Posts Tagged ‘Charles Tart’

Charles Tart

At the end of the last post I was emphasising that capitalism has begin to look like a religion and it depends upon a form of thought-control for its continuing hold on our minds. Is uprooted spirituality the only factor at work in that?

This is not, of course, the first time I’ve been here on this blog.

In his book Waking Up, which featured in an earlier sequence, Charles Tart uses the term ‘consensus consciousness’ to describe how our culture and life experiences shape our perceptions of the world. This effect is so strong that he goes onto describe it as a state of mind that is definitely not an enviable one:

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.[1]

Carrette and King in many ways are singing from the same hymn sheet. They quote David Loy – 2002:[2]:

. . . according to the U.N. development report from 1999, the world spent at least $435 billion the previous year for advertising… this constitutes the greatest effort in mental manipulation that humanity has ever experienced.

But it is not just advertising that hypnotises us into compliance.

Carrette and King argue that we increasingly see:

a concern with making the individual employee/consumer function as effectively as possible for the benefit of corporate organisations and the ‘global economy’. . . . Such a move allows advocates of capitalist spirituality to use the traditional language of ‘belonging’ but this time orient it towards the need for employees to align themselves with the corporate mission statements of their employers. [3]

The next shift in their argument should make me as a psychologist more uncomfortable than it does:

We argue that the discourse and institutions of psychology have played a major part in maintaining control in late capitalist societies in the West by creating a privatised and individualised conception of reality. Modern government requires a social mechanism to control populations, and psychology functions in part as the underlying philosophy of what it is to be a human for a capitalist system of social organisation.[4]

The reason why it comes as no unsettling surprise is that I have been here twice before from slightly different perspectives each time.

First of all, when I read Richard Shweder’s Thinking Through Cultures, I learnt how biased in a potentially destructive way our implicit individualism is, and how much that has influenced our preference for the ‘science’ of psychology.

The modern world, according to the Bahá’í World Centre in views expressed in a paper on Social Action (November 2012) is in the grip of a similar delusional script: the power brokers of the industrialised technically advanced Western world are convinced that their version of reality is more highly developed than that found anywhere else.

Richard Shweder’s compelling account of his re-examination of Kohlberg’s comparison of American and Hindu moral development is an interesting example of where this can lead an expert research team. Kohlberg originally concluded that Hinduism lagged far behind the far more morally sophisticated Americans.

Shweder describes his findings in his bookHis very different findings hinge upon his recognition that Westerners confidently and accurately code Western moral thinking as expressed by study subjects because they understand the implicit subtext, and they confidently and inaccurately code the moral thinking as expressed by subjects from other cultures because they haven’t a clue about the implicit subtext.

Why is this relevant here?

Mainly because the problem was rooted in the individualistic lens of the Western researchers who were unable properly to decode the implicit communal context which lay behind the responses of the Hindu subjects of their study. They were also unable to see the limitations imposed upon them by their Western perspective, which they simply assumed must be correct. Earlier in his book Shweder spells out a correlate of this bias:

Not surprisingly, in most sociocentric role-based societies… it is sociology, not psychology, that thrives as an academic discipline. In other, more individualistic cultures (for example, the United States) it is psychology that flourishes at universities and popular bookstores, while sociology has an uneasy relationship to a public that find sociological discourse to be unreal and laden with ‘jargon.’[5]

The idea of an individualistic Western lens is not just Shweder’s view. In her book Transcendence Gaia Vince expresses much the same conclusion:

Westerners, with an individualistic suite of social norms, tend to process objects and organise information into categories. In contrast, East Asians, with more collectivist norms, view themselves as part of a larger whole…[6]

Psychology would therefore seem, on the basis of evidence of this kind, to be assisting in the creation of the ‘privatised and individualised conception of reality’ Carrette and King refer to.

This is by no means the worst of it, as I discovered somewhat later.

In the introduction to their brave, thorough and well-researched book, Irreducible Mind, Kelly and Kelly capture the way that psychology came increasingly to adopt a materialistic and reductionist approach to the mind that fitted snugly into the materialistic capitalistic mind-set:

[William] James’s person-centered and synoptic approach was soon largely abandoned . . . in favour of a much narrower conception of scientific psychology. Deeply rooted in earlier 19th-century thought, this approach advocated deliberate emulation of the presuppositions and methods – and thus, it was hoped, the stunning success – of the ‘hard’ sciences especially physics. . . . Psychology was no longer to be the science of mental life, as James had defined it. Rather it was to be the science of behaviour, ‘a purely objective experimental branch of natural science’. It should ‘never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like.’ [7]:

And, sadly, in some senses nothing much has changed. Psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it?

The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.[8]

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction.

So, it is no surprise then that an individualist, materialistic psychology should suit the needs of capitalism, in the way Carrette and King suggest it does. They make basically the same point quite explicitly later in their book: ‘ . . . in the demand for a science of the self, psychology distanced itself from the trappings of a religious self and sought to offer ideas of being human on a reductionist and measurable basis.’[9]

Psychology is not itself a form of spirituality though, so how would this strengthen Carrette and King’s case for the key role of spirituality in keeping us quiet?

