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Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

One hour’s reflection is worth seventy years’ pious worship.Mirror 1

Bahá’u’lláh: quoting a hadith in the Kitáb-i-Íqán

Given the recent new posts taking another look at psychosis, it seemed worthwhile republishing this sequence from several years ago.

Three Crucial Factors

There are at least three other crucial factors in the mind-work process over and above what we have dealt with in the previous posts: Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity. They are qualities that the mind-worker must have from the start. The names for these qualities are used in an existential model of mind-work. (Reflection is also a core quality of the Bahá’í spiritual process and has been discussed at length in other posts on this site, as has consultation which can be fairly described as a process of group reflection.)

Reflection, relativity and relatedness as discussed here are the antidotes to three forces of fixity – drowning, dogmatism and disowning — which I discussed in detail in the article on The Art of Reflection (there I discussed in depth collaborative conversation, a term I borrowed at the time from Anderson and Swim) in This is Madness. The forces of fixity are common when we function in survival mode. Psychotic experiences in people who need help from Mental Health Services are very threatening. Being in survival mode is therefore very much the norm for many of them. Creating a situation that feels safe is of paramount importance. Otherwise it can be very difficult to mobilise the forces of flexibility.

Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity are the core of the mind-work process. They will need some further explanation. They are what the mind-worker models and what the client can either develop further or discover how to use. If the mind-worker lacks them the process of mind-work is likely to remain locked in unproductive disputes that tend to drive the client further into his private world. The client may or may not demonstrate them at the beginning but should increasingly do so as the mind-work progresses.  The better the mind-worker models them the more likely it is that the client will begin to use them too. These qualities are what consolidate and generalise the process of change. They ensure that the process of mind-work becomes a permanently transformative one. If the client does not develop these abilities there is likely to be no real sustainable progress.

These three capacities combine with the relationship aspects in different ways – trust, containment and authenticity – each of which contributes something special and important to the therapeutic process. They may have an order of importance which is discussed later in that without Trust it may be impossible to develop Containment and without Trust and Containment Authenticity may be impossible. Eventually the client will certainly need to acquire and evince Reflection, Relatedness and Relativity, without which he will never make his own any clarity that comes from the mind-worker.

What, in the Relationship, Makes Change Possible?

The Plane of Authenticity

Clarification and Congruence (see earlier posts) are two sides of a square mind-space, so to speak, which is completed by Reflection and Relativity, two concepts which are also related. The combination constitutes what we might call Authenticity.

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

The principal focus of reflection in mind-work is often upon our models of reality and upon the experiences which give rise to them and to which they give rise in return. This is especially true of “psychosis.” The capacity to reflect increases the flexibility of our models in the face of conflict and opens us up to new experiences: the adaptation and change that this makes possible enhances the potential usefulness of our models and their connected experiences. It is the antithesis of drowning where we are engulfed in our experiences and sink beneath them.

The ability to reflect, one part of our repertoire of tools for transformation, enables us to achieve our own clarification without depending upon another mind-worker. If a mind-worker does all the reflecting she is just giving people fish: if she can help someone discover how to reflect, she has taught him to fish. In combination with its sister quality, relativity, it becomes a powerful tool indeed. The antidote to chronic dogmatism, another of the forces of fixity, is relativity. Being dogmatic seals us off from new evidence which makes it hard to change our minds even when we are wrong.

It is not surprising that Reflection and Relativity are interconnected. By placing our models and assumptions mentally in brackets or inverted commas, which is a necessary first step towards reflecting upon them, we inevitably acknowledge, at least implicitly, that we have no monopoly on the truth, that we understand and experience the world at best imperfectly from a particular viewpoint or perspective which is only relatively true. This is not the same as saying there is no truth out there and any viewpoint is as good as any other. We refine the usefulness and accuracy of our simulations of reality partly at least through a process of comparing notes with others in consultation or, as I call it here, collaborative conversation.

We can, and as mind-workers we must, become almost as sceptical of our own position as we tend to be of other people’s.  Any other posture is unhelpfully dogmatic in this context. The extent to which I should then explicitly endorse the client’s position is still an issue of debate. Peter Chadwick, for instance, in his book Schizophrenia: a positive perspective, contends that it would not have been at all helpful to him to have staff endorse his beliefs in supernatural influences at the time he was experiencing extreme psychotic phenomena, even though he still holds those beliefs to be valid now that he is well: had they been endorsed by staff at the time he might have killed himself.

Authenticity matters because without it the clarity necessary for effective action and coping is unlikely to become possible. Client and mind-worker could well remain in a warm and sympathetic muddle that leads nowhere. As we will see in a moment though, without the warmth of an accepting relationship, authenticity and its resulting clarity can seem far too dangerous to risk.

