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Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’

The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

. . . .even as the human body in this world, which is outwardly composed of different limbs and organs, is in reality a closely integrated, coherent entity, similarly the structure of the physical world is like unto a single being whose limbs and members are inseparably linked together.

(Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet quoted in part in a statement from the Bahá’í International Community Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Baha’i Faith)

The Moral Imagination

As I explained in the previous posts, in his long and enthralling book on altruism, Ricard has used reason brilliantly to advocate altruism as the solution to our personal and global problems. That in itself makes it an essential read for those of us engaged in understanding these issues more deeply.

He would be the first to agree, I hope, that an intellectual conviction in altruism is not going to be sufficient to motivate enough people to rise to the level of sacrifice required for long enough to achieve the necessary effect. In fact, his long examination of the power of Buddhist meditation within its spiritual context shows that it produces greater levels of compassion and altruism than do shorter experiences of meditation divorced from its roots. The necessary devotion to meditate for the periods of time required to achieve this effect would be impossible to sustain, in my view, without the faith in the discipline that goes with it.

He ends his book, it seems to me, rather in the same trap as Rifkin did. And I’m afraid I have the same response, despite my admiration and respect for the compelling case he marshals in the seven hundred pages it took him five years to write.

I understand the strength of Rifkin’s sense that humanity’s progress has put us within reach of Ricard’s hope of a sufficiently widespread altruism. Robert Wright puts the same hope in slightly different terms in his book The Evolution of God.

He states (page 428):

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (page 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

He rescues this from cliché by pointing out that the idea of common humanity may be a self-evident point when we read or hear it, but it’s far from obvious if you look at the way we act. This is because we are under the illusion that we are special (page 429):

We all base our daily lives on this premise – that our welfare is more important than the welfare of pretty much anyone else, with the possible exception of close kin. . . . We see our own resentments as bona fide grievances and we see the grievances of others as mere resentments.

He links the progress of humanity with the application of the unifying insight in daily life (page 429):

. . . . the salvation of the global social system entails moral progress not just in the sense of human welfare; there has to be as a prerequisite for that growth, a closer encounter by individual human beings with moral truth.

He feels that it is inevitable that we will either move closer to moral truth or descend into chaos. He feels that (ibid):

. . . history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth, and now our moving still closer to moral truth is the only path to salvation . . .

by which he means salvation of the social structure. He feels (page 430) that religions that have ‘failed to align individual salvation with social salvation have not, in the end, fared well.’

However, I realise that just as it is impossible for Rifkin conclusively to prove that any hope of empathic rescue from our current predicament must come from our material nature because that is all there is, or for Ricard to prove that an intellectual conviction in the value of altruism is the best hope we have, I cannot conclusively prove to everyone’s satisfaction that

(a) these in themselves could never be sufficient, and

(b) that is OK because we can draw upon transcendent powers.

That though is what I believe.

While Bahá’ís have a model for how this task might be accomplished, it is not a task for Bahá’ís alone. It would be impossible. All people of good will across the planet need to play their part according to their sense of what is required of them.

Moving to a Higher Level

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when we have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted.

Though I sympathised with Rifkin’s and Ricard’s perspective then as I do now with Klein’s, I am not convinced it will be enough. The changes that need to be made are major, effortful, and must be sustained over decades if not centuries. Possibly, without something extra, we would be like the Hero of Haarlem, trying to save the village by putting our finger in the dike of humanity’s crisis, only this time it is leaking in too many places: we would lack the capacity to fully understand what to do, to take effective action or to endure the necessary strain for the time required.

Perhaps we need to acknowledge that there are spiritual powers upon which we should be prepared to draw to meet the challenges of our complex global industrialised empire – I’d rather not use the word civilisation. Perhaps we need to access the wisdom of a collective Mind or Soul if we are to understand the problems we face in the first place and draw on the strength of a spiritual dimension before we can even dream of implementing the solutions for the required amount of time.

The Importance of Detachment

I have referred throughout this sequence to the importance of reflection for the individual and consultation for communities as trance and pattern breakers that can free us from the shackles of convention and the veils of illusion. What I have not spelled out until now is that for these two disciplines to work for us at their most powerful there has to be a third element present: detachment. Detachment is the essential catalyst. If there is no such detachment then neither reflection nor consultation would achieve more for us outside this spiritual context than would borrowing meditation alone from the Buddhists, as I described earlier.

The translations of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s comments in Paris Talks use the terms reflection, contemplation and meditation almost interchangeably. The full context strongly suggests that reflection depends upon detachment and that detachment connects us with God.

Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit—the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. . . .

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

The existentialist philosopher, Peter Koestenbaum, comes to a similar conclusion concerning the end result of stepping back from our programmed identifications through the process of reflection.

He explains this in his seminal book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.

Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

Similarly ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes clear in his writings that one of the key prerequisites for consultation is detachment:

The prime requisites for them that take counsel together are purity of motive, radiance of spirit, detachment from all else save God, attraction to His Divine Fragrances, humility and lowliness amongst His loved ones, patience and long-suffering in difficulties and servitude to His exalted Threshold.

It is possible to argue that detachment is achievable without any belief in a transcendent dimension or in any power beyond those of the natural world. I would have to agree that a degree of detachment is indeed possible within those constraints.

However, from a Bahá’í point of view, there are two quotations of particular relevance here.

The first is from the Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh (Arabic no. 68):

O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

And the second from the Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh (page 155):

The essence of detachment is for man to turn his face towards the courts of the Lord, to enter His Presence, behold His Countenance, and stand as witness before Him.

These clearly suggest that the realisation of the highest degree of detachment is dependent upon an acceptance of and obedience to a spiritual power greater than ourselves.

Conclusions

I have explored at length on this blog from where the motivation can be derived to persevere in the necessary remedial actions for sufficiently long to create a major and enduring paradigm and action pattern shift and why that is necessary not only for our personal wellbeing but also for our collective survival. We need to realise how much we disown and to accept that this disowning in all its forms has to be transcended.

But we need more than that. We need a sense of how best to transcend our disowning.

