‘opinionated mind’ have to do with it? What were the good things understood by ‘quiet natures’? And what, if anything, was my ‘old bellows full of angry wind’?

The bottom line for me was that the dream was telling me in no uncertain terms that I had sold out poetry (‘song’) for prose, heart for intellect (‘the opinionated mind’), and intuition for reason and most of all was emphasising that this choice was ‘breaking down,’ that perhaps even the car (an ‘old bellows’?), symbol of a mechanical approach, was the wrong vehicle to be relying on so exclusively.

Discounting, in existential therapy, cuts both ways. You don’t solve the kind of discount I was making by throwing away the car of prosaic mechanical psychology and picking up the horn of poetry and blowing it for all your worth in everybody’s ears. You find a way of balancing both, of integrating them at a higher level of understanding which dissolves their apparent incompatibility. You can’t drive a horn to work or play a haunting melody with an engine but you might need to find the right place for both of these in a complete life..

Interestingly my work with ‘psychosis’ helped me do precisely that.

The psychotic experience, looked at from this angle, is all metaphor. Hallucinations are imagery taken literally: delusions are stories mistaken for plain truth. Both hallucinations and delusions are rooted in reality in the same way that poetry and dreams are, and they point towards truths that we might otherwise ignore or cannot otherwise express. They only become dangerous when we unreflectingly act them out in ways that you would never act out a poem and most people do not act out dreams because their motor system has been shut down in sleep.

The great power of poetry is to articulate for us and convey to us the otherwise inexpressible aspects of experience that cry out to be integrated if we are not to die spiritually, emotionally and intuitively. I was rescued by my dream from continuing to disown the creative force of poetry. Reintegrating poetry into my life was a critical step, not only in becoming a better clinician than I would otherwise have been by the aid of psychology alone, but it also led me to a greater openness to the spirituality of Buddhism than I would otherwise have been capable of, which in turn led me to the Baha’i Faith whose poetic and mystical writings  were easier for me to absorb than would have otherwise been the case.

In a very real sense I owe the rich texture of my present life at least in part — and it is a significant part — to poetry.

Yeats wrote:

. . . many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

(lines 38-40)

And in the Bahá’í Writings we are told:

A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding….

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

They both seem to be speaking of the same appealing quality in their different ways.

That’s why it is so good to know that the BBC is seeking to bring the creative and transformative power of poetry to people who might otherwise be tempted to ignore it.

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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?

(MaitreyabandhuThe Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69)

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with last Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This post, like the last one, constitutes a slight break with the focus on Shelley but needs to be included, I think, for continuity’s sake.

N.B. now we’re back on track after the two posts out of sequence! To read 5a now see link.

In the last post I tried to pin down what it is that makes a poem. Now I’m moving on to a survey of the creative process from other perspectives than mine, trying to include a sufficient variety of angles without being able to cover all possibilities in such a relatively short post.

What the critics and the poets say about the process:

I’ll start with some hints derived from Peter Conrad’s over-ambitious overview, Creation: artists, gods & origins.

Looking at the ‘psychogenesis’ of art, he quotes Picasso as saying that art is (page 525), ‘the fire of Prometheus,’ by which Conrad thinks he means it is ‘a weapon to be used against orthodox divinities.’ Rank, however, in 1932, apparently took a different view and asserted (page 528) the ‘fundamental identity between art and religion.’ He felt that ‘art made possible our advance “from animism to religion,” because art is our only means “of exhibiting the soul in objective form and giving personality to God.”’

In a chapter titled Protoplasts Conrad notes the descriptions Byron and Shelley used to describe their experience of writing poetry (page 308):

For Byron, a poem was the lava-flow of imagination, a molten river of feeling. . . . . . . Shelley, less eruptive than Byron, called the mind in creation a fading coal, implying that the poet had to work fast before it cooled.

Ann Wroe sheds more light on that (page 311-12):

With inspiration, Shelley told Trelawney, the pressure within himself was . . . a sort of internal combustion under which his brain simmered and boiled ‘and throws up images and words faster than I can skim them off.’ Only after a while, when they had cooled, could he start to put them in order.

