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Posts Tagged ‘compassion’

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Last year about this time I posted this sequence which again seems relevant in the light of my current exploration of consciousness in the context of climate change. The posts appeared on consecutive days: this is the last.

John Ehrenfeld, in Flourishing, the account of his conversation with Andrew Hoffman, develops even further the ideas about our situation that we explored last time (page 107), when he says that ‘Collapse cannot be avoided, if people do not learn to view themselves and others with compassion.’ I have explored the value of compassion and altruism at length elsewhere on this blog, so won’t elaborate further here.

He continues to expand on the importance of our becoming conscious of our interconnectedness (page 108) if we are to truly care. (Another topic explored at length elsewhere, including from a Bahá’í perspective.)

This does not mean we will know all the answers and any such false confidence has been at the root of many of our difficulties (page 111). We have to give due weight to the complexity of reality (page 116):

Our contemporary conversation about sustainability is taking place without a clear understanding, or with purposeful ignorance, of our place within a complex world. Complexity refers to a system whose parts are so multiply interconnected that it is impossible to predict how it will behave when perturbed.

This position is rigorously explored in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. He adduces decades of research to help him define exactly those areas, such as Ehrenfeld refers to here, where, despite our frequently arrogant assumption to the contrary, it is impossible to predict accurately, or in some cases at all, what will happen.

Ehrenfeld defines what our recognition of complexity must entail in his view (page 116-117):

Until we recognise and accept that we humans are an integral part of the complex system we call Earth, the possibility of sustainability will be nil.

Mechanistic models won’t serve our purpose here (page 117). They fail to capture (page 118) ‘the holistic qualities of life.’ Moreover:

Flourishing and other similar qualities emerge from the working of the system as a whole and cannot be described by any reductionist set of rules.

The complexity, which both Mason and Ehrenfeld adduce from their different perspectives, also testifies to the impossibility of defining any of the problems we face in simple terms. No minority group or economic sub-system can in itself explain a failure of this wider system and we cannot accurately predict simple outcomes even from simple lines of action. Ehrenfeld goes on to explain exactly what this implies.

1 Earth Heart alone

For one source of this image see link

Dealing with Complexity

Ehrenfeld feels we have to include three important components in our models of thinking if we are to get anywhere near understanding this complexity (page 119):

The first important component is that the complex Earth system cannot be reduced to a set of analytic rules that both explain and predict its behaviour. . . . . Chaotic situations remain chaotic until something perturbs the system and creates order, but we cannot tell in advance what the ordered system will look like. . . . .

A second important component is that the model of learning and knowledge necessary to understand sustainability in a complex system contradicts the conventional Cartesian model of cognition. [The necessary level of almost exact prediction is impossible.] . . . . . This tension must be very frustrating to many scientists who are not yet ready to drop the scientific method of revealing truth for a method that can only describe behaviour in general terms. . . . .

A third important component is that we must replace the apparent certainty of technocratic designs with adaptive and resilient systems built on understanding that is gained by experience.

There are within the philosophy of science streams of thought, which would not find this predicament surprising or even perhaps particularly frustrating. The frustration of the scientist that Ehrenfeld refers to in the face of organic and potentially chaotic complexity finds an appropriate response in what I have read concerning the relationship William James’s explored between pragmatism and uncertainty. There is more about that elsewhere on this blog (see links in previous sentence.)

Unsurprisingly, pragmatism follows naturally on as part of Ehrenfeld’s argument (page 120), including a later important reference to William James (see below):

If we are to cope . . . we have to start by telling the truth. Pragmatism, an important element of leadership for sustainability-as-flourishing, helps us to move towards the direction of that truth.

This allows for a fruitful and creative interaction between experience and analysis (page 121), and allows for the corrective influence of collective reflection. This is similar to the Bahá’í emphasis upon consultation undertaken by co-workers in a spirit of non-dogmatic reflection (see earlier post). He also advocates the contribution (page 122) of a spirituality that ‘can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world and help a person to discover the meaning of their Being, and the deepest values by which we can live.’

Ehrenfeld steps beck from any simplistic notion of pragmatism, explaining (page 128):

Finding pragmatic truth relies on a continuous enquiry or experiment by a community of learners that ends only when the ‘theory’ developed to explain the latest results successfully explains what is happening and, then and only then, is deemed to be ‘true.’ But such truths are always contingent on and subject to being overruled by future experience.