I have used disowning as my catchword for the ways we blind ourselves to what we do not want to know. Part of the reason for using this word is that it also implies that we are refusing to own up to our neglect. When we own up to it and fully experience the necessary shock and revulsion at our own failures we will then have taken the first step on the road to remedying our defects. I have also argued that we need to not only exert ourselves to put into effect the individual and group skills that will generate viable solutions to the problems that confront us, but we will also have to keep up our efforts at an extremely high level for very long periods of time, over centuries if necessary.

The Universal House of Justice describes it in a letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran dated 2 March 2013:

Yet, however promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades—nay, centuries—to unfold.

This therefore for me entails also recognising that we have to have faith in some form of transcendent power to enhance all we do, to motivate us to persist for as long as necessary, and to lift our endeavours to the necessary heights of creativity and healing. It seems to me that everything we love depends upon our acting in this way from now on and indefinitely.

If not, the chances are we will give up too soon or fail to do as much as we are able.

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O SON OF SPIRIT! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No. 13)

Rings of Self True self v2

In the past I have made various attempts to articulate what I mean by reflection and why it matters. This is one that seems worth re-publishing at this point. This is the last in the sequence of four.

 

I have to be honest. The main benefits of meditation that I have achieved so far are a calm state of consciousness, a steady groundedness and an intermittent connection with my subliminal mind. No mystical moments or experience of my Soul – so far as I’m aware at least. I could’ve been bathing in bliss, I suppose, and just not realised it. In any case it wouldn’t count for present purposes if I didn’t know it.

In fact, it seems that nothing much has changed since May 1982, when I wrote in my diary, after about a year of consistent meditation:

I have been astonished at the power of meditation to help me bring about fundamental changes in my thinking and orientation…, and all that without any dramatic experiences within the period of meditation. In fact, even the simplest aspects of meditation are a hard struggle – maintaining the posture, following the breath, passive watchfulness and not fidgeting. It takes all my concentration to achieve any one of those for the briefest period.

I think I might have been selling myself short a bit there.

There seemed to have been a flicker of something more significant a few days later when I commented:

I finally achieved an experience unlike any other. I felt my being forced open by something which dissolved my boundaries, physical and mental. There was, for a brief moment, neither inside nor outside. My self as I knew it shrank to a few fragments clinging to the edges of this something which ‘I’ had become or which had become me or which I always am deep down. I was frightened. I dared not quite let the experience be.

Although there was a repeat of that some weeks later, I came to feel that it was probably an artefact of the way my breathing slowed as my meditation got deeper, and I have never been able to entice any such experience without reducing my breathing in a way that creates a blending sort of buzz in my brain that goes nowhere and probably means nothing.

So, when it comes to writing about the True Self I’m going to have to rely on the testimony of others even though perhaps the main purpose of meditation for me is to achieve contact with that part of me which is really all that matters about me, if it exists as I believe it does.

Not exactly brimming with confidence, am I?

The ‘No Self’ Issue

I am aware that I have already posted at some length on the ‘No Self’ position so I’ll rehash that quickly now before moving onto slightly different ground. Last December I posted on this issue, looking at Sam Harris’s argument in An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality that there is no ‘real self,’ and concluded:

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to something Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.’

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

Setting aside my sense, which I have explored at length elsewhere, that the mere existence of consciousness warrants a transcendent explanation, where does this leave me now?

NDE

For source of image see link.

NDEs and OBEs

In that post I launched into a consideration of the evidence that suggests the mind is not reducible to the body/brain and it may even survive bodily extinction. Elsewhere I have explored at length the evidence Near-Death-Experiences (NDEs) provide to support the idea that the mind or consciousness is not dependent upon or reducible to the brain.

There are also examples in the NDE literature that in those states of consciousness people have access to levels of understanding far beyond those accessible in ordinary consciousness. For example, a respondent to Raymond Moody wrote (quoted in Ken Ring’s Lessons from the Light – page 177):

One big thing I learned when I died was that we are all part of one big, living universe. If we think we can hurt another person or another living thing without hurting ourselves, we are sadly mistaken. I look at a forest are a flower or a bird now, and say, ‘That is me, part of me.’ We are connected with all things and if we send love along these connections, then we are happy.

Right now in this post, though, I am looking for any evidence that suggests there are people who have connected with that transcendent aspect of themselves outside the NDE context and that this is something the rest of us might be able to achieve at least momentarily and possibly at will in our ordinary lives. I also would like to examine evidence that might indicate that by experiencing this Mind we can access levels of wiser understanding than are available in ordinary consciousness.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, out-of-body experiences, while sometimes giving access to factual information at least anecdotally, do not seem to bring moments of deep insight. Experimentation is largely focused on seeking examples that will point towards mind/brain independence but not I think towards wisdom and ‘illumination.’

NDE

For source of adapted image see link

Mysticism

The lives and experiences of the great mystics provide inspiring examples of direct access to a transcendent realm and the wisdom it enshrines. Evelyn Underhill, in her book Mysticism, summarises it as follows (page 23-24):

Of all those forms of life and thought with which humanity has fed its craving for truth, mysticism alone postulates, and in the persons of its great initiates proves, the existence of the Absolute, but also this link: this possibility first of knowing, finally of attaining it. It denies that possible knowledge is to be limited (a) to sense impressions, (b) to any process of intellection, and (c) to the unfolding of the content of normal consciousness. The mystics find the basis of their method not in logic but in life: in the existence of a discoverable ‘real,’ a spark of true being, within the seeking subject, which can, in that ineffable experience which they call ‘the act of union,’ fuse itself with and thus apprehend the reality of the sought Object. In theological language, their theory of knowledge is that the spirit of man, itself essentially divine, is capable of immediate communion with God, the One Reality.

The quote from the Bahá’í Writings at the head of this post suggests that something like this is possible, though Bahá’í Scripture also points out that the Great Being we refer to as ‘God’ is not in fact reducible to what we can experience, no matter how advanced we are spiritually, even though that experience can give us a sense of what the Great Being is like – the attributes, to use a Bahá’í expression.

Unfortunately, systematic scientifically acceptable studies confirming the objective validity of such mystical moments are as rare as hen’s teeth. Even when claims are made for replicable brain changes that correlate, for example, with deeply stable and focused attention, it’s usually on the back of something like 19,000 hours of practice (see Matthieu Ricard’s Altruism – page 251). Such a person is described as ‘relatively experienced.’ To be really good at effortlessly sustaining such focused attention an average of 44,000 hours is required.