When spirituality is psychologised, as it has been, for example, with mindfulness training, it can act as a powerful tool for stifling protest and ensuring conformity. The analogy they keep referring to in their book captures this potential exactly. They describe it, at one point, as ‘the new cultural Prozac,’ which brings ‘transitory feelings of ecstatic happiness and thoughts of self-affirmation’ without ‘addressing sufficiently the underlying problem of social isolation and injustice.’[10]At another, they write, ‘Capitalist spirituality is the psychological sedative for a culture that is in the process of rejecting the values of community and social justice.’[11]

They believe that, in addition to this, the misleading redefinitions of reality entailed in this process are the equivalent of what George Orwell, in his classic novel 1984, terms ‘thought-control.’ They claim ‘privatised spiritualities operate as a form of thought-control that supports the ideology of late capitalism.’[12]

This explains away any unpleasant feelings as resulting from deficiencies in the individual, so that:

What is never raised is the possibility that the ‘difficult life’ is itself a result of the modern psychological understanding of the self in Western consumer societies. . . . [Popular classics of spirituality] are palliative for the ills of a consumer society, rather than addressing the underlying social problems that create the need for such works in the first place.[13]

As a result:

. . . employees can be made to feel a sense of corporate community and allegiance to the company.… ‘spirituality’ provides the all-important ‘feel-good’ factor that is so important for improving worker efficiency and loyalty. . . Thus, while claiming to be ‘alternative’…, the goal is to align the employee’s ‘personal mission’ with that of the organisation for which they work.[14]

In the end, expressing the idea very strongly indeed, the authors feel that ‘Mass control and collectivism are not just features of fascist and communist societies. Rather they are reconfigured and hidden behind the capitalist doctrines of free choice.’[15]The result is that we are all locked into a toxic materio-competitive worldview:

With the emergence of capitalist spirituality the freedom of the individual to express their inner nature through ‘spirituality’ becomes subordinated to the demands of corporate business culture… [16]

Next time I will be looking in more detail at what makes it possible to see capitalism as a religion, and also later exploring how important it is to factor in other influences than disconnected spirituality to explain our paralysis in the face of capitalism’s deficiencies. It will be some time yet before I consider other more positive alternatives such as the Bahá’í perspective, the Doughnut model and Ehrenfeld’s ideas of flourishing.


[1] Tart – page 95.
[2] Page 160. Unless otherwise stated all references are from Selling Spirituality.
[3] Page 20.
[4] Page 26.
[5] Shweder – page 169.
[6] Gaia – page 146.
[7] Kelly and Kelly – pages xvii-xviii.
[8] Kelly and Kelly – page xx.
[9] Page 66.
[10] Page 77.
[11] Page 83.
[12] Page 68.
[13] Page 56.
[14] Pages 134-35.
[15] Page 57.
[16] Page 45.

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Adib Taherzadeh: for source of image see link

My recently published sequence of two posts on the power of metaphor suggested strongly that I should publish this sequence again. It is a perfect illustration, in my view, of Lakoff and Johnson’s contention in Metaphors We Live By that (page 193):

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.

In the end, they feel that (page 233) ‘much of self-understanding involves consciously recognising previously unconscious metaphors and how we live by them’ and ‘engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.’  Until I read their words I don’t think I had fully appreciated exactly what I was doing when I grappled with the challenges of understanding what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the phrase ‘understanding heart.’

We ended the previous post reflecting that Erich Fromm does not deal with a crucial basic question in his explanation of why we are so prone to espousing destructive beliefs: do we fall so easily into the quicksand of debased frames of reference and divided attachments because we think that matter is all that matters, is all there is in fact? ‘Abdu’l-Bahá clearly thinks so. If that is so, then this belief is perhaps one of the key delusions that Bahá’u’lláh is referring to when He says: ‘the [people’s] superstitions [have] become veils between them and their own hearts and kept them from the path of God.’ We need to find out, if possible, what might make such a ‘delusion’ so prevalent if it is false? Also what does He mean by the ‘heart’ that we are ‘veiled’ from?

To even begin to answer those questions in words on a page, I am going to have to draw on wiser writers than me to get me started.

Why Hidden?

First, there will be the question of whether the world is set up in such a way that the spiritual dimension is hidden. Bahá’u’lláh is clear that it is hidden, and there appear to be good reasons for that. Knowing what the next life is like can create a desire to move there straight away. J E Esslemont quotes the words of Bahá’u’lláh in his book (page 189):

Blessed is the soul which, at the hour of its separation from the body, is sanctified from the vain imaginings of the peoples of the world. Such a soul liveth and moveth in accordance with the Will of its Creator, and entereth the all-highest Paradise. . . .  If any man be told that which hath been ordained for such a soul in the worlds of God, the Lord of the throne on high and of earth below, his whole being will instantly blaze out in his great longing to attain that most exalted, that sanctified and resplendent station.

That these are not idle words is illustrated by the story of the man who became able to see the spiritual realm and as a result wanted to die. Adib Taherzadeh refers to the event twice in his four volume account of Bahá’u’lláh’s life, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. I have pulled the references together from Vol 1 Ch 8 page 103 and Vol 2 Ch5 page 112:

The story of Dhabíh is that of a passionate lover. The object of his adoration was Bahá’u’lláh, Who had ignited within his breast the fire of the love of God, a fire so intense that it began to consume his whole being. Eventually he reached a state where he would neither eat nor drink. For forty days he abstained from food. Unable, at last, to check the crushing force of love which pressed upon his soul, he came one day, at the hour of dawn, to the house of Bahá’u’lláh and for the last time swept its approaches with his turban. After performing this task, he paid a visit to the home of Áqá Muhammad-Ridá where he met some of the friends for the last time. Later he obtained a razor, went to the bank of the Tigris and there turning his face towards the house of Bahá’u’lláh, took his life by cutting his throat. . . . . Dhabíh took his own life because he was intoxicated by the wine of the presence of Bahá’u’lláh, Who had enabled him to witness the glory of the spiritual worlds of God. This cannot be compared with ordinary suicide, nor can this episode be taken to mean that Bahá’í belief condones the taking of one’s own life. On the contrary, suicide is strongly condemned in the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh and is clearly against His Teachings.