William James - portrait in pencil

William James – portrait in pencil

This resonates with what David Lamberth wrote in his excellent book, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

It follows from all this, as Ehrenfeld explains (page 132):

In a world of pragmatic thinking, my understanding of the same world that both of us inhabit is likely to be different from yours because you and I have led historically different lives… [A]s long as people are acting and thinking authentically, no one can own an absolutely ‘true’ belief about the world or claim to have the one ‘right’ way to act.

Combining Pragmatism and Principle

It is perhaps important to emphasise here that being pragmatic in this context does not mean being unprincipled. The existence of this link is so frequently and strongly assumed  that it consistently hides an important truth. In a world where exact predictions of what will happen when we take a particular action are virtually impossible, given the complexity of the globally interconnected system within which we now have to operate, we have to find ways of enacting our values while adjusting our plans in the light of subsequent events.

The modus operandi at the individual level which Acceptance and Commitment Therapy outlines seems to me to apply at the collective level as well. We make a plan with clear steps towards what we feel is our valued goal. However, we should not be so attached to any particular step as to confuse it with the ultimate goal. If the step proves not to be taking us in the direction we hoped for we need to change it. Also, as I have discussed at length elsewhere, both at the individual and collective level, the means we choose to bring us nearer to our desired objective should never be inherently corrupt or downright evil.

At the collective level, this all links back as well to the kind of collective creativity Paul Mason refers to in Postcapitalism. He writes (page 287):

Cooperative, self managed, nonhierarchical teams are the most technologically advanced form of work. Yet large parts of the workforce are trapped in a world of fines, discipline, violence and power hierarchies – simply because the existence of a cheap labour culture allows it to survive.

He feels we have to move past this bad model towards a better one building on more co-operative principles (page 288):

As we pursue these goals, a general picture is likely to emerge: the transition to postcapitalism is going to be driven by surprise discoveries made by groups of people working in teams, about what they can do to old processes by applying collaborative thinking and networks..

Ehrenfeld emphasises the importance of spirituality because it is the strongest foundation for a necessary sense of interconnectedness (page 152). His view of religion is much less positive, though that is not entirely surprising given how divisive religion is perceived to be. His main reservation though is that religions are out of date: he seems sadly unaware of the existence of the Bahá’í Faith and the role of other religions in promoting the kinds of awareness he is advocating.

His view is essentially the same as the Bahá’í perspective, which also sees this task as the work of centuries. He writes (page 154):

I don’t think even the young adults of today are going to be the ones to ultimately change things. They are part of a much longer process of change that will even outlive them. It will take generations for these ideas to become embedded in the culture and new norms aligned with flourishing to arise.

It seems a good idea to end this discussion of this complex and challenging issue with the words from a friend’s blog-review of this book.

But it’s fascinating too that when ‘Abdul-Bahá, eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh and His appointed successor, travelled to North America in the summer of 1912, He stopped for two nights in Boston, Massachusetts.  He spent His first morning meeting friends and enquirers, and gave three public talks. At an evening gathering in the Hotel Victoria on the evening of 23 July, He spoke to those early members of the US Bahá’í community on “true economics” – founded on love, kindness and generosity – ideas with which, a century later, the concept of sustainability-as-flourishing seems to fit entirely comfortably:

‘The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit…Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.

‘Strive, therefore, to create love in the hearts in order that they may become glowing and radiant. When that love is shining, it will permeate other hearts even as this electric light illumines its surroundings. When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics. Reflect upon it. Endeavour to become the cause of the attraction of souls rather than to enforce minds. Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity.’

I have discussed elsewhere how this Bahá’í model combines these ideals with their pragmatic application and wrote, in part:

The Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively action is transforming our communities.

I closed that post with a video that illustrated what I meant. Here it is again.

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Pilgrim’s Progress

Remember the saying: `Of all pilgrimages the greatest is to relieve the sorrow-laden heart.’

(‘Abdu’l-BaháSelections 52)

‘Who is my neighbour? My neighbour is all mankind.”

(Seamus Heaney: The Spirit Level,  page 28)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing this post and a sequence on The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson.

For those who might have been holding their breath since my last post on the subject, I did in the end manage to finish Jonathan Stedall‘s Where on Earth is Heaven?

