Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

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.

(Michael Karlberg Beyond a Culture of Contest – page 131)

At the end of the previous post I rashly promised that this one would seek to capture, amongst other things, how the close match between parts of Covey’s message and some aspects of the Bahá’í Faith combined to potentiate the transformative influence I have been attempting to describe so far.

A brief digression first.

Empathy & Compassion

What I think I have so far failed to fully appreciate is the extent to which my reading of Covey’s book at that period may have given me the capacity to realise, as touched on in the previous post, that my simply sitting there close to the pain of Laura’s traumatic insight, intensely, almost desperately seeking to understand was all that was required of me, was what she needed more than anything else at that precise moment. Rather melodramatically I expressed this, after another difficult session with another client in deep distress, as ‘bleeding with them in the hope that they would grow.’ I need to add that care needed to be taken not to join them completely in their immersion in pain and distress. That would entail a damaging loss of perspective as well as risking burnout. Rather it was developing an ability at second hand to experience and contain, rather than drown in their angst, so that constructive solutions could gradually be generated.

Hopefully I got close enough to at least one of the criteria for a successful connection with a traumatised person described by Peter Levin in his book In an Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness. He writes:[1]

Therapists must learn, from their own successful encounters with their own traumas, to stay present with their clients.

There will be more about this book in a later sequence, I suspect.

I was reminded, as I recently read Rutger Bregman’s book, of the distinction Matthieu Ricard makes between empathy and compassion:[2]

If someone who is in the presence of a suffering person feels an overwhelming distress, that can only aggravate the mental discomfort of a person suffering. On the other hand, if the person who comes to help is radiating kindness and gives off a peaceful calm, and can be attentive to the other, there is no doubt that the patient will be comforted by this attitude. Finally, the person who feels compassion and kindness can develop the strength of mind and desire to come to the aid of the other. Compassion and altruistic love have a warm, loving, and positive aspect that standalone empathy for the suffering of the other does not have.

Bregman explains Ricard’s other main point in simple terms:[3] empathy is feeling ‘with’ someone, whereas compassion is feeling ‘for’ them.

It’s probably useful to add that a diary entry from the following week indicates that the next session was far more positive.

Synergy and Interdependence

I’ve referred several times to Covey’s emphasis on synergy. We have now come to Habit 6, which unpacks exactly what he is getting and why it is so important.

Its main benefit is its creativity:[4]

In interdependent situations compromise is the position usually taken. Compromise means that 1+1 = 1 ½. Both give and take. The communication isn’t defensive or protective or angry or manipulative; it’s honest and genuine and respectful. But it isn’t creative or synergistic. It produces a low form of win/win.

Synergy means that 1+1 may equal 8, 16, or even 1,600. The synergistic position of high trust produces solutions better than any originally proposed and all parties know it.

He discusses the implications of this at some length, but I propose to focus on the section that most impressed me and which I have found most useful in practice: it’s titled Valuing the Differences. Given the emphasis Bahá’ís place on unity in diversity this may not be entirely surprising. Covey sees it as the core of synergy,[5] ‘Valuing the differences is the essence of synergy.’ What’s more his expansion of this point resonates with my own felt sense that all we each have is a simulation of reality: ‘the key to valuing those differences is to realise that all people see the world, not as it is, but as they are.’

Holding this truth in our hearts, in his view, makes us far more effective: ‘The person who is truly effective has the humility and reverence to recognise his own perceptual limitations and to appreciate the rich resources available through interaction with the hearts and minds of other human beings.’ As a description of one of the key reasons why the Bahá’í skill of consultation is so valuable, this could hardly be bettered.

What this amounts to is an indispensable precondition for progress in any field of human conflict:

. . . unless we value the differences in our perceptions, unless we value each other and give credence to the possibility that we’re both right, that life is not always a dichotomous either/or, that there are almost always third alternatives, we will never be able to transcend limits of that conditioning.

His diagram in this chapter[6] (see above) captures the importance of trust and cooperation in achieving synergy. Trustworthiness, in Bahá’í terms, is an essential characteristic that we should all be seeking to develop if we are to enhance our communities and create a better society.

In a previous post I had already vaguely grasped the link between synergy and interdependence. I was dealing with the Bahá’í process called consultation and referring first of all to Michael Karlberg’s Beyond a Culture of Contest, which argues 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.  The more valuable emphasis on a careful and dispassionate exploration of the truth is generally  conspicuous by its absence. The French courtroom is, apparently, one of the few exceptions.

The Bahá’í International Community explain how consultation helps us 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.’ At worst you get what Covey call ‘compromise’ solutions, and at best a synergy ‘win/win’ that transcends that.

What is intriguing, when I read this hindsight, is that Karlberg brings in  another key word here (my emphasis):[7]

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.

This strongly suggests that a sense of interdependence and the synergy it creates extends well beyond a family, a circle of friends or even a business venture, of the kind Covey often uses as an illustration of the power of his approach.

I’ve attempted to summarise all of what are for me Covey’s most important insights in this diagram:

Habit 7, Sharpening the Saw, I’ll ignore for present purposes. And I’ve recently discovered from a soon to be published book, The Secrets of True Happiness, by Farnaz, Bijan & Adib Masumian, that there is a Habit 8, explained in a book published in 2004 — The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. I can see another volume approaching to squeeze onto my creaking shelves.

In the final post I’ll take a helicopter look at what I continued to make of all this as the months and years rolled by.

References:

[1] In an Unspoken Voice – page 42.
[2]. From Altruism: the Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World – pages 58-63.
[3]. Humankind: a hopeful history – page 387.
[4]. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – Page 271. Unless otherwise specified all the following quotations are from this book.
[5]. Page 277.
[6]. Page 270.
[7] Beyond a Culture of Contest – page 131.