. . . . . One day [a witness wrote], they brought the news of the death of Siyyid Ismá’íl of Zavárih. Bahá’u’lláh said: ‘No one has killed him. Behind many myriad veils of light, We showed him a glimmer of Our glory; he could not endure it and so he sacrificed himself.’ Some of us then went to the bank of the river and found the body of Siyyid Ismá’íl lying there. He had cut his own throat with a razor which was still held in his hand. We removed the body and buried it.

It would be unwise to see this story as unique or as a parable meant to illustrate something else. Pim van Lommel in his book Consciousness beyond Life (page 206) quotes a modern example of basically the same experience:

After a few days in an extremely critical condition, during which the doctors informed her family that she was unlikely to pull through, [a patient] suffered a cardiac arrest. At that moment she had an NDE, which she describes fully below. She was successfully resuscitated but remained in a critical condition and somehow became aware of her “hopeless” situation. She was desperate to return to the loving environment that she had just visited. In her desperation she managed to bite her breathing tube in half, thus precipitating an apnea.

She was again resuscitated and was able to describe the whole sequence of events.

John Hick also adduces a very compelling reason that appeals to a mind like mine that has never had even a glimpse of what that man or woman saw or Eben Alexander, amongst many others who came back to describe their near death experience, had access to. Hick, in his book The Fifth Dimension, contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to  believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

He talks also (page 114) of the materialism of our current ‘consensus reality.’ Naturalism has created the ‘consensus reality’ of our culture. It has become so ingrained that we no longer see it, but see everything else through it.


Charles Tart (for source of image see link)

Consensus Trance

Given the hidden nature of spiritual reality and our freedom to choose what we believe or seek to teach others to believe, there is also therefore the immense power of social influence at work on what we experience and how we experience it. This is where we come to the fascinating work of Charles Tart in his book Waking Up.’ I will be quoting from him at some length.

He begins by contending (page 9) that ‘Consciousness, particularly its perceptual aspects, creates an internal representation of the outside world, such that we have a good quality “map” of the world and our place in it.’ He doesn’t mince words when he describes what he feels is an important correlative of this (page 11): ‘Our ordinary consciousness is not “natural,” but an acquired product. This has given us both many useful skills and many insane sources of useless suffering.’

He chooses to introduce a phrase that captures this (ibid):

. . . [For the phrase ordinary consciousness] I shall substitute a technical term I introduced some years ago, consensus consciousness, as a reminder of how much everyday consciousness has been shaped by the consensus of belief in our particular culture.

This is obviously closely related to Hick’s idea of  ‘consensus reality.’

There is a consequence of this, if it is true, which relates to the idea I am seeking to explore here: I want to get a better sense of what the veil is that Bahá’u’lláh refers to. Tart obliges with a step in the right direction (page 25): ‘By mistakenly thinking he is really conscious, [a person] blocks the possibility of real consciousness.’

This capacity for what Tart regards as our automated consciousness is not all bad, rather in the same way as Kahneman has explained in his idea of System 1 thinking, but its downside is potentially highly destructive. Tart writes (page 31-33):

The ability to set up some limited part of our sensitivity and intelligence so it automatically performs some fixed task with little or no awareness on our part is one of humanity’s greatest skills – and one of his greatest curses. . . . . . . . Mechanical intelligence can often be useful for utilitarian purposes, but it is dangerous in a changing and complex world. The mechanical, automated stereotypings we know of as racism, sexism, and nationalism, to use just three examples, are enormously costly. Automatised perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and reactions to one situation frequently get associated with the automatized perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and reactions to other situations, so we can be lost for long periods – a lifetime in the most extreme cases – in continuously automated living.

In a way that parallels Bahá’u’lláh’s ‘veils’ of delusion and superstition, Tart sees consensus consciousness as on a disturbing continuum (page 102): ‘We can view illusions and hallucinations as extreme points on the continuum of simulation of the world.’

He continues (page 59):

. . . . one of our greatest human abilities, and greatest curses, is our ability to create simulations of the world . . . . These simulations, whether or not they accurately reflect the world, can then trigger emotions. Emotions are a kind of energy, a source of power.

He begins then to unpack the full implications of his metaphor (page 85): ‘normal consciousness will be referred to as consensus trance; the hypnotist will be personified as the culture. The “subject,” the person subjected to this process, is you.’

He doesn’t give us much room to wriggle off the hook here. The state of mind he goes onto to describe is not an enviable one (page 95):

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.

He goes onto to describe the full picture but I think this quote conveys enough for us to move onto the next stage of his argument.

3rd 'I' v6

Trance Breaking

First though it is important to pull into the frame a model he is drawing on for his idea of more appropriate functioning. He is influenced heavily in this by the work of Gurdjieff, a charismatic figure whose ideas are as intriguing as his character is difficult to read. Tart summarises what he finds useful (page 150):

Gurdjieff’s concept of man as a three-brained being, then, specifies that there are three major types of evaluation: intellectual, as we ordinarily conceive of it, emotional, and body/instinctive. . . . . [A] lack of balanced development of all three types of evaluation processes is a major cause of human suffering.

This was exciting to re-read after all these years not just because it is reminiscent of the Three ‘I’s I have been recently exploring. This is more importantly for now where I begin to find my two main lines of questioning coming together. I am trying to understand both the nature of the veils and the nature of the heart, and in particular what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the ‘understanding heart.’