As I generally manage to meditate for something like 20-30 minutes only each day, to reach those larger numbers would take me 241 years. So, it’s a relief to read (pages 252-53) that even ‘eight weeks of meditation on altruistic love, at a rate of thirty minutes per day, increased positive emotions and one’s degree of satisfaction with existence.’

Silence participants

Participants in ‘The Big Silence‘ (see my comment)

Silence

At this late stage of an imperfect life, I consider my chances of attaining anything remotely close to that kind of effortless attention, let alone contact with the divine within, to be vanishingly small, so I think it more realistic to focus on a more modest objective.

A good and accessible source of guidance for me is to be found in books about Psychosynthesis – take Piero Ferrucci for example. In Chapter 20 of his book What We May Be, in a discussion of Silence (pages 217-226) there are many useful insights that confirm my own experience so far, make me feel less guilty about my interrupted meditations and perhaps point a way further forwards. He writes about the ‘state of intense and at the same time relaxed alertness,’ which comes with silence. He speaks of how ‘insights flow into this receptive space we have created.’ He goes onto explain what might be going on here:

While the mind [in my terms intellect] grasps knowledge in a mediated way . . . and analytically, intuition seizes truth in a more immediate and global manner. For this to happen, the mind becomes at least temporarily silent. As the intuition is activated, the mind is gradually transformed . . . .

He unpacks the kinds of intuition to which we may come to have access: about people and about problems, but beyond that also at ‘the superconscious level’ we can have ‘a direct intuitive realisation of a psychological quality, of a universal law, of the interconnectedness of everything with everything else, of the oneness of all reality, of eternity, and so on.’

Then he makes a key point, which resonates strongly with Iain McGilchrist’s position in The Master & his Emissary, which I touched on in the second post:

Intuition perceives wholes, while our everyday analytical mind is used to dealing with parts and therefore finds the synthesising grasp of the intuition unfamiliar

Intuitions are ‘surprisingly wider than the mental categories [we] would usually like to capture them with.’

He provides a useful list of facilitators of intuition over and above the role of silence. We need to give it attention, as I have already discovered in my own experience. Intuitions often come in symbolic form, as I have found in both dreamwork and in poetry. We have to be prepared to learn the code or language of our intuitive mind and there are no manuals for this: everybody’s intuitive self speaks a different dialect. Last of all we have to keep ‘an intuition workbook.’ Writing an insight down facilitates the emergence of others, and insights often come in clusters if we encourage them in this way.

There is one more priceless potential outcome of this kind of process:

There is, however, one higher goal – higher even then the flower of intuition – to which the cultivation of silence can bring us. While it is rarely reached, it is of such importance that no discussion of silence can be complete without it. I refer to illumination. While intuition can be thought of as giving us a glimpse of the world in which the Self lives, illumination can best be conceived as a complete view of that world. In fact, illumination is the act of reaching the Self and contacting it fully.

So, maybe I am on the right track after all, just not very consistent in my treading of it. I’m encouraged enough by all this to persist and hope that one day, before I move on from this body, I will connect with my true Self and deepen my felt understanding of my purpose here before it’s too late, of what interconnectedness is, and of how to develop a greater depth of more consistent altruism than has been in my power so far.

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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

Were one to observe with an eye that discovereth the realities of all things, it would become clear that the greatest relationship that bindeth the world of being together lieth in the range of created things themselves, and that co-operation, mutual aid and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly.

(Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet quoted in part in a statement from the Bahá’í International Community Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Baha’i Faith)

Post-truth politics also poses a problem for scepticism. A healthy democracy needs to leave plenty of room for doubt. There are lots of good reasons to be doubtful about what the reality of climate change will entail: though there is scientific agreement about the fact of global warming and its source in human activity, the ultimate risks are very uncertain and so are the long-term consequences. There is plenty of scope for disagreement about the most effective next steps. The existence of a very strong scientific consensus does not mean there should be a consensus about the correct political response. But the fact of the scientific consensus has produced an equal and opposite reaction that squeezes the room for reasonable doubt. The certainty among the scientists has engendered the most intolerant kind of scepticism among the doubters.

(From How climate scepticism turned into something more dangerous by David Runciman – Guardian Friday 7 July 2017)

At the end of the last post I shared the hope that my helicopter survey of a vast field has done enough to convey clearly my sense that as individuals and communities we are locked into unconsciously determined and potentially destructive patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour, until we discover the keys of reflection for individuals and consultation for groups.

What we might do next is the focus of the final two posts.

When people resist therapy the personal price can be high. When cultures resist change the social and environmental costs can be even greater.

At whatever level we consider the matter, counteracting our default patterns requires significant effort, and the more complicated the problem, as in the case of climate change, the greater the effort. Even a simple puzzle can defeat even the best brains if the necessary effort is not taken to solve it. And often no effort is made because no failure in problem-solving is detected. Take this beautiful illustration of the point from Daniel Khaneman’s excellent treatment of what he calls System 1 (rapid fire reaction) and System 2 (careful effortful thinking) in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow.I have dealt at length elsewhere with my distaste for the use of the word ‘intuitive’ in this context: I prefer ‘instinctive.’ Now though is not the time to delve into that problem: I’m currently republishing some of the posts dealing with that question.

The main point and its relevance is hopefully clear.

Biosphere Consciousness

Taking on the difficult problems is clearly going to be a challenge when we don’t even recognise or admit that our default reponses are so wide of the mark.

We need to reach at least a basic level of interactive understanding on a global scale if we are to successfully address the problems of our age. But we need more than that.

Rifkin, in his excellent book The Empathic Civilisation argues the case eloquently. He recognizes that to motivate us to make the necessary sacrifices to allow our civilization to survive its entropic processes we need something larger than ourselves to hold onto. By entropic he means all the waste and excessive consumption a growing population generates.

He doesn’t think religion will do the trick though.

For example, he sees the Golden Rule, a central tenant of all the great world religions, as self-interested because, by observing it, according to his version of religion, we buy paradise when we die. Kant, in his view, almost rescued it but not quite (page 175):

Immanuel Kant make the rational case for the Golden Rule in the modern age in his famous categorical imperative. . . . . First, “Act only on that maxim that can at the same time be willed to become a universal law.” Second, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” Although Kant eliminated the self-interested aspect of doing good that was so much a part of most religious experiences, he also eliminated the “felt” experience that makes compassion so powerful and compelling.