Without a clear sense of uncertainty about absolute truth radical authenticity of the kind required here may prove impossible. An example from my own work serves to illustrate this well. A client was convinced the devil had a purpose for him. He was very concerned about whether I believed in the devil or not. He pressed me in almost every session for an answer. In the end, concerned to be congruent, I told him I did not. He broke off mindwork. I reflected on this afterwards. It became apparent to me that I had spoken from a position of dogmatic and unreflecting identification with my views about the devil. It would have been more authentic to acknowledge that, as a fellow human being struggling to make sense of the world, I couldn’t know for sure whether the devil existed or not. I could have shared with him, if he had pushed me further, that I had chosen to operate in my own life on the assumption that the devil did not exist. This would not, I think, have broken the relationship in a way that made further work I possible.

The Plane of Trust

Relativity shares a space with Relatedness. This term was chosen because it began with an ‘r’! Perhaps openness is a better word. Ernesto Spinelli (1st Edition: 1994) uses the expression “ownership.” Either way, along with Warmth, Encouragement (both discussed in earlier posts) and Relativity, it helps develop Trust, a crucial component that the client must eventually bring to the therapeutic process, and along with Empathy, Solidarity and Reflection it helps the client develop the ability to contain, rather than disown or act out, his inner experiences. The relation between Trust and Containment we will return to in a moment.

First of all we need to know what Relatedness is. Relatedness, in this context, is the capacity to consciously acknowledge and relate to what we are experiencing. It is the antidote to disowning, the last of the forces of fixity. It makes us sufficiently accessible to relationships with people and things to learn to accommodate to as well as assimilate experiences, to make appropriate adjustments to our selves or to our circumstances. If we disown parts of experience we become a prey to it, just as Ian was a prey to his repressed pain which turned into hostile or destructive voices. Anything we disown controls us while eluding our influence to change it in any way. What we are open to we can affect even though it may also affect us directly in its turn.

Trust comes first. We need to trust someone sufficiently to feel the strength flow into us from her Solidarity, to be able to know that she understands how we feel but will not therefore dump us or summon undermining and unwanted help, and to see how she feels confident enough to open up to what she feels about us and subject it to careful Reflection.  This is what gives us the opportunity to learn that we can contain our experiences and change our relationship with and understanding of them.

How do we develop Trust?

First of all, we need to feel the warmth of the mind-worker, her unwavering and unconditional valuing of us. Next, we need to sense her relativity, that she knows the incompleteness and inadequacy of her understanding and can suspend judgement and criticism indefinitely until it is really constructive to share (not impose) it. Then, we need to experience her encouragement, which unfailingly rewards our efforts to apply what we have discovered to our problems. Last but by no means least, we need to see her relatedness, her unthreatened openness to all experience, which allows us to become more aware of other dimensions of our own experience.  These things together make it possible for us to trust other people, our experience and ourselves. Without this making and sustaining change becomes almost impossible.

The Plane of Containment

This mind-space comprises empathy, solidarity (both discussed in an earlier post), relatedness and reflection. If someone is standing beside us in our struggles, giving us comfort, understanding what we are going through, and showing an open and reflective attitude to the revelations we share, it helps us to contain what might otherwise be too scary and/or disturbing to contemplate. What we cannot contain, we find it almost impossible to reflect on and process. Containment therefore plays a central role in the therapeutic process.

In our culture we are all too prone to either repression (convincing ourselves we’re not experiencing something when we are) or acting out (expressing whatever we are currently experiencing and ignoring the consequences until it is too late). Containment is the creative third way and a key to change.

An inability to contain experiences of a disturbing nature accounts for much substance abuse, self-harm and dependency on mind-altering subscription drugs. Containment is often not possible outside a set of supportive relationships of the kind I am attempting to describe.

Furthermore, if we cannot trust anyone, and perhaps least of all ourselves, we cannot contain what frightens us or threatens to overwhelm us. So perhaps without Trust there is no Containment. And without Trust and Containment, Authenticity will be impossible, I suspect. Any life-lie will seem a tempting port in the storm of life if distrust and disowning rule the mind.

In the next post I will attempt to pull this all together.

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Given the recent new posts taking another look at psychosis, it seemed worthwhile republishing this sequence from several years ago.

Many people have grappled with defining what mind-workers ought to do. Two “orts” emerge as favourites: rapport, as described by Carl Rogers, and support, as outlined by David Smail. My idea of the mind-working process starts from but does not end there. We will also have to consider other factors of crucial importance if the client is going to be able to take over and keep going the process of transformation for himself. These factors will be described in more detail in the next post: I’ll be using terms rooted in existential therapy but the key underlying concept is present in a strong form in my Faith tradition.