Read Full Post »

Let integrity and uprightness distinguish all thine acts.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh – CXXX)

. . . it is not only their fellow human beings that the beloved of God must treat with mercy and compassion, rather must they show forth the utmost loving-kindness to every living creature.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 158)

We ended last time on the question, ‘how do we build up trust?

This is where we see Covey’s ability to operationalise what is so easy to see as something we should be able to do automatically but can’t. And he does this in a principled way that completely excludes the legitimate possibility of anyone abusing his guidance to manipulate others.

Integrity and Interdependence

The first step he recommends in the building of trust is[1] ‘really seeking to understand another person.’ The aim is[2] ‘to understand them deeply as individuals, the way you would want to be understood, and then to treat them in terms of that understanding.’

While he also emphasises the importance of keeping commitments, he makes it clear that we may not be experienced by the other person as doing so if expectations are not clarified:[3] ‘unclear expectations will lead to misunderstanding, disappointment, and withdrawal of trust.’ He shrewdly observes that ‘we create many negative situations by simply assuming that our expectations are self-evident and that they are clearly understood and shared by other people.’

Beyond that an ‘integrity’ which ‘includes but goes beyond honesty’ is required. By this he partly means being[4] ‘loyal to those who are not present.’ This bans backbiting. When we criticise others to our friends it suggests we would do the same about them to others, and when we breach someone else’s confidence to a friend, the friend might well wonder whether they can trust us with theirs.

Again these points perhaps resonate so strongly with me because they are important within the context of the Bahá’í Faith as well. I think the Faith’s forceful injunctions against backbiting are known to all who have explored the Bahá’í Teachings even cursorily. For example,[5] the ‘seeker should also regard backbiting as grievous error, and keep himself aloof from its dominion, inasmuch as backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul.’

The importance of trustworthiness is similarly emphasised:[6]

The fourth Taráz concerneth trustworthiness. Verily it is the door of security for all that dwell on earth and a token of glory on the part of the All-Merciful. He who partaketh thereof hath indeed partaken of the treasures of wealth and prosperity.  Trustworthiness is the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people. In truth the stability of every affair hath depended and doth depend upon it.

Covey links integrity and interdependence closely together:[5]

Integrity in an interdependent reality is simply this: you treat everyone by the same set of principles. As you do, people will come to trust you.

I won’t go into the same detail about his Habit 4: Think Win/Win. It did not resonate so strongly with me in terms of new insights except for one key point. He looks at aspects of character which relate to the ability to achieve win/win outcomes. In addition to integrity, which we have already looked at, there is what he labels maturity, by which he means[6] ‘the balance between courage and consideration.’ He unpacks this by explaining:

If a person can express his feelings and convictions with courage balanced with consideration for the feelings and convictions of another person, he is mature, particularly if the issue is very important to both parties.

If I have that balance, he feels,[7] ‘I can listen, I can empathically understand, but I can also courageously confront.’ That’s not an easy combination of qualities to achieve. I probably lean too far towards the first, except when angry, at which point empathic understanding goes out of the window. It was useful to be reminded of the need to balance them in combination. I am beginning to be able, I think, sometimes at least to keep calm, listen (not sure yet how empathically!) and speak my mind firmly if I feel the need arises. The roots of this, I have recently worked out, may lie in the fear I developed towards my own anger after a traumatic hospitalisation in childhood. There will be more on that in a later post.

Empathic Communication

Which brings us to the next topic on Covey’s list: empathic communication. His aphorism is:[8] ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.’ And I’m sure many of us would resonate to this description:[9] ‘We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand: they listen with the intent to reply.’ Ring any bells?

Not that we should mistake understanding for agreeing, as he makes clear:[10] ‘The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.’ In this way, he says, ‘you have focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.’ This has to come from[11] ‘a sincere desire to understand.’

When I was looking back through my journals I realised that at this exact period I was involved in a therapeutic process that created an immense breakthrough for one of my clients, a deeply depressed lady who had no clear explanation for her state of mind. I have blogged about it earlier.

Our work together had plateaued on bleak and distressing terrain, more tolerable than her previous habitat but too unwelcoming to live on comfortably for the rest of her life, and yet with no detectable path towards more hospitable ground.

Frustrated by the protracted lack of movement, I began to see discharge as a very attractive option. I discussed this with my peer supervision group. We decided that I should continue with the processes of exploration but make sure that I did not continue my habit of stepping in relatively early to rescue her in sessions from her frequent experiences of intense distress.

I continued to see her. Laura and I consulted carefully and jointly agreed that I would allow her to sink right into the “heart of darkness” in order to explore it more fully and understand it more clearly.

This extract from my diary at the time describes what happened after a long period of painful silence, the terror of the nightmare she was experiencing plainly visible on her face.

I sat in the same room with her, sensing her horror like a cold mist in the blood crossing into her brain, fearing that I am no Virgil to her Dante in that hell, feeling helpless, fraudulent but somehow amazingly undeterred, with only my clipboard to cling to!

‘My mother threw me away as soon as I was born,’ she repeated, over and over, as though realising a long familiar truth for the very first time.

I stared at the hieroglyphics under my pen, opened my mouth, cleared my throat and said nothing. During the long silence that followed, every five minutes a lorry would go roaring past ten yards outside the open window. My neck would stiffen in case she spoke and I would not hear. Whenever she confronts her horrors, her tone gets hushed. She whispers, barely audible even in silence. Her face looks pale and drawn. Her eyes stare. Like a child in the presence of a snake, desperate not to provoke a strike by the slightest unnecessary sound, she moves her lips just a little.

‘Why can’t I change?’