Rifkin does acknowledge that Judaism endorses the universal application of the Golden Rule (page 214):

Lest some infer that the Golden Rule applies literally to only one’s neighbours and blood kin, the Bible makes clear that it is to be regarded as a universal law. In Leviticus it is written: “[T]he stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve (1808), version from the “Butts set” (for source of image see link)

He acknowledges that the Axial Age (page 216) was ‘the first budding of empathic consciousness.’ He feels Christianity has warped this ideal, especially in respect of the existence of Satan, the Fall of man, and the resultant denigration of the body. He is aware that other religious teachings do not fall into what would be for him the same trap. However, he dates from the time of the Enlightenment the demise of religion as an effective force in society.

He feels that he can now locate our redemption in that same physical nature he is convinced that religion is revolted by (page 349):

After deconstructing Kant’s categorical imperative, Schopenhauer offers a detailed description of moral behaviour that he argues is embedded in the very sinew of human nature – with the qualification that it needs to be brought out and nurtured by society if it is to be fully realised. He argues that “compassion” is at the core of human nature.

The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.

He clearly hopes it does. He describes the exact nature of the challenge our situation creates (page 593):

The challenge before us is how to bring forward all of these historical stages of consciousness that still exist across the human spectrum to a new level of biosphere consciousness in time to break the lock that shackles increasing empathy to increasing entropy. . . .

And he concludes (ibid.):

In a world characterised by increasing individuation and made up of human beings at different stages of consciousness, the biosphere itself maybe the only context encompassing enough to unite the human race as a species.

This position is perhaps an inevitable consequence of his unwillingness to admit the possibility of a theological inspiration. I am astonished even more by a subsequent claim, which is imbued with the same blinkering assumption that Western materialist models of the world have basically got it right. He blurts out, in surprise (page 593-4):

While the new distributed communications technologies – and, soon, distributed renewable energies – are connecting the human race, what is so shocking is that no one has offered much of a reason as to why we ought to be connected. . . .

Does he have no awareness of current trends in holistic thinking, which assert that we are already and have always been interconnected at the deepest possible levels, not simply in terms of these recently emerged material factors? Is he ignoring long-standing spiritual systems such as that of the Native Americans whose foundation stone is this concept of interconnectedness? Does he not know of the empirical evidence being generated by near-death experiences, many of which include reports of just such a sense of nonmaterial interconnectedness? Has he not heard even a whisper of the Bahá’í position, admittedly recently emerged but with a longer history than the roots of holism in physics, that humanity is one and needs to recognise its essential unity if we are to be able to act together to solve the global problems that confront us? The problem is not that no one is offering a reason ‘why we ought to be connected’: the problem is that too few people are accepting the idea, expressed by millions of our fellow human beings in many complementary models of the world, that we are already deeply connected at a spiritual level, not just with each other but with the earth that sustains our material existence.

Naomi Klein makes a powerful case for hoping that the shock of climate change will have just the kind of positive effect that Rifkin looks for in Gaia, though she also is fully aware that shock often narrows our capacity to think, feel and relate and we end up in the tunnel-vision of fight and flight. She is aligned with Rifkin in his hope that identification on our part with the plight of the planet will be a sufficient catalyst to produce the desired shift.

Altruism

Matthieu Ricard takes on these issues from a different angle.

There are major obstacles to addressing our challenges effectively and Ricard is not blind to them (page 580):

. . . . . in a world where politicians aim only to be elected or re-elected, where financial interest groups wield a disproportionate influence on policy makers, where the well-being of future generations is often ignored since their representatives do not have a seat at the negotiating table, where governments pursue national economic policies that are to the detriment of the global interest, decision-makers have barely any inclination to create institutions whose goal would be to encourage citizens to contribute to collective wealth, which would serve to eradicate poverty.

Snower contends, and Ricard agrees with him and so do I, that reason alone will never get us beyond this point (page 581):

. . . . no one has been able to show that reason alone, without the help of some prosocial motivation, is enough to persuade individuals to widen their sphere of responsibility to include all those who are affected by their actions.

Because he is a Buddhist, in his book Ricard chooses to advocate altruism (ibid):

Combined with the voice of reason, the voice of care can fundamentally change our will to contribute to collective goods. Such ideas echo the Buddhist teachings on uniting wisdom and compassion: without wisdom, compassion can be blind without compassion, wisdom becomes sterile.

Ricard (page 611) raises the issue of ‘altruism for the sake of future generations.’ If we accept the reality of climate change, as most of us now do, our behaviour will unarguably affect our descendants for the worse if we do not change it. Given that evolution has produced a human brain that privileges short term costs and benefits over long-term ones, such that a smoker does not even empathise with his future self sufficiently strongly to overcome in many cases the powerful allure of nicotine addiction, what chance has altruism in itself got of producing the desired effect?

Ricard to his credit faces this head on and quotes the research of Kurzban and Houser (page 631-32). They conclude from their research that:

20% of people are altruists who bear the fortunes of future generations in mind and are disposed to altering their ways of consumption to avoid destroying the environment. . . . . .

[However], around 60% of people follow prevailing trends and opinion leaders, something that highlights the power of the herd instinct in humans. These ‘followers’ are also ‘conditional cooperators:’ they are ready to contribute to the public good on the condition that everyone else does likewise.

The final 20% are not at all inclined to cooperate and want more than anything to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them. They are not opposed to other people’s happiness in principle, but it is not their business.

Shades of Pettigrew again! This clearly indicates that reaching the tipping point, where most people have widened out their unempathic tunnel vision to embrace the whole of humanity and future generations in a wide-angled embrace, is some way off still. He goes on to outline the many practical steps that lie within our reach, such as recycling more of our waste metals and moving to hydrogen powered cars. Enough of us have to want to bring those steps into reality before change will occur at a fast enough rate.

According to Ricard, we must move (page 682) from ‘community engagement to global responsibility.’ To do this it is necessary ‘to realise that all things are interdependent, and to assimilate that world view in such a way that it influences our every action.’ He sees altruism as the key to this transition.

