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Posts Tagged ‘consultation’

If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá from The Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 181)

I have been triggered to revisit books I have hoarded which deal with levels of consciousness. This all started with another rapidly abandoned look at Ken Wilber’s model. With moderate enthusiasm I had picked off my shelves Wilber’s Up from Eden, which had lurked up there unread since 1996. I felt that Fontana’s references to his work in Psychology, Religion and Spirituality warranted another look to help me overcome the reservations triggered in my mind by John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, where he takes issue with what he feels is Wilber’s arrogant implication that it is impossible for someone in a lower level society to leap to a higher level of consciousness (page 136):

. . . integral theorists actually support the idea that, out of the entire human population in the world, only an elite cadre of Westerners presently has the capacity to achieve the highest levels of human development.

I was not sure this criticism was entirely warranted but it did create reservations in my mind about some aspects of Wilber’s approach.

This was not what put me off this time.

I got as far as page 73 before the feeling that this was not the approach I wanted to immerse myself in right now grew so strong I couldn’t turn another page. His approach in this book was too mythological for my taste. I’ve so far been completely incapable of finishing any of Joseph Campbell’s work for this same reason. My distaste may be irrational but it remains insuperable.

As I sat and stared at my shelves aching for inspiration I remembered how much I had resonated to a book that explored in illuminating ways the split-brain culture we inhabit. No, not Iain McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary this time, much as I value that book and always will. There’s a clue in a comment I left on my blog more than a month ago, about a text that I have now re-read for the third time, but have not yet blogged about. I’ve probably never really attempted to integrate this account into my other explorations of levels of consciousness because the model presented does not easily map onto numerically coded versions such as those of Jenny Wade, Piaget, Wilber, Dabrowski  and Koestenbaum.

It is Margaret Donaldson’s Human Minds: an exploration. On page 135 she writes of what she calls ‘the value-sensing transcendent mode,’ something which our materialistic culture does not cultivate. She describes experiences in this mode as surging up ‘still in spite of the power of other modes which have threatened to exclude them.’ These experiences ‘come occasionally, unexpectedly, like marvellous accidents.’ Her book is partly about our need as a society to learn how to encourage us to access them more consistently. My own such encounters have been extremely rare indeed. Her insightful book also considers, though in less detail, the role of the novel and poetry in enhancing consciousness.

It also focuses on both the need to balance head and heart, science and religion, and on the ways we might get closer to achieving that.

I will deal fairly quickly with her discussion of her more basic modes of experiencing the world, then I will move on to the next highest levels in a bit more detail, before dwelling at greater length on her in depth exploration of the transcendent modes, both intellectual and value-sensing. In all probability this fairly rapid flight over the complex terrain of her richly informative model will fail to do it justice, but, if it at least brings her important work to your attention, that might just be enough.

Basic Modes

Margaret Donaldson deals first of all with the basic modes, the first of which concerns itself purely with the present moment, and begins in our infancy. She calls it point mode.[1] She goes on to add, ‘Later other loci become possible. For example, the second mode, which is called the line mode, has a locus of concern that includes the personal past and the personal future.’ More specific detail on the line mode next time.

Then our capacity expands to ‘the impersonal’ enabling us to think beyond our ‘personal goals.’[2] When this relates to thinking, that fits with our preconceptions about what it should be like. ‘But,’ she asks, ‘what about emotion? Can we take steps towards impersonality in respect of our emotions also?’

This is an issue we will come back to in more detail. For now I’ll just mention that she adds that ‘The process of “opening out” in those two directions is the one that I have previously called disembedding, in an earlier book, Children’s Minds.[3] This relates to some degree to concepts such as reflection and disidentification, dealt with at length elsewhere on this blog.

She emphasises that we modify our perceptions of the world ‘to suit our purposes.’[4] She was particularly taken with some of Freud’s descriptions of how we do that and expresses them in an effective metaphor:[5]

In talking of the defences Freud uses one image which I find illuminating. He likened the activities of a mind shaping its own consciousness to those of an editor revising a text, working towards an acceptable final draft.  The various mechanisms that have different editorial counterparts. For example, amnesic repression is equivalent to complete removal of parts of the text… likewise denial is equivalent to the insertion of ‘not:’… Projection is equivalent to changing the subject of a sentence: ‘He is I am evil, lazy, useless.’ Displacement amounts to changing the sentence object: ‘ I hate my father enemy.’ . . . In this way, we write for ourselves an authorised version of our lives.

In short, ‘. . . our experience of the world is experience of an interpretation.’[6] This maps closely onto my own sense of my perception of the world as a simulation. However, Donaldson explains, this tendency is balanced ‘by another more austere aim: the aim of understanding, of getting at the truth.’ The Bahá’í approach to this stresses the importance of an ‘independent investigation of the truth.’

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

There is another factor she mentions that again resonates with the Bahá’í Faith: ‘The second corrective is to consider shared experience.’ This sounds closely linked to the value attached to consultation, which is central to many processes of interaction encouraged in the Bahá’í community. Obviously these resonances partly explain my attraction to Donaldson’s model of consciousness, but it is not the only reason.

She argues that the foundations for our modes of consciousness are laid down very early.[7]  ‘At what point in life’ she asks, ‘does a child have a mind capable of concerning itself with things in some sort of controlled and organised way?’ and her answer is, ‘We can at least now confidently reply: “Very early, certainly by the end of the first two or three months, possibly sooner. (Stern terms it an emergent self.)’

She amplifies her comment by saying:[8]

There follows, from two to around eight months, the development of the ‘core self’ – a sense of self that is coherent, firmly distinguished from what is other, but not yet informed by an awareness of other minds.

. . . the point mode begins as the core self is established.

In the next post I will be exploring what follows on from that. It’s probably worth pointing out straightaway that, even later in life, as we shall see, point mode is not pointless.

References:

[1]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 11.
[2]. Human Minds: an exploration – page  16.
[3]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 16-17.
[4]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 24.
[5]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 25.
[6]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 27.
[7]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 46.
[8]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 46-47.

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In March, before lockdown, I was invited to give a talk at St Mary’s church, Tyberton, a village in the Golden Valley near to Hereford. This is the text of the talk more or less as delivered. I ad libbed a few extra bits of explanation on the day but have not included them here. I also cut the talk short just before the final two paragraphs quoted here. I’d gone past my allocated ten minutes so I thought it better to quit while I was ahead! Those paragraphs didn’t add much anyway. I had no idea, when I gave this talk, how important the connection between interconnectedness and resilience would become in such a very short period of time.