The Rogerian Triad

Carl Rogers

First there is the old faithful – the so-called Therapeutic Triad! I have used the word ‘therapist’ here because it is the one Rogers chooses. I’ve mentioned my doubts about the word in an earlier post of this sequence.

The Therapeutic Triad of Carl Rogers consists of genuineness (or congruence), empathy and warmth (or unconditional positive regard). Though it is very well known it perhaps needs a brief comment here. Carl Rogers in 1957 described the core conditions required of the mind-worker. To be genuine the therapist must be “freely and deeply ” herself. The therapist must also find herself experiencing “a warm acceptance of each aspect of the client’s experience as being a part of that client” if she is to experience “unconditional positive regard.” Empathy is “to sense the client’s private world as if it were your own.” For this to be effective the client must perceive “the acceptance and empathy which the therapist experiences for him.”

This triad can be summarised as Rapport, one of the “orts” which the mind-worker must bring to the mind-work to make the existential processes possible. This is what the mind-worker brings to the relationship but does not expect the client to apply to his own life.

(Incidentally, I will be using “he” or “we” for a client and “she” for a mind-worker in order to be politically correct, to avoid awkward constructions such as “(s)he” or him/her and to increase the likelihood of our reading at least some of these words from a client’s perspective.) If these qualities were not seen by the client to be present the mind-work would never get going. Rapport may often do no more than make change possible.

Smail’s Triad

Then there is the relatively new one on the block which takes things a bit further. This other “ort”, which can be labeled “Support”, is the Smail Triad, which he introduces in his book “How To Survive Without Psychotherapy” (1996). This is less widely known and will need a bit more introduction. It consists of Encouragement, Solidarity (or Comfort) and Clarification.

Warmth and Encouragement are related but not identical. Encouragement is essential. Smail defines this as:

. . . any kind of influence brought to bear by the therapist on the patient (sic) to try actively to make a difference to the factors that are causing him or her distress.

(A feature of so-called “psychosis” is passivity in the face of experience: encouragement is therefore very important in this context. Also such people have typically been facing deeply discouraging experiences for many years.) By encouragement the mind-worker responds positively to the efforts of her client to apply what he has discovered in mind-work. Praise is, for me, a key component.

Solidarity is, according to Smail, “one of the most potently therapeutic experiences to be had,” even though in itself it changes nothing. It is derived from sharing your deepest fears and most shameful secrets with a ‘valued other’ who does not immediately heap blame or scorn upon you, but who instead listens patiently and sympathetically to what you have to say.

It is something one human being gives to another by uncritically and supportively, but not blindly, standing beside him in his difficulties. It should but perhaps does not go without saying that this does not mean leaping in and drowning in there with him.

In the words of Smail (page 213):

Solidarity with others is both one of the most significant and, all things considered, the most available forms of power for ‘ordinary’ people.

David Smail

For people with a label of psychosis it is significantly less available and we should not underestimate the corrosive effects of that unavailability upon a person’s well-being. Solidarity is also what stops the praise and encouragement from being experienced as patronising. The mind-worker stands alongside, not above, the client. To feel that we are not alone in our troubles and that some one appreciates our efforts has a power to keep us going and bring about success that should not be underestimated.

Though Solidarity and Empathy have much in common they also are not the same thing. Solidarity involves standing with somebody as he struggles to act. Though it implies the mind-worker knows how the client feels, solidarity also implies action whereas empathy might only sit nearby and commiserate with how difficult it must feel.

Clarification is also crucial. People in distress are often confused. Simple questions and straightforward feedback are often all that is needed to dispel the fog. Sometimes another map of the world needs to be gradually introduced, again as a colleague and fellow human being, not as a superior being from her pedestal.

Smail (page 42) feels that there is,

. . . in principle at least, not a great deal of difficulty in arriving at an acceptable account of how people come to be as they are and what are the origins of their distress. Where difficulties do arise is in knowing what is to be done with this information. The idea that ‘insight’ leads automatically to cure, while figuring largely in many patients’ expectations, has long been recognised to be problematic by therapists.

The glib assumption, that to be clear is to be able to change, places an unrealistic degree of responsibility upon the client. Part of Smail’s solution is to emphasise solidarity and encouragement: the rest of what he stresses may be summarised under the idea of taking proper account of the power of environment in creating and alleviating difficulties. The extent to which an oppressive environment cannot be changed sets limits on the degree of change we can bring about.

For me, the physical environment within which the mind functions can be both outside (society, unemployment, lack of cash, poor housing etc) and inside (brain structure, chemistry, hormones etc) the individual. The degree to which these variables can operate effectively to bring about change is affected by environment, but that is a topic too large for present consideration.