Tart quotes a fable to illustrate more clearly what he means (pages 150-52):

There is an Eastern parable of the horse, carriage, and driver that richly illustrates our nature as three-brained beings and the problems resulting from poor development of each and from imbalance. . . . . .the carriage is our physical body. The horse is our emotions. The driver is our intellectual mind. The Master is what we could become if we provided for the development of our higher nature.

He goes on to describe what he feels, on the basis of Gurdjieff’s model, are the basic ways in which we can develop this higher nature. He emphasises what he calls ‘self-observing’ and ‘self-remembering.’ For reasons that will hopefully become clear, it is not necessary, even if we had the time, to examine those processes in detail. They are in my view in any case closely related to mindfulness and Vipassanā

Vipassanā as practiced in the Theravāda centers on mindfulness, including mindfulness of breathing, combined with the contemplation of impermanence.

The underlying principle is the investigation of phenomena as they manifest in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness highlighted in the Satipatthana Sutta:[15][note 5]

  1. kaya (body or breath),
  2. vedana (feeling tone or sensation)
  3. citta (mind or consciousness), and
  4. dhamma (mind objects/phenomena).

Tart’s conclusion is important to quote though (pages 197-98):

. . . by creating a deliberate centre of consciousness that is outside of the usual automated pattern of identifications and conditions, we create a more awake, less entranced self, the foundation for the Master, with which we can both know ourselves better and function more effectively.

Georges Gurdjieff

Georges Gurdjieff

Higher Centres

It is at this point that things for me get really interesting when it comes to getting a clearer idea of what an understanding heart might be (page 217):

Gurdjieff claimed that in addition [to the three-brained aspects of our being] we have two more centres, the higher emotional centre and the higher intellectual centre. Each of these higher centres is tremendously more powerful and intelligent than the ordinary emotional and intellectual centre, and each operates far more rapidly than the ordinary centres. The higher emotional centre includes what Gurdjieff called “real consciousness,” as opposed to the relative, conditioned morality of consensus trance. Both of these centres are part of our natural heritage as human beings and fully developed and operational, but it takes great work on one’s development to create the third-level foundation for contacting and utilising them.

Even though Gurdjieff has separated emotion from intellect in these higher centres, could this third level relate to the idea of an ‘understanding heart’?

Perhaps Gurdjieff was mistaken to see intellect and emotion as separate in this way at this higher level. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is very clear that the mind is a unity and it is our experience in the body that creates the feeling of separation in terms of its qualities, and Bahá’u’lláh could not be clearer, as we read in the first post, that the heart is ‘one and undivided’ and we should not split its affections.

My own sense is that unity is key here and that we should not be looking for splits and distinctions of this kind in the spiritual realm.


Before we leave this topic of conflicted feeling and divineness, it is worth going back to Tart’s thoughts on prayer quoted in the earlier post (pages 229-30):

. . . effective petitionary prayer for Gurdjieff, then, is intense and consistent desire and thought. However, most petitionary prayer, formal or unwitting, has almost no effect.

First, because the ordinary person is plagued by shifting identities that have disparate and often conflicting desires, the unwitting prayers of various identities tend to contradict and largely cancel one another.

Second, an obstacle to effective prayer is our inability to be consciously intense.

Effective petitionary prayer would be much more possible to a person who is genuinely conscious, who, at will and for extended periods, deliberately summoned up the intellectual and emotional intensity to pray consciously without distraction. If he prayed from his more integrated and constructive subpersonalities or from his essence, better yet. Praying from the third level of consciousness, remembering yourself while you pray, is the most effective all.

Maybe that’s why I have always found prayer so difficult, more difficult even than mindful meditation on holy scripture.

Tart then goes on to say things to which any Bahá’í, and any other soul convinced of the essential oneness of humanity anywhere, would resonate (page 232):

At times it has been perfectly obvious to me that we are not separate, isolated beings, that we are a part of a divine plan, that our prayers come from our deeper selves, which are also a part of that plan, and that our prayers are answered in ways that are best for our evolution.

Next time we will be looking at how all this relates to what we know about brain function and where that might leave us in the battle to get in better touch with our understanding heart.

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Four years ago, after a summer school workshop exploring the Universal House of Justice’s text Century of Light, I described some of the fruits of that exploration. For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, I have recently discovered another powerful aspect of this to which I had not given proper attention.

Prior to explaining exactly what this insight was and what triggered it, I need to briefly revisit my earlier sense of the matter,

Social Reality

We had looked at some of the obstacles that stand in the way of our full appreciation of reality, first as individuals and then as groups. Bahá’u’lláh writes (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Haifa 1978: page 58):

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.

Given the hidden nature of spiritual reality and our freedom to choose what we believe or seek to teach others to believe, there is also therefore the immense power of social influence at work on what we experience and how we experience it.

Given that I couldn’t possibly reproduce here the complex flow of our consultation as we grappled with this issue, I pulled in quotations that cover much the same ground.

There are two thinkers who have shaped my perspective about this, which of course is an example of how culture works: these are Paul Lample and Charles Tart. A Bahá’í writer, Paul Lample, has written illuminatingly on this theme. I will move between the two of them as I explore their thinking. Tart’s views I have already explored at some length on this blog so I will spend more time on Lample’s as explained in Revelation and Social Reality.