As you probably already know, the Bahá’í Faith is being persecuted in Iran, its birthplace. Our world governing body, the Universal House of Justice, has exhorted the Bahá’í community in Iran to response with “constructive resilience”[1].

Where might the roots of this resilience be found?

Bahá’u’lláh wrote that ‘No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united,’ and saw this as the source of the ‘discord and malice . . . apparent everywhere.’ He reminded us that instead we should not regard ‘one another as strangers.’ We ‘are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.’ [2] We are all, Bahá’u’lláh says, ‘created . . . from the same dust’ and must learn ‘to be even as one soul,’ so that from our ‘inmost being, by [our] deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’[3]

This is why I, as a Bahá’í, feel that the roots of resilience are to be found in a recognition of our interconnectedness. To quote the Universal House of Justice again, this time from a message addressed in 2001 to those gathered for the official opening of the Terraces on Mount Carmel, ‘Humanity’s crying need . . . calls  . . . for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’

No get out clause there!

Unfortunately all too often the divisions within us and between us, which the Universal House of Justice describes in the same message as the ‘struggle among competing ambitions,’ blinds us to this truth. we are prisoners of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes as ‘the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire.’[4]

How are we to remedy this?

This is a problem that all the great world religions have grappled with, and the Bahá’í Faith recognizes that, which is what unites us across all faiths when they are properly understood. I am though going to focus here only on what the Bahá’í Faith can contribute to this desperately needed healing process, if our divisions are not going to bring about our complete destruction.

First of all Bahá’ís believe that we need to cultivate reflection in order to achieve a degree of detachment from not just the material side of existence, but also from the distorted perspectives within our own minds. If we cannot do that at least to some degree, we cannot then use the process of consultation, where we sit down with people of different views to compare notes and enhance our understanding of reality. Only in this way can we find better solutions to the problems that bedevil us.

A saying of Islam quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states that ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.[5]‘Reflection’ is also variously translated as meditation, remembrance or contemplation.

What does it mean exactly in practice?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá helps us here, when he states, ‘‘This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. . . . Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . . The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror.’[6]

What exactly are the implications of this? What are the possible similarities between our mind and a mirror?

The most important similarity is that a mirror is NOT what is reflected in it. Our mind, our consciousness, is not its contents. We are not what we think, feel, sense, plan, intend, remember, or imagine. We are the capacity to do all of these things. However, none of these products of our mind is necessarily real or true. They are mostly transient products of our brains.

We need to learn to step back from them all and look at them from the position of consciousness in all its purity, the closest we can get to God, to the Ground of Being, if you prefer that expression. At the very least we can connect more closely with what Bahá’u’lláh refers to many times in His Writings as our ‘understanding heart,’ a phrase that captures the critical need for us to balance our verbal analytical left-brain thinking, which has spawned our technical advances which are both a blessing and a curse, with our holistic and intuitive right-brain processes, which cannot be easily captured in words and are therefore often lying half-hidden on the edge of consciousness.

In that state of stepping back, we still know what we think and feel, and who we think we are, but we are no longer so identified with those ideas that we cannot listen open-mindedly to what other people have to say that might enrich our understanding. Only when we do this, and it takes constant practice, can we truly consult with others about the nature of reality, the truth about our problems, and develop better ways of dealing with them.

We can consult at last.

Paul Lample explained it like this: ‘[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.’[7]

Then, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, this will show us ‘that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’[8] He also emphasises that detachment, of the kind I have attempted to describe, is one of the essential prerequisites to the effective use of consultation. Which is why, as Lample explains, ‘‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’[9]

Reflection helps us become more inwardly united and more closely connected with the divine or spiritual realms, and so we can become more united with others in our efforts to deal with problems within our family, our community, our nation and even our world as whole.

As a clinical psychologist, working in the local NHS, I found these insights of great value.

How so?

Well, I was working with a group of patients who are still regarded by many people as ‘not like us.’ They were people who carried the label schizophrenic or psychotic. They’re not like the rest of us, right? Wrong. Oh so wrong.

The basic principle of the Faith that we are all in essence one helped me see their common humanity. But more than that even. It helped me learn how their strange beliefs and hallucinations were rooted in their life experiences, how they made sense in that context once I had had the patience and humility to explore that with them and with their loved ones.

And even more than that through the disciplines of reflection and consultation, a kind of Bahá’í interpersonal yoga, I could earn their trust because I did not mock their beliefs or belittle their experiences of voices and visions, which allowed them to share their inmost thoughts, from which I learned to make sense of what they were experiencing. From there we could compare notes as equals and they could begin to find other explanations for what was happening to them.

For example, to stop thinking you are being tormented by powerful demons, who have the power to hurt you, helps you get back control of your own mind and life. I didn’t have to challenge the experience in itself, only the destructive explanations they had understandably developed for it, such as the power of the voices to harm them. Then they could move on.

After all, we all go psychotic at night in our dreams. We could many of us have ended up psychotic if life had treated us badly enough early on. The brain is good at creating illusions and delusions. In fact, a book I read recently by Tom Oliver, an agnostic scientist, explains, on the basis of strong evidence, that the prevalent idea in the West that we are a separate disconnected and individual self is a delusion, so we’re all a bit psychotic already really.

All we have is simulation of reality, a kind of trance induced in us by our culture – a materialistic, competitive and divided one in our case. And the only way we can ever correct our false perceptions and mistaken beliefs is to work together with others who do not think the same to transcend them. (And I would now add that if ever there was a time to internalise that lesson for the rest of our days on this earth, this is it.]

The mnemonic I use to remind me of all this is to say to myself ‘I must take CARE:’ the ‘C’ stands for consultation, and the ‘R’ for reflection, but embedded in a context of action and experience. It doesn’t work just at the level of theory.

As I final joke against myself I must admit that the ‘R’ also represents what are for me the three ‘Rs’ of reading, writing and reflection. Without books to breath in with and pens to breath out with my mind would suffocate, and I would never be able to consolidate my reflections into memorable and useful form. So I must thank you all for providing me with an excuse to read, reflect and write even more. Thank you for your patience in listening.

Footnotes

[1]. This phrase was first used in September 2007 in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’í students deprived of access to higher education in Iran.
[2]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 163.
[3]. The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 68.
[4]. Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76.
[5]. Hadith quoted by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Íqán (page 152 UK Edition and page 237 US edition).
[6]. Paris Talks – pages 174-176.
[7]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 215.
[8]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá cited in a letter written by Shoghi Effendi, to the National Spiritual Assembly of Persia, 15 February 1922).
[9]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 212.