That is a question that confronts us all every day of our lives, whether we realise it or not. I think it only fair to acknowledge at this point that one of the more important tools I have found to help me change has been this book. Sadly this is the first time on this blog I have ever acknowledged that, except in an almost invisible footnote.

Further reflection after I’d finished the first draft of this sequence enabled me to draw a rough map of the way, for me at least, the different levels from dependence through independence to interdependence might interact with the distinction he makes between feelings, values and principles (the page references are to his book).

To express it briefly for now, in a mainstream Western culture, stalled at the level of independence reinforced by competitive values, we are trapped in the box Tom Oliver calls the ‘self-delusion’ which prevents us all from realising our true potential. The patriarchal oppression that still persists, even in the West, constitutes an even bigger challenge blocking a woman’s path. The Bahá’í concepts of humanity’s essential unity and our consequent interconnectedness offers a principle that removes all such obstacles and, with the tool of consultation in our hands, we can develop the kind of synergy that gives a practical expression to our interdependence.

The next post goes on to look in a bit more detail, amongst other things, at how the close match between parts of Covey’s message and some aspects of the Bahá’í Faith combined to confirm these insights.

References

[1]. The Seven Habits of Effective People – Page 190. Unless otherwise specified, all references are to this book.
[2]. Page 192.
[3]. Page 195.
[4]. Page 196.
[5] The Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 193.
[6] The Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 37
[5]. Page 196.
[6]. Page 217.
[7]. Page 219.
[8]. Page 237.
[9]. Page 239.
[10]. Page 240
[11]. Page 252.

Read Full Post »

I’m in what must be a shop or a store. There’s a narrow ramp, more like a flat slide, running from ceiling to floor. A huge and silver dying fish slides down to the bottom. Its gills are pumping: it looks desperate to breathe. Other smaller fish follow, with a black seal, who can breath and slithers away.

The big fish starts to slip off the ramp. A tall man pushes it back with his foot. I can’t understand why no one seems to care or have any pity for these dying fish. It hurts and shocks me. After we leave, I wish I’d taken some photos to share on FaceBook.

In reflecting later on this dream, I asked myself whether there was a hint that, with my birth sign as Pisces, this dream is triggered by and reinforcing the message of Tom Oliver’s book about the closeness of our connection with nature, which I’m reading at the moment. Was the dream registering that I am feeling stifled and shocked by our society’s collective lack of compassion for the natural world? ‘To ramp’ can also mean to increase, in this context meaning perhaps ‘get worse.’

There’s much already on this blog about hints I’ve clocked that remind me that I am close to the earth, whether I like it or recognize it or not. My name Pete for a start, with its echoes of ‘peat,’ and the seminal Hearth dream I had with the clear link it literally spelled out between heart and earth.

So, not surprisingly, when I read Tom Oliver’s The Self Delusion, I very much felt on home turf. I’ve already mentioned him in the previous sequence of posts but I ended up feeling I needed to share much more of what he said on this specific issue, if nothing else. If I was in any doubt, the dream gave me an extra shove.

Inner and Outer Connections

Before I plunge more deeply into what he has to about our relationship with the planet, it’s worth mentioning how a key quote from his book resonates with key quotations from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. Oliver writes that ‘it is becoming clear that our inner connectedness affects our capacity for outward connectedness.’[1] Though he goes on to use our relationship with the microbiome within us and the way it ‘affects our psychological self constructs,’ to illustrate his point that ‘there are interactions between our inner and outer ecosystems,’ the echoes with insights from the Bahá’í Writings should not be too easily dismissed, I feel.

Bahá’u’lláh makes it clear that ‘No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united,’ and that the ‘evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere.’[2] To make his point clearer Bahá’u’lláh uses a metaphor drawn from nature: ‘Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.’ What makes this even more intriguing is Bahá’u’lláh’s assertion that we all have been ‘created . . . from the same dust,’ and therefore should ‘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]

When you combine that with another key insight from the Writings, the parallels between the insights Oliver has drawn from science and the insights Bahá’u’lláh has shared from a spiritual perspective run close together, in my view. Bahá’u’lláh wrote:[4]

Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men. There can be no doubt that whoever is cognizant of this truth, is cleansed and sanctified from all pride, arrogance, and vainglory….

Strengthening our Connections with the Natural World

Pursuing his point about the microbiome, Oliver emphasizes how, at this basic level:[5]

people who spend more time in natural environments (as those who feel connected with nature do), are exposed to a greater range of microorganisms and have a more diverse microbiome as a consequence.’

He expands upon the importance of this:

. . . on the one hand how we think and act affects our microbiome, and on the other, . . . the state of our microbiome alters our thoughts and emotions and our ability to feel empathy.

He picks up on the idea of empathy and how the evidence now suggests that our connection with people and with nature are not two separate tendencies:[6]

. . .  there was little support for the distinction between the social altruistic and biospheric clusters of self-identity. Instead, according to environmental psychologist Wesley Schultz, the two cannot be differentiated from a more generalised ‘self-transcendent’ cluster that reflects the degree to which a person includes other people and other living things within their notion of self.

This insight, if applied in action across a sufficiently large number of people, could potentially accelerate the effectiveness of our response, not only to the challenges of the climate crisis but also the distressing social divide of economic inequality. Oliver develops the insight in this way:[7]

So fostering a sense of connection with nature should also address the declines in empathy we see in our individualistic culture.… Narcissism is a major barrier to solving environmental problems, so developing new ways to help people connect psychologically to nature may offer a way to solve the environmental problems and concurrently reduce the interpersonal cruelty that arises from the growing narcissism ‘epidemic.’

Connection Blindness

Our system serves to blind us to these connections and the resulting consequences of our actions. He quotes a basic example:[8]

If we had to rear them in our own gardens, not many people would be prepared to subject birds to the inhumane conditions they suffer in battery farms.