Before I plunge into the depths, it is perhaps important to share the distinction Lample explores early on between two types of reality, a distinction that is of central importance to our understanding of human nature (page 7):

We can understand this special role of humanity by noting that most of what we perceive to be reality – the world with which we interact every day – is not physical reality at all. It is social reality. . . . Social reality mediates our engagement with the world, physical and spiritual, and it is this reality that we have the capacity to create anew.

He quotes from John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality to unpack the distinction he wishes to make (ibid):

In a sense, there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking of things like money, property, governments, and marriages. Yet many facts regarding these things are “objective” facts in the sense that they are not a matter of your or my preferences, evaluations, or moral attitudes. I am thinking of such facts as that I am a citizen of the United States, that the piece of paper in my pocket is a five dollar bill, etc. . . . These contrast with such facts as that Mount Everest has snow and ice near the summit… which are facts totally independent of any human opinions.

Of course, Searle continues (page 8), ‘in order to state a brute fact we require the institution of language, but the fact stated needs to be distinguished from the statement of it.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá eloquently explains exactly what this means in a spiritual terms (Promulgation of Universal Peace (PUP) Wilmette 1982 pages 421-422):

When we consider the world of existence, we find that the essential reality underlying any given phenomenon is unknown. Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes. Man discerns only manifestations, or attributes, of objects, while the identity, or reality, of them remains hidden. For example, we call this object a flower. What do we understand by this name and title? We understand that the qualities appertaining to this organism are perceptible to us, but the intrinsic elemental reality, or identity, of it remains unknown. Its external appearance and manifest attributes are knowable; but the inner being, the underlying reality or intrinsic identity, is still beyond the ken and perception of our human powers. Inasmuch as the realities of material phenomena are impenetrable and unknowable and are only apprehended through their properties or qualities, how much more this is true concerning the reality of Divinity, that holy essential reality which transcends the plane and grasp of mind and man?

Even before we consider the role of names in clouding reality, we have to accept that our senses are quite limited in the way they represent the world to our consciousness, even at a material level. We see wavelengths of potentially particulate light as colours, and combinations of atoms composed mostly of empty space as densely solid objects. In a sense not only is our social reality a simulation: our perception of the physical world is also. It has evolved simply to maximise our chances of survival, not to penetrate the surface to reach the inner reality.

Lample continues (ibid:)

Searle notes that the structure of social reality has a tremendous complexity. A simple visit to a restaurant as a reality that include immediately visible aspects, including the social meaning of ‘money,’ ‘waiter,’ ‘restaurant,’ ‘chair,’ and invisible, underlying aspects such as the concept of employment, an economic system, an agricultural system, and government regulations. There is also a normative dimension of social reality, in that the waiter can be rude or polite, the food unsatisfying or delicious.

There is an important corollary here (ibid:)

Searle observed that the entire structure of social reality is taken for granted by individuals, who are brought up in a culture that conveys social facts in the same way it presents rocks or trees.

Charles Tart

In his book Waking Up, Tart seems to be dealing with this same aspect (page 85): ‘normal consciousness will be referred to as consensus trance; the hypnotist will be personified as the culture. The “subject,” the person subjected to this process, is you.’

In a way that parallels Bahá’u’lláh’s ‘veils’ of delusion and superstition, Tart sees consensus consciousness as on a disturbing continuum (page 102): ‘We can view illusions and hallucinations as extreme points on the continuum of simulation of the world.’

He doesn’t give us much room to wriggle off the hook here. The state of mind he goes onto to describe is not an enviable one (page 95):

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanentrather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.

Even so, Lample sees us very much as agents in the creation of our world view (Revelation & Social Reality– page 6): ‘Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us.’

Lample none the less plausibly contends that (ibid) ‘In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.’

He illustrates the kind of factor that can trigger such transformations (page 8):

When the fundamental agreements which frame belief and behaviour change, social reality will change, as in the case of the dramatic collapse of communism in countries across Europe and Asia in a matter of months around 1990, after being a commanding presence that dominated the lives of hundreds of millions for over a half century.

He concludes, in terms which acknowledge Tart’s sense that we are shaped by as well as being shapers of social reality, that (page 10) ‘. . . Social reality is not static; it is mutable. It forms us, but because it owes its existence to common human understanding, we have the power to contribute to reshaping it.’


I have long been aware of the link between dreams, poetry and other forms of creativity, a link that many writers acknowledge and which has a function in reshaping consciousness.

The link with poetry is not straightforward, as Charles Rycroft points out in a passage quoted by Krippner et al in the book, Extraordinary Dreams and How to Work with Them (page15): ‘if dreams are poetry, they are incomplete poems.’

Montague Ulmman, in Working with Dreams,the book he co-authored with Nan Zimmerman, expands on this (page 73) when he speaks of ‘those qualities a dream has in common with art, especially with the art form which relies heavily on metaphor: poetry.’ He spells out where the incompleteness of dreams as poetry exactly resides (page 80):

. . .whereas the poet is addressing himself to an audience outside himself, the dream is a private communication intended to be personally, not universally, meaningful.’

It is still of value, of course, for the dreamer to treat his dreams like poetry, and Ullman clearly sees the metaphorical value as worthy of exploration before plunging into the associations, which he feels (page 97) rather serve to integrate ‘metaphors into the waking context.’

Ole Vedfelt’s book A Guide to the World of Dreams resonates with me when he writes (page 54-55): in dreams, metaphors ‘may appear much more literally and visibly to the dreamer, consciousness is so totally immersed in the metaphors. . . . It may be illuminating to view symbols and metaphors as poetry… They interact with the receiver’s intuition…’

That may not be as simple as it sounds. He digs somewhat deeper. He goes on to say ‘when I use the term symbol in connection with dreams, I am also referring to a more complex and inscrutable meaning, such as when Jung (Man and his Symbols 1964, p. 20) writes that symbols have “an unconscious aspect, which is never precisely defined nor fully explained.”’