The last post will take a closer look at that amongst other possibilities.

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Sow the seeds of My divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of thy heart.

(Persian Hidden Words, No. 33: Bahá’u’lláh)

Rings of Self Intuition

In the past I have made various attempts to articulate what I mean by reflection and why it matters. This is one that seems worth re-publishing at this point. This is the final one of the weekend, and the last will come out on Tuesday.

In the previous post I had come to the conclusion that some problems cannot be solved by reason alone even when we saturate our mind in the available information. It is then, I felt, that we need to become aware that intense thought, marinating the mind as it does in the details of a complex situation, is also doing something else. The contents of surface consciousness are seeping down to deeper levels of awareness with access to other powerful but essentially non-verbal methods of problem solving and decision-making.

We are not yet required to invoke any kind of spiritual concept. There’s plenty of evidence to support the notion that many creative and problem-solving processes are at work beneath the surface of ordinary consciousness. They deliver the fruits of their labours in dreams or else in unexpected flashes of insight when we are walking, cooking, meditating or simply day-dreaming.

This makes it seem legitimate to see the processes of effortful thought as a form of seed sowing. Most of the time most of us don’t realise that this is what we are doing. This is partly because we’ve never been told that this is what can happen. Also there can be such a lapse of time between rumination and insight we don’t really connect the two, rather like a gardener who forgets what he planted last year when it flowers this spring.

This makes it clear that accessing intuition takes time. It also requires us to be alert for the subtle and often whispered promptings of the subliminal mind. We do not by and large pay attention to our dreams and we are often too distracted by the treadmill of our daily tasks and routines to notice the signs of the fleeting presence of a preconscious insight. We haven’t even learned to expect it or value its wisdom. I have dealt with this in more detail elsewhere. For present purposes it is enough to say that slowing down, silencing the distracting contents of my mind and catching the butterflies of insight in the net of consciousness are vital skills to practice everyday. Once an insight comes I find it necessary to use the notebook I carry with me all the time to write it down: I have learned that if I do not, that butterfly of wisdom is usually gone for ever.

The evidence for the existence of this kind of process is well documented. The authors, Edward Kelly and Michael Grosso, in the brilliant, exhaustive but for some possibly exhausting book Irreducible Mind, adduce examples of this before explaining that inspiration (page 441):

. . . is essentially the intrusion into supraliminal consciousness of some novel form of order that has gestated somewhere beyond its customary margins. The content of such inspirations can vary widely in character, scope, completeness, but psychologically the process is fundamentally the same throughout its range.

Notebook

What’s my take on this?

In the meditation evening experience I posted about recently, I spoke of the discussion we had about how we should react when creative and problem-solving ideas come to us in meditation. It’s a dilemma for me but it illustrates the main point I am making in this post.

I meditate every morning for at least 20 minutes. Typically the first few minutes go well. My mind settles and I have little or no trouble focusing on my mantram or my breath, whichever is the centre of my attention at the time. Then, as my mind quietens down more completely, it happens. If I have been agonising over what to do about some problem or other, a possible and plausible solution comes to mind. Or if I am stuck in my drafting of a post for this blog, the possibly perfect development comes to mind.

Big dilemma!

What do I do?

If I steer my mind back to my breathing or my mantram for the next ten minutes or whatever is left of my meditation period, you can bet your life I will have forgotten what the idea was. If I distract myself from the breath or the mantram by reminding myself regularly of what I had thought I’m not really meditating anymore. My mind it split. And even though someone suggested it is fine to do this, I cannot reconcile myself to focusing on the idea rather than the mantram or breath for the rest of the time.

So, right or wrong, what I do is thank my subliminal self for the inspiration, pause the timer and jot down the ideas in the notebook I keep at my side during meditation. It just doesn’t feel right to reject the gift, especially when, in a sense, I have asked for guidance by sweating over the problem or the draft for ages already. Once the idea is captured I restart the timer and go back to my meditation.

For me this is a regular occurrence and usually the ideas I receive stand the test of implementation and are better than I had been able to create by conscious effort alone. There is no doubt in my mind at all that my intuitive, creative or subliminal self is a lot smarter in many ways than my conscious self. It may even be more authentically who I truly am, or at least far closer to that core of being if it exists, as I have come to believe it does.

For my own purposes I have developed a mock equation as a mnemonic for my preferred approach to deepening my understanding of an issue. This approach, in interaction with experience, involves using meditation as a means of accessing the products of my subliminal thought processes in combination with reading and writing. So, I move in and out of active/passive  engagement with experience through reading, writing and reflection, my three Rs.

Reflection is a term that cuts both ways: it can be used to describe the workings of the intellect – labeled deliberation, in the previous post, to avoid confusion –  or the process of meditation, in which we pull back from identifying with the usual contents of our consciousness. Both processes of reflection and their product are very different from the knee-jerk reactions of instinct described in the first post of this sequence.

So, E + 3R = I, where I = Insight and E stands for Experience. This is one of the roles the writing of this blog is meant to execute.

Where next?

If we add spirituality into the mix, then we would also be considering two other possible aspects of this process.

First we could potentiate our chances of being inspired with the best possible solution if we prayed and reflected upon Scriptures relevant to our dilemma or problem.

Secondly, we would be prepared to consider the possibility that there is a part of our nature that is not reducible to our brain and body, something that is more like a transceiver than a calculator, that has access to a universal mind, an Anima Mundi, a repository at the very least of all the accumulated wisdom of preceding ages, and possibly beyond that of all ages past and yet to come. This was very much the position that the poet William Butler Yeats espoused. The introduction to Albright’s Everyman edition of Yeats’s poems puts it succinctly (page xxi):

He came to the conclusion that there was in fact one source, a universal warehouse of images that he called the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. Each human soul could attune itself to revelation, to miracle, because each partook in the world’s general soul.

But more of the spiritual side next time.

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‘In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire loosen not thy hold.

(Persian Hidden Words, No. 3: Bahá’u’lláh)

. . . . it is evident that the method of reason is not perfect, for the differences of the ancient philosophers, the want of stability and the variations of their opinions, prove this. For if it were perfect, all ought to be united in their ideas and agreed in their opinions.