It is of course the size and complexity of our society that exacerbates this problem:[9]

The problem of course is that the longer and more complex the supply chain of a product is, the more diffuse is the moral responsibility, and it is correspondingly easier to disown and forget.

And this extends far beyond the issue of the appalling conditions the animals we plan to eat are confined in. The former UK government adviser and author Steve Hilton says:[10]

We live in an age when the effects of our decisions seem less and less important because we don’t really know what they are. We ‘love a bargain’ but we don’t see the appalling conditions endured by the people who produce a product that can be sold so cheaply.

Also we are not motivated to discover what we don’t want to know because ‘that places a huge burden of moral responsibility on our shoulders.’[11] Given the massive degree of damage we consequently do, this evasion is purchased at an extortionate but almost invisible price: ‘we may feel like our choices have minimal effect…, but the collective impact of our personal choices can be huge.’[12]

A Vicious Circle

A key point he makes flags up the vicious circle that is driven by the dynamic we unwittingly create:[13]

Increasingly, governments adopt laissez-faire free market approaches, assuming long term benefits sought by the public will be reflected in their collective consumer actions (which they clearly aren’t), while individuals think there is no need to curb their own behaviour because governments have an eye on the bigger picture and will intervene to protect society’s long-term benefits (which they often won’t).

. . . It’s a very thorny problem because the moral compass of humans hasn’t evolved to intuitively respond to harmful impacts on such global and long timescales. While in the last few hundred years our transport and trade networks have expanded to encompass the entire earth, our sense of moral responsibility hasn’t kept pace.

An Ecological Self

I am less convinced by his next line of argument based on the ideas of Arne Naess, a Norwegian ecologist, [14]who ‘suggested that to solve environmental problems, our conception of self-identity needs to expand from an ‘egoic self’ to an ‘ecological self’ that encompasses all of the earth’s living systems.’

It’s not the idea in itself that I find implausible as a necessary condition of effective change: my problem is that I don’t find it a sufficient condition as both Naess and Oliver seem to do.

Oliver quotes Naess’ reasoning:[15]

While one is working only within a narrow concept of the self, he argues, environmentally responsible behaviour always relies on altruism, which is too inconsistent to reverse the wide-scale environmental degradation driven by the collective human endeavour. Instead, enlargement of self-identity to an ‘ecological self,’ integrating all those organisms we are impacting, can result in environmental behaviour as a form of self-interest – care for the natural world beyond our immediate bodies becomes an act of love.

I will go into more detail about my reservations in the next post.

Footnotes

[1]. The Self Delusion – page 196.
[2]. Gleanings CXII.
[3] Arabic Hidden Words – Number 68.
[4]. Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Wilmette, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988, page 44.
[5]. The Self Delusion – page 199.
[6]. The Self Delusion – page 200.
[7]. The Self Delusion – page 201.
[8]. The Self Delusion – page 204.
[9]. The Self Delusion – pages 205-06.
[10]. The Self Delusion – page 206.
[11]. The Self Delusion – page 207.
[12]. The Self Delusion – page 209.
[13]. The Self Delusion – page 210.
[14]. The Self Delusion – page 211.
[15]. The Self Delusion – pages 211-12.

Read Full Post »

Altruism Black Earth

In the light of recent events concerning the best way to deal with those who had been drawn into working with Daesh in Syria, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The three posts, of which this is the last, appeared on consecutive Thursdays.

The first post looked at the implications of two books – Altruism and Black Earth – which led me to reflect on the possibility that we might not be immune to a repetition of the horrors of the Holocaust. At the end of the previous post we had reached the point of arguing that it is essential, if our society is to lift its collective consciousness to a more compassionate level, that we focus more intently upon the education of our children.

There are two key areas that determine the direction of a child’s development: parenting and schooling.

Parenting

Let’s take parenting first, and why it matters.

One main point is, and probably always should have been, fairly obvious, though now we have empirical evidence to back it up. When Jeremy Rifkin in his excellent book – The Empathic Civilisation – looks at where we are at present with the challenges we face, 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, acceptance, and a sense of belonging.

There are also less obvious forces at work as well. Ricard explores the exact relationship as currently understood between evolution and altruism. He looks carefully at the evidence and quotes Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s conclusion from her research that (page 173):

. . . . ‘novel rearing conditions along the line of early hominids meant that youngsters grew up depending on a wider range of caretakers than just their mothers, and this dependence produced selection pressure that favoured individuals who were better at decoding the mental state of others, and figuring out who would help and who would hurt.’

In other words, the fact that newborns interact quickly with a large number of people may have contributed considerably to raising the degree of cooperation and empathy among humans.

Hrdy’s final point of view is very clear (page 174):

. . . without the help of “alloparents,” there would never have been a human species.

We are now breaking that pattern (ibid.):

The notion of “family” as limited to a couple and their children developed only in the 20th century in Europe, and as late as the 1950s in the United States. Before that, most families included members of three generations, comprising aunts, cousins, et cetera.

This carries a significant risk (pages 175-76):

. . . . given empathy and the faculties of understanding others developed thanks to particular ways of taking care of children, and if an increasing proportion of humans no longer benefited from these conditions, compassion and the search for emotional connections would disappear. [Hrdy] questions whether such people “will be human in ways that we now think of as distinguishing our species – that is, empathic and curious about the emotions of others, shaped by our ancient heritage of communal care.”

Schooling

Is there any sign that our educational systems, not just in the West but also in countries such as China, are working hard enough to counteract a trend towards narcissistic materialism and competitiveness? There is a considerable body of evidence suggesting otherwise.

Of American education John Fitzgerald Medina writes in his hard-hitting Faith, Physics & Psychology (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.