The opening sentence to this chapter was particularly resonant for me, given the spiritual emphasis I tend to give to dreams (page 53): ‘A prerequisite for all dream interpretation is an understanding that dreams live in a world of symbols where wind and weather, plants, animals and objects can all be expressions of qualities of the soul.’

Approaches such as these have influenced my approach to dreams almost since my dreamwork began.

However, for someone who claims to be so keen on poetry and who has used metaphors to help raise his consciousness, I realise now that for most of my life I have discounted the importance of metaphor in society as a whole. It is only since resuming a close examination of my dreams and the idea of dreamwork in general, including the reading of related texts, have I woken up more fully to the pervasive power of metaphor, a power that may be either constructive or destructive.

A key book on the power of metaphor has been Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I only discovered it this year and it has widened the scope of my understanding about the role of metaphor in culture.

Their basic tenet may sound improbably radical on first hearing (page 3):

If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.

They amplify further (page 6) by saying ‘we shall argue that… human thought processes are largely metaphorical.’

They give persuasive basic examples to illustrate our pervasive and unquestioning use of metaphor such as equating time with money, argument with war and the mind with a machine or brittle object. A moment’s reflection should be enough to confirm to us from our own experience the truth of that.

More on that in the next post on Thursday.

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Kazimierz Dabrowski

Suffering is both a reminder and a guide. It stimulates us better to adapt ourselves to our environmental conditions, and thus leads the way to self improvement. In every suffering one can find a meaning and a wisdom. But it is not always easy to find the secret of that wisdom. It is sometimes only when all our suffering has passed that we become aware of its usefulness. What man considers to be evil turns often to be a cause of infinite blessings.

(Shoghi Effendi: Unfolding Destiny pages 134-135)

This is the first of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014, 2015 and 2016. It seems appropriate to publish them yet again, because I have been pondering on the issue of theodicy in preparation from my talk in May to a humanist group. They will be interwoven another sequence over a three week period. 


Sometimes an issue keeps poking you harder and harder until you simply can’t ignore it anymore. Suffering is one such issue for me at the moment. I did a couple of blog posts on the topic fairly recently and felt I had laid it to rest, if not for good, at least for a very long time. No such luck apparently. I kept producing poems that were locked into its gravitational field. The news keeps thrusting it before our eyes. I began to realise it was not finished with me yet even if I thought that, for my part, I had completely done with it.

Just before I made a recent visit to the Bahá’í Shrines in Haifa and at Bahji, I started a series of blog posts on mental health related issues. A comment was made on one of them:

. . . . two things that have encouraged me to see . . . mental suffering as growth have been developing a deeper spirituality, and learning about a theory of personal growth developed by Kazimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist/psychologist, known as the “Theory of Positive Disintegration.”

I have to admit I’d never heard of Dabrowski but I’ve learned to catch at the hints life gives when I manage to spot them and I spotted this one. It was the first strong hint of something new in 20th century thinking, a different angle on the issue, and fortunately I snatched at it and obtained a book about his Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD).

I began reading it on the plane out, continued reading it in the Pilgrim House at the Shrine of the Báb after my prayers, and carried on reading it in the plane home. Conversations in the Pilgrim House explored the issue of suffering and some of his ideas. Even BBC iPlayer programmes I was watching on the plane out rubbed my nose in the possible value of suffering.

I heard Dave Davies of the Kinks, in Kinkdom Come, stating at 58 minutes in: ‘If there hadn’t been bad times I might not have have got interested in spiritual things.’

So, here I am blogging about it yet again.

The Effects of Suffering

Stephen Joseph

Perhaps the best place to start is with a recent article in ‘The Psychologist.’ To my surprise, when I got home I found that the latest issue contains an article by Stephen Joseph about the psychology of post-traumatic growth. Trauma can shatter lives, it is true, but for some it seems rather to be an opportunity for growth. He draws an interesting distinction between two kinds of reaction to trauma (page 817):

Those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.

Work has begun on teasing out what specific factors might be involved in creating this difference in approach (ibid):

Research shows that greater post-traumatic growth is associated with: personality factors, such as emotional stability, extraversion, openness to experience, optimism and self-esteem; ways of coping, such as acceptance, positive reframing, seeking social support, turning to religion, problem solving; and social support factors (Prati & Pietrantoni, 2009).

I wasn’t pleased to see that introversion is not included in the list of factors associated with ‘greater post-traumatic growth’ though it’s good to see that ‘turning to religion’ is definitely one. I remain quietly confident that the positive value of introversion will finally be recognised.

Joseph concludes (ibid):

Psychologists are beginning to realise that post-traumatic stress following trauma is not always a sign of disorder. Instead, post-traumatic stress can signal that the person is going through a normal and natural emotional struggle to rebuild their lives and make sense of what has befallen them. Sadly it often takes a tragic event in our lives before we make such changes. Survivors have much to teach those of us who haven’t experienced such traumas about how to live.

Suffering is not all bad

I have been aware for a long time that suffering is not all bad. In 1993 I had read Charles Tart’s Waking Up.

He argues, in the first part of this book, that most of us are to all intents of purposes asleep, or more accurately in a trance (page 106):

Each of us is in a profound trance, consensus consciousness, the state of partly suspended animation, stupor, of inability to function at our maximum level. Automatised and conditioned patterns of perception, thinking, feeling, and behaving dominate our lives.