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People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs. God grant you may be graciously aided under all conditions to shatter the idols of superstition and to tear away the veils of the imaginations of men.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 58)

This time I will be looking more closely at both expressions of bias, as well as at possible remedies for discrimination.

Before doing so I want to include a reminder of Tom Oliver’s take on a closely related issue: our delusion that we are an independent and separate entity from the rest of the world. In his illuminating book, The Self Delusion, he explains:[1]

We are seamlessly connected to one another and the world around us. Our independence is simply an illusion that was once adaptive but now threatens our success as a species.

He makes it clear later that ‘recent social research reveals that people respond strongly to subtle stereotyping and their personalities go on to develop in ways which reinforce such stereotypes.’[2] So, when we harbour prejudices, which are included in his list of ‘viruses of the mind,’[3] our behaviour serves to create experiences that confirm to us our misplaced beliefs, and can be infectious. This all resonates strongly with Bahá’u’lláh’s description of us as ‘wandering in the paths of delusion’ and of how ‘superstitions become veils between’ us and our own hearts.[4]

This theme is worth bearing in mind as we move forwards.

Examples of Bias

I suspect most people who have had the patience to read this far are already aware of the many ways that bias can be reflected in behaviour. I shall therefore deal with those aspects of the matter briefly.

An obvious example that Jennifer Eberhardt adduces, in her book Biased, relates to policing:[5]

[In New York City] of all stops made for furtive movement, 54 percent were of blacks, in a city that is only 23 percent black. . . Yet blacks were less likely to have a weapon than whites. In fact, less than 1 percent of those stopped for furtive movements were found to have a weapon.

Studies have been done to examine this kind of pattern. In a study of what triggers a response to fire a gun:[6]

[Joshua Correll and his team] . . . found a race effect. Participants were even faster to respond “shoot” to a black person holding a gun than they were to a white person holding a gun. They were also more likely to mistakenly shoot a black person with no gun.… It was found with both white and black study participants.

The latter finding may seem counter-intuitive but, in the light of how powerful and pervasive stereotyping is, it should come as no surprise. That black participants were prone to this error supports the notion that it is often the result of conditioning rather than an expression of racially motivated behaviour. The same tendency can be seen on the streets: ‘. . . research shows that black police officers were just as likely as white officers to exhibit less respect to black drivers.’[7]

There is no escaping the fact that, ‘Every encounter police officers and community members have with each other happens in a larger societal context that shapes how each responds.’[8]

The conditions prevalent in a work context play a significant part in shaping negative responses:[9]

Yale Law professors Tom Tyler and Tracey Meares have worked together to develop a model for training police officers on the principles of procedural justice. But why do officers need to be reminded of these principles? Because one of the primary barriers to good policing is the cynicism the officers develop while working the streets. It’s easy for officers to get beaten down by fighting crime. . . As that cynicism grows, it also narrows their vision.

The legal system at higher levels is not immune to this virus of the mind either, though without the same excuse of bitter experience:[10] ‘Judges are not immune to the pull of their own unconscious biases, and the algorithms that risk scores [to assess the likely failure to show up in court] rely on have already been shown to tilt against blacks.’

It is only fair to add that black people are not the only targets, though for reasons explained in the previous post they are likely to be the most persistently targeted. Concerning a white supremacist demonstration Eberhardt writes:[11]

The verbal attacks were also meant to signal to everyone else the Jews were no longer to be accepted as white. Their status was probationary – to be threatened in threatening times.

This also illustrates the previously mentioned role of fear in escalating prejudiced behaviour.

Possible Remedies

It is not easy to counteract patterns that are so deeply entrenched and reinforced by so many influences.

Not surprisingly I registered education as a potentially key aspect of Eberhardt’s thinking. Inside prisons she runs classes for offenders:[12]

Every class reminded me of the power of education to move us beyond our biases and reminded my students of the power of bias to shape their lives.

Clearly, education, over time in a supportive culture, could inoculate us against such viruses of the mind as racism. However, given the situation in which we find ourselves, making lasting and effective change is not easy. She quotes many examples and perhaps an attempted intervention in an organisation affecting a huge clientele would be as good an illustration as any. She tells of Laura Murphy’s work. She was an African-American civil rights attorney enlisted to help Airbnb deal with bias amongst their ‘hosts’:[13]

It’s easy to tell yourself that you don’t see colour, come up with a host of other justifications, and relieve yourself of any self-incrimination for your bias. Laura’s job was to focus the company’s managers on how these psychological manoeuvres worked subconsciously.

The primary problem is not that “People on the platform say, ‘Look, I don’t want any African-Americans’,” Lauren said. “The biggest problem to me is the unconscious bias.” And it’s more difficult to police and remedy that than it is to root out blatant bigotry.

She was able to make a difference, and there was one key factor involved:[14]

When hosts are provided with the previous reviews of guests by other hosts, for example, they are more likely to accept them into their homes, and the racial differences in acceptance rate begin to disappear.… Indeed, decades of research on stereotyping highlight the power of individuating information to mitigate bias.

Care has to be taken to take account of complicating factors. Improvements in behaviour resulting in lower levels of discrimination can backfire. Studies found that:[15]

. . . it was as though responsible behaviour handed [people] a license to behave recklessly. That suggests that companies that offer bias training might be loosening the reins in ways that set prejudice free.

Situations can also be complex in ways that reinforce the prejudices trainers are seeking to reduce. Back to policing again. The general point here is:[16]

Resetting norms isn’t easy, for a country or a company. But the next step – revamping company practices that allow sustained bias – is where things really get complicated.

Eberhardt analyses the exact dynamics in detail. What follows here is a brief helicopter view:[17]

What [these police officers] were experiencing on the streets was the fallout of racial disparities that reflect and generate biases that keep the cops and the community divided. . . . That lack of goodwill stalls investigations and lets crimes go unsolved which sours the perceptions of police and community members alike.

. . . Disparities are the raw material from which we construct the narratives that justify the presence of inequality. Those narratives spring to life to justify unequal treatment not just in the criminal justice arena but in our neighbourhoods, schools, and workplaces. . . . The narratives that prop up inequality can help us to live less troubled in a troubling world. But they also narrow our vision . . . Those biases will continue to be reproduced until we understand and challenge the disparities that fuel them.

It is easier to blame immigrants, foreigners or strangers for the problems that surround us, than grasp the difficult reality that the system is broken and is in urgent need of a complex repair or even a complete replacement. For more information on that see the sequence Can We Balance Matter and Spirit? Also reading Tom Oliver’s book would be a good place to start.