The last chapter was particularly resonant. It looks at how gloomily the world is portrayed in the news and seeks to redress the balance. He believes our ‘capacity for empathy is stirring’ (page 532). He refers to books that I feel I will be buying in due time.

Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken is the first one. He sees the current burgeoning of a network of non-profit organisations as ‘humanity’s immune response to toxins like political corruption, economic disease, and ecological degradation’ (ibid.) He quotes, on the same page, Bill McKibben‘s comment on the book:

The movers and shakers on our planet aren’t the billionaires and the generals – they are the incredible numbers of people around the world filled with love for neighbour and for the earth who are resisting, remaking, restoring, renewing, revitalising.

He refers (page 535) to an equally interesting book – The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson (see an earlier sequence). He describes cultural creatives (page 536) as sharing ‘what are often described as feminine values in relation to family life, education, relationships, responsibilities and caring in general.’ They constitute, in the view of the authors, about 25% of the population they studied.

What is currently lacking, he feels, is a way for such people to combine their energies together without compromising their creativity.

I’ll resist the temptation to expand on how much this, for me, is uncannily in synch with the ideals and developing practices of the Bahá’í community. Posts dealing with this are to be found throughout this blog. In this vein, though, Stedall also speaks of a zeitgeist that may be helping us shift in this direction, and, in a fascinating parenthesis, suggests that this effect would be more powerful ‘if the zeitgeist is an actual being and not an abstract concept’ (page 534). And in the end there is a quote (page 357) that could almost have come from a Bahá’í pen:

Today many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself – while something else, still indistinct, were rising from the rubble.

(Václav Havel: 1984)

If we look for them we can find examples, not just of the downside of our predicament, but of the uplifting aspect as well.

Examples of the morally blind side of our nature can carry the seeds of the more positive vision, of course. An example of that is a hit of the moment – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don’t think I am wrenching the implications of its exploration of the blind side completely out of shape by saying that it is a compelling study of where absence of empathy and compassion can take us. It is powerful and effective, if a touch melodramatic in places.

There are also many places where we find a sense of positive potential which does not shirk the reality of the darkness. Blind Side is a good example, a film based on real events. It illustrates perhaps one of the best ways of protecting ourselves against the worst effects of our blind side.

If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo managed to avoid the worst excesses of melodrama (I’m not quite sure where to place the savagery of the rape scene in this: in terms of the film’s moral balancing act, it triggers the ‘girl’s’ revenge while, at the same time, helping us empathise with her rage: I felt manipulated emotionally though), Blind Side is only tinged and not spoilt by the occasional hint of sentimentality. It shows us the power of empathy and how much it can accomplish in the hands of people flawed in many ways as we all are. Our flaws are not a reason to evade this challenge.

And so, finishing Jonathan Stedall’s book, after a few other detours into film, has brought me back to a book I set aside many months ago – another book that inspired and irritated me in about equal measure. This book is Jeremy Rifkin‘s The Empathic Civilization which I think I will now attempt to read right to the end. Where I left off (pages 314-315) he is beginning to tackle the duality Iain McGilchrist explored from the point of view of brain structure:

When it comes to consciousness itself, one is struck by the fact that the human being is both a feeling and thinking animal [I’d prefer the word ‘being’ but there you go – that’s what makes reading Rifkin a bit of a switchback]. Therefore, one of the critical questions in the modern era has been which of the two – feeling or thinking – is the most relevant to understanding ‘human nature”?

How could I possibly resist another bite at this cherry?

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

(From Geoffrey Nash Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald)

. . . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.

(From the Preface to Such Stuff as Dreams)

My recent post on how fiction can enhance the empathy of those working with people experiencing psychotic phenomena suggested it would be worth republishing this piece from 2o12.

Keith Oatley‘s book, Such Stuff as Dreams, tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value. I won’t rehearse the arguments he quotes from Plato onwards to suggest that fiction should be banned. Most of us have heard them all too often already. More interesting by far are his reasons for feeling this is unfair and the reasons for attacking fiction are basically unfounded. So, what justifies my relief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who

regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art.

He also recognises that not all kinds of fiction are beneficial either (page 177):

The literature on possible effects of violence and of sexuality in the media is huge, and this is not the place to review it. Recent articles are by Paul Boxer et al. (2009) on effects on adolescents of media violence, and Deborah Fisher et al. (2009) on effects on adolescents of televised sexuality. Although there are questions as to how conclusive these bodies of research are, there is cause for concern that some forms of fiction may have harmful effects.