He discussed ways of breaking this trance. Self-observation is a key tool. In describing its usefulness he also brings in a crucial insight (page 192):

Self observation is to be practised just as devotedly when you are suffering as when you are happy. Not because you hope that self observation may eventually diminish your sufferings – although it will have that effect – but because you have committed yourself to searching for the truth of whatever is, regardless of your preferences or fears. Indeed, suffering often turns out to be one of your best allies once you have committed yourself to awakening, for it may shock you into seeing aspects of yourself and your world you might never notice otherwise.

Dabrowski’s position, though, is far more complex than this, placing suffering in the context of a whole theory of personality development. A fuller explanation of this will have to wait for the next post. For now it is perhaps useful simply to note how Dabrowski’s idea of suffering seems closely related to Tart’s concept of a trance breaker. Sam Mendaglio, in the book he edited on the subject of TPD, writes (page 23):

Intense negative emotions and moods, typically regarded as impediments to growth and development, actually set the stage for advanced development by their disintegrating power. Intensely negative affective experiences begin the process of loosening a tightly integrated mental organisation. Though painful to individuals, negative emotions – the hallmark of inner conflict – allow people to achieve a more advanced level of human development.

His definition of what he feels lies at the end of this path through pain is of intense interest and concern to anyone seeking to gain support for a spiritual perspective on human suffering (page 23):

A developed human being is characterised by such traits as autonomy, authenticity, and altruism.

That seems as good a place as any to pause for now until the next time.

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I read an interesting article by Yuval Noah Harari in the Guardian some time ago, entitled The New Threat to Liberal Democracy. Astonishingly, from reductionist premises with which I completely disagree, such as that we have no free will, he arrives at the same conclusion as I do about a key mental skill: ‘renouncing the myth of free will can kindle a profound curiosity. If you strongly identify with the thoughts and desires that emerge in your mind, you don’t need to make much effort to get to know yourself. You think you already know exactly who you are. But once you realise “Hi, this isn’t me. This is just some changing biochemical phenomenon!” then you also realise you have no idea who – or what – you actually are. This can be the beginning of the most exciting journey of discovery any human can undertake.’

This is reflective disidentification in effect. More of that in a moment.

The article, from vastly different premises, confirms my feeling that developing the ability to step back from our automatic reactions is a key skill we need to acquire, but our culture militates against it – in fact, all the subliminal influences in our society are working in the opposite direction.

In Tart’s terms, our ‘trance’, and in Bahá’u’lláh’s words our ‘vain imaginings,’ ’superstitions’ and ‘delusions,’ control us, not because we have no will power, but because we fail to tune into the deepest levels of our being and we invest our trust in false gods.

On top of that, our reptilian brain, the amygdala, drowns out the soul’s whispers with its fear and rage.

What follows may not be entirely coherent as it was only recently, while sitting in the garden with a coffee, that an important penny dropped.

I asked myself whether, in my past attempts to look at what narrows the compass of compassion, eg labelling, the reptilian brain, inequality, power differentials etc, I had missed the more generic point that any kind of identification with a feeling, thought, judgement, self-concept, ego function, by definition:

(a) narrows compassion potentially to zero, and

(b) shallows wisdom to the same extent.

Strong identifications of this kind could lead to a container, whose width is compassion and depth is wisdom, to become the size of a thimble – an obvious but useful symbol. Using reflection to remove these false identifications would create an ocean, by comparison. When you add into the mix how reflection facilitates true consultation as a means of enhancing our simulations of reality through a constructive process of comparing notes with others in a spirit of objective exploration rather than adversarial debate, then the potential becomes even greater. The opposite is also true: failure to reflect impedes consultation and fosters conflict, resulting in impoverished representations of reality.

The other important factor is what we choose as our guiding light. As Reitan points out, simply believing we believe in God is not enough: the God we choose to believe in has to be worthy of worship. To make a god out of our ego or a dictator is a fatal mistake. Even our ideals have to be approached with caution, as Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ points out. In his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Another recent article in the Guardian by Michele Gelfand points up the impact of feeling threatened on our openness to others.

His core point in terms of this issue is: ‘Analysing hundreds of hunter-gatherer groups, as well as nation-states including the Aztecs and Incas, we found that cultures that experienced existential threats, such as famine and warfare, favoured strong norms and autocratic leaders. Our computer models show a similar effect: threat leads to the evolution of tightness.’

This maps onto my long explored idea that fear narrows the compass of compassion and makes intolerance and prejudice more likely. The narrower the container, the more likely we are to experience feelings of threat and a strong sense of difference between us and other people.

I’d maybe been putting the cart before the horse in seeing the feelings as ultimately causative rather than secondary. The wider we set our compass of compassion, and the deeper our wisdom becomes, the less likely are we to be fearful, threatened and reactively aggressive. When something disturbing happens and it’s a drop in the ocean you feel no fear. When something happens and it’s a drop in a thimble, all hell spills out.

This may be a two-way street, though, in that fear will reduce the size of our container, just as the smallness of the container is conducive to fear. There is, however, no guarantee that an absence of fear would be conducive automatically to compassion, as the combination of narcissism and fearlessness is found in the psychopath.

Where the process starts may be different for different people in different situations. If it is basically true, however, that fear shrinks compassion and reduced compassion fosters fear, and it seems likely, the dynamic I’ve described would create a vicious circle of a most pernicious and self-defeating kind. I still need to clarify these implications.

This is what I plan to do in a later sequence.

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The insight concerning the value of patience and stillness has triggered a heated difference of opinion among my parliament of selves, the not entirely friction-free inhabitants of my inscape. There were audible groans and fulminating diatribes against the whole idea from Emma Pancake. Her whole existence revolves around revolving around at high speed from one direction to another in unremitting activism. It makes me dizzy but she seems to believe in it. Fred Mires, with his intense drive to read and understand everything anybody has ever written about consciousness, was more measured in his expressed opposition, but equally firm that it was definitely not up his street, teeming as it is with the traffic of incessant psychobabble. Of course, Chris Humfreeze, with his strong affiliation to Buddhism, and William Wordless, still struggling with writer’s block, were smugly delighted with the prospect of vast swathes of downtime in which to either meditate from state to trait, or capture the resulting ‘subliminal uprush’ in poetry of exceptional depth.

Indie Pindance was too busy looking after the grief-damaged neonate to care much either way.

For a full understanding of these dynamics patient readers will have to wade through all ten recent episodes of My Parliament of Selves. This brief summary is probably enough for the general reader.

The immediate effect of these experiences was to reconnect me with my dream about the Hearth, which came to represent for me a fusion of earth and heart. Again there’s more detail elsewhere. For the first time ever I tracked down my original diary entries and realised with some shock that I had forgotten a key piece of the work I did and failed to record it in my more recent revisiting of that dream on this blog. During the whole dream there was no fire in in the hearth. I had to deal with the fact in my immediate work on the dream, and discovered there was a link between that and my experience of hospitalisation as a child. I had disconnected from  nature. I wrote:

Why the experience of hospitalisation cut me off from Nature and my own nature so radically I’m not quite sure. I lost warmth, spontaneity, a feel for the physical – as though, when my faith in Christ and in my family was shattered on the anvil of my abandonment in that benighted hospital, I lost faith in all creation as well. Only books were left. They never abandoned me and I had given them my deepest loyalty in return ever since. So, ART is at the centre of my hearth: the earth was invisible to me. I hated anything like gardening that reminded me of the earth and thereby the pain of what I’d lost. . . . To welcome back the earth into my heart is to rediscover myself (PEAT) [at the deepest level.] . . .

This is a slightly simplistic analysis in the heat of the dream’s aftermath as I had worked hard during the late 70s and early 80s to reconnect with nature, at least in so far as I learned to reconnect with trees. The problem was that the pressure of work and Bahá’í service caused me to break that crucial cord again until I got this reminder from my dreamscape. Even then, as I look back now, I realise I still did not take that reconnection seriously enough.

The Welsh weekend workshops triggered me into a deeper realisation of just how important nature is to me. Meditating at length on quotations from the Writings that emphasised the need to purify and cultivate the garden of the heart and plant within it, for example, the rose of love and the hyacinth of wisdom, forced me to confront my chronic discounting of the ground I walk on and which sustains us all.

This passage from Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (V)came to mind almost immediately:

[The beloved of God] should conduct themselves in such manner that the earth upon which they tread may never be allowed to address to them such words as these: ‘I am to be preferred above you. For witness, how patient I am in bearing the burden which the husbandman layeth upon me. I am the instrument that continually imparteth unto all beings the blessings with which He Who is the Source of all grace hath entrusted me. Notwithstanding the honour conferred upon me, and the unnumbered evidences of my wealth—a wealth that supplieth the needs of all creation—behold the measure of my humility, witness with what absolute submissiveness I allow myself to be trodden beneath the feet of men…’

I decided to meditate further on all this.

In doing so I came to feel a powerful affinity with trees. It was as though at some deep level I feel as though I am a tree, an image of myself I need to hold onto. It represents patiently and resiliently operating in a long time scale, rooted in the earth but reaching after the sun – in effect constituting a kind of bridge between earth and heaven, something we all have the potential to be. I realise now that I had already captured this in a poem. The earliest draft I can find was written in January 1982. It was not finished until 2013! Here it is.

I’ve also managed to integrate this image into my other favourite one for reflection as bees from the mind’s hive gathering the nectar of love and the pollen of wisdom from the flowers of experience. When I want to remind myself of my full potential I summon up the image of myself as an oak with a bee hive in is branches.

Perhaps best to move on at this point.

And all this is not as irrelevant to the question of the feminine perspective as it might seem at first. As I will examine in the next sequence of posts, mankind’s aptitude for destructively devaluing what it exploits is demonstrated both in terms of nature and of women, hence my use of the word mankind there rather than humanity. This also makes the term rapacity particularly apt as a description of this tendency.

No matter what we come to think about ourselves, our genes bind us to the earth to which our bodies will inevitably return. The problem is, as I will explore more deeply soon, there are processes that shape us as we grow which cause two crucial disconnections, root and branch. Our roots are wrenched from the soil, so that we end up arrogantly supposing we do not need to respect and care for it: we can simply endlessly exploit is. Our branches cease to rise towards the sun and sky, which we assume we can indefinitely take for granted, no matter how much we may really need to transcend our limited materialistic perspective. I’ve tried to summarise some of those insights in this diagram.

Our genes in interaction with the uterine environment create the brain with which we are born. Early nurture including diet and attachment prepare the brain to connect with a mind that then is further shaped by parenting and peer group influences. Culture plays its part, both indirectly at first via parents and peers, then ever more directly as we become exposed to the outside world of adverts and propaganda, which in Charles Tart’s terms induces a cultural trance into which we are in danger of being locked for life. Even so we can never escape our dependency upon the planet we inhabit, even though we can continue to deny the reality of a spiritual dimension, which  believe, but cannot prove, surrounds and transcends us from birth to death and beyond.

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