Shelley clearly also felt that suffering played a part in the genesis of true poetry. In Julian and Maddalo he puts these words into the mouth of the Byronic character:

He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’

Mondrian apparently connected creativity with his sexuality (Conrad: page 530):

For Mondrian the rigour of creation required strict sexual abstinence: ‘a drop of sperm spilt,’ he calculated, ‘is a masterpiece lost.’

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out the sense of something subliminal going on in more prosaic terms: ‘But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits. Poems, we’ve been told more than once, come from a dreamier, more associative place in the mind (and heart).’

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Psychology’s Angle

There are also many approaches to creativity within psychology. A Wikipedia article painstakingly draws attention to all of them, for those who are motivated to pursue this aspect further.

Among the approaches mentioned are the four Ps model: process, product, person and place (according to Mel Rhodes).[6] There are variations on that. For example, there are theories invoking divergent rather than convergent thinking (such as Guilford).

The article places some emphasis on the work of James C. Kaufman and Beghetto , who introduced a “four C” model of creativity; mini-c (“transformative learning” involving “personally meaningful interpretations of experiences, actions and insights”), little-c (everyday problem solving and creative expression), Pro-C (exhibited by people who are professionally or vocationally creative though not necessarily eminent) and Big-C (creativity considered great in the given field). Again this has been an influential model.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has defined creativity in terms of those individuals judged to have made significant creative, perhaps domain-changing contributions.

The relationship between creativity and mental health has been much explored (see the article itself for the full coverage which has many interesting links). The data they adduce is perhaps relevant here, given the tendency of contemporaries to label both Shelley and Byron as ‘mad,’ and in Byron’s case, ‘bad, and dangerous to know’ as well: however, their final caveat is probably the most important point:

However, as a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.[131]

A reference that maps on more closely to my existing biases is also mentioned:

Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung, noted that in these unconscious scientific discoveries the “always recurring and important factor … is the simultaneity with which the complete solution is intuitively perceived and which can be checked later by discursive reasoning.” She attributes the solution presented “as an archetypal pattern or image.”[161] As cited by von Franz,[162] according to Jung, “Archetypes … manifest themselves only through their ability to organize images and ideas, and this is always an unconscious process which cannot be detected until afterwards.”[163]

I have already noted the possibility of social facilitation effect when I referred to David Gilmour’s creative process and Shelley’s first contact with Byron. This aspect has also been much explored.

The key idea of this perspective is that a deeper understanding of how creative outputs are generated and become accepted can be achieved only by placing the individual within a network of interpersonal relationships. The influence of the social context in which individuals are embedded determines the range of information and opportunities available to them during the creative process. Several studies have begun to expose the network mechanisms that underlie the genesis and legitimacy of creative work.[178]

OatleyWhat Art can Achieve – The Novel & Consciousness-Raising:

Although Ricard’s book on altruism has almost nothing to say about the role of the arts, in a much earlier post I have discussed how systematic evidence points to the power of the novel to increase empathy. This is the only significant text I have so far come across that deals in any depth with the power of an art for positive moral good, so I will quote from it at some length here.

The general point can be summarised by Geoffrey Nash’s view (from Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald):

Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

Keith Oatley expresses his view by saying (from the Preface to his book Such Stuff as Dreams) ‘. . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.’

Obviously I need to be careful not to overextend to poetry what might only apply to novels but I do think his points are worth consideration here.

Keith Oatley’s book tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value.

So, what justifies my belief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art. Clearly there would be forms of verse that fit this kind of description and are merely entertainment. Similarly with his category of debasing fiction that, for example, promotes violence or abuse.

He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 177):

In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.

Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral, and finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects – page 159):

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):

The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).

You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog  This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):

The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.

Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):

Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.

Samadhi_Buddha_01What Art can Achieve – The Power of the Poem

In a previous sequence of posts I looked in depth at the nature of poetry, focusing in particular on the thinking of Maitreyabandhu, who has a rich and subtle take on this whole issue.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, 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 a 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.)

We’ll come back to that quote later.

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges overall? 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. I 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.

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. . . . 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. . . . . illuminat[ing] 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 is close to the one in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which we dealt with earlier. Fromm defines 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. . . . .

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.

Maitreyabandhu moves on, in the remainder of his article, 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):

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.’

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.

Where Maitreyabandhu distinguishes between fancy and imagination, others take a slightly different angle on the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FWH Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ It’s a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live. We have to learn to distinguish between the two both as poets and readers.