Though Jeremy Rifkin sees it more positively and refers to the existence in schools of programmes designed to develop empathy, he 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.

[An example of what Rifkin refers to elsewhere in his book when describing programmes for cultivating empathy is in this clip.]  

An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians.

An article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

chinese teachers

Chinese Teachers in UK (for source of image see link)

A recent series on BBC television showed clearly how China is walking along the same potentially destructive path. Four teachers came to the UK to prove how the Chinese system is far more effective than ours in boosting academic performance. They emphasised, in their comments on their approach, how China stresses preparing their students to succeed in what they see as an extremely and inevitably competitive world. Their blackboard-based monologues, pumping out facts with no opportunity to experience their living meaning, was reminiscent of the Gradgrind approach to education Charles Dickens satirised in Hard Times:

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘My father as calls me Sissy. sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. . . . Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours. . . .’

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. . . . . .

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

Unfortunately the Chinese teachers’ approach was shown to produce better grades than the UK system. My worry is that it probably does not produce better human beings, even while conceding that our own system leaves a lot to be desired still in that respect.

In addition to the need to build back into the curriculum elements of creativity, morality, and spirituality, there is an additional vital element we must not forget. A service component, something at the core of the Bahá’í approach, is almost certainly crucial to any educational system, not just one for remedial purposes. Compassion has to be linked to action to be fully internalised.

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. For example, 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. He was reacting to the fact that an expensive implementation of the programme involving nearly 600 students across several sites failed to produce any of the expected benefits (page 131):

What happened? It turns out that each site was given a fair amount of latitude in how they implemented the QOP [Quantum Opportunities Programme], and none of the sites adopted the entire curriculum. In particular, most of the site managers decided to focus on the mentoring aspects of the program and non-fully implemented the community service component – the very component that we know, from the Teen Outreach and Reach for Health programs, has beneficial effects! Sadly, more than $15 million was spent on a five-year intervention in which a key ingredient (community service) was eliminated. . . .

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 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…

For a sense of the what the Bahá’í Approach involves this video is a good introduction. It shows how the Bahá’í emphasis upon engaging young people in the process of child education and community building works in practice.

(Published on 2 May 2013: You can download this film from the Official website: http://www.bahai.org/frontiers/)

It seems to me imperative that everyone, no matter what their circumstances might be, needs at the very least to find whatever ways they can to raise consciousness among their family, friends and contacts, so that more and more people internalise a vision of humanity as one family and understand better how to nurture and sustain people, fellow creatures and the planet. If that can also involve directly relevant action so much the better.

It is also appropriate to add here that even those who have ended up seduced by the manipulations of extremists can potentially be rehabilitated, as a recent article by Lynne Wallis in the Guardian contended, and, if we are to be true to the Universal House of Justice’s exhortation to take responsibility for the welfare all human beings without exception, then, provided we protect ourselves at the same time, we should offer them this chance.

Wallis feels strongly, in spite of the difficulties involved, that the evidence suggests ‘the process of indoctrination can . . . be reversed. It is commonly referred to as “exit counselling”, and when it happens – it’s often hard to get a cult member alone for long enough – it is often successful.’ As we are not dealing with people embedded in a ‘cult’ with repatriated Daesh members: they may well have gone through a process in the courts and be prisoners, in which case consistent access should be no problem.

My personal plan

For the foreseeable future I plan to explore, as often as I am able, this whole issue of altruism. In particular I want to understand more fully what factors enable us to widen the compass of our compassion and what factors narrow it.

I am already fairly clear that this will take me back over some familiar territory, though perhaps seeing it through a slightly different lens, but it will also require me to look carefully at some areas I have not explored in detail. Historical texts, for example, have not been my favourite grazing ground in the past – something about the way they marshal information switches me off. However, Snyder’s book has persuaded me I ought to give them another chance as I came to realise, from reading Black Earth, how little I really understood about many of the background factors that shaped the Holocaust. Maybe I also need to revisit some philosophical work that I have previously avoided as too challenging in its approach.

Some bolder experiments in terms of my personal experience might not come amiss either. I doubt that I can fully understand the challenges of this area without stepping into the fire.

What I have realised about this topic is that I can investigate it almost anywhere at any time, no matter what I am doing – perhaps even when I am chilling out in front of some anodyne murder mystery on the television.

Read Full Post »

Reflecting Evil

Reflecting Evil

These [perfect] mirrors are the Messengers of God Who tell the story of Divinity, just as the material mirror reflects the light and disc of the outer sun in the skies. In this way the image and effulgence of the Sun of Reality appear in the mirrors of the Manifestations of God. This is what Jesus Christ meant when He declared, “the father is in the son,” the purpose being that the reality of that eternal Sun had become reflected in its glory in Christ Himself. It does not signify that the Sun of Reality had descended from its place in heaven or that its essential being had effected an entrance into the mirror . . . .

Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

Emp Civil

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

We have discovered how far Rifkin’s case against religion seems largely to be based on his dislike of Christian teachings, especially concerning the existence of Satan, the Fall of man,  and the resultant denigration of the body. He is aware that other religious teachings do not fall into what would be for him the same trap.

For example, he feels that the Gnostic gospels were more empowering and benign (page 238) and finds close parallels ‘between Jesus’s teachings as expressed in the Gospel of Saint Thomas and Hindu and Buddhist teachings at the time.’

He develops this theme (page 239):

. . . the Gnostics viewed Jesus as a human being who had achieved enlightenment. There is no talk of him performing miracles or referring to himself as the son of God or any recollection of Jesus dying for the sins of a fallen humanity.

Then he states his case (page 240):

For the Gnostics, ignorance of one’s true self, not sin, is the underlying cause of human suffering. Therefore, the key to unlocking the divine in each person is self-knowledge through introspection.