(Some Answered Questions, page 298: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

Rings of Self IntellectIn the past I have made various attempts to articulate what I mean by reflection and why it matters. This is one that seems worth re-publishing at this point. There will be two more posts over the weekend, and then the last on Tuesday.

When we have a problem situation to which we cannot find an easy solution, when our instinctive responses, whether or not they are obviously destructive, fail to deliver, we need to move from what Kahneman calls System 1 thinking, and which I have described as instinct, to the slower processes of System 2, what I am here calling intellect.

In order to access those processes we need to keep instinct on pause for significantly long periods of time.

Some, such as Kahneman, believe that this is as far as we can go in terms of depth processing. There is nothing else to do and it works well for most of the problems we will encounter.

Up to a point I agree. Effortful, conscious and carefully researched thought in itself constitutes a perfectly valid approach to problem-solving and decision-making. There are many excellent treatments of this theme, including Kahneman’s. Another good place to start is Levitin’s The Organised Mind. His book has some rather pedestrian passages which give over-extended illustrations of his main point, but one of the best chapters concerns Organising Information for the Hardest Decisions: When Life Is on the Line. This chapter almost makes the book worth buying even if the rest is something of a rehash of Kahneman.

He explains (page 221) why deploying the intellect is so important in making decisions about our treatment for medical problems: ‘Cognitive science has taught is that relying on our gut . . . often leads to bad decisions, particularly in cases where statistical information is available. Our guts and our brains didn’t evolve to deal with probabilistic thinking.’ And probabilistic thinking, based on an adequate understanding of statistics, is precisely what is required when we have to weigh up whether or not to have major surgery or cancer treatment. Then we are often dealing with a complex cost-benefit analysis. For example, he nails an important issue on page 239: ‘Ask your doctor not just about efficacy and mortality, but quality of life and side effects that may impact it. Indeed, many patients value quality of life more than longevity and are willing to trade one for the other.’

He uses prostate cancer (page 240) as an example. Surgeons in the US are prone to recommending surgery on diagnosis. There are complicating factors though. Prostate cancer is a slow killer – ‘most men die with it rather than of it.’ Also there is ‘a fairly high incidence of recurrence following surgery,’ along with a high risk of other side-effects including erectile difficulties (80%), urinary (35%) and faecal (25%) incontinence. Agreeing to surgery is therefore not a simple decision to make. Our gut is not to be trusted and we should not simply accept the default recommendation. We need to think hard and assess whether the benefits of surgery truly outweigh the costs for us. That’s where System 2 is on home ground and should be energetically deployed, and Levitin gives detailed guidance about how we can best use its strengths to disentangle the complexity and clarify the issues.

For source of image see link.

For source of image see link.

However, Iain McGilchrist in his masterpiece, The Master & his Emissary, has exposed for all to see how dangerous it can be for us to rely even on this supposedly rational aspect of our being to solve all our problems and make all our decisions for us. The conclusion he reaches that most matters for present purposes is on pages 228:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates [in our society] . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

He draws a further disquieting conclusion (page 229):

Once the system is set up it operates like a hall of mirrors in which we are reflexively imprisoned. Leaps of faith from now on are strictly out of bounds. Yet it is only whatever can ‘leap’ beyond the world of language and reason that can break out of the imprisoning hall of mirrors and reconnect with the lived world. And the evidence is that this unwillingness to allow escape is not just a passive process, an ‘involuntary’ feature of the system, but one that appears willed by the left hemisphere. The history of the last 100 years particularly . . . , contains many examples of the left hemisphere’s intemperate attacks on nature, art, religion and the body, the main routes to something beyond its power.

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the richly textured right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a deep morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

This implies that penetrating beyond the intellect’s currently preferred, complacent and self-protecting shell will require effort and skill. It is necessary to do so because some problems are so complex and nuanced that our intellectual processes do not seem able to crack the code and come up with an answer.

It is then we need to become aware that intense thought, marinating the mind as it does in the details of a complex situation, is also doing something else. The contents of surface consciousness are seeping down to deeper levels of awareness with access to other powerful but essentially non-verbal methods of problem solving and decision-making. It is as though we are sowing seeds in the subliminal mind where they can germinate in the earth of the heart to produce the fruit of creative solutions which will break through into consciousness at some unpredictable moment of insight.

That forms the theme of the next post.

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O SON OF SPIRIT! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

(Arabic Hidden Words -No. 13: Bahá’u’lláh)

Wisdom Traffic Lights

In the past I have made various attempts to articulate what I mean by reflection and why it matters. This is one that seems worth re-publishing at this point. There will be three posts over the weekend, and then last on Tuesday.

Recently I explained how I have come to use a traffic light system to help me remember not to rely on gut instincts unless the situation I am facing is a genuine emergency. This is not because gut instincts are always destructive. There are many stories of heroic reactions to life-threatening dangers resulting in people being rescued from drowning or worse, by split second decisions to act on the part of strangers. It’s simply that when there is no emergency a pause for thought leads to wiser decisions, especially if anger and terror not altruistic concerns are triggered.

While the traffic light system is helpful, I felt the need to develop my model further and have devised as a necessary complement a target system.

Weeding:

Most of the time, as Kahneman explains in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, we operate in instinctive mode (he uses the word intuition which I think is misleading for reasons I have explained at length elsewhere). This is highly adaptive as we would hardly be able to get dressed in the morning before it was time to go to bed if we had not automated every routine task in this way. Where instinct breaks down as a reliable guide about what to do is where the negative emotions of our reptilian brain kick in and/or the situation is complex. Reptilian reactions are the ones centred around rage, fear, shame, disgust and the like. They are what push us in extreme situations to override our sense of common humanity and seriously injure our fellow human beings, either emotionally or physically.

I use the term reaction to describe our impulses at this level. For me the target’s guide to determine what I should do is the bull’s eye of this diagram: the True Self. There is no sense, of course, that this is any kind of bull, so the metaphor is in that respect unfortunate. However, it works as a short hand for my present goal.

Rings of Self: Instinctive Reaction

Rings of Self: Instinctive Reaction

Unfortunately it is easier said than done to access this reservoir of wisdom for reasons I’ll come on to in more detail in a moment.

Some would say, ‘Of course. It’s not just hard but impossible because it doesn’t exist.’ Because I haven’t experienced it directly myself I can’t claim to know that it exists. I simply trust that it does.

One of the reasons for this confidence lies in the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 175: Paris Talks):

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate.

It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.

Before I can have any chance of accessing my deepest levels of consciousness I have to learn how to deal with its surface turbulence. Automatic reactions, especially problematic ones, tend to come in potentially predictable patterns: they exert a strong pull and are hard to resist.

Four Step Method

A few years ago I read an excellent book – The Mind & the Brain – by Jeffrey M Schwartz and Sharon Begley. It’s dealing with really serious mental health problems such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). However, I resonated strongly to his Four Step method of managing obsessions and compulsions (pages 79-91). He speaks of ‘the importance of identifying as clearly and quickly as possible the onset of an OCD symptom.’ At that point it is important to ‘Relabel’ it: this means recognising that the symptom is not you but your OCD.

The next step is ‘Reattribution.’ This goes slightly further than Relabelling: ‘the patient then attributes [the symptom] to aberrant messages generated by a brain disease and thus fortifies the awareness that it is not his true “self.”’ Furthermore:

Accentuating Relabelling by Reattributing the condition to a rogue neurological circuit deepens patients’ cognitive insight into the true nature of their symptoms, which in turn strengthens their belief that the thoughts and urges of OCD are separate from their will and their self.

This amplifies mindfulness which ‘puts mental space between the will and the unwanted urges that would otherwise overpower the will.’

This gives patients the chance to Refocus their attention onto ‘pleasant, familiar “good habit” kinds of behaviour.’ Keeping a diary of such activities and their successful use was also found helpful as it ‘increases a patient’s repertoire of Refocus behaviours’ and ‘also boosts confidence by highlighting achievements.’

Mind & BrainThere is one more extremely important step if this approach is to succeed more often than it fails: Revaluing. ‘Revaluing,’ he explains, ‘is a deep form of Relabelling. . . . . In the case of OCD, wise attention means quickly recognising the disturbing thoughts as senseless, as false, as errant brain signals not even worth the grey matter they rode in on, let alone worth acting on.’ One patient of his described them as ‘toxic waste from my brain.’

There is one last consideration to bear in mind. Pattern breaking in this way requires determination and persistence. As Schwartz puts it (my emphasis), ‘Done regularly, Refocusing strengthens a new automatic circuit and weakens the old, pathological one – training the brain, in effect, to replace old bad habits . . . . with healthy new ones. . . . . Just as the more one performs a compulsive behaviour, the more the urge to do it intensifies, so if a patient resists the urge and substitutes an adaptive behaviour, the [brain] changes in beneficial ways.’ He feels we are ‘literally reprogramming [our] brain.’

The implication of this is that the longer we have displayed a pattern we now want to change, the longer it will take us to resolutely practice our chosen substitute before the old habit is completely replaced. As a very rough and ready rule of thumb, for every year we’ve had the problem it will take a month’s intensive practice to get rid of it. What I am convinced of by all the available evidence is that if we want to enough, and practice enough, we can change any pattern we wish to that is in any sense under our voluntary control.

Scwartz feels that the Four Steps constitute a move towards ‘self-directed neuroplasticity.’ For future reference in this sequence of posts, and chiming harmoniously with all my previous rants about the mind not being reducible to the brain, Schwartz concludes with strong conviction that ‘the results achieved with OCD supported the notion that the conscious and wilful mind differs from the brain and cannot be explained solely and completely by the matter, by the material substance, of the brain.’

Stop etc diagram v2Spot It, Stop It & Swap It

I was so impressed that I decided to adapt the Four Step approach somewhat for use with the far less compelling patterns I was typically dealing with in my own life.

Once I become aware of a ‘Here I go again’ moment that has caused me difficulty in the past, I found I can set myself the task of spotting the earliest possible warning signs. At first I might only notice that I’m doing it again when it’s already too late to stop myself. But I can reflect immediately afterwards on my recollection of how I got to that point. If I leave it, the memory will fade and I will not be able to bring to mind an earlier warning sign. By repeating this exercise there will come a point where I can spot the cloud before the emotional storm breaks.

Once I can spot the approaching storm early enough I can stop it. The mind’s weather, unlike the climate’s, is in our control, believe it or not.

The trick here is to invent a method that suits me best for pressing the pause button. I might shout at myself inside my head, ‘STOP!’ Or I might imagine a big red button that I press or a lever that I pull down, that brings the gathering storm to a halt. If I try this too late in the process it won’t work and I will have to learn to spot it earlier. At that point I also need to reinforce my sense that this is simply a habit and not who I really am (we’ll come back to defining that more clearly in a later post). It’s even better if I can see it as senseless, neural noise, useless and pointless. This helps me realise it can change.

Initially while I’m testing out whether I can make this work, I can count very slowly, one slowed down breath at a time, to 90. This is usually enough time for the immediate power surge from the amygdala, at the brain’s emotional centre, to die down. This does not mean it would be a good idea to get stuck right into the situation again and respond. If I can get to 90 at a slow enough pace, I will find I am much calmer if not completely calm.

This is the time to activate step three: Swap It. If I simply leave it there, on the pause button, and do nothing else, it won’t be long before my brain starts revisiting the trigger situation and stoking up the storm again. An empty brain will fill itself with the old familiar script if you leave it to itself.

So, I will have to give some careful thought beforehand about what I will put in place of the void I have created. There are many possibilities.

If all I want to do is to make sure I don’t escalate a row, I could go for a walk round the block, as long as that’s at least a mile from start to finish.

If I want to be sure that I am avoiding a slide into deep sadness, into planning my revenge or into full-blown panic, I will have to substitute a longer, more creative and more absorbing activity. Gardening or cooking works for some. Playing a musical instrument or painting can do the job. Learning a language or studying something really interesting is another possibility. If all else fails, decluttering the chaos of an attic might work. It’s impossible to say what will work for everyone. We’re all so different.

The mnemonic I use for this series of steps is Spot It, Stop It, and Swap It. If we compare our hearts and minds to a garden in need of clearing, this process is analogous to weeding. It can take a bit to time before we can reliably move on to planting, which is the focus of the next post.