An Overview

Time to return to some general points. I have already noted that fear plays its part in prejudice. America is experiencing a transition that is raising anxieties in the minds of many white Americans:[18]

 . . . by the middle of this century, white people are likely to be a minority in this country… And simply reminding some white Americans of their diminishing presence can lead them to express more negative attitudes towards blacks, Latinos, and Asians . . . Feeling outnumbered can signal a threat to the legacy of dominance and the white privilege that affords.

Even what appear to be straightforward ways of using scientific evidence to counteract bias can backfire. There are two main ways that this can work. The first concerns what happens when we explain how many people experience bias:[19]

It’s true that we are wired for bias. But the problem with narrowly settling for that perspective is that it can lead us today to care less about the danger associated with bias, instead of more.

. . . A research group… found that people are more likely to endorse stereotypes about out-groups – from racists to drug users to porn stars to trash collectors – when they believe the stereotypes are widely held in society.

The second way piggy-backs on this first one because ‘too much focus on how good innocent people can be biased without intention can sap people’s motivation to do something about it,’ which means that ‘teaching and learning about bias is a balancing act that has to be expertly calibrated to have the appropriate impact.’[20]

Not a walk in the park then.

Conclusions

There’s no way we can walk away from this problem, even if we want to:[21]

The strategy of turning a blind eye to bias has indeed failed to stem discrimination. But there are powerful currents that pull people away from confronting bias, even when they believe that’s the right thing to do.

Bringing people from different races closely together can make a huge difference, but the key word here is closely. Eberhardt makes it very clear that simply living in close proximity, but not gaining detailed knowledge of each other by frequent and meaningful interaction, can serve simply to reinforce prejudice:[22]

Science has shown that intense relationships across racial, religious, or ethnic boundaries can quickly undo fundamental [negative] associations that have built up slowly over time.

Her words toward the end of her book particularly resonate with me:[23]

. . . The capacity for growth comes from our willingness to reflect, to probe in search of some actionable truth. . . And there is hope in this sheer act of reflection. This is where the power lies and how the process starts.

I have explored many times on this blog how the power of reflection, especially when allied to the process of comparing perspectives Bahá’ís call consultation, can help us resolve even the most intractable of problems. There is perhaps another core principle of the Bahá’í Faith relevant here as well: the independent investigation of truth. Bahá’u’lláh exhorts us to ‘see with [our] own eyes and not through the eyes of others,’ and ‘know of [our] own knowledge and not through the knowledge of [our] neighbour,’[24] if we are to be truly inspired by justice and fairness in this world.

We may have a long road to travel but there is evidence that we can effect even such massive changes in the way our society and culture work. Even relatively simple steps can make a difference. Oliver, for example, quotes a study by Kang of loving-kindness meditation. He ‘found that participants who had undergone a course in loving kindness meditation had reduced intergroup bias. In particular, they were less likely to stigmatise homeless people compared with participants who were simply taught about the value of the meditation technique not shown how to perform it.[25]

I am well aware though, from reading Goleman and Davidson’s book on The Science of Meditation, that the road from transient state of mind to enduring trait of character requires long and sustained effort over months and years. Oliver is also aware of this same evidence and how effortful bringing about such fundamental changes will be.[26]

That’s no reason though not to keep on trying.

Footnotes

[1]. The Self Delusion – page 4.
[2]. The Self Delusion – page 170.
[3]. The Self Delusion – page 141.
[4]. From the Tablet of Ahmad.
[5]. Biased – page 63.
[6]. Biased – pages 66-68.
[7]. Biased — page 104.
[8]. Biased – pages 74-75.
[9]. Biased – page 84-5.
[10]. Biased  – page 108.
[11]. Biased – page 240.
[12]. Biased – page 123.
[13]. Biased – page 192.
[14]. Biased – page 193.
[15]. Biased – page 282.
[16]. Biased – page 291.
[17]. Biased – pages 296-98.
[18]. Biased – page 231.
[19]. Biased – page 281.
[20]. Biased – page 282.
[21]. Biased – page 239.
[22]. Biased – page 289.
[23]. Biased – pages 301-02.
[24]. Arabic Hidden Words – No 2.
[25]. The Self Delusion – page 225.
[26]. The Self Delusion – page 158.

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Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

I was asked to give a talk at a South Shropshire Interfaith meeting in the Methodist Church in Ludlow. This sequence is based on the slides I showed and the explanations I gave. It does not attempt to give an account of the experience of the evening: it would be impossible to do justice to that. Suffice it to say, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore these issues with such a welcoming group of seekers after truth.

Transcending the divisions within and between us

I closed the previous post with a question.

If we are going to be able to hold firm to a compass of compassion and steer a consistent course between the many temptations and deterrents that will lie in our way, what do we have to do? For most religious people prayer and meditation are obvious prerequisites, as well as obedience to the laws and observance of the rituals of their Faith.

In this divided world we need to do even more than that if we are to transcend the prejudices that prevent us from co-operating with our fellow human beings and rise above the quarrelling voices inside our heads.

Bahá’u’lláh has made it abundantly clear how high a level of unity we must achieve and how much this depends upon the degree of detachment we have developed. I am now going to spell out a key set of processes that, within the Bahá’í community and beyond, are critical to this.

Bahá’ís place great weight upon a group and community process called consultation. This goes far beyond the lip service paid to it all too often in the modern world where canvasing opinions that are then ignored is described as consultation. The success of this process depends to a great extent upon how far the participants have travelled along the road to detachment, and detachment meant in a very specific sense in this context. The link is in fact so strong that Paul Lample, in his book Revelation & Social Reality, expresses it as follows (page 212): ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

My experience as a Bahá’í strongly suggests that the detachment necessary for effective consultation between people cannot be achieved easily or possibly at all without a complementary process within each of us. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá uses the terms reflection and contemplation to describe this state of mind. This process is so powerful that a tradition of Islam, quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states, ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ [Kitáb-i-Íqán]

The simplest way of explaining my understanding of what this involves is to use the image of consciousness, or in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms ‘the meditative faculty,’ as a mirror. At one level the mind simply captures as best it can what it experiences as a mirror captures what’s in front of it. A deeper implication is that, just as the mirror is not what it reflects but the capacity to reflect, consciousness is not the same as its contents. To recognize this and develop the capacity to withdraw our identification with the contents of our consciousness, whether these be thoughts, feelings, sensations, or plans, enables us to consult with others effectively and reflect upon, as in ‘think about,’ our experiences, ideas and self-concepts. Once we can do this it becomes easier to change them if they are damaging us or other people. I owe a debt to an existentialist thinker, Peter Koestenbaum in his New Image of the Person: Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy for this way of describing reflection and consciousness.