And he has a view of Jesus to match (page 241):

The critical question is whether enlightenment comes from fully participating in the world around us in all of its vulnerability and corporeality or by withdrawing to an inner world removed from the vulnerability of corporeal existence. The historical Jesus was fully engaged in the world.

He acknowledges the positive impact of Christianity (page 246):

The Christian empathic surge lasted a mere three centuries; but in that time it made an incredible mark on history. By A.D. 250 the number of Christians in Rome alone had grown to fifty thousand people.

Goethe, Kant and Schopenhauer

He, in the same way as many others, dates from the time of the Enlightenment the demise of religion as an effective force in society. He locates a key figure as embodying an inspiring post-Enlightenment empathic spirit – secularised empathy, if you like: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (page 307):

If one were to have to choose a single individual who most embodied a cosmopolitan view of the world and a universal empathic sensibility, Goethe would be an easy pick.

His subsequent commentary explains exactly the nature of Goethe’s appeal for Rifkin. He fuses empathy with biosphere concern (page 308):

Goethe felt that the purpose of living was to enrich life and that man is endowed with a special appreciation of life – a heightened consciousness – so that he might steward all that is alive. . . . Breathing nature in and out was the way one takes in nature and remains connected to the larger whole.

It is here that the roots of Rifkin’s model of empathy and biosphere consciousness becomes most explicit (page 309):

With Goethe, we see the secularisation of the empathic impulse, embedded in the embodied experience and that includes not only human society but all of nature. His empathic view is truly universal in scope.

His critique of Kant remains firm. He condemns his take on the Golden Rule (page 347):

Left behind is any heartfelt connection to another’s plight as if it were one’s own; the desire to comfort them because of a felt understanding of one’s common humanity.

He prefers Arthur Schopenhauer (page 348):

Schopenhauer argues that the moral code that accompanies theological consciousness is purely prescriptive. If human nature is “fallen,” as the Abrahamic religions suggest, then there is no moral basis within an individual’s being that would predispose him to do the morally right thing. God’s commandments, therefore, are a prescriptive device telling human beings that this is the way they “ought” to behave if they are to be rewarded by God’s grace and not punished by his wrath.

He is indeed hanging his condemnation of religion as a positive redemptive influence almost exclusively on the hook of a particular religion’s interpretation of Genesis. I suspect there is a rope around the throat of his argument here. He feels that he can now locate our redemption in that same physical nature he is convinced that religion is revolted by (page 349):

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

Is Being Embodied Enough?

Robert Wright

Robert Wright

However, in my view, and I suspect in the view of many members of many religions throughout the world, there is no need to make his leap of logic and deny a transcendent realm in order to explain why human beings can be compassionate. Even evolutionary theory – for example in the thinking of Robert Wright and Michael McCullough – plainly discerns how the development of empathy is wired into our brains and selected for in successful cultures.

Robert Wright sees this in evolutionary terms. In his book The Evolution of God, he discusses how the expansion of the moral imagination (page 428) can ‘bring us closer to moral truth.’

His line of argument will not appeal to everyone: it’s probably too materialistic for many religious people and too sympathetic to religion for many materialists. He states:

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, similar to one of Rifkin’s reservations about the Golden Rule. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (pages 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.

Beyond RevengeMichael McCullough in his exploration of our dual potential for revenge and forgiveness, Beyond Revenge, sees them as hard –wired (page 132):

Revenge and forgiveness… are conditioned adaptations – they’re context sensitive. Whether we’re motivated to seek revenge or to forgive depends on who does the harming, as well as on the advantages and disadvantages associated with both of these options.

Empathy, also hard-wired, plays its part in determining what will happen (page 148):

One of the best ways to take all the fun out of revenge, and promote forgiveness instead, is to make people feel empathy for the people who’ve harmed them. In 1997, my colleagues and I showed that when people experience empathy for a transgressor, it’s difficult to maintain a vengeful attitude. Instead, forgiveness often emerges. . . . When you feel empathic toward someone, your willingness to retaliate goes way down.

This material potential may be a necessary condition for empathy to grow further in our increasingly global civilisation. Even if religion is not the enemy, do we need it? The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.

Rifkin clearly feels it’s the best hope we’ve got, even though one of his key witnesses wasn’t sure where empathy comes from (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

He nonetheless builds an ideal of interconnectedness as far as possible in these purely material terms. He sees civilisation as having a key role in realising this potential (page 362):

While we are all born with a predisposition to experience empathic distress, this core aspect of our being only develops into true empathic consciousness by the continuous struggle of differentiation and integration in civilisation. Far from squelching the empathic impulse, it is the dynamics of unfolding civilisation that is the fertile ground for its development and for human transcendence.

He wheels out the atheist’s favourite philosopher to administer what he hopes will be the kiss of death to any hope of the transcendent (page 382):

Nietzsche went after both the theologians and the rationalists, saying that it was time to give up the illusion that there exists something called “absolute spirituality” or “pure reason.”

Nietzsche argued that there is ‘only a perspective “knowing”. . .’ I won’t rehearse here all the thinking that has been done to confirm that, while it is true that all I have is my perspective, it does not mean that we have proved there is no transcendent realm. I’ve explored this, for example, in the sequence of posts on William James, whose point of view is succinctly captured by Paul Jerome Croce in his masterly Science & Religion in the Era of William James (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.

Absence of evidence therefore would not be evidence of absence, but in any case there is a wealth of evidence Rifkin is choosing to ignore here, as we have briefly touched upon above.

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, I cannot conclusively prove to everyone’s satisfaction that

(a) this could never be sufficient, and

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

That though is what I believe.

