The Shanghai Museum had some striking Buddhist statuary to supplement the image of present day Buddhism derived from the Jing’an Temple. Unfortunately much of it was hard to photograph behind glass and the pictures here do not do justice to the originals, but at least they convey a hint of the grace they evinced.
Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’
As I’ve said in an earlier post, I was asked if I had prepared an account of how I came to join the Bahá’í community. I’ve now completed the story at least in draft. I was planning only to send it quietly to the Bahá’í Histories website and leave it at that, in the hope that very few would read it outside the Bahá’í community. But then I wondered why I should be so quiet about it. Yes, I think it’s a fairly ordinary story about a fairly ordinary person, and to that extent, why go public? But then also it is just about the most important thing that ever happened to me and connects very closely to two of the other most important events in my life. So, I thought, ‘Share it and see what happens.’ It might do some good and probably won’t do any harm. So here goes for Part Three. In the previous part I had just encountered a book that would challenge my atheism so fundamentally it was about to change my life.
Not that being godless had 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 smoke-and mirrors stuff. 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. I clearly wanted to find something that would give my life meaning and map out a path of action in the world to change it for the better, but not enough to overcome some sort of reservation.
I felt at first the barrier was simply within me. 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.
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 and compassion more than power, except I could never have put it like that at the time.
This drove me to psychology as a way of understanding human nature better and perhaps of being enabled to be of some help sometimes to some people. 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. And the meditation I practised as a result was a useful stabilising influence.
In the end I had come 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.
In the summer of 1982 a few months before my encounter with Robert Scrutton’s book, came my last prolonged exploration of an alternative to religion and spirituality. I read a brilliant book on existentialism by Peter Koestenbaum: The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. It had been published in 1978.
In this book he states that (page 69):
[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.
By reflection, amongst other things, he means unhooking ourselves from our ideas.
An example he gives from the clinical context illustrates what he means:
. . . to resist in psychotherapy means to deny the possibility of dissociating consciousness from its object at one particular point . . . To overcome the resistance means success in expanding the field of consciousness and therewith to accrue increased flexibility . . .’
But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? In therapy it is the feeling of trust and safety we develop towards the therapist that helps us begin to let go of maladaptive world views, self-concepts and opinions. With religion of course it is different. I did not realise I was moving towards a faith that does not rely upon a priest to provide the bridge between a believer and a higher power deserving of the trust that will make true reflection at the deepest level possible.
This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life. As a process within the individual, it is complemented by and interacts with the process of consultation, which takes place between people and amongst groups and which proved a point of attraction for me in terms of the Bahá’í model of administration right from the start.
Koestenbaum explains this (page 73):
The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’
By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.
Reflection, he says (page 99):
. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.
What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):
The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.
At last, though I did not know it yet, I had a mind completely prepared for what I was about to find. My debt to Koestenbaum as a writer is very great indeed, overshadowed only by the debt I owe to the writer I was about to encounter within the next few months – in fact, in the book I have just described reading which was having such an overpowering effect.
And here I was, sitting on my sofa with the sky darkening outside, wondering whether this had all been made up rather in the way that Carlos Castaneda was thought to have invented his Yaqui Indian. It couldn’t possibly be true, could it? Of course I’d have heard of it already, wouldn’t I?
How could I find out? I decided to check the telephone directory. If this faith really existed it must have some contact address. I think part of me felt that I would find nothing, no address, no phone number, no proof of its objective existence. The shock I felt when I found the details for the Bahá’í Centre in Rutland Gate is hard to describe. It was real. It did exist. Now what was I going to do?
It was too late to phone that night. And phoning the following day didn’t seem all that sensible. What was I going to say? ‘I’ve just read this book. Can I come and talk to someone?’ That sounded crazy. My days for doing that kind of crackpot thing were long gone: I was a qualified mental health professional now.