He states that (page 69):

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? True reflection at the very deepest level, it seems to me, has to ultimately depend therefore upon the degree of our reliance upon God, but can also be achieved to some degree by disciplined practice alone.

Koestenbaum is optimistic about our ability to acquire this skill (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 what he means is definitely something closely related to meditation as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes it. 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.

By disciplined practice of this skill we can begin to move beyond our divisive identifications, and become more able to work in unity with others. This is a skill and spiritual discipline that appears in various forms and with various labels in other religions as well as the Bahá’í Faith. Consultation, on the other hand, is not so central, as far as I know, in any other Faith.

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The Power of Consultation

Shoghi Effendi, quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explaining that ‘the purpose of consultation is to show that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’ [`Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in a letter dated 5 March 1922 written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, published in “Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932”, pages 21-22.]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out the qualities required of us if we are to consult effectively. These include ‘purity of motive,’ ‘detachment from all else save God,’ ‘humility,’ and ‘patience.’ Unity, justice [‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá –number 43]

This makes for a powerful positive feedback loop which will immeasurably enhance our decision-making processes. Detachment is of course the core prerequisite of the three, and can be developed in us by various other ways as well. However, it is also the axle around which the wheel of consultation and reflection revolves, as well as being strengthened by them in its turn.

Michael Karlberg, in his book Beyond a Culture of Contest, makes the compelling point that for the most part our culture’s processes are adversarial: our economic system is based on competition, our political system is split by contesting parties and our court rooms decide who has won in the battle between defence and prosecution, rather than on the basis of an careful and dispassionate exploration of the truth. The French courtroom is, apparently, one of the few exceptions.

The Bahá’í International Community explain how we 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 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.’

Karlberg describes this alternative model in far more detail in his book than is possible to include here. His approach is based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is that (page 131: my emphasis):

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

It isn’t too difficult to see how all this might be applied to our interfaith work.

If we are going to be able to join together to determine what course of action to take in the increasingly complex situations that confront us, from a Bahá’í point of view which I think is well worth careful consideration, we need to develop these two core skills to the highest possible level. If we do not I fail to see, for example, how we can ever effectively tackle problems such as the climate crisis or the gross inequalities endemic in our global society.

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

So, in all that I have said in this sequence of posts, I hope it is clear that I am not seeking to persuade anyone that the explanations of spiritual reality have to be adopted, but I am urging everyone who shares our goals of unity and connectedness to enhance their effectiveness by testing in practice the powerful consciousness-raising processes I have described here.

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Laying the groundwork for global civilization calls for the creation of laws and institutions that are universal in both character and authority. The effort can begin only when the concept of the oneness of humanity has been wholeheartedly embraced by those in whose hands the responsibility for decision making rests, and when the related principles are propagated through both educational systems and the media of mass communication. Once this threshold is crossed, a process will have been set in motion through which the peoples of the world can be drawn into the task of formulating common goals and committing themselves to their attainment. Only so fundamental a reorientation can protect them, too, from the age-old demons of ethnic and religious strife. Only through the dawning consciousness that they constitute a single people will the inhabitants of the planet be enabled to turn away from the patterns of conflict that have dominated social organization in the past and begin to learn the ways of collaboration and conciliation. “The well-being of mankind,” Bahá’u’lláh writes, “its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

Given my recent sequence of posts on global warming it seemed timely to republish this sequence.

As we have seen in the posts on levels, Rifkin draws on Stanley Greenspan’s child developmental model Emp Civil(page 106-110: see link for more detail) involving six stages which can be summarised as sensation/security, relation, intention, self/other-awareness, emotional ideas and finally emotional thinking. Disruptions, for example to attachment, during these stages will create problems later. The development of empathy in the growing child depends upon the quality of care received (page 110):

Greenspan… is clear that ‘the ability to consider the feelings of others in a caring, compassionate way derives from the child’s sense of having been loved and cared for herself.’

This post will look more closely at Rifkin’s thinking on this issue and about how to facilitate constructive maturation in our children.

Child Rearing

He begins by looking at the effects of deprivation (Page 20):

What had been missing in . . . foundling homes was one of the most important factors in infant development – empathy. We are learning, against all of the prevailing wisdom, that human nature is not to seek autonomy – to become an island to oneself – but, rather, to seek companionship, affection, and intimacy.

He unpacks the implications (page 66):

The infant begins life, according to Suttie, with an inchoate but nonetheless instinctual need to receive as well as give gifts, which is the basis of all affection. Reciprocity is the heart of sociality and what relationships are built on. In reciprocity is blocked, the development of selfhood and sociability is stunted and psychopathology emerges.

Not surprisingly he brings attachment theory into the mix. Situations of parental dislocation can lead to maladaptive patterns of either ‘anxious’ or ‘avoidant’ attachment. More empathic parental relating has a better outcome (page 78):

The more securely attached infants grew up to be the more sociable adults. They were more sensitive to others, shared higher levels of cooperation with peers, and developed more intimate relationships. What those children all shared in common was a highly developed, empathic consciousness.

It should be no surprise that mechanistic attempts to remedy defects in parental child rearing habits has not proved much help (page 167):

In the 1980s and 1990s psychologists and educators introduced the notion of “quality time” into family relationships. The idea was for parents to set aside a few minutes in their otherwise overburdened and busy day to get back “in touch” with their children. The forced efficiency of these structured intimate encounters often defeated the purpose of the exercise. Deep relationships require nurturing and suffer when yoked yoked to the dictates of o’clock.

As a result we come very close in Rifkin’s next description to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s explanation of what would happen in a truly spiritual society (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahápage 133):

See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.

Rifkin states (page 177):

While primitive empathic potential is wired into the brain chemistry of some mammals, and especially the primates, its mature expression in humans requires learning and practice and a conducive environment. Moral codes, embedded in laws and social policies, are helpful as learning guides and standards. But the point is that one isn’t authentically good because he or she is compelled to be so, with the threat of punishment hanging over them or a reward waiting for them, but, rather because it’s in one’s nature to empathise.

Over the next sections of his book he reviews our progress towards a more humane and insightful treatment of children from (page 244) progress under the Roman Empire which came to define infanticide as murder only in 374AD while treatment remained harsh in England well into the 17th Century (page 285-86). There was the Protestant urge to ‘impose patriarchal rule in the home and “break the will” of the child, to ensure his or her piety.’ Later:

. . . the extension of schooling to large numbers of children also subjected youngsters to a merciless routine of flogging by teachers for the slightest violation of decorum or for underperformance. Lawrence Stone reports “that more children were being beaten in the 16th and early 17th centuries, over a longer age span, than ever before.” . . . .

