Posts Tagged ‘consultation’

View of the River from the entrance of the Pavilion Centre

One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.

Bahá’u’lláh quoting a hadith in Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 238).

Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Tablets – page 168)

Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212).

Last time I looked in some detail at the life of Bahá’u’lláh, as derived from the notes I made to prepare for a longer talk at the Pavilion Centre in Hereford that never happened! This is where I move to a brief consideration of the core teachings.

The Core Beliefs

The main tenets of Bahá’í belief can be summarised briefly here as follows:

The absolute core is a belief in the essential unity of God, Religion and Humanity:

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.

(“The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh”, Arabic no. 68, rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1985), p. 20)

The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.

(Gleanings – CXVII)

We are living in a single interconnected world. The challenges of globalism in its current form and the inequalities it fosters are causing many to regress to a harder line nationalism as the solution. This will definitely not work in the long term and probably won’t in the short term either.

Other important principles that stem from the concept of unity are:

The idea of a World Government; (this would not be an authoritarian bureaucracy – the local, national and international will each have their appropriate jurisdiction); the independent investigation of truth; the essential harmony of Religion and Science; the equality of men and women; the elimination of all prejudice; universal compulsory education; a spiritual solution to economic problems; and the need for a universal auxiliary language.

Questions Two, Three & Four

Two of the next three questions put to me before the talk were slightly more unusual:

How has your faith changed since travelling to the UK and do you practice in the same ways as originally defined? How can your belief be used to help us all create more understanding and a better world for us all – locally /nationally and beyond? What is your personal story for following your faith?

The answer to the first question is not a lot in terms of its fundamentals, and I’ve dealt with the second and third question on this blog many times.

The question that proved most intriguing, because the answer that popped into my head was not the one that I expected, was:

What is the most important aspect of your faith to you and why?

There is so much that I could’ve said including these: the Bahá’í Faith combines spirituality and activism in what seems to me to be a unique way; we have a global democratic administrative system that allows what we learn in one place to be applied in another and involves no priestly authority; its core concept of unity and interconnectedness is the key to our material survival as well as to our spiritual thriving; the idea of progressive revelation reduces the tensions and conflicts between people of different faiths; and service and community building are at the heart of the Faith’s approach to the social world. All of these matter to me a great deal and influenced my decision to attempt to tread the Bahá’í path. All of these depend for their effectiveness both upon nurturing the family and developing the educational system: even so I didn’t choose those either.

It may come as no surprise to readers of my blog that what I decided to say in the end, but never got the chance, focused upon the link between reflection and consultation, not just in the context of the administrative system, but as a consistent pattern of experiencing our inner and outer worlds and communicating with others, as skills that we need to use everywhere and all the time. It is part of the mystical core of the Bahá’í Faith, depending as both skills do on the development of the highest possible levels of detachment.

In a recent post I summarised the core of this insight briefly by saying:

. . . truthfulness requires the ability to reflect as an individual, which means stepping back, as we have described, from the immediate contents of our consciousness, so that we can gain a more objective and dispassionate perspective, and as a group it means consulting together as dispassionately as possible in order to lift our understanding to a higher level.

In fact, it is as though truth were, as John Donne wrote, ‘on a huge hill, cragged and steep.’ We are all approaching it from different sides. Just because your path looks nothing like mine it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, it is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. I might honestly feel you are completely mistaken and say so in the strongest possible terms. But I would be wrong to do so, even if I’m right. We would both move faster upwards if we compared notes more humbly and carefully. Reflection helps create the necessary humility: consultation makes the comparison of paths possible.

Of the key criteria that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sets for the achievement of true consultation, I chose to emphasise, in this context, the capacity for detachment. This is simply because it underpins the process of reflection for us as individuals as well as the process of consultation for us as groups and communities. If I cannot step back from my passing thoughts and feelings, detach myself from them, I won’t be able to consult, and similarly if I am with people who cannot do that also, consultation will be impossible.

It is intriguingly difficult to convey these points briefly to those who have not had cause to think about them before. In the world as it stands it is increasingly important that more of us learn these skills than ever before. A constant focus of my current reflections is on how I can best work towards both honing my own reflection and consultation skills, and, just as importantly, how can I motivate others to do the same.


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Much has been happening this year to give me cause to reflect, whether I wanted to or not, on the meaning of life.

‘Judging by your blog posts, you do this anyway,’ I can almost hear you comment.

Yes, that’s true but only up to point, it seems.

I accept that I have explored at possibly excruciating length the importance of reflection, and kept coming back relentlessly to the issues of the afterlife, and the nature of the mind/brain relationship. I have banged on endlessly about the impact of my sister’s death before I was born and how grappling with my parents’ grief shaped my childhood.

The same kind of preoccupations persist, of course.


Recently, when I was in Birmingham, I bought a book that I already owned. This is only the second time I’ve done so. It was the greeny-blue paperback edition of Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy: the Time-torn Man. I knew I owned one book about his life but it didn’t look like this one, so I bought it, partly motivated by the BBC’s recent screening of a new version of Far from the Madding Crowd.

It took me a while to find the one I’d got. I combed my re-arranged shelves (we’ve been de-cluttering again), and was almost on the point of putting my name on the flyleaf of my new acquisition, when I spotted a cream coloured hard-back.

‘Found it!’ my mind shrieked.

I managed to get my money back from Waterstones and, afterwards, decided to check whether I’d read the book. My de-cluttering and reorganisation process is based partly on examining books to see when I bought them and if I’ve even looked at them. I’m operating a 10 year rule. If I’ve had it 10 years and not read it, I should consider taking it to the Oxfam shop.

This book surprised me. I’d bought it in 2006, but there was no evidence I’d ever read it, though I thought I had.

Next test: ‘Read the opening pages.’

I did.

There was no way this was going to charity.

Memories came flooding back, even more than had been triggered by the film, which linked only with the other novels. The biography brought back the poems, because they were the focus of the prologue, including a particularly haunting one, written after the death of his wife, from whom he had become increasingly estranged over the years, though they continued to live in the same house:

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

Tomalin doesn’t quote the whole poem, only the first and last verses, but my mind (or was it my heart?) filled in much of the rest.

I am now almost at the end of her engaging account of his life. The debt I owe to Hardy, who helped me place my family’s grief and suffering in a wider context as I grew up through adolescence to something closer to maturity, is very great indeed. It’s good to be reminded of that, even though I had much further to go than he could take me.

But even describing this, and mentioning the next book on my list, Night Falls Fast by Kay Redfield Jamison (another one rediscovered unread) which deals with suicide, doesn’t quite convey where I find I’m up to now.

Recent Experiences

To do that I need to touch briefly on some events of the last few months.

First, there was the series of colds that left me with a cough I couldn’t shake off, and a deep sense of fatigue. This overlapped with a health MOT that flagged up a highly elevated blood pressure, which I thought might have been triggered by the series of  infections.

Antibiotics, which cleared the cough, and Amlodipine, which brought down my blood pressure, levelled things off for a while. Even so something had shifted in my consciousness.

Maybe it was the evident panic of the nurses at the sight of a systolic BP in excess of 200, and the manic sequence of blood tests that followed to check out the state of my major organs, that changed my sense of my own body. Whereas before my body was something that I identified with so closely that I barely noticed it if it did not hurt, tingle or display some similarly intense experience, now I was aware of it plodding along most of the time.

But, and this is an important ‘but’, I do not feel I am my body. I have a body obviously, and depend upon it to get me around and carry my consciousness.

Somehow, though, the hand I write with and the feet I walk with, no longer feel part of who I really am. They are instruments I use, and I catch myself watching them as I write or walk, but they are not me. I need them, and as my body gets tired faster than it used to, I get impatient with them and frustrated by them more often. Yeats’ expression of feeling ‘fastened to a dying animal’ is taking on new meanings for me.

More recently, and literally the day before I was due to travel to Scotland to run a workshop on unity, I found myself needing to go to the doctor’s again, unable to drive myself because I was suddenly seeing two of everything. My GP couldn’t explain why it had suddenly occurred, though he knew the name for it: diplopia.

He referred me to the hospital and they confirmed my diagnosis but had no real idea either what might have caused it. They gave me a prism patch to place on the left lens of my spectacles. It deflects the light and corrects my double vision. I’ll need to wear it till the damaged nerve is repaired, which could take months.

This diplopia, perhaps predictably, redoubled the problem.

Not only was I feeling different about my body now, but the world had changed its appearance and was reinforcing the sense, which I have had for as long as I can remember, that all I have is a simulation of reality. When your simulation breaks down further, and doesn’t even fulfil its evolutionary purpose too well, there’s no get out.

Not only am I not my body, it feels, but I don’t even know what the world is really like anymore, if I ever did.


This has led me to reaffirm even more strongly the importance of reflection, stepping back from my identifications with the contents of my consciousness, and consultation, comparing simulations as dispassionately as possible with others in order to get closer to the truth. Learning to act reflectively has come to seem even more crucial.

Following on from that reminder, I added in my journal:

This needs to be held in mind along with my metaphor of the bees of reflection gathering the pollen of wisdom and the honey of love from the flowers of experience, and with my dream metaphor of the hearth (see link for a full description) with its associations of earth, heart, art, ear and hear, plus the peat that burns within the structure of the grate to provide light and warmth.

It was only as I re-read those words this morning that I realised another level of interpretation of that dream.

This was the dream:

I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.

My interpretation of ‘peat,’ as written down several years after, was that ‘the essence of my being – peat – is to fuel’ the process of’ ‘giving warmth to the mansion of being.’

Peat was perhaps not simply, as I had originally thought, a pun on my name that related to the idea of sacrificing an innate spiritual deeper self for a higher purpose (light/warmth): it now seemed to be pointing towards something more complex.

This is partly because there are implications concerning the time scales involved. The Wikipedia article explains: ‘In natural peatlands, the “annual rate of biomass production is greater than the rate of decomposition”, but it takes “thousands of years for peatlands to develop the deposits of 1.5 to 2.3 m [4.9 to 7.5 ft], which is the average depth of the boreal [northern] peatlands”.’

If I translate that into personal terms, peat, although derived from the earth, becomes to some degree at least an attribute painstakingly acquired, something that takes long periods of time to create or evolve. It is not already available nor can it be created impatiently, in a rush. Yes, it is the fuel which gives the energy to bring light (wisdom?) and warmth (love?) into the world of being but it needs work to bring it into existence.

In short, I am not burning something that is already there fully formed from birth, as it were, ‘the Soul that rises with’ me, as Wordsworth put it, but something that I have had to devote time to creating. It is almost certainly related to my soul and to spirit, but it is also involves something which I have a responsibility to develop, create, bring into being.

Perhaps I had only partly understood my dream all this time, glibly oversimplifying it. Why doesn’t what surprise me?

What had seemed like separate aspects of experience suddenly have come to seem connected.

Reflection requires patience. Long periods of practice are required to even begin to get the hang of it. Using it entails slowing down. Periods of silence, as quiet as the deep ground that holds the formation of peat, are essential prerequisites to reflection and the ultimate creation of its fruits.

I am still in the process of digesting these insights and refining them. I can’t yet articulate them clearly or exactly.

What it means for this blog is that I will only publish when I feel I really have something to say, not at the dictates of a calendar deadline. I am still not even sure exactly which direction my writing will now take.

There will be more silence and fewer words. Be patient with me. It may prove worth it.

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To download the complete materials click this link Upholders of His Oneness v2.

As the workshop entered its last day our attempts to close in on the exact power of consultation were reaching a kind of climax.

Beyond a Culture of Contest

We examined more of the explanation started the day before from by the Bahá’í International Community’s document Prosperity of Human Kind (Section III this time – page 7-8). That described consultation as central to ‘the task of reconceptualising the system of human relationships.’ They argue that consultation demands far more of us than ‘the patterns of negotiation and compromise that tend to characterize the present-day discussion of human affairs.’

In much the same way as Michael Karlberg discusses in his book Beyond the Culture of Contest, the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) confront us with the reality that:

Debate, propaganda, the adversarial method, the entire apparatus of partisanship that have long been such familiar features of collective action are all fundamentally harmful to its purpose: that is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.

They cover much the same ground as we had already explored but in possibly simpler terms, for example the need to transcend our ‘respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals.’ They speak of an ‘an atmosphere, characterized by both candour and courtesy’ where ‘ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur during the discussion but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued.’

This is so different from the way that the word consultation is used all too often in our society where a ‘consultation’ document is issued, opinions are canvassed, responses remain unpublished and an opaque decision is arrived at that satisfies no one.

Any link with justice is conspicuous by its absence. Not so in Bahá’í terms according to the BIC.

. . . consultation is the operating expression of justice in human affairs. . . . Indeed, the participation of the people on whose commitment and efforts the success of such a strategy depends becomes effective only as consultation is made the organizing principle of every project.

Lample sings from essentially the same hymn sheet as the BIC, emphasising the way consultation rises above petty self-interest (Revelation and Social Reality – Page 199):

Consultation is the method of Baha’i discourse that allows decisions to be made from the bottom up and enacted, to the extent possible, through rational, dispassionate, and just means, while minimising personal machinations, argumentation, or self-interested manipulation.

Unsurprisingly justice comes into the mix again (page 215):

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context. Consultation is therefore, the practical, dialogical means of continually adjusting relationships that govern power, and, thus, to strive for justice and unity.

I end up, after reading such passages as these, feeling that consultation is the Bahá’í yoga. It is equally central to Bahá’í spiritual development as yoga is to its tradition; it is equally effortful and demanding as well as leading to an at least equivalent level of skill.

I think it is fair to say that the workshop group ended up of basically the same mind.

Hopefully the development of this central skill will make the Bahá’í community capable of following the advice of its central body, the Universal House of Justice, when it reminds us (Ridván Message 2008) of the words of Shoghi Effendi that we neither “overstress” nor “whittle down” the truth which [we] champion’ neither must we be “fanatical” nor “excessively liberal”.

More examples perhaps of the ‘moderation’ we have already explored as a necessary quality of our speech. Lample expresses a similar idea when he writes (page 45) ‘[C]aution must be exercised to avoid the extremes of absolute certainty or relativism.’

The Universal House of Justice also emphasise (ibid) that ‘Only if you perceive honour and nobility in every human being – this independent of wealth or poverty – will you be able to champion the cause of justice. And to the extent that administrative processes of your institutions are governed by the principles of Bahá’í consultation will the great masses of humanity be able to take refuge in the Bahá’í community.’

The Importance and Nature of Action

This whole process depends not just on studying our Scripture. Lample explains (page 23):

Study of the Word of God must be complemented by the effort to put the teachings into effect through a simultaneous process of action and reflection.

He quotes Shoghi Effendi’s analogy (From a letter of 2 November 1933 to an individual believer) of the Bahá’í community as a laboratory.

The Bahá’í community life provides you with an indispensable laboratory, where you can translate into living and constructive action the principles which you imbibe from the Teachings. . . . . To study the principles, and to try to live according to them, are, therefore, the two essential mediums through which you can ensure the development and progress of your inner spiritual life and of your outer existence as well.

Lample makes it clear that belief without action upon that belief is not enough (page 47):

The purpose of religion, however, is not simply to describe reality but to change human conduct and create a new social reality. Interpretation does not stand on its own. To test the soundness of our understanding we have to strive to apply it in action.

This will not be a quick fix nor will it depend only upon the Bahá’ís. The Universal House of Justice describes it as the work of centuries. Lample writes (page 48):

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality… It is not a project in which Baha’is engage apart from the rest of humanity.

He amplifies the second point later (page 109):

. . . emphasis on the contributions Bahá’ís are to make to the civilisation-building process is not intended to diminish the significance of efforts being exerted by others.

In fact (page 210) ‘Spiritual progress and moral behaviour are won by degrees, in incrementally better actions day by day, in an incrementally better world generation after generation.’

Nor will it be achieved by merely materialistic motivation nor by self-interest no matter how enlightened (pages 147-48):

The profound and far-reaching changes, the unity and unprecedented cooperation required to reorient the world towards an environmentally sustainable and just future, will only be possible by touching the human spirit, by appealing to those universal values which alone can empower individuals and people to act in accordance with the long-term interests of the planet and humanity as a whole.

Progress in turn results from the mutually reinforcing interaction of individual and society (page 58): ‘Living a Bahá’í life involves the twofold purpose of individual and social transformation.’ He quotes the Guardian’s insight (Shoghi Effendi, from a letter to an individual Baha’i, 17 February 1933) that ‘We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.’

On sobering thoughts of that kind we closed the workshop with a sense of all the challenges that lay ahead, the anxiety tempered by an equally strong sense that not one of was alone in that endeavour: we have each other and we can draw upon the Power of Bahá’u’lláh.

The Journey Home

When we boarded the train in Dundee to return home, it was virtually empty. Great! I could start my sequence of blog posts about the summer school. My wife and I had the table to ourselves. With my laptop in front of me I started pulling the first post together. I’d probably done over 700 words by the time we pulled into Kirkaldy.

Then everything changed.

The carriage flooded with people. The table opposite filled with a party of ladies pouring champagne. A man almost as grey as me quietly asked if he could take the window seat beside me. Fortunately I’d anticipated the influx and put most of my stuff on the luggage rack and was just finding a place for my laptop cover as I stood up to let him in. My wife on the opposite side of the table moved over to the window to make space for a mother with two young daughters.

At the far end of the now crowded carriage, where our luggage was stashed, a party of six was settling in with their beer and wine, one of them perched on the top ledge of the rack.

‘It’s always like this on a Saturday,’ the man in the window seat confided. ‘Especially now with the Edinburgh Festival and a football match.’

I couldn’t catch the name of the team.

‘Which are you going to?’

‘The football of course. I’ve been supporting them for years and never miss a match. Where are you heading?’

‘Hereford.’ As I said that I remembered the sticker on the inside of a toilet door: ‘Horrorford: the graveyard of all ambition.’ I decided not to share the joke.

As I looked out of the window at the green fields speeding by, I added, ‘It’s a bit like this. Lots of farms and lovely countryside. You sound as if you come from somewhere else as well.’

‘You’re right. Bournemouth. But I’ve lived here for over twenty years.’

I could see very clearly I was not going to do any more blogging. I closed the lid of my laptop. At each of the succeeding stations the carriage became even fuller.

Somehow the conversation moved onto the state of the world. I’m not sure which of us started it. We covered all the usual complaints – politics, housing, the NHS, terrorism, Brexit, Grenfell Tower etc.

Finally I turned to him and said, ‘So, what’s the solution?’

‘I haven’t a clue. What do you think?’

‘Well, my first thought is education. That’s a good focus of attention to start creating a better future – encourage our children to become more caring of other people, of animals, and of the planet as well.’

‘I agree, but that’ll never happen. Those in charge will be too threatened.’

‘But we’ve got to start somewhere. I know it’ll take generations, centuries even. But we have to learn that we can’t solve any of our problems by competing and arguing all the time. We have to learn to work together, to stop magnifying our differences, to start recognising we’re all human beings and need to care about each other. We’ve got to get beyond this culture of contest and create a culture of cooperation.’

I hadn’t consciously been thinking of the mother and her children across the table. So, I was surprised when she spoke up.

‘I couldn’t help hearing what you were saying. I completely agree. And I think there should be no more political parties. Everyone should be working together in parliament to create solutions to all the problems that we have.’

Maybe I had picked up subliminally that a mother would respond to the idea of education.

The man in the window nodded vigorously in agreement with what she said.

‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘There must be so many people, far more than I ever thought, beginning to think in the same way in the face of these challenges.’

I edged towards the spiritual dimensions of the remedy and said a little about the Bahá’í Faith. The conversation faded at that point and returned to the safe ground of small talk. Even so it was encouraging.

As we left Edinburgh Gateway it seemed a good idea to retrieve our luggage from the racks at the end of the carriage. There was no exit there. We’d have to get off the train at the door just behind us. I was a bit apprehensive about negotiating two heavy bags down the crowded carriage. As it worked out I threaded my way easily to the partying group at the baggage rack.

They saw me coming. I explained that I was there for my bags and immediately the two men nearest the rack began getting them out for me.

A woman next to me lent over and confided, ‘We’ve sold them on Ebay.’

‘That was a quick sale,’ I quipped.

She grinned.

I rolled the bags back to our table, people taking pains to clear the way for me.

I put the smaller case on our seat and apologised to the father of the two daughters for getting in his way.

‘No problem,’ he smiled.

I got our other stuff down from the rack, packed my laptop into my backpack, put my jacket on and handed my wife her cardigan.

‘Can you manage the bag on the seat?’ I asked her.

‘Don’t worry about that,’ the father said. ‘I’ll get it onto the platform for you. We’re getting off here anyway.’

I was touched by how warmly everyone I had approached in the carriage had helped me solve my luggage problem. In a small way it showed how most people are really only too happy to help others. All the doom and gloom in the media is only part of the picture and sadly helps hide from us our full potential. To be fair, though, the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower inferno demonstrated this kindness on an even larger scale. Hundreds, if not thousands of people showered with help those suffering from the trauma of it all.

As we waited for our train at Haymarket there was a warm feeling in my heart. Maybe a sense of oneness was not all that far away. The ache of the wrench of leaving the summer school and its uplifting atmosphere was easing.

I spent the rest of the journey without a table, noting in my small brown notebook the pages of Lample’s book which contained key quotes to pull into the blog posts on the summer school.

When I was too tired to do any more, I pulled out my copy of The Munich Girl and began to read: ‘Panic ignited a fuse in Anna when the 747’s hatch door sealed shut.’

The last hour of the journey sped by.

Home at last after ten hours on speeding trains and sitting on stations!

‘What was going to happen next?’ I wondered.

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I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look on Monday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness, it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains an explanation of Wilber’s model.

After recently re-posting the sequence of articles about Jenny Wade’s theory of the levels of consciousness, I finally got round to reading a book by Ken Wilber that has been lurking on my shelves for 10 years at least, I suspect. It is modestly titled A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality.

This is the last of three posts attempting to capture some of the key points which excite me the most about it.

The first post tackled the basic four quadrant model, its concept of holarchy and the possible levels of consciousness development.

The second looked at some of the insights derived from this model, which give it its value.

This final post examines another way the model enriches our understanding of current problems and also outlines what we can do as individuals to lift our own level of consciousness.

The Mean Green Meme

It is important to emphasise once more that Wilber regards the levels of culture he describes as unavoidable stepping stones towards our reaching our full potential as a global civilisation. Each has its value and purpose at the appropriate stage and needs to develop onwards at its own externally unforced pace if unacceptable costs are to be avoided. However, the dominant liberal culture contains a version of the world-centric perspective that does not quite see it that way (page 123):

The blue meme (by whatever name) is an absolutely crucial, unavoidable, necessary building block of the higher stages (including green), and yet green does virtually everything in his power to destroy blue wherever it finds it.

For Wilber (page 124) it is only ‘on a sturdy blue and then orange foundation, green ideals can be built.” He summarises: ‘No blue and orange, no green. Thus green’s attack on blue and orange is profoundly suicidal.’

KW Diag 5 v2

His next point is a subtle but important one (ibid.):

Not only that, but when the highly developed, postformal green wave champions any and every “multicultural” movement, it acts to encourage other memes not to grow into green. The more green succeeds, the more it destroys itself.

Instead of this flatland pluralism, which uncritically celebrates diversity regardless of the consequences, Wilber advocates what for Bahá’ís is a very familiar solution. We need to move towards (page 126):

. . . . a universalism of “commonalities,” which means that, in addition to recognising and honouring the many important differences between cultures, we also tend to cherish those things that we have in common as human beings living on a very small planet, . . . (what I also call unity in diversity . . . . ).

This would allow a pluralist to forthrightly condemn as totally unacceptable female genital mutilation, rather than dither about whether it is some kind of legitimate cultural variation.

The situation is complex though. He is also very aware that green pluralism cannot be imposed on people. One of the examples that he gives is of China (page 122) ‘where a blue ancient nation is ratcheting in fits and starts toward an orange modern state.’ He explains further:

Generally speaking, this development is not helped by making green human rights the main issue. Blue nations intuitively (and correctly) understand that green human rights will corrosively dissolve blue structure, and that spells disaster for China.

He quotes, instead, Samuel P. Huntington’s respectful gradualism as the ideal (ibid.):

. . . . if human beings are ever to develop a universal civilisation, it will emerge gradually through the exploration and expansion of these commonalities. Thus…, peoples in all civilisations should search for and attempt to expand the values, institutions, and practices they have in common with peoples of other civilisations.

So, what can I do?

At the very end of the book is a short chapter describing what he feels we can each do as individuals to lift our level of consciousness and its attendant practice. He opens with a beautiful quotation from Einstein (page 136):

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us… Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty.

Wilber has suggestions about how we could go about creating ‘an integral life, a life that finds room for body, mind, soul, and spirit as they all unfold in self, culture, and nature. He calls his recipe for this (page 138) integral transformative practice(ITP). I do find his jargon generating tendencies more than a little irritating at times, but the value of what he is really saying behind the abstractions outweighs the disadvantages by far.

He recommends that we start with the self, and use physical, emotional, mental and spiritual exercises, and by the latter he means meditation and contemplative prayer. I take it he is here making a distinction between this and petitionary prayer, a more frequent and less valuable practice, perhaps.

We then need to move to exercising in nature and in our culture as well. In terms of culture, this includes the obvious, i.e. in Bahá’í terminology ‘acts of service’ as well as something less obvious, ‘mutually respectful dialogue,’ in Bahá’í terms ‘consultation.’ ‘Getting actively involved in respect for nature’ for him includes recycling, environmental protection, and nature celebration. This not only ‘honours nature, it promotes our own capacity to care.’

He summarises his recommendations (page 139):

In short, integral transformative practice attempts to exercise all the basic waves of human beings – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – in self, culture, and nature.

He feels that meditation is a key component of this process (ibid.):

. . . . what meditation can do is to help people disidentify with whatever stage they are at, and thus move to the next stage. And, in fact, we have considerable evidence that meditation does exactly that. It has been shown, for example, meditation increases the percentage of the population who are at second tier from less than 2% to an astonishing 38%.

In this he may be acknowledging, contrary to Medina’s criticism cited in the previous post, that people within first tier cultures can leap to the second tier and potentially in sufficient numbers to take the culture along with them.



Bahá’í parallels

In the explanation of his integral transformative practice I picked on a couple of places where what he says maps very closely on Bahá’í practice. At a somewhat more abstract level there are also close parallels.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris Talks makes clear that for Bahá’ís there is a physical as well as the spiritual domain and they are connected, not least through our brain and body (page 86):

It is, therefore, clear that the spirit in the soul of man can function through the physical body by using the organs of the ordinary senses, and that it is able also to live and act without their aid in the world of vision.

This does not denigrate the brain and body, nor suggest that they need not be studied. In the same talk he states ‘outer circumstances are communicated to the soul by the eyes, ears, and brain of a man.’

The power and reality of culture is also acknowledged by Bahá’ís. For example (Century of Light – page 134):

Globalization itself is an intrinsic feature of the evolution of human society. It has brought into existence a socio-economic culture that, at the practical level, constitutes the world in which the aspirations of the human race will be pursued in the century now opening.

And it is not just the aspirations that are crucial. Human experiences and desires are shaped and influenced by social structures which the Faith also factors into its models. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, makes this clear in his book The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh:

The enormous energy dissipated and wasted on war, whether economic or political, will [once Bahá’u’lláh’s vision becomes reality] be consecrated to such ends as will extend the range of human inventions and technical development, to the increase of the productivity of mankind, to the extermination of disease, to the extension of scientific research, to the raising of the standard of physical health, to the sharpening and refinement of the human brain, to the exploitation of the unused and unsuspected resources of the planet, to the prolongation of human life, and to the furtherance of any other agency that can stimulate the intellectual, the moral, and spiritual life of the entire human race.

My final feeling?

There are, as I have hinted, certain areas of unease to which I will be returning in later posts. Also his model is expressed in a specially created jargon which obscures rather than facilitates accurate understanding. His exposition is mostly theoretical rather than experiential. These possible flaws are things that clearly irritate Michelle Mairesse:

W. B. Yeats told a friend that he had dreamed of George Bernard Shaw as a smiling sewing machine. I believe that Wilber would be a more effective writer if he were less intent on neat sewing-machine logic and more intent on the smile of the Buddha.

I can’t help but accept that Wilber squeezes spirituality so hard into his systematic framework that I fear its essence drains away all too often. Also a far stronger and more detailed sense of what we can do to change ourselves and our communities would have enhanced his message in this book, which was obviously written for a wider audience than some of his heavier tomes.

However, Wilber’s book remains valuable for a number of interconnected reasons.

As a social scientist I deeply appreciate the rigour with which he pulls in evidence to support his thesis. As someone who grew up in the shadow of totalitarianism and war I resonate strongly to the breadth of his analysis of extremism and violence. As someone who became disillusioned with so-called progressive politics, his exploration of the deficiencies of partisan perspectives has enriched my understanding of my own dissatisfaction. And finally, last but very much not least, a great deal of what he says in his Theory of Everything maps surprisingly closely onto the description of reality the Bahá’í Faith describes.

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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)

. . . .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.


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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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)

. . . . . every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever…

(`Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, section 137, page 157)

I closed the last post on the following points.

Through processes of reflection, which I have explored at length on this blog, we as individuals can step back from our default patterns of belief, thought and behaviour, including our unreflecting susceptibility to persuasion, and change them radically for the better. But first of course we first 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, 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 collectives than it is for individuals.

In terms of altering patterns of behaviour that impact adversely on the climate, this is clearly a serious issue.  To clarify exactly how this works I need to take a slight diversion.

Three deadly Ds

At both levels, the individual and the community, this is where three interrelated deadly Ds kick in: denial, discounting and dissociation. I see these as usefully encapsulated for present purposes in the term ‘disowning,’ borrowed from Spinelli’s book on existential therapy. (There is also a fourth possibility – dissonance reduction – which is more complex so I’ll park that for now. I’ve discussed this in part before in the context of slave owning where the founding fathers of America resolved the dissonance between the principles they espoused of equality and their ownership of slaves by persuading themselves that Afro-Americans were not quite fully human – a convenient and profitable hypocrisy. I’m not sure whether it operates in terms of climate change.)

As Ernesto Spinelli explains it in his book Demystifying Therapy (pages 291-92) we have what he terms ‘sedimented’ perceptions of ‘being,’ of what we are and of what the world is like. A simple way of expressing that is to say that they tend to become fossilised. When a ‘novel, potentially meaning-extending experience’ comes along it is ‘disowned’ so that ‘the sedimented perspective’ can be upheld. Experience is ‘rejected or denied.’ He links this in other places to ‘dissociation’ in the sense of a radical splitting off of experience from current awareness (page 160) as well as here to denial.

‘Discounting’ is a term I’ve borrowed from Transactional Analysis and it means ignoring information relevant to the solution of a problem.

All of these terms seem to apply at different times and in different ways both to our individual and collective ways of dealing with unpalatable truths such a climate change, and death with its related problem of whether there is an afterlife or not.

When we disown aspects of our experience, they do not necessarily cease to influence what we feel, think and do. The disowned aspect of experience generally retains a strong influence over us while evading our influence in return. We dance to a tune we have made ourselves powerless to alter. The ‘return of the repressed,’ Freud called it.

We may sometimes disown experiences that would otherwise engulf us. We can disown conclusions experiences are forcing us to make when these conclusions conflict with deeply cherished beliefs we already hold. Disowned experiences, such as strong feelings of distrust implanted from childhood and of whose roots we remain blind, can be the breeding ground of other problems such as the defensive way we relate to others. Buried guilt for past actions, for instance, can bleed into a negative self-image that corrodes all our efforts to succeed in life.

By definition disowning is anything but obvious to the person who is doing the disowning.

Emma had rows with her husband and he beat her at times. She claimed to feel nothing as a result. She had provoked it, she felt. She was therefore responsible. There was nothing to feel. Shopping in town after one of these rows, she became convinced that a group of people in the shopping precinct were laughing at her and were part of a conspiracy against her. With her judgement already affected by tormenting voices, she was barely able to contain her feelings of anger and leave the vicinity before she physically attacked them. She was extremely distressed by the experience in town, in stark contrast to her indifference to the beating she had received at the hands of her husband. What she had disowned about her husband in her home appeared to be leaking destructively in a distorted shape onto the people in town.

What we have disowned is inaccessible to reflection: to that extent how much we can reflect depends upon the degree of our relatedness to our total experience. Without the capacity to own and reflect we frequently remain the helpless victim of our own inner life.


Reflection is the capacity to separate consciousness from its contents (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. We become capable of changing our relationship with them and altering their meanings for us. We may have been trapped in a mindset. Through using and acquiring the power of reflection, we do not then replace one “fixation” with another: we are provisional and somewhat tentative in our new commitments which remain fluid in their turn. Just as a mirror is not what it reflects we are not what we think, feel and plan but the capacity to do all those things. Knowing this and being able to act on it frees us up: we are no longer prisoners of our assumptions, models and maps.

The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict and opens us up to new experiences: the adaptation and change that this makes possible enhances the potential usefulness of our models and their connected experiences. It enables us to contain in consciousness for further inspection what we were before too scared or repelled to hold in mind or too carried away to resist acting out.

Once this flexibility is created, then conversation, the next step up the social ladder, becomes possible.

Increasing our Leverage

Once conversation is possible two powerful tools, implied in all that has been said above, become available.

First, some further space can be created between consciousness and its contents, and secondly there is a chance for more than one mind to be brought to bear upon the experiences. The space can be used for people to compare notes as equals – as two human beings, both with imperfect simulations of reality at their disposal, exchanging ideas about what is going on, with no one’s version being arbitrarily privileged from the start. There is a wealth of information that suggests most strongly that this process of collaborative conversation (Andersen and Swim), of consultation in the Bahá’í sense (see John Kolstoe), of inquiry (see Senge), of interthinking, can achieve remarkable results: Neil Mercer talks of the crucial function of language and says:

. . . . it enables human brains to combine their intellects into a mega-brain, a problem-solving device whose power can be greater than that of its individual components. With language we are able not only to share or exchange information, but also to work together on it. We are able not only to influence the actions of other people, but also to alter their understandings. . . . . Language does not only enable us to interact, it enables us to interthink.

I’d like to slightly alter the wording of one sentence there to capture the essence of what I think I’m describing:

We are able not only to influence the actions of one another, but also to alter one another’s understandings.

By combining reflection, which makes us detached enough from our own views to think carefully about the perspectives of others, and consultation, which enables us to lift our models of reality to a higher level of accuracy and create better solutions to the problems we find, we avoid the mutually reinforcing traps of tunnel vision and groupthink.

Even if we come to accept that most of us are trapped in our simulations, created by early experience and powerful influences in the present, reflecting as an individual and consulting as a community are harder to do than we would like to think and need courage and perseverance in equal measure, courage to risk this shift in processing in the first place and perseverance if we are to learn how to master the skills in each case.

I’ll be exploring that more deeply next time.

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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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