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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

O YE THAT ARE LYING AS DEAD ON THE COUCH OF HEEDLESSNESS! Ages have passed and your precious lives are well-nigh ended, yet not a single breath of purity hath reached Our court of holiness from you. Though immersed in the ocean of misbelief, yet with your lips ye profess the one true faith of God. Him whom I abhor ye have loved, and of My foe ye have made a friend. Notwithstanding, ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you. Were ye but to open your eyes, ye would, in truth, prefer a myriad griefs unto this joy, and would count death itself better than this life.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Persian Hidden WordsNo. 20)

I ended the last post with this point. Our survival now depends not upon our evolutionary heritage of tunnel vision approximations to reality but upon our transcending these limitations as rapidly as possible both as individuals and as a species. If not, extinction beckons.

Where there’s a will

I couldn’t of course say that in any meaningful way if I accepted Dennett’s argument in Consciousness Explained that willpower is an illusion.

By the time Dennett was writing his influential tract about consciousness in the early 90s he spoke for many when he dismissed the idea of conscious choice as a genuine initiator of action. He wrote (page 163):

[Libet] found evidence that . . . “conscious decisions” lagged between 350 and 400 msec behind the onset of “readiness potentials” he was able to record from scalp electrodes, which, he claims, tap the neural events that determine the voluntary actions performed. He concludes that “cerebral initiation of a spontaneous voluntary act begins unconsciously.”

. . . It seems to rule out a real (as opposed to an illusory) “executive role for “the conscious self.”

An even simpler experiment seemed to point in very much the same direction. W. Grey Walter implanted electrodes into what he suspected were brain areas with arousal related to initiating ‘intentional actions.’ He then asked the subjects in this experiment to press a button when they wanted to see the next slide in a series (page 167):

Unbeknownst to the patient, however, the controller button was a dummy, not attached to the slide projector! What actually advanced the slides was the amplified signal from the electrode implanted in the patient’s motor cortex.

One might suppose that the patients would notice nothing out of the ordinary, but in fact they were startled by the effect, because it seemed to them as if the slide projector was anticipating their decisions. They reported that just as they were “about to” push the button, but before they had actually decided to do so, the projector would advance the slide . . .

There are holes in this argument in so far as it constitutes proof that all experiences of conscious choice and willpower are illusions. For a start there is evidence that even such triggers of action as this was based upon, such as simple basic responses, can be blocked at the last moment. They’re not completely inevitable.

Even more importantly, key clinical research demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the mind can change the brain. It would be impossible to describe all the evidence adduced to support the claim that volition is real and its exercise can change the brain, i.e. mind alters matter in this case and it cannot be explained as one part of the brain working on another part.

One compelling example that will hopefully suffice for now is Schwartz’s work with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) who had agreed to combine the therapy with regular brain scans. This work, which he examines in The Mind and the Brain, showed (page 90) that “self-directed therapy had dramatically and significantly altered brain function.” His model involves four stages. He concludes (page 94):

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

In case we miss the full implications of this work they spell them out (page 95):

The clinical and physiological results achieved with OCD support the notion that the conscious and willful mind cannot be explained solely and completely by matter, by the material substance of the brain. In other words, the arrow of causation relating brain and mind must be bidirectional. . . . And as we will see, modern quantum physics provides an empirically validated formalism that can account for the effects of mental processes on brain function.

Even though subliminal influences of the kind I outlined earlier still run the show most of the time when we’re on automatic pilot, as Kahneman has also demonstrated at length in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, many of us have also clearly shown the capacity to use our minds to change our brains and make ourselves wiser and more adaptive. This is effortful but possible.

It important though that we do not stop at the level of the individual.

Collective Simulations

Our implicit personal simulations, the ones that trigger instinctive responses, evolved to optimise our individual chances of survival. Our collective simulations in any culture or sub-culture are created by the most powerful prevailing influences at the present time and serve to reinforce its priorities. None of these simulations is correct but we treat them as if they were and they are strongly related to our preferences. This can have serious and widespread consequences.

Klein unpicks these in terms of climate change and the influence of wealthy deniers.

She quotes Dan Kahan in This Changes Everything (pages 36-37):

[He] attributes the tight correlation between “worldview” and acceptance of climate science to ‘cultural cognition,’ the process by which all of us – regardless of political leanings – filter new information in ways that will protect our ‘preferred version of the good society.’ . . . .

In other words, it is always ‘easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered.’

In America 69% of those holding strong ‘egalitarian’ views regard climate change as ‘a high risk,’ whereas only 11% of those with strong ‘hierarchical’ views do so. Between 2002 and 2010, according to a Guardian report she quotes (page 45) ‘a network of anonymous U. S. billionaires had donated nearly $120 million to “groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change.”’ We can fairly presume that this was not all they spent on similar purposes: it’s probably the tip of a very large iceberg, of the kind that will become increasingly rare in nature as time goes on if we don’t change our ways. The polling figures she quotes (page 35) show that from 2007 when 71 per cent of Americans ‘believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would alter the climate’ the figure fell through 51% in 2009 to 44% in 2011. She claims similar trends have been detected in the U.K. and Australia.

Donations from billionaires was probably not the only factor influencing this trend, though it probably helped boost the flood of antagonism that greeted attempts in newspapers and on the web to support the validity of climate change and which resulted in a certain reluctance in some quarters to stick heads above the parapet on this issue. I’ve already blogged about how drug company investment in new markets, largely by targeting potential tablet swallowers, led to doctors being inundated with requests for the new wonder drug. That there should also be a correlation between high levels of spending to persuade a wide audience that climate change is a myth and a predictable widespread negative response to climate change advocates does not surprise me in the least.

Through processes of reflection, which I have explored at length on this blog and will come back to later, we as individuals can step back from our default patterns of belief, thought and behaviour, including our default susceptibility to persuasion, and change them radically for the better. But first of course we have to realise that something is badly wrong and that we need to change.

Through processes of consultation resolutely applied, again something I have explored on this blog and will return to, we can as groups, communities, nations, continents and beyond, reflect upon and modify our default patterns of belief, thought and behaviour, and change them radically for the better. Collectively recognising that something is badly wrong and that we need to change is even more difficult for communities than it is for individuals.

More on this next time.

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