Parents saw corporal punishment as a way to save their children from the devil and an eternity in hell. Their behaviour was in stark contrast to the sentiments of parents in the earlier Italian Renaissance, who came to look on the children as pure, innocent, and uncorrupted.

Things did begin to improve somewhat as the century advanced (pages 286-87). For example, John Locke (1692) was more balanced: ‘while he cautioned against being overly permissive, he was equally opposed to being overly strict and punitive.’ By 1785 (page 288), ‘the practice of swaddling had been eliminated in England. . . . Wet-nursing went out of favour in the latter half of the 18th century in England as new mothers sought to be more attentive and nurturing towards their young. . . . The new expression of motherly affection ensured that the empathic impulse of the period would pass on to children, who will grow up loved and cared for and capable of empathising with others, just as their parents had empathised with that.’

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© Bahá’í World Centre

Child Development

It was only late in the 19th Century that something more recognisably modern began to feature in the ideas around child development (page 388):

It was during the last decade of the 19th century and the first three decades of the 20th century that the concept of adolescence emerged. This was a special temporal domain to which all children – boys and girls – belonged equally. Society came to think of childhood as extending beyond puberty and into the later teenage years. Previously the child graduated to adulthood and the responsibilities that go with it upon reaching sexual maturity. No longer. Now work life was put off and children remained under the nurturing care of parents for a longer period of time.

This concept carried with it a sort of developmental time bomb (page 389):

Although it wasn’t until the 1940s that Eric Erikson coined the term “identity crisis,” the psychological phenomena accompanied the new period of adolescence from the very beginning. Adolescence is about identity crises as much as it is about identity formation.

Identity is partly a question of the priorities around which we organise our lives, the values we hold dearest and the meaning system we have developed. While the evidence suggests that we need to divide the influences that affect those outcomes among our genes, our parents and our peers, there is no doubt that for most of us our parents account for at least 30% of the items in the mix. So, when Rifkin looks at where we are at present with the challenges it brings, he concludes (page 502):

The question is, what is the appropriate therapy for recovering from the [current] well/happiness addiction? A spate of studies over the past 15 years has shown a consistently close correlation between parental nurturance patterns and whether children grow up fixated on material success. . . . If… the principal caretaker is cold, arbitrary in her or his affections, punitive, unresponsive, and anxious, the child will be far less likely to establish a secure emotional attachment and the self-confidence necessary to create a strong independent core identity. These children invariably show a greater tendency to fix on material success, fame, and image as a substitute mode for gaining recognition, except, and a sense of belonging.

The product propaganda known as advertising preys on this insecurity with its deceptive promises that greater wealth and more possessions will fill the void within.

Parents clearly have a critical role to play in how things take shape from here, whether upwards towards the light or downwards towards the dark (page 504):

Making the transition from a pioneer to a near-climax society and a truly sustainable economic area hinges on a far more self-conscious approach to parenting to prepare youngsters with deep pro-social values that will allow empathy to grow and the lure of the market to be tempered.

Schooling

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© Bahá’í World Centre

Parenting is not the only consideration of course. He makes a bold claim (page 550):

The American public school system has leaped ahead of their counterparts in other countries by initiating a critical reform in the educational system, whose purpose is to better prepare future generations for the responsibilities attendant to creating social capital.

In the past 15 years, American secondary schools and colleges have introduced service learning programs into the school curriculum – a revolutionary change that has altered the educational experience for millions of young people.

Not everyone appears to share this rose-tinted view of the matter. John Fitzgerald Medina, in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, is particularly sceptical. He bases his assessment on solid research (page 325):

David Purpel, an educator and author of The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education: a Curriculum for Justice and Compassion in Education… contends that the educational system is so enmeshed in the corrupt status quo that it consistently fails to address societal problems and that due to its slavish emphasis on grading-mongering and competition, it primarily acts like a giant socio-economic sorting machine that maintains and even exacerbates race and class separations between people.

Purpel is not the only witness Medina calls to the stand in his case against the current system of education in America (page 327):

Professor of education Clifford Mayes explains that the powerful influence of behaviourism shifted the field of education from an endeavor based on a strong sense of spiritual and moral calling to a technical job based on the tenets of classical science… Under the influence of industrialisation, schools and teachers were expected to serve and to promulgate the “cult of efficiency” and the “scientific management” of people and organisations.

Even if we accept that attempts are being made to introduce empathy-inducing elements into educational and training programmes in the States the blinkered way these are sometimes implemented undermines their efficacy, as Timothy Wilson testifies. The research he reviews in his excellent short book Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change points towards the critical importance of incorporating a community service component into any remedial programme for children and young people manifesting behavioural problems (page 131):

The fact that policymakers learned so little from past research – at huge human and financial cost – is made more mind-boggling by being such a familiar story. Too often, policy makers follow common sense instead of scientific data when deciding how to solve social and behavioural problems. When well-meaning managers of the QOP [Quantum Opportunities Programme] sites looked at the curriculum, the community service component probably seemed like a frill compared to bringing kids together for sessions on life development. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But common sense was wrong, as it has been so often before. In the end, it is teens… who pay the price…

Rifkin explains what for him is the power of these socially engineered interventions (page 551):

The exposure to diverse people from various walks of life has spurred an empathic surge among many of the nation’s young people. Studies indicate that many – but not all – students experience a deep maturing of empathic sensibility by being thrust into unfamiliar environments where they are called upon to reach out and assist others.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

A Fork in the Road

Not for the first time in his book, he comments on the fork in the road that lies ahead (page 581):

The rap on today’s young people in the age group that stems from toddlers to young adults in their early 30s (everyone born after the mid-1970s) is that they are coddled, overexposed, overindulged, told they are special, believe that to be the case, are self-centred – “it’s all about me” – and trapped in their self-absorbed inflated self-esteem. We are also told, however, that they are more open and tolerant, less prejudiced, multicultural in their views, nonjudgmental, civic-and service-oriented, and more collaborative than any other generation in history. . . .

Is it possible that today’s young people are caught between both poles…? . . . . Yes, but with the qualification that the newest data shows a trend away from the ‘it’s all about me’ phenomenon and prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s . . . .