Transferring Ownership

The process of clarification provides us with the easiest bridge from the “orts” to the factors we mentioned earlier which enable the client to keep the transformation process going because the client has to have more ownership of clarification than of the other qualities in these groups of three.

Support, even in the context of a good rapport, can only make change possible but it doesn’t tell us how to make sure it will happen in the first place and then continue in the right direction in the absence of the mind-worker. These qualities do not become the instruments the client will use himself to bring about change nor are they the results of changes taking place. They are composed of the essential prerequisites that make positive change processes possible within a relationship. With the possible exception of clarification, if the client lacks them, he does not need to develop them if he does not wish to. However, he needs to sense most of them in the mind-worker.

The Good Samaritan

The Good Samaritan

It perhaps goes without saying that most of these characteristics of the relationship, such as warmth, empathy, honesty, encouragement and solidarity are also emphasised in many spiritual traditions as essential to a proper relationship with other people. The golden rule, which recommends that we treat others as we would ourselves wish to be treated, occurs over and over again across the world transcending barriers of language and culture.

The characteristics I will be discussing in the next post helped me combine practical insights specifically drawn from the Bahá’í Faith with the processes of therapeutic practice. They are key to someone’s being able to carry on the work after the mind-worker has gone.

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I didn’t think I would ever have cause to republish something as rapidly as I am doing with this one in the light of recent events. This problem simply will not go away anytime soon, it seems. 

Last time I described my quest to understand our penchant for evil acts, including what might help us get past this fatal flaw, and what drew me to buy and start reading Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life.

Before I begin to tackle his exact contribution to this quest, I need to summarise the key ideas I’ve gleaned from those who are his forerunners in my investigations. My right-brain has agreed to this because I can pull most of this in from previous posts so it won’t greatly delay its desperately needed return to poetry.

Our Moral Imagination

Robert Wright in his book The Evolution of God argues that in evolutionary terms we are being forced to expand our sense of common humanity ever wider if we are not to face destructive challenges.

He states (page 428):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the end of this sequence I will be exploring more fully the implications of this with the help of the diagram on the left. For now all I will say is that it will take a long period of time before enough of us to make a real difference shift from the ‘me now’ position to expanding the compass of our compassionate understanding so that it embraces the whole of humanity.

Writght feels that it is inevitable that we will either move closer to moral truth or descend into chaos (we’ll be coming back to that word again in much more detail later). He feels that (ibid):

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

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

Jeremy Rifkin, in his thought-provoking book The Empathic Civilisation, articulates an important caveat to any assumption that an increasing global culture will inevitably move us onward and upward. He adduces evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start of the book (page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

He then spells out what that means (page 26):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

In terms of Wright’s position, entropy notwithstanding, what we need to understand is what is blocking the process he describes of expanding the scope and range of our ‘moral imagination,’ or in my terms the compass of our compassion.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Our Objects of Devotion

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his book, Is God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

In Wright’s terms, if the compass of our compassion is set too narrow, and we only identify with a subgroup of humanity rather than with humanity as a whole, we’re doomed.

Idealism, Ideology and Mistaking our Maps for Reality

Once we have taken that fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

McGilchrist’s contribution towards enriching my understanding of this issue is in his profound interrogation of the negative impact of the dominant left-hemisphere’s processing on our thinking. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is on pages 228-229:

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

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

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

Group Dynamics

There are also social facilitation, group difference and status differential effects. Take, for instance, Zimbardo’s perspective, which is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University. Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behaviour of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations that steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things, not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist. (It is only fair to add that Bregman’s recent book Human Kind casts serious doubt on the validity of Zimbardo’s Stanford University experiment, citing evidence to suggest that the dramatic results were manufactured by the research team. A properly conducted study filmed by the BBC in 2001 failed completely to replicate the Zimbardo patterns of behaviour.)  

The power of such influences, even if they are less dramatic than Zimbardo alleged, is reinforced by Haidt’s idea of the hive effect.

Haidt, in his other brilliant book The Righteous Mind, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247):

Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.

How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.):

. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”

Being ‘part of a whole’ can have an unacceptable price, though, as I will explore next time.

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Altruism Black Earth

I didn’t think I would ever have cause to republish something as rapidly as I am doing with this one in the light of recent events. This problem simply will not go away anytime soon, it seems.

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.

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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

As we come to the end of the current sequence, with its focus on how to lift our awareness to a higher level that will benefit not just ourselves but all life on earth, it seems a good time 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.

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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)

As we come to the end of the current sequence, with its focus on how to lift our awareness to a higher level that will benefit not just ourselves but all life on earth, it seems a good time 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.

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