When I was a child my father asked me to imagine what it would be like if a man stood with each of his feet in a bucket, grabbed the handles and tried to lift himself off the ground. In my view, all the evidence so far points to our being in a similar predicament: I find it impossible to believe we can mobilise what would be the necessary level of vision, self-sacrifice and sustained co-ordinated action over centuries to turn round our descent into self-destruction and climb back from the brink of extinction by our own unaided efforts.

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

A Ground of Being

In any case, whatever you think about that point, I feel there is even more convincing evidence that we do not have to rely only on ourselves. There is a transcendent dimension or foundation to reality and we can learn to draw upon its powers. In religion-neutral language we can speak of a ground of being, inherently conscious, inherently loving, inherently wise, that we can learn to connect to.

Amit Goswami, the physicist, in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe, confirms the mystic insight and vividly conveys his sense of it:

So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”

And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science. You see, the prevalent notion — even among people like David Bohm — was, “How can you ever do science without assuming that there is reality and material and all this? How can you do science if you let consciousness do things which are ‘arbitrary’?” But I became completely convinced — there has not been a shred of doubt ever since — that one can do science on this basis.

And he is not the only scientist to have reported such an experience (see link).

There are those who feel that this can be done as an individual through meditation without drawing upon any spiritual tradition or organised religion. I certainly agree that we can move a long way forwards in this way, but for me there is a distinction between the profound insights granted to the Founders of the great world faiths, no matter how far the followers may have strayed from the original path, and those insights a mystic can achieve.

To explain this clearly we need to start from the idea stated in the quotation at the head of this post. The Founders of the great world religions are like stainless Mirrors in which we can see reflected what is the closest approximation to the reality of God that we are capable of apprehending.

However, our hearts, which are, as a friend once expressed it, the experience of our soul in consciousness, are also mirrors which we can polish until they reflect as perfectly as we are able, but not as perfectly as a Messenger of God, the Sun of Reality if we choose to point them in that direction.

We therefore have two responsibilities: the first is to polish or rather burnish the steel of our heart’s mirror (it’s not a modern mirror!) so it can reflect more faithfully and, the second is to turn it towards the Sun of Truth. If we turn it in worship towards lesser gods it will become tarnished again (Bahá’u’lláh – from The Seven Valleyspage 21):

A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

That, it seems to me, defines the difference between a mystic and a Messenger of God. Each Messenger of God has given us guidance appropriate to the time in which we live that will enable us to perfect our heart, as far as we are able, and perfect our world – rebuild our civilization if you like.

The Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, has already unpacked very clearly what this must mean to us (see my earlier post on Working for a Divine Arkitect). When the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were complete, the following words were read at the opening ceremony:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

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.

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. Pray God that moment will not come too late for us.

Rifkin has done his best in this impressive book to suggest one possible path towards a secure future. Those who follow his line of thinking and put it into practice will surely do some good. They could do so much more, it seems to me, if they had faith in an effectively benign power higher than the planet we are seeking to save and which needs our urgent help.

Read Full Post »

Mirror 1

The perfect soul of man—that is to say, the perfect individual—is like a mirror wherein the Sun of Reality is reflected. The perfections, the image and light of that Sun have been revealed in the mirror; its heat and illumination are manifest therein, for that pure soul is a perfect expression of the Sun.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá – Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

People will probably not feel an urgency to transform the current disordered world into a spiritually enlightened global civilisation unless they gain an appreciation for the true nature of reality.

(John Fitzgerald Medina Faith, Physics & Psychology – Page 52)

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

We have looked in reasonable detail at Jeremy Rifkin’s important analysis of the relationship in our culture between empathy and entropy, at his model of levels of consciousness where he pins his best hope for our survival on what he terms ‘biosphere consciousness,’ and his outline of where child rearing practices might produce the most responsibly empathic outcome within an essentially materialistic approach to reality.

I found his book valuable, thought-provoking but in one respect deeply flawed. There are no prizes for guessing where I think the flaw is to be found.

Embodied Experience Alone?Emp Civil

He is not just attacking a belief in the transcendent, it is true. Reason is in his rifle sights as well (page 141):

Both fail to plumb the depths of what makes us human and therefore leave us with cosmologies that are incomplete stories – that is, they failed to touch the deepest realities of existence. That’s not to dismiss the critical elements that make the stories of faith and reason so compelling. It’s only that something essential is missing – and that something is “embodied experience.”

We soon find ourselves in the currently prevalent default mode of reductionism whose limitations I have discussed elsewhere at length (page 163):

Human beings have created religious images of the future in part as a refuge against the ultimate finality of earthly existence. Every religion holds forth the promise of either defeating time, escaping time, overcoming time, reissuing time, or denying time altogether. We use our religions as vehicles to enter the state of nirvana, the heavenly kingdom, the promised land. We come to be believe in reincarnation, rebirth, and resurrection as ways of avoiding the inevitability of biological death.

While I accept that organised religion has not helped its case by its history of intolerance and cruelty in the name of some travesty of godhead. As Greg Hodges puts it in a recent post: ‘It takes a willful ignorance of history to deny . . . . that much of what humanity remembers about its collective past centers around large-scale, religiously-legitimized violence.’

Isn’t it just possible though that we might believe in transcendent realities such as an afterlife because there happens to be some hard evidence to suggest that there is really something in these ideas? Let’s take Pim van Lommel as one possible example of carefully gathered evidence that strongly suggests, at the very least, that consciousness cannot be adequately explained by brain activity alone and is therefore extremely unlikely to be a purely material phenomenon. The crux of his case can be captured in a few quotations from his book Consciousness beyond Life (pages 132-133):

The fact that an NDE [near death experience] is accompanied by accelerated thought and access to greater than ever wisdom remains inexplicable. Current scientific knowledge also fails to explain how all these NDE elements can be experienced at a moment when, in many people, brain function has been seriously impaired. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.