In the end, for me, great poetry must combine music with a kind of algebra. By the latter word I mean what John Hatcher refers to in his book on Robert HaydenFrom the Auroral Darkness (pages 16-17):

. . . . . the one quality of poetry which in every interview and discussion about Auden, Hayden inevitably mentions is Auden’s analogy between good poetry and algebra. This notion of poetry as a process of ‘solving for the unknown’ [captures the theory that influenced him].

If a poem can successfully combine these two things in a positive way, the experience it creates will raise consciousness to a higher level and enable us to connect with all life more effectively, and will almost certainly stimulate us to act in ways that enhance the world we live in. These are the criteria I will now seek to apply to three of Shelley’s poems in order to assess their quality before analysing the possible sources of their inspiration.

I’ll follow up on that in the next post.

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In a previous post, lamenting the death of my cafetière, I spoke of my strange elation as pennies dropped in my head when I realised more fully the significance of death in my life and appreciated better its relationship with mental health issues, especially psychosis.

I ended by saying that I felt as though all the pennies still had not dropped. Even so, I had no idea of the cascade of currency that was to follow.


I was on my usual walk. At this time of year the hill through the wooded park near our home is every shade of brown, crimson and gold. As I was striding to the top at a pace brisk enough to get my heart beating faster, three words leapt to mind: trauma (including terror of death), transliminality (thresholds of consciousness and such) and transcendence (including spirituality in general). My subliminal mind had done it again. Not only had it grasped firm hold of the three things preoccupying me most strongly right now, but it had given me a mnemonic with which to hold onto them more easily. It’s so smart at doing this my left-brain gets quite envious.


As I walked, the trees, even with all their gold, faded into the background. I felt the three words jockeying for a position that made some kind of sense.

It was then I sensed there were dancing partners. When trauma paired up with transliminality the offspring could be psychosis. I’d need to explore how that might happen. Transliminality was not a faithful partner though and, as soon as the music changed beat, it eloped with transcendence and they gave birth to mysticism. Something else I needed to explore.

As soon as I got home, I dashed upstairs to my desk and notebook to catch these ideas on the wing before they migrated to Neverland.

I knew there were some gaps in my thinking. I wrote, at the same time as I drafted the diagram in Word: ‘Trauma is clearly an external event. The permeability of our threshold is probably a composite of experience, including the impact of trauma, and genetics. The transcendent will be hard to distinguish from illusion. Also I am not claiming that any of these factors explain all there is to know about the others, nor that psychosis is the only destructive consequence of trauma, or creativity the only positive consequence of transliminality, or transliminality its only precondition. All I am saying is that theirs is the interrelationship that fascinates me.’

Even so, I thought I’d nailed the essence of what I wanted to research more deeply.

img_3275No such luck. Thee days later, as I was getting the lawn mower out of the garage to give the front lawn its last trim of the year, I found myself wondering where my other obsessions – creativity, interconnectedness and compassion – fitted in. (Actually, it was more like a meadow – I don’t believe in cutting the grass, the wild flowers and the mushrooms more than is absolutely necessary: I was only mowing it now because the neighbour’s gardener had been wrily wondering whether all the sycamore leaves on our patch would blow over to the driveway he’d just cleared.)

I could see that reflection, my idée fixe, was necessary as a means of keeping me on the alert during every experience for any hint that would shed light on any aspect of these preoccupations, but I remembered my more muddled diagram of more than a year ago now, outlining what I wanted to investigate.


Clearly that wasn’t exactly on target anymore, but I didn’t want to lose anything of real importance that it contained.

As I walked the mower up and down the leaf-strewn grass, I could not escape the implications of the season; not so much ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ in my case – more leaf-death and cut greenery as potential compost and food for next year’s growth.

The beauty of the colours spread across the lawn drew me into the rhythms of the earth. I felt rather than thought that I am as much a part of nature as nature is a part of me. That’s why, as I have explored elsewhere, I prefer to be called Pete, with its echo of peat, rather than Peter, with its connections with rocks and popes. I loved dancing to the rhythms of rock music when I was younger, but geo-theological rhythms of that kind never have appealed to me in the same way.

I abandoned my mowing for the moment and went back in-doors for my iPhone. I needed to take some pictures even though most of the greenery and leaves were gone from our meadow by now. There was enough left though to capture what was stirring me into other perspectives on death.

Leaves die for a purpose as Shelley understood and as I have explored elsewhere.

According to Holmes in his biography (page 546):

Shelley went for walks along the banks of the Arno thinking of . . . . his own exile, his ‘passion for reforming the world,’ his apparent impotence to help the downtrodden people of England, the disasters of his private life and inevitably, at 27, the beginning of the end of his youth.

His hair was already becoming streaked with grey, according to Anne Wroe a possible symptom of syphilis. It is perhaps not surprising then to see the appeal of autumn as a symbol of his declining condition and his deep need for a powerful force to lift him out of his despondency. The climax of the The Ode to West Wind fuses these two aspects:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

img_3279Once I had finished the lawn and transferred all I had gathered to the compost bin with my wife’s help, I rushed again indoors to capture what my subliminal mind had garnered as I mowed.

The only way I can describe the feeling of these moments is to say it was as though connecting with the earth had lifted my mind up to the sky. Possible ways of making the abstract elements of my quest grounded in reality had floated across my mind’s sky as I focused on guiding the mower over the leaf-strewn surface, sucking up the gold and green together.


Suddenly I could see how creativity, connectedness and compassion might fit into the pattern, and how the terror of existence for some might narrow rather than widen their horizons, so that defending themselves against the darkness could made them dark instead. I also could consider the possibility that, without transliminality, transcendence and trauma would never dance together to create a child. From my recent reading of Waking, Dreaming, Being, Evan Thompson’s richly rewarding, though for me somewhat flawed, analysis of the interface between Buddhism and neuroscience, I remembered that the pollen and nectar for the hive of my current enterprise can be gathered from almost anywhere. He weaves academic, monastic, literary and his own personal experience into a tapestry rich in implications for the nature of the relationship between the mind and the brain.

Incidentally, how I found his book was a beautiful example of serendipity – something else I need to be on the alert for at all times.

Sorry to digress again – well, not really.

thompsonI went to Waterstones in Birmingham because I knew they had a copy of Boarding School Syndrome. As I followed the shop assistant with the skull-head rings (would I never escape reminders of death?) across the shop to look for Schaverian’s book my eyes were caught by the cover of Thompson’s book. Even that glance was enough to convince me I needed to give it a more careful look.

Once we’d located Boarding School Syndrome and I’d got it firmly in my grasp after a bit of a search, I made a beeline (and I’m using that expression in full knowledge of what it means in terms of pollen and nectar, as my earlier post indicates at length) for Waking, Dreaming, Being, grabbed it off the display shelf and headed for the nearest chair. Reading a few pages made me feel it might be too good to be true so I Googled some reviews. No, it was the real Macoy. You will hear more about it later.  

I don’t think I will be able to produce, twice a week, posts with anything like that degree of disparate experience integrated into them. I may have to make myself slow down even further than I have done so far to get anywhere close.

Let’s see how it goes!

Winter v2


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The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son

As part of the counterbalance to my recent posts on death and suffering I thought it was about time I republished something a bit more positive. So, here’s another post from 2009.

The Limitations of the Word

Is conversion always the right word to describe what happens when someone changes from one belief system to another?

It certainly captures for most people a key aspect of the experience. On the other hand I think it’s missing something.

When I look back at my whole life trajectory from the moment I said to my mother I was not a Catholic anymore to when I made the declaration of intent we shorthand as becoming a Baha’i, I was on a quest. In fact I still am. I was searching for something then with rather more desperation than I search now.

The quest had its roots partly in suffering. My own early experiences of pain – mine, my parent’s and a world’s recently at war –  seemed partly responsible for this search mode. I once wrote this poem.

Just rose thorns scratching at my window pane!
How many times I’ve moved to open up
only to calm my straying arm again.
Hope will maintain a vigil till wind drop.
I am no Heathcliff, lost no Catherine:
what need to answer every scratch and tap?
I have my dead, it’s true, padding within,
around the cage of memory, a map
of all my days for them to roam across,
bloodless symbols, reverberating boards,
stench: unfree, never still.  I’d grieve no loss
of them –
. . . . . . . . . yet something there is I yearn towards,
strain ears eyes after, a presence I have
sought since mourner I grew, without a grave.


But I don’t want to explore the issue of quest from this angle in this post – maybe in another post later. What I’m after here is to determine, if I can, whether the suffering hypothesis explains my search with nothing left over.

I’m a died-in the-wool anti-reductionist as those who read this blog regularly will already know to their cost. So, it should come as no surprise to hear me conclude that I think there’s a huge amount left over.

I can trace back one part of the leftover aspects to an experience in church when I was very young. Everyone was bowing down at the same point in the Mass and I asked my mother in a whisper why they were doing this and she replied, in a way which she thought fitting for my age and degree of understanding, ‘Because it’s too beautiful to look at.’

This was a challenge too difficult to resist. Something that beautiful and I couldn’t look! This I must see.

And I looked up and I looked round everywhere. All there was was the same old altar, the same old pictures of the stations of the cross, the same old man in a funny dress standing in front of the altar.

The only difference was this big round golden thing he was holding above his head. This seemed to be the object everyone was bowing to, but I didn’t get it. It was quite pretty but definitely not too beautiful to look at. I detected a trace of thirst in me then which grew stronger with the years. It was more than curiosity: it was fueled by a faith that things could be adequately explained.

To call it a thirst for truth in me at that age would be pretentious but it had the same parched quality: the difference was in degree not kind. (It’s the Baha’i Fast as I am writing this so perhaps my choice of metaphor is a bit predictable.)

A Need for Understanding

In my posts about conviction I quoted Fromm‘s idea that there is a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being which cries out to be filled with a suitable object of devotion.

I didn’t go on to make completely clear that there is not only a feeling component to this but a thinking one as well. We need not just to organise our lives around an object or objects of devotion, but we need understanding too. For things to mean something there has to be an intellectual satisfaction as well as an emotional connection. Those two aspects are contained in the word meaning in any case. We need a coherent meaning system, with which we can securely identify, to guide us in life. If we can’t get hold of a good one, a bad one will do instead. Ditchwater’s better than nothing to a man dying of thirst.

I was being driven even at that early age by a need to understand, and to understand in ways that made real sense to me not just in hand-me-down terms that people were fobbing me off with. The Faith I now belong to endorses that need as one that arises from our deepest nature, from our very soul as we would say.

Retreating Tide

So, I shut the door of the Catholic Church behind me and stepped into the back lanes of agnosticism. It wasn’t long before I was on the beach of atheism watching the tide of faith go out beyond eye-shot.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

(Matthew Arnold)

Not that it worried me consciously.

I wanted to look the hard facts of the world full in the face, see reality for what it was without all that mumbo-jumbo/hocus-pocus/smoke-and mirrors stuff (delete according to your particular distastes). I felt I had found the bed-rock of a firm and true understanding (except I was writing poems about search for reasons I didn’t understand at all).

Still, I stuck with my supposedly godless views because I thought they made sense of everything. I didn’t see it as a faith, which it is – just as much a leap in the dark as any other faith might be and ultimately far more unsatisfactory than many others which accept that there is a God. I had simply made a god of nothing since to believe in Nothing is an act of faith.

I congratulated myself on the hard-headed no-nonsense courage I was displaying by seeing the world as meaningless. I chuckled appreciatively over Castaneda‘s concept of ‘controlled folly’ in his books about the Yaqui Indian ‘way of the warrior:’ you know the world means nothing but you choose to give it a meaning none the less in a brave act of defiant self-assertion.

I plunged into left-wing politics and became ‘a fellow traveller.’ I couldn’t quite make the leap into becoming a real socialist: something held me back. When I began working in mental health and went to see a therapist, we decided that the epitaph engraved in big letters on my tombstone would be, ‘He died with his options open.’ I was very reluctant to make any kind of commitment.

Cragged HillBetween a Rock and a Hard Place

Yet at the same time there was this restless seeking after an indefinable something. Because I shared Chekhov‘s revulsion from violence and lies I stepped away from the radical socialism I was toying with. Even milder versions that eschewed violence in my eyes seemed, like everyone else seeking power, far too keen on lies. The ends always justified the meanest means. In some incoherent way I was expressing that I valued truth more than power except I could never have put it like that at the time.

This drove me to psychology (of which there has been more than enough in these pages already and there is plenty more to come). And that led onto Buddhism which seemed a conveniently atheistical religion with a sophisticated psychology. Choosing to investigate that at the same time as I studied psychology was a no-brainer for me.

My career as a truth-seeker strongly resembles John Donne‘s description:

. . . . . . . . . On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

I came to a point in my life where the ideals of communism -‘ from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ – seemed to me to have been betrayed by all of its followers that had actually got into power. For example, far from rescuing the bulk of Europe from tyranny, the war against Hitler, with supreme irony, handed whole swathes of the continent over to a tyranny of an equally repellent kind.

On the other hand, Buddhism, which still seems to me a religion of great beauty, depth and power though I never threw in my lot with it, disappointed for a different reason.

I was impressed painfully by its combination of deep spirituality and practical inefficacy in the modern world. I had been haunted since the end of the Vietnam War by a potent symbol of this: those images of Buddhist monks burning themselves to death in the streets. The most widespread effects of these supremely compassionate acts of courageous self-immolation seemed to be futile if passionate demonstrations by the well-meaning and a series of tasteless jokes of the ‘What’s little and yellow and burns with a blue flame?’ variety, which combined racism and cruelty in about equal proportions.

Without knowing it at the time I longed, from the deepest levels of my being, for a pattern of belief, a meaning system, that could combine effective social action with moral restraints strong enough to prevent that social action becoming a source of oppression.

To embark now, after 1500 words, on a tale of how I found the Faith would test the patience of potential saints. Suffice it to say that I believed then, 27 years ago, that the Baha’i Faith offers just such a system and I believe it still. Hence this post.

What’s this got to do with conversion not being the right word?

Oh, I almost forgot!

The whole point of starting this story was to use my experience to indicate that the word conversion is missing something. When I became a Bahá’í I did not feel I was abandoning a previous belief system to adopt another quite different one. Anything but.

I felt I was finding a system of belief and practice that exactly corresponded to what I had always believed, could never have articulated so well and had always wanted to find in someone or something else apart from somewhere behind a fog in my own mind.

The Shrine of the Bab at Night

So strong was the sense of home-coming that when I went on pilgrimage four years later, I ended up weeping at the gates near the Shrine of the Báb, overcome by waves of relief and gratitude, such as a person who had been decades in exile might feel after a long and arduous journey as he looked down from a nearby hill top on the sunlit roofs of his birthplace.

It made sense of the phrase used by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to describe faith: ‘conscious knowledge.’ Till I found the Bahá’í Faith, it seems to me, my faith was unconscious, blind, deaf, dumb and desperate.

Of course, my journey of discovery is not over. It would be very boring if it was. Becoming a Baha’i, as I said at the beginning, is a declaration of intent. I am constantly working at improving my understanding of its teachings and striving to increase my love for God through interacting with the Words of Bahá’u’lláh and reflecting on His life.

But as I said, the search is now a lot less desperate. I’m not at sea now in a storm, at the mercy of the waves, nor even on that desolate beach. I’m on dry land under a bright sun and feel I am moving forwards in something far closer to the right direction.

I just need to remember to keep looking at the map, that’s all. Carrying it in my back pocket doesn’t work too well.

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There’s a sequence coming up that relates to the issue discussed in my very first sequence of posts in 2009. It seemed a good excuse to republish them at this point. They will be posted on consecutive days. 


Can you take it with you when you die?
A very rich man was close to death. As death grew closer he grew more and more unhappy at the idea of leaving all his wealth behind. Night and day he prayed fervently to God: “God! I know everything is possible to you. I beseech you to let me take some of my riches with me when I die.”

This went on for days without an answer. Finally, after hours of constant prayer, he heard a voice from the sky say: “Very well. You can take what ever will fit into one small suitcase.”

The man was overjoyed and spent at least a minute thanking his maker effusively before he set about the important work of deciding what to take. After long hours of solitary  deliberation he made up his mind that the best thing to do was fill his suitcase with gold bars. This he did at the dead of night and dragged the suitcase to his bedside.

Much to the mystification of his family he insisted on keeping the suitcase at the side of his bed from then on.

Sure enough, on the night he died God kept his promise and he found himself at the gates of heaven dragging his heavy case towards Saint Peter. But St Peter found the situation highly irregular and wouldn’t let him take the suitcase in with him.

“But God has given me a special dispensation. I can take just one case of worldly goods into heaven with me,” the man insisted desperately. Saint Peter, inwardly thinking this was all some kind of delusion, reluctantly sent an angel off to ask God what the deal was here.

Ten thousand years later (our time but in a twinkling of an eye up there) the angel returned and to the astonishment of Saint Peter, confirmed the man’s story.

“Streuth!” the Saint muttered, having been too busy to update his oaths since the population explosion of the twentieth century, “I’d better let you in then. But I can’t let you through these gates until I’ve seen what’s in that suitcase. You can’t be too careful, even in heaven. The devil still has some scary tricks up his sleeve.”

So, the man proudly opened his suitcase to display the wonders of his wealth. Saint Peter’s eyebrows shot up over his head: “All this hassle and you brought paving stones!”

[I have adapted this joke  from a wonderful book called “Plato and a Platypus walk into a bar . . . understanding philosophy through jokes”  – pages 177-178]

The joke has more than one sting to it.

We know we couldn’t take a suitcase up to heaven and, in the present security conscious climate, you’d probably be gunned down by a guardian angel long before you got within ten thousand leagues of the pearly gates if you were foolish enough to try. We may even feel there is no heaven to which we could carry anything at all. If there is a heaven and, when we go, we could take with us the stuff that is precious to us here, it would count for next to nothing up there anyway.

Image scanned from the cover of the Norton Coleridge

Image scanned from the cover of the Norton Coleridge

What can’t be lost in a shipwreck?

“You possess only what will not be lost in a shipwreck.”

[El Gazali: I met this first in Tahir Shah’s “In Arabian Nights” ]

And what is that exactly?

To the materialist it’s obvious. There is nothing that can’t be lost in a shipwreck – goods, friends, family, consciousness, individuality, life itself. (Well, strictly speaking you probably won’t lose your house in a shipwreck exactly, but you get the point.) Nothing left over. Death = zero, the great black void. All that remains of you lies rather than lives, for a few more years, in the memories of those you leave behind. And when they die too, those few faint traces of your life die with them.

Those who feel there might be something else can give a different answer, with very varying degrees of confidence admittedly. “My mind lives on,’ they might say, “because I have an immortal soul. And I’ll meet my loved ones on the other side.”

“Yeh, right!” the sceptic responds, shaking his head at the follies of his fellows. Too many people, he feels, still believe too many impossible things before breakfast and for the rest of the day as well!

Most of the answers in the monotheistic religions I grew up with take on some variation of the “I’ll meet my loved ones” form.

In the East – and it’s India, China and the Far East I’m thinking of here – they’re not so sure about whether I have a soul in exactly that sense and whether I will remember who I was in the shape I take on next. I was put off Buddhism, many years ago, when I attended a talk by a Tibetan monk, who insisted I could well come back as a rat or a dog.

This seemed a far cry from the sophisticated analysis of mental states I had come to admire so much from reading about Buddhism’s core teachings and about the meditative experience, which I was experimenting with myself at the time. While other views of reincarnation are less shape-shiftingly dissonant with our sense of self, they all entail a greater reduction in our sense of who we are than the Christian or Islamic traditions do.

Eastern traditions would generally agree, though, that my mind is able to function in some way and to some degree independently of my brain and that therefore there will be something that is not lost in the shipwreck, though it may not be immediately recognisable to me or anyone else who knew me.  The Dalai Lama, for example, is extremely sceptical about Western near death experiences (NDEs) that describe being met by loved ones after what may or not be an experience of death as it will really be. He feels the predeceased would already have been reincarnated and therefore unavailable. They’d be otherwise engaged, so to speak, unavoidably detained elsewhere, reaping what they had sown perhaps among the scent-drenched pleasures of a dog’s life, if my unfortunate and possibly misleading encounter with the monk is anything to go by.

The Bahá’í view is that we take with us into the next life what we have made of our souls in this one. This world is the womb of the next.

The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh LXXXI).

What we have learned of love and wisdom, what has nurtured our innate character – the soul, goes with us. We leave all else behind. Clearly that matters to me as an individual if I am a believer: why should it matter to you if you are not?

That is something we can explore together in the next post.

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