So, clearly enemies of fiction can select either pointless or damaging examples. However, the fiction that corrupts and destroys is not the kind he is considering. Real fiction, in his terms, is an art and is not to be dismissed as merely a pastime, a waste of time or worse an inducement to destructiveness. He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 174):

. . . . art – I’ll offer a criterion –does not recruit people to believe or act or feel in a particular way.

He unpacks this idea further in many places, for example (page 177):

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

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

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral. How does it work that way?

Fiction, Empathy and Relationships

His case is richly expressed so what follows is a selection of the key points in it that most resonated with my own preoccupations.

One of fiction’s most important benefits is the fostering of empathy. He defines empathy as follows (page 113):

In modern times, and on the basis of recent research on brain imaging, empathy has been described as involving: (a) having an emotion, that (b) is in some way similar to that of another person, that (c) is elicited by observation or imagination of the other’s emotion, and that involves (d) knowing that the other is the source of one’s own emotion.

He asks a general question ((page 95):

If we engage in the simulations of fiction, do the skills we learn there transfer to the everyday social world?

In this book he sees  fiction as (page 99)

. . . . . a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world. This is what Shakespeare and others called a dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But empathy is not all there is to it. His discussion of these other aspects is equally rich but there is not space here to unpack them (page 169).

A second theme in potentially beneficial effects of fiction is in understandings of relationships.

(His third theme I’m not sure is very different from his second as it concerns the dynamics of interactions in groups and is for me an aspect of relationships in general.) There is one more (page 170):

The fourth theme of fiction that can potentially prompt self-improvement is in understandings of the self.

Other Complicating Factors

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

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

The Brontes

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

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

You could decode that to be saying that tormented lives are seedbeds for major fiction and perhaps the writers would be worse people if they did not write. That would be a hard hypothesis to test in practice and the funding might be hard to come by as well.

Still, on balance, I feel Oatley makes a very good case for the value of great fiction. Let’s hope no one gets killed in the boundary disputes where one person’s masterpiece is morphing into someone else’s potboiler.

Related Articles:

The Compass of Compassion

Practising Compassion 1/2 & 2/2

Perfecting the Life or Perfecting the Art (1/2) & (2/2)

Read Full Post »

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

John Ehrenfeld, in Flourishing, the account of his conversation with Andrew Hoffman, develops even further the ideas about our situation that we explored last time (page 107), when he says that ‘Collapse cannot be avoided, if people do not learn to view themselves and others with compassion.’ I have explored the value of compassion and altruism at length elsewhere on this blog, so won’t elaborate further here.

He continues to expand on the importance of our becoming conscious of our interconnectedness (page 108) if we are to truly care. (Another topic explored at length elsewhere, including from a Bahá’í perspective.)

This does not mean we will know all the answers and any such false confidence has been at the root of many of our difficulties (page 111). We have to give due weight to the complexity of reality (page 116):

Our contemporary conversation about sustainability is taking place without a clear understanding, or with purposeful ignorance, of our place within a complex world. Complexity refers to a system whose parts are so multiply interconnected that it is impossible to predict how it will behave when perturbed.

This position is rigorously explored in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. He adduces decades of research to help him define exactly those areas, such as Ehrenfeld refers to here, where, despite our frequently arrogant assumption to the contrary, it is impossible to predict accurately, or in some cases at all, what will happen.

Ehrenfeld defines what our recognition of complexity must entail in his view (page 116-117):

Until we recognise and accept that we humans are an integral part of the complex system we call Earth, the possibility of sustainability will be nil.

Mechanistic models won’t serve our purpose here (page 117). They fail to capture (page 118) ‘the holistic qualities of life.’ Moreover:

Flourishing and other similar qualities emerge from the working of the system as a whole and cannot be described by any reductionist set of rules.

The complexity, which both Mason and Ehrenfeld adduce from their different perspectives, also testifies to the impossibility of defining any of the problems we face in simple terms. No minority group or economic sub-system can in itself explain a failure of this wider system and we cannot accurately predict simple outcomes even from simple lines of action. Ehrenfeld goes on to explain exactly what this implies.

1 Earth Heart alone

For one source of this image see link

Dealing with Complexity

Ehrenfeld feels we have to include three important components in our models of thinking if we are to get anywhere near understanding this complexity (page 119):

The first important component is that the complex Earth system cannot be reduced to a set of analytic rules that both explain and predict its behaviour. . . . . Chaotic situations remain chaotic until something perturbs the system and creates order, but we cannot tell in advance what the ordered system will look like. . . . .

A second important component is that the model of learning and knowledge necessary to understand sustainability in a complex system contradicts the conventional Cartesian model of cognition. [The necessary level of almost exact prediction is impossible.] . . . . . This tension must be very frustrating to many scientists who are not yet ready to drop the scientific method of revealing truth for a method that can only describe behaviour in general terms. . . . .

A third important component is that we must replace the apparent certainty of technocratic designs with adaptive and resilient systems built on understanding that is gained by experience.

There are within the philosophy of science streams of thought, which would not find this predicament surprising or even perhaps particularly frustrating. The frustration of the scientist that Ehrenfeld refers to in the face of organic and potentially chaotic complexity finds an appropriate response in what I have read concerning the relationship William James’s explored between pragmatism and uncertainty. There is more about that elsewhere on this blog (see links in previous sentence.)

Unsurprisingly, pragmatism follows naturally on as part of Ehrenfeld’s argument (page 120), including a later important reference to William James (see below):

If we are to cope . . . we have to start by telling the truth. Pragmatism, an important element of leadership for sustainability-as-flourishing, helps us to move towards the direction of that truth.

This allows for a fruitful and creative interaction between experience and analysis (page 121), and allows for the corrective influence of collective reflection. This is similar to the Bahá’í emphasis upon consultation undertaken by co-workers in a spirit of non-dogmatic reflection (see earlier post). He also advocates the contribution (page 122) of a spirituality that ‘can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world and help a person to discover the meaning of their Being, and the deepest values by which we can live.’

Ehrenfeld steps beck from any simplistic notion of pragmatism, explaining (page 128):

Finding pragmatic truth relies on a continuous enquiry or experiment by a community of learners that ends only when the ‘theory’ developed to explain the latest results successfully explains what is happening and, then and only then, is deemed to be ‘true.’ But such truths are always contingent on and subject to being overruled by future experience.

William James - portrait in pencil

William James – portrait in pencil

This resonates with what David Lamberth wrote in his excellent book, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

It follows from all this, as Ehrenfeld explains (page 132):

In a world of pragmatic thinking, my understanding of the same world that both of us inhabit is likely to be different from yours because you and I have led historically different lives… [A]s long as people are acting and thinking authentically, no one can own an absolutely ‘true’ belief about the world or claim to have the one ‘right’ way to act.

Combining Pragmatism and Principle

It is perhaps important to emphasise here that being pragmatic in this context does not mean being unprincipled. The existence of this link is so frequently and strongly assumed  that it consistently hides an important truth. In a world where exact predictions of what will happen when we take a particular action are virtually impossible, given the complexity of the globally interconnected system within which we now have to operate, we have to find ways of enacting our values while adjusting our plans in the light of subsequent events.

The modus operandi at the individual level which Acceptance and Commitment Therapy outlines seems to me to apply at the collective level as well. We make a plan with clear steps towards what we feel is our valued goal. However, we should not be so attached to any particular step as to confuse it with the ultimate goal. If the step proves not to be taking us in the direction we hoped for we need to change it. Also, as I have discussed at length elsewhere, both at the individual and collective level, the means we choose to bring us nearer to our desired objective should never be inherently corrupt or downright evil.

At the collective level, this all links back as well to the kind of collective creativity Paul Mason refers to in Postcapitalism. He writes (page 287):

Cooperative, self managed, nonhierarchical teams are the most technologically advanced form of work. Yet large parts of the workforce are trapped in a world of fines, discipline, violence and power hierarchies – simply because the existence of a cheap labour culture allows it to survive.

He feels we have to move past this bad model towards a better one building on more co-operative principles (page 288):

As we pursue these goals, a general picture is likely to emerge: the transition to postcapitalism is going to be driven by surprise discoveries made by groups of people working in teams, about what they can do to old processes by applying collaborative thinking and networks..

Ehrenfeld emphasises the importance of spirituality because it is the strongest foundation for a necessary sense of interconnectedness (page 152). His view of religion is much less positive, though that is not entirely surprising given how divisive religion is perceived to be. His main reservation though is that religions are out of date: he seems sadly unaware of the existence of the Bahá’í Faith and the role of other religions in promoting the kinds of awareness he is advocating.

His view is essentially the same as the Bahá’í perspective, which also sees this task as the work of centuries. He writes (page 154):

I don’t think even the young adults of today are going to be the ones to ultimately change things. They are part of a much longer process of change that will even outlive them. It will take generations for these ideas to become embedded in the culture and new norms aligned with flourishing to arise.

It seems a good idea to end this discussion of this complex and challenging issue with the words from a friend’s blog-review of this book.

But it’s fascinating too that when ‘Abdul-Bahá, eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh and His appointed successor, travelled to North America in the summer of 1912, He stopped for two nights in Boston, Massachusetts.  He spent His first morning meeting friends and enquirers, and gave three public talks. At an evening gathering in the Hotel Victoria on the evening of 23 July, He spoke to those early members of the US Bahá’í community on “true economics” – founded on love, kindness and generosity – ideas with which, a century later, the concept of sustainability-as-flourishing seems to fit entirely comfortably:

‘The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit…Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.

‘Strive, therefore, to create love in the hearts in order that they may become glowing and radiant. When that love is shining, it will permeate other hearts even as this electric light illumines its surroundings. When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics. Reflect upon it. Endeavour to become the cause of the attraction of souls rather than to enforce minds. Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity.’

I have discussed elsewhere how this Bahá’í model combines these ideals with their pragmatic application and wrote, in part:

The Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively action is transforming our communities.

I closed that post with a video that illustrated what I meant. Here it is again.

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Mindfulness booksA interview with Jim Doty, posted by Kira M. Newman last week on the Greater Good website, clarifies exactly what the weakness is in the current way that mindfulness is peddled. Uprooted from its spiritual soil it can wither into being merely an instrument of more effective competition. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

According to neurosurgeon Jim Doty, mindfulness and compassion must go hand in hand.

Growing up, Jim Doty had many strikes against him: an alcoholic father, a mother with depression, a family living in poverty. But somehow—in a journey he recounts in his new book, Into the Magic Shop—he managed to overcome them.

Dr. Doty is now a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University. He founded and directs the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), where the Dalai Lama was a founding benefactor. As a philanthropist, he has given millions of dollars to support health care and educational charities around the world.

He attributes his success partly to a kind woman named Ruth, who took 12-year-old Doty under her wing. Over the course of a memorable summer, she taught him techniques of mindfulness, visualization, and compassion that would transform his life. Now, with his book and with CCARE, he is sharing those practices (and the new science behind them) with others—and hoping to help them avoid his mistakes.

“It can hurt to go through life with your heart open, but not as much as it does to go through life with your heart closed,” he writes.

I interviewed Doty about the importance of teaching compassion along with mindfulness, the crisis of compassion in health care, and what’s coming next in compassion research.

Kira M. Newman: You believe that mindfulness without compassion—what you call in your book “opening the heart”—is problematic. Why is that?

Jim Doty: If one looks back on Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness without compassion can be hollow. In fact, the crux of Buddhist philosophy is the combination of these two practices, which together allow one to develop wisdom.

What happens for some people unfortunately is that it stops [with mindfulness]. For certain types of individuals—often Type-A, driven individuals—this is a wonderful technique to become more attentive and more focused. But the problem is that unless you incorporate the other techniques that Ruth taught me, that we now know are critically important, it can be detrimental and make a Type-A person a more competitive, ruthless individual.

The other thing I’ve noticed, especially here in Silicon Valley, is for the same Type-A people, it also creates a competitiveness about how mindful they are. Somebody in a conversation with me recently said, “You know, this is my third 10-day silent retreat.” [laughs]

Unfortunately, mindfulness is another way that people sometimes use to compete and compare, and of course this is the antithesis of this practice. If you go back to its origins, ultimately the goal here is to develop less ego, not to use this practice to support one’s ego.

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Mindfulness books

At the end of last month, the Greater Good website added to my list of worthwhile reading yet again with this article by Hooria Jazaieri. Amongst other things it makes the useful distinction between what happens when the mind wanders to positive as against negative topics. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

According to a new study, how caring we are is linked to how much we pay attention to the present moment. Where is your attention right now? Humans are thought to spend many of our waking hours not in the present moment. What’s more, we are rarely even aware of the fact that our minds have wandered.