Nonetheless the following day I made the call and went to the centre on their invitation. The Canadian lady, Bonny, whom I had spoken to on the phone, greeted me cheerfully when I arrived and made me feel very welcome with a cup of tea and the run of the bookshop. I don’t remember whether I ended up sitting on the sofa next to Annamarie Honnold, whose recently published book Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá I read somewhat later, before or after I bought a carefully selected set of the original Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. I know that I was determined to read only their own words at this point: I did not want to risk being falsely persuaded by someone else’s plausible take on what they had said. I had made up my mind on two things: to check out whether what Robert Scrutton had written about them was based in the reality of what they had written and said, or sprang only from his own vivid imagination, and to see if anything they had written or said contradicted any of my own most deeply held convictions.
If it is unclear in my mind now exactly when I sat beside Annamarie Honnold, I can remember that almost her first words to me were: ‘Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting,’ the first of the Arabic Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh.
I didn’t know at the time how deep an impression that must have made.
Today is World Mental Health Day. It seemed a good time to start publishing a series of posts related to mental health issues.
Some years ago I posted a series of attempts to describe my work in the NHS as I experienced it. Since then I have been also attempting to use poems to approach the same experiences from a different angle. Because my poems tend to come from a darker place than my prose it seemed only right to publish the poems alongside the more positive feel of the republished mind-work posts. It felt as though that would be more balanced, more true to the experience as a whole. So, what I am planning to do is follow up a prose post with a poem after a day or two. They need to be read together to get a more complete picture of what was involved in the work I did. Above all else I would hope to convey the reality of this area of experience more completely by tackling it this way, and do more justice to the courage of those who suffered. They are stronger than we realise for bearing the unbearable so bravely.
Some Background Thinking
I thought it was about time I tried to do a post on the work I did for most of my professional life. It could be tricky and might not work out at all.
I have been struggling for ages — at least ten years — to capture in words the work I used to do. Words like therapist and therapy make me uncomfortable. Even the word counseling implies unequal distributions of wisdom. She who gives counsel is somehow superior to him who receives!
I have come to believe that what I did is best called mind-work. It includes mood-work, belief work and will-work: it should have included ‘soul-care’ but that would have been a step too far for a clinical psychologist’s job description even though ‘psyche’ means ‘soul’ to the Greeks.
Everyone does mind-work up to a point. It’s a bit like cooking though. Almost everyone prepares food at some point in his life but not everyone’s a chef. As a professional mind-worker I was a bit like the chef. I was an expert at the work at the same time as the people who worked with me as clients were experts about their own minds.
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!
In the end then mind-work is a perfectly good description.
Mind-work for the most part involves forming a relationship (much more on that later) that allows words to be used in a process of collaborative conversation (the title of a book chapter I contributed to This Is Madness) to enhance meanings in a way that enables all participants to grow. As I see it every human interaction is an opportunity for mind-work and as many interactions as possible should be used as such. Even the groups of people who traditionally have been seen as experiencing meaningless lives, such as those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia or dementia, are not to be excluded from this meaning-making growth process. My work has mostly been with the former group and what follows discusses some implications of that. For me though, everybody means something and to deny that is to dehumanize us.
Perhaps it is important to clarify something. I use the word mind to cover a wide variety of possibilities. Consciousness is only one of them. Many important processes take place outside the circle of light shed by conscious attention. Mind is also where the body is experienced and shares a two-way relationship with the brain, so the realms of the physical are not excluded. The mind is a node in a sociocultural network and is affected by many wider systems which it maps and responds to in a variety of ways. No mind is an island! There is also strong evidence that the mind can operate independently of the body/brain (See Jenny Wade’s Changes of Mind, Ken Ring’s Lessons from the Light and David Fontana’s Is There an Afterlife? as well as posts on this site about the afterlife hypothesis for more detail about that.)