Exactly which way the dice will fall is not yet predictable (page 589):

The situation is anything but clear. While there are some among the younger generation who dream of personal fame, there are as many others just as devoted to community service and assisting those less fortunate. The likely reality is that the younger generation is growing up torn between both a narcissistic and empathic mind-set, with some attracted to one and some to the other.

Clearly parenting and schooling are crucial components in the creation of a compass and a map that will enable our children to choose the wiser route in life. What is disturbing is the vicious circle clearly at work if we do not rise to this challenge. The effects of unwise and unfeeling parenting will be further confounded by mercenary and mechanistic education systems. This combination will produce parents who will bring up more damaged children, and voters who will continue to elect governments that enthusiastically perpetuate education systems designed to create cogs for the machine of the global market. Building a more benign civilisation begins with our children who are “the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future.” (Universal House of Justice: Ridván 2000) We need to change our approach and we need to change it soon.

Rifkin places his hopes for the future on the development of biosphere consciousness, a motivating force whose limitations I explained in the previous post (page 601):

Children are becoming aware that everything they do – the very way they live – affects the lives of every other human being, our fellow creatures, and the biosphere we inhabit. They come to understand that we are as deeply connected with one another in the ecosystems that make up the biosphere as we are in the social networks of the blogosphere.

He feels this hope is given added strength by the interventions being mounted in schools (ibid.):

Now the new emerging biosphere awareness is being accompanied by cutting edge curriculum [sic] designed to help young people develop an even deeper sense of interconnectivity and social responsibility at the level of their personal psyches.

. . . . . the new pedagogical revolution is emphasising empathic development. In April 2009, The New York Times ran a front-page article reporting on the empathy revolution occurring in American classrooms. Empathy workshops and curriculums [sic] now exist in 18 states, and the early evaluations of these pioneer educational reform programmes are encouraging.

I feel we need to read what follows with a balancing sense of the countervailing forces also at work within the very same educational system. Medina writes (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

I am not convinced that we can leave to our schools the work of spiritualising the awareness of our children and making them more attuned to the suffering of others and how to help, hence the strong Bahá’í emphasis within our communities placed upon the training of children and youth – something we offer to the wider community as well without in any way seeking to recruit people to our ranks. We simply want to find ways of helping young people become more community-oriented. I will be republishing relevant posts later this week that go some way towards articulating the Bahá’í view of the matter.

Rifkin sees it differently from Medina  (page 604):

Tens of thousands of students have gone through the Roots of Empathy program. What educators find is that the development of empathic skills leads to greater academic success in the classroom. . . . Empathic maturity is particularly correlated with critical thinking. The ability to entertain conflicting feelings and thoughts, be comfortable with ambiguity, approach problems from a number of perspectives, and listen to another’s point of view are essential emotional building blocks to engage in critical thinking. Gordon makes the telling observation that “love grows brains.” . . . [ Mary Gordon writes]:

“The Roots of Empathy classroom is creating citizens of the world – children who are developing empathic ethics and a sense of social responsibility that takes the position that we all share the same lifeboat. These are the children will build a more caring, peaceful and civil society, child by child.”

To be fair, Rifkin is not completely blind to the obstacles (pages 604-05):

. . . because empathic engagement is the most deeply collaborative experience one can ever have, bringing out children’s empathic nature in the classroom requires collaborative learning models. Unfortunately, the traditional classroom curriculum continues to emphasise learning as a highly personal experience designed to acquire and control knowledge by dint of competition with others.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

Cooperation not Competition

He argues, as Michael Karlberg does in Beyond the Culture of Contest, that we must replace competition with cooperation if we are to rise above our current challenges. Karlberg describes in far more detail than is possible to include here an alternative model, based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is (page 131 – my emphasis):

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

Rifkin even defines one of the fruits of cooperation in similar terms to the values Bahá’ís place on true consultation as a spiritual process (page 605):

Collaborative education begins with the premise that the combined wisdom of the group, more often than not, is greater than the expertise of any given member and by learning together the group advances its collective knowledge, as well as the knowledge of each member of the cohort.

The Bahá’í view is expressed as follows (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahápage 320)

The members [of a Spiritual Assembly] must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should any one oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.

Coda

Rifkin closes by emphasising once more the importance of our recognising our links with nature (page 611):

In the case of our Palaeolithic forebears, fear of nature’s wrath, as much as dependency, conditioned the relationship. To reparticipate with nature willingly, by exercising free will, is what separates biosphere consciousness from everything that has gone before. . . .

Schools across the United States are already beginning to extend the classroom into the outdoors through their service learning programs, internship programs, and extended field trips. Reaffiliating with the biosphere is an empathic experience that has to be felt as well as intellectualised to be meaningful. It also has to be practised.

This sequence of posts so far has attempted, admittedly rather selectively, to give a sense of Rifkin’s overall argument, pointing out, where it seemed appropriate, its strengths and its weaknesses, but by and large letting Rifkin’s own words speak for his position.

The next and final pair of posts will look at what seems to me to be his most glaring omission – the role of religion in turning around our slide towards self-destruction.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

From time to time it comes to seem appropriate to republish a much earlier sequence from 2009 on the Bahá’í approach to healing our wounded world. My recent republishing of the sequence on Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilisation seemed an appropriate trigger. The posts will appear interwoven with the Rifkin sequence.

Empowerment

To mistakenly identify Bahá’í community life with the mode of religious activity that characterises the general society — in which the believer is a member of a congregation, leadership comes from an individual or individuals presumed to be qualified for the purpose, and personal participation is fitted into a schedule dominated by concerns of a very different nature — can only have the effect of marginalising the Faith and robbing the community of the spiritual vitality available to it.

(Universal House of Justice, 22 August 2002)

Training is helping move us from a passive congregational culture to an actively empowered one.

Referred to as the “chief propellant” of the change in culture, the training institutes, with their ability to produce an expanding number of human resources, have fundamentally altered the approach of the Bahá’í community to the tasks at hand. More than ever the rank and file of the believers are involved in meaningful and vital service to the Cause. Whether by holding devotional meetings, facilitating study circles, or teaching children’s classes, a greater number of friends have found paths of service that do not depend on public-speaking prowess.

(Building Momentum: pages 18-19)

The three activities referred to in that last quotation have often been described as ‘core activities.’  Core does not, however, mean only. The analogy of the spear has also been used, with these activities, or some aspect of them, referred to as the spearhead. This metaphor points up (terrible unintended pun – sorry!) the  issue here. A spearhead without a  shaft is not much use. So, there are many other things that we need to do as well as those three important components of our plan if they are to have the impact we would like.

The House of Justice has remarked on this increase in empowered participation:

It is especially gratifying to note the high degree of participation of believers in the various aspects of the growth process.

(Building Momentum: pages 18-19)

People often refer to how, in most organisations, 20% of the people do 80% of the work. Bahá’ís are learning how to buck this trend.

A Sequence of Courses

A critical tool in this process is a sequence of courses devised by the Ruhi Institute in Colombia, tested in the field there and gradually improved in the light of experience. Certain principles underpin the components of this set of materials:

From among the various possibilities, the Ruhi institute has chosen ‘service to the Cause’ as the organising principle of its educational activities.

(Learning about Growth: page 50)

They describe this further in one of the modules of the course:

The purpose of our courses is to empower the friends spiritually and morally to serve the Faith . . .

(Book Seven: page 102)

Learning to implement these courses here and in other countries has not been without its problems of course:

Out of a desire to apply the guidance ‘correctly,’ there was a tendency in isolated cases to go to extremes: either everyone was to be a tutor or restrictions were imposed; people who had taught children for years were told they couldn’t continue unless they did Book Three; firesides [informal introductory meetings usually with an invited speaker] were abandoned in place of study circles; people were rushed through the courses without doing the practice.

(Paul Lample: Revelation and Social Reality, pages 64 and 92)

This pain and discomfort of learning by these mistakes is perhaps the inevitable accompaniment of creativity and enacting higher values. There is no doubt though that the basic methodology is sound and has proved itself in many places, in spite of these teething problems, to be a powerful means of giving people the confidence to act. People are also learning how to dovetail the activities connected with the sequence of training courses with previously existing patterns of action such as the fireside and courses designed to further deepen our understanding of the Writings of the Faith.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Refining What We Do

We are also learning not only to be more active in service of the community as a whole, but also to think about what we are doing in order to do it better. The methodology for this was part of the Colombian experience and draws on models of action research (see Peter Reason for example) undertaken in the wider community.

The most [the teachers and administrators] could expect from themselves was to engage wholeheartedly in an intensive plan of action and an accompanying process of reflection and consultation. This reflection and consultation had to be carried out in unshakeable unity and with a spirit of utmost humility. The main thrust of the consultation had to be the objective analysis of possible courses of action and the evaluation of methods and results, all carried out in the light of the Writings of the Faith.

(Learning About Growth: page 10)

Other posts on this blog examine in considerable detail what Bahá’ís mean by consultation and reflection. The key components of the process described here are study, consultation, action and reflection.

Relating to Scripture

In using scripture as part of this process of empowerment certain aspects are emphasised:

. . . to reach true understanding . . . one must think deeply about the meaning of each statement and its applications in one’s own life and in the life of society. Three levels of comprehension are: basic understanding of the meaning of words and sentences, applying some of the concepts to one’s daily life, and thinking about the implications of a quotation for situations having no apparent or immediate connection with its theme.

(Learning about Growth: pages 30-31)

A good mnemonic for this is AIMs. The ‘A’ stands for applications, the ‘I’ for implications and the ‘M’ for meanings. The bedrock of the process of empowerment here is to enable us all to relate to the Word of God in a way that inspires us to put what we have understood into action for the betterment of the world.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

The Links to Civilisation-Building

It is important to have a brief look now at how the work of each book including its ‘service’ component links to the aim of building a better world for everyone.

This is made quite explicit at the beginning of the first book in the sequence (page 9):

The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct.

(The Advent of Divine Justice: pages 24-25)

The theme is continued in the other books, for example:

Book Two (page 46):

The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh encompasses all units of human society; integrates the spiritual, administrative and social processes of life; and canalises human expression in its various forms towards the construction of a new civilisation.

(Universal House of Justice: 1989)

Book Three (page 9):

Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education, alone, can cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.

(Gleanings: CXXIII)

Book Four (page 8):

It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness.

(Gleanings: IV)

It is perhaps worth stressing here that specific patterns of action are linked to the work of each book and are central to the purposes of that book. Book Three is designed for example to empower people to run children’s classes. Book Four encourages us to speak to people about the lives of the central figures of the faith as a way to inspire them to a new way of living. The lives of the Báb and His disciples, for example, unfold before our eyes a quality of moral heroism that  many profound thinkers lament is missing from modern life.  Zimbardo devotes the closing chapter of his book  The Lucifer Effect to describing ways of cultivating exactly that quality in the ordinary challenges of life. Susan Neiman describes examples of such heroism in her book Moral Clarity.

Civilisation-building is the underpinning purpose of the courses and it is seen to begin with small changes in our patterns of daily action. Again in a later book:

Book Six (page 11):

The world is in great turmoil, and its problems seem to become daily more acute. We should, therefore, not sit idle . . . Bahá’u’lláh has not given us His Teachings to treasure them and hide them for our personal delight and pleasure. He gave them to us that we may pass them from mouth to mouth, until all the world . . . . enjoys their blessings and uplifting influence.

(Shoghi Effendi, The Guardian: 27 March 1933)

Book Seven (page 67):

Children are the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future. They bear the seeds of the character of future society which is largely shaped by what the adults constituting the community do or fail to do with respect to children.

(Universal House of Justice: Ridván  2000)

The Purpose of the Core Activities

Many people has felt confused at times about the exact purpose of the ‘core activities.’ A member of the Universal House of Justice has reportedly offered the following clarification.

He gave the example of a glass. He said that while it is not inaccurate to say that the glass is transparent, it is evident that transparency is not the purpose of the glass. Transparency is one of the attributes of the glass, but its purpose is to hold liquid. Similarly, one of the attributes of our core activities is that they become instruments for teaching – but that is not their purpose. He stressed that the purpose of our core activities is to enable us to serve society and help “translate that which hath been written into reality and action”.

The primary purpose of our core activities is to raise our capacity to serve society, such that these activities become instruments for developing communities, and not merely instruments for teaching the Faith.

He encouraged the participants present at the seminar to re-look at the Ruhi Institute books from 1 – 7 with the eye of society and to reflect on how the concepts embedded in them could be used for social action and not just for the sake of bringing more people into the Faith.

He developed this further. It is clear that we need to imbue participants engaged in our core activities with a vision of social transformation as well as personal transformation. Now if someone were to ask us whether the purpose of our inviting them to join study circles is to make them Bahá’ís, we can confidently say ‘no’ and tell them that the purpose of our core activities is to assist in the transformation and betterment of society.

The next posts will look more closely at the nature and value of devotional meetings and the compelling need for the spiritual education and proper nurturing  of children.

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