Past studies have suggested that mind-wandering has negative effects on our mood and even our physical health. In a recently published study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, my colleagues and I sought to understand whether mind-wandering also makes us less caring—and what we can do about it.

We recruited 51 adults and pinged them twice a day for nine weeks while they were enrolled in a compassion cultivation training course. We were interested in a few things: First, we wanted to find out how much people’s minds were wandering, and to what types of things (pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant topics). Because participants were enrolled in the compassion meditation course, we wanted to find out (on a given day) whether they had completed any formal compassion meditation practices and whether they had engaged in a kind, caring, or helpful behavior toward themselves or someone else. . . . . .

Our findings showed that a wandering mind can be less caring. Specifically, mind-wandering to unpleasant or neutral topics (rather than pleasant topics) predicted less caring behavior toward oneself and others on a given day. Meanwhile, mind-wandering to pleasant topics actually predicted more caring behavior toward oneself and others.

Given prior research suggesting that when our minds wander we’re unhappy, it’s possible that mind-wandering to negative events produces negative emotions that narrow our attention and lead us to miss opportunities for caring. In contrast, when our minds wander to positive events, we may experience positive feelings that broaden our attention and allow us to more fully engage in the present moment and the potential for caring. Past research is a bit mixed on whether people are actually happier when thinking about pleasant topics rather than engaging in the present, so additional studies are needed to explicitly investigate this.

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The Cudgel Fight (for source of image see link)

Goya’s Cudgel Fight (for source of image see link)

For those of us who feel unable to do more and perhaps even more so for those affected by or seeking to change the darkness of the current condition of the world, and especially on this day for those in France struggling to come to terms with what has happened, this prayer seems especially appropriate.

God, my God!  Thou seest how black darkness is enshrouding all regions, how all countries are burning with the flame of dissension, and the fire of war and carnage is blazing throughout the East and the West.  Blood is flowing, corpses bestrew the ground, and severed heads are fallen on the dust of the battlefield.

O Lord!  Have pity on these ignorant ones, and look upon them with the eye of forgiveness and pardon.  Extinguish this fire, so that these dense clouds which obscure the horizon may be scattered, the Sun of Reality shine forth with the rays of conciliation, this intense gloom be dispelled and the resplendent light of peace shed its radiance upon all countries.

O Lord!  Draw up the people from the abyss of the ocean of hatred and enmity, and deliver them from this impenetrable darkness.  Unite their hearts, and brighten their eyes with the light of peace and reconciliation.  Deliver them from the depths of war and bloodshed, and free them from the darkness of error.  Remove the veil from their eyes, and enlighten their hearts with the light of guidance.  Treat them with Thy tender mercy and compassion, and deal not with them according to Thy justice and wrath which cause the limbs of the mighty to quake.

O Lord!  Wars have persisted.  Distress and anxiety have waxed great, and every flourishing region is laid waste.

O Lord!  Hearts are heavy, and souls are in anguish.  Have mercy on these poor souls, and do not leave them to the excesses of their own desires.

O Lord!  Make manifest in Thy lands humble and submissive souls, their faces illumined with the rays of guidance, severed from the world, extolling Thy Name, uttering Thy praise, and diffusing the fragrance of Thy holiness amongst mankind.

O Lord!  Strengthen their backs, gird up their loins, and enrapture their hearts with the most mighty signs of Thy love.

O Lord!  Verily, they are weak, and Thou art the Powerful and the Mighty; they are impotent, and Thou art the Helper and the Merciful.

O Lord!  The ocean of rebellion is surging, and these tempests will not be stilled save through Thy boundless grace which hath embraced all regions.

O Lord!  Verily, the people are in the abyss of passion, and naught can save them but Thine infinite bounties.

O Lord!  Dispel the darkness of these corrupt desires, and illumine the hearts with the lamp of Thy love through which all countries will erelong be enlightened.  Confirm, moreover, Thy loved ones, those who, leaving their homelands, their families and their children, have, for the love of Thy Beauty, traveled to foreign countries to diffuse Thy fragrances and promulgate Thy Teachings.  Be Thou their companion in their loneliness, their helper in a strange land, the remover of their sorrows, their comforter in calamity.  Be Thou a refreshing draught for their thirst, a healing medicine for their ills and a balm for the burning ardor of their hearts.

Verily, Thou art the Most Generous, the Lord of grace abounding, and, verily, Thou art the Compassionate and the Merciful.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

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