There are differences that should not be obscured. A psychologist is paid for her mind-work: her client is not. That is one difference which can create an undesirable power-differential if great care is not taken to counteract that tendency. Another difference lies in the fact that the client is the expert, as I have said, in his own mind: the psychologist is the expert when it comes to the nature of the work in some of its aspects. That is the only other difference. Both can grow as a result of the mind-work they do together.
That should be enough to set the scene for the exploration of my way of working that follows.
The Client’s Perspective
In 1996 I interviewed someone who had gone through a series of conversations with me about his voices. He was a former miner and an ex-army man from the Welsh valleys. He was articulate but down-to-earth. What he told me enriched my way of doing things considerably and shed a great deal of light into previously dark places. We made a video together, from which the photo below is extracted but without showing his face, and he was very keen that it be used to help others understand this kind of problem better. At the time of the videoed interview we had been working together for about six months. There was still a long way to go but much of interest had happened. I will call him Ian to protect his identity.
Perhaps most importantly, he emphasised the role of trust.
P.: And it was in November that we first met, wasn’t it?
I.: Yeh. Jenny [his residential social worker not the author of the book recommended above!] had started talking about you, you know? And it was coming up to the meeting with you. And I can remember going to the meeting with you that first time. And I can remember thinking who’s this bloke asking me all these questions, you know? And I didn’t trust you. But Jen was persistent that I could trust you, so I decided to trust Jenny and to talk to you.
I.: Yeh, I asked if Jenny could come, yeh.
P.: Right. And I think she came about the second or third time you came.
P.: And did you feel more comfortable with her there?
I.: I did, yeh.
P.: And did that make you feel more able to begin to trust me at least personally if not what I was doing?
I.: It took about a month to start to trust you. And that was with Jenny backing you up.
This cannot be stressed too much. Trust takes a long time to build and is easily lost. In Ian’s case Jenny who had worked with him for years and vouched for me assisted the development of trust. In a “delusion” exercise I use in workshops we can see how a period of unsympathetic and confrontational treatment at the hands of other people makes it harder for someone to believe we are not going to be the same. We need to prove our trustworthiness over a period of time. We need to be prepared for hostility at worst and the cold shoulder or evasion at best in the early stages of our relationship. We would be wise not to assume that such behaviour is the result of “paranoia.” It is at least as likely, if not more so, to be a natural reaction to months if not years of other people’s outspoken incredulity.
What also was important to the success of my work with Ian was all the effort Jenny put in in-between times.
I.: It took about a month to start to trust you. And that was with Jenny backing you up.
P.: And that was by being there in the sessions and by talking to you between whiles wasn’t it? You used to have meetings and discussions with her between times.
I.: Inbetweentimes, yeh. And we’d talk about what we’d talked about, you know? And she supported you in what she said.
She helped him remember what I had said or correct his distortions of it. She encouraged him to make use of the suggestions we had come up with. She helped him make sense of what was happening to him in the terms I had described it. Isolated mind-work sessions will achieve little if they are not reinforced and supported by a lot of work in-between.
We will hear much more from Ian in the next post.
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):
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 innumerate 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 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.) 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.
- Writing & Reality (1): the mystery of revelation
- Writing & Reality (2): the role of lesser mortals
- Writing & Reality (3): look in your heart and write
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)
Right now I am deeply grateful to someone whom I had never heard of two weeks ago.
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.
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.
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.
- The Experience of Poetry (1/2): dimming the glare of language
- The Experience of Poetry (2): edges of unease
- The Master & his Emissary
- Practising Compassion (2/2)
Posted in Compassion & Empathy, Spirituality, tagged 1984, Alexander Pope, Animal Farm, Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, Buddhism, Charter for Compassion, compassion, George Orwell, Iain McGilchrist, Karen Armstrong, Modest Proposal, Robert Wright, Shakespeare, TED, The Master and his Emissary on 01/02/2011 | 1 Comment »
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.
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.
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 Words: No: 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 Words: No. 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.
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.
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. 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.