Pim van Lommel

Pim van Lommel

What kind of evidence does he adduce in support of this proposition? The most telling kind of evidence comes from prospective rather retrospective studies, ie studies where the decision is taken in advance to include all those people who have undergone resuscitation within the context of several hospitals and question them as soon as possible, ie immediately afterwards, and then again later after a set period of time. This is a more powerful methodology than retrospectively finding people who claim to have had an NDE and interviewing only them.

The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved (page 140):

Within a four-year period, between 1988 and 1992, 344 consecutive patients who had undergone a total of 509 successful resuscitations were included in the study.

And for the strength of the evidence those numbers provided (page 159):

The four prospective NDE studies discussed in the previous chapter all reached one and the same conclusion: consciousness, with memories and occasional perception, can be experienced during a period of unconsciousness—that is, during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity and all brain functions, such as body reflexes, brain-stem reflexes, and respiration, have ceased.

The conclusion van Lommel felt justified in drawing followed naturally on from that evidence (page 160);

As prior researchers have concluded, a clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.

What is important to emphasise here is that the precise conditions under which each NDE was experienced were completely, accurately and verifiably recorded, something not possible in a retrospective study: van Lommel is clear (page 164) that ‘in such a brain [state] even so-called hallucinations are impossible.’

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

For those who find vivid individual experiences more compelling, that is just about all of us, one of the best examples is the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander in Proof of Heaven. I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

On this issue, Rifkin’s cart may well be in front of his horse (page 168):

It should also be noted that where empathic consciousness flourishes, fear of death withers and the compunction to seek otherworldly salvation or earthly utopias wanes.

NDEs have been shown to increase empathy and reduce the fear of death over and over again, except in the case of the minority of examples of distressing NDEs (see Nancy Evans Bush for a rigorous study of those phenomena.) I’m not sure where his evidence is that empathy is greater where all forms of transcendence are denied.

He is aware of a void in the credibility of his position and has to locate awe elsewhere than in the transcendent he resumes to acknowledge (page 170):

Empathic consciousness starts with awe. When we empathise with another, we are bearing witness to the strange incredible life force that is in us and that connects us with all other living beings. Empathy is, after all, the feeling of deep reverence we have for the nebulous term we call existence.

I find this slightly muddled in any case. The first sentence implies that awe kicks off empathic feelings, whereas it is clear he feels that empathy creates awe. In any case I am not convinced by his empathy/awe connection.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

The Golden Rule & the Fall

As a convinced advocate of the Golden Rule and aware of its roots in the Axial Age which saw the dawn or significant development of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, and Taoism, I am uneasy with his take on this key stone of almost every moral arch. He sees the Golden Rule as self-interested because, by observing it, according to his version of religion, we buy paradise when we die. Kant, in his view, almost rescued it but not quite (page 175):

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

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

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

He acknowledges that the Axial Age (page 216) was ‘the first budding of empathic consciousness.’

But he does not regard with favour what happened next (page 236-37):

Unfortunately, the universal empathic embrace extended to all human beings became increasingly conditional over the course of the next several centuries with the introduction of the devil into human affairs. The devil played virtually no role in Judaism. Satan came on the scene in the form of a demon, shortly after the crucifixion, among some Jewish groups. But the devil as a key player, pitted against Christ and the Lord, with the vast power to deceive, sow seeds of chaos, and even challenge the power of God, was a Christian invention.

Certainly the take on the serpent in Judaism seems more subtle than the Christian one

A very enigmatic figure in this story is the snake. What kind of animal is this that speaks and tempts Adam and Eve? Actually, it is hard for us to imagine the primordial snake, since part of the snake’s punishment was a metamorphosis of what and who he is.

Before the sin of Adam and Eve, we find the snake described in detail in the Bible. He is depicted as “cunning,” he speaks to Eve, he walks, and he even seems to have his own volition and will. After the sin, he is punished in that he will now crawl on his stomach, his food will be dirt, and there will eternal enmity between himself and man. What was the snake originally, and what did he do to deserve such a downfall?

Most kabbalistic commentators equate the snake with the Yetzer Hara — the self-destructive tendencies to move away from God.4 What is the function of the Yetzer Hara? Why were such tendencies created? And why was a snake chosen to represent this?

The purpose of God’s creating the world was to bestow goodness on mankind. The ultimate good is to not give someone a gift, but to empower him to accomplish on his own. Imagine someone training for the Olympics with his coach serving in the role of the opponent. If the coach does not oppose him with all his strength and wiles, the athlete will be upset with him. And when the student manages to overcome the coach, the coach is happy at his own downfall — since it is his role to finally be vanquished.

The Yetzer Hara is our coach. Any rational person would desire a worthy opponent to overcome. Therefore the original snake was almost human, walking on legs, speaking intelligently, and able to present a world view alternate to God’s. In that sense, the snake is the ultimate servant of God and man. He is the force which gives us the ability to choose between two worldviews — as long as the choice is balanced and the snake is not too difficult to overcome.

When the choice was between intellectual and sensual, the snake needed to be able to tempt man with a sensual experience. However, he needed to clothe it in the guise of the rational and objective truth. Therefore the snake was almost human in his abilities.

When man failed that test, the snake himself needed to undergo a metamorphosis. He needed to become the obstacle and temptation for a different humanity, who now could be easily led astray. Therefore the intelligent rational snake becomes a dirt dwelling mute creature.

Nancy Evans Bush makes it clear in her book that hell is a concept introduced by Christians and promulgated most powerfully in the mistranslations of sheol in the King James version of the Bible.

We will be looking in the next post at how much his aversion to the theological hinges on these Christian variations on that theme as well as where that then leaves us in terms of reversing our descent into the abyss.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »