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Posts Tagged ‘Fyodor Dostoyevsky’

Almeley Quaker Meeting House (For source of picture see link)

Last Saturday, thanks to the warm hospitality of the Quaker community of Almeley Wooton, the Herefordshire Interfaith Group were able to hold their fourth Spirituality Day at their meeting house, founded in 1672 after it was donated by Roger Pritchard. This is the second time the meeting house has been used for this purpose. Twenty-five people turned up to share in the experience.

The day started at 9.30 in the morning and finished shortly after 4 in the afternoon. It was a mix of spiritual chants, circle dance and meditative consultation. The theme this time was our interconnectedness with all things.

A particularly beautiful chant was shared by Mike and Susanne, the leaders of those sessions. ‘There is a secret one inside of us: all the stars and all the galaxies run through her hands like beads.’ This resonated strongly for me with the words of Alí that Bahá’u’lláh quotes in the Seven Valleys:

Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?

Another timely reminder, given the challenges of climate change, came in another chant, which says ‘The earth is our mother: we must take care of her. Her sacred ground we walk upon with every step we take’ (an American Hopi Indian Tribal chant). Again this resonates with another quote from Bahá’u’lláh: ‘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’ (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 44).

The consultative meditations were run by Brian and me.

Brian’s session focused on the concept of interspirituality, a concept formulated by Wayne Robert Teasdale), a Catholic monk, author and teacher from Connecticut, who died in 2004. He predicted that interspirituality would become the global spiritual view of our era. Mystical spirituality is the origin of all the world religions, from this perspective. If this is so, interspirituality—the sharing of ultimate experiences across traditions—is the religion of the third millennium, and the foundation that can prepare the way for a planet-wide enlightened culture, and a continuing community among the religions that is substantial, vital, and creative. As I was running sessions in parallel, I can only share these quotes from Brian’s hand out to give a flavour of the experience.

My sessions were focused around a group of quotations from Bahá’í and other sources. The ones that attracted the most attention were one from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (from a previously untranslated tablet) which reads, ‘(C)o-operation and reciprocity are essential properties which are inherent in the unified system of the world of existence, and without which the entire creation would be reduced to nothingness’, and one from Albert Einstein, which came from a letter of consolation to a grieving father, that reads, ‘A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.’

This quote from Einstein is yet another that resonates strongly with a similar Bahá’í sentiment in a message from the Universal House of Justice in May 2001: ‘Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’

The emphasis in my sessions was upon the need to reflect not just on what these passages mean but also on how we can apply what we have understood in our own lives, and we spent some time reflecting upon how we could do more for the homeless, for refugees and for the planet.

In a reflection session at the end of the day all the 17 remaining participants shared their thoughts about the day and without exception indicated that they had found the mix of dance, chant, meditation and discussion a perfect balance.

These are the handouts used in my group

Interconnectedness

First Pair

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

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

We have a stake in one another … what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and … if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done for the people with whom we share this Earth.

(Barack Obama NY Times article 24 December 2006)

Second Pair

(C)o-operation and reciprocity are essential properties which are inherent in the unified system of the world of existence, and without which the entire creation would be reduced to nothingness.

(`Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet)

A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.

(Albert Einstein in a letter of consolation written in February 1950to a grieving father, Robert S. Marcus)

Third Pair

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

(`Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet)

My brother asked the birds to forgive him: that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth.

(Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers KaramazovChapter 3)

Fourth Pair

We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(Shoghi Effendi’s Secretary, in a letter dated 17 February 1933 to an individual believer)

All things are connected like the blood that unites us. We did not weave the web of life. We are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.

(Chief Seathl, a Susquamish chief,from aspeech believed to have been delivered in December, 1854)

Depending on how many of us there are, the plan is to split into several groups of four or five, each group taking a different pair of quotations to consult about, for a period of 20 minutes or so. After ensuring that everyone in the group has a grasp of the basic meaning of the quotes, it will be useful then to focus discussion mainly on what the implications are for society as a whole and in what ways we can apply the insights we find in our own lives. After that, we will come back together to share what we have thought.

A Meditative Practice to Cultivate a Sense of Connectedness

When we have finished sharing our thoughts about the quotes, we will try a meditation of about 15 minutes, before again briefly sharing our experiences.

Settle as comfortably as you can in your chair, with your back straight but not tense. Settle both feet on the floor and tune in to your breathing for a few moments, noticing how your solar plexus or your chest expands and contracts, and how the air feels as passes through your nose or mouth.

When you feel relaxed and comfortable, bring to mind a person, a place or a living being of any kind to whom you feel you owe a precious gift. Remember as fully as you can the nature of this gift, whether it be a moment of happiness, an easing of your distress, or the ability to take a vital step forwards in life, and send back, if you are able, to that person, place or being, a feeling of heartfelt gratitude for the gift they gave.

Holding that gratitude in mind and heart as much as you can, choose some aspect of nature or the human world, perhaps the sun that warms us, the trees that give us shade, the fruit from our orchards, the bees that pollinate our plants, the rain that falls and enables every living being to survive and thrive, those without a home to live in or fleeing from their native land, and pass that feeling of gratitude on. Feel that gratitude flow from you towards your chosen part of nature or humanity, and keep it flowing for as long as you can, as though it were your sunlight or your rain, nurturing whatever it falls upon and enabling it to thrive.

Then, when you are ready, see if you can find some kind of action you can take to honour that feeling of gratitude, something you can pledge to do, not once but from now on. Maybe all you feel you can do in that way is repeat this meditation everyday, or something like it, or perhaps there is something you can do to help foster some part of nature, whether that is by funding the planting of trees or growing in your garden the kinds of flowers bees and butterflies love to visit. Whatever you decide is fine as long as you find some way of maintaining a sense of connection with the web of life.

Then, when you are ready, bring your mind gently back to an awareness of the body and the chair you are sitting on, before slowly opening your eyes and connecting with the world immediately around you.

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Middlemarch

I recently finished The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead.

George Eliot has long been one of my favourite novelists. I tasted her first in my schooldays, even though my leisure choices were usually Byron and the Brontes. At this point, it was only her earlier work such as Silas Marner, mixed with Dickens’ more popular productions such as A Tale of Two Cities and Jane Austen’s best seller Pride and Prejudice – a bland and fairly easily digestible salad for my still developing palate.

Later at university I moved onto more demanding dishes altogether – Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend and Emma. I can’t quite remember when I started to savour the cuisine of other cultures such as Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Conrad and even Joyce’s Ulysses, but I think it was a lot later even than that. My digestive system failed completely and irreversibly, I’m afraid, at Finnegan’s Wake.

Anyway, enough boasting.

In spite of everything, Middlemarch stubbornly remained a favourite especially after teaching it at ‘A’ level. I had resolved to read it once a year once I retired but have only managed to finish it once in those five years! Rebecca Mead’s performance puts me to shame. By my calculations, from her account on page 8, she has read it at least five times and probably more. Even so, under such light pressure, my paperback copy has collapsed – I have only the cover left to remind me of how fond I was of it! This is now kept inside my copy of Frederick Karl’s biography.

GE pic

Ahead of her Time

In Mead’s treatment I was struck by how much Eliot anticipates important contemporary themes from the very specific to the broader brush. This will become the focus of much of the second part of this review. While I found her sharing of the ways that Eliot illumined her path through life, and her descriptions of the places she visited to retrace Eliot’s steps, held my interest sufficiently well, they weren’t hugely informative.

I was more gripped by the overlap of ideas that broke through the surface narrative at regular intervals.

For example, in her discussion of The Mill on the Floss Rebecca Mead touches on an interesting point when she quotes Eliot on page 38:

 . . . surely if we could recall that early bitterness, and the dim guesses, the strangely perspectiveless conception of life that gave the bitterness its intensity, we should not pooh-pooh the grief of our children.

That phrase ‘strangely perspectiveless conception of life’ rang important bells for me. I was back with Margaret Donaldson’s brilliant book, Human Minds, and her concept of point mode (op.cit. page 30):

The first mode, which is called the point mode, [is] a way of functioning in which the locus of concern is that directly experienced chunk of space time that one currently inhabits: the here and now.

This mode of experiencing reality is not confined to infancy and early childhood though (page 43):

. . . .  although direct concern with what is here and now is accompanied in early infancy by narrow temporal awareness, this does not have to be so. . . . . When an adult concentrates on a skilled task, such as uppholstering a chair, there is the absorption in the moment that is typical of the point mode, yet there is a great reliance on past experience and a well formulated goal that is some way ahead: the finished chair.

That Eliot was able to pinpoint this kind of experience so accurately in words in such an early novel is what gives me confidence to trust the validity of her later conclusions about other things less easily corroborated.

Possible Limitations

Mead is not naïve about Middlemarch though. She unpacks what Virginia Woolf might have meant in her praise of the novel.

VirginiaWoolf

Virginia Woolf (For source of image see link)

She picks particularly on Woolf’s expression “with all its imperfections.” She writes (page 46):

What are these imperfections? Woolf gives few specifics, though she cites Eliot’s unwillingness to let one sentence stand for many and contrasts it with the delicacy shown by Jane Austen’s Emma. . . . . . She says that Eliot – the grand daughter of a carpenter, as she reminds us – is out of her depth when it comes to the depiction of higher social strata, and resorts to stock images of claret and velvet carpets. Eliot’s hold on dialogue is often slack. Occasionally, she lacks taste. She suffers from ‘an elderly dread of fatigue from the effort of emotional concentration.’

She quotes (page 47) Woolf’s further comment that there is however a melancholy acknowledgement of human limitation which makes the book distinctly appropriate for ‘grown-up people.’

Mead also defends Eliot’s use of the now unpopular authorial voice (page 54) and quotes examples to prove its value:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lives on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.’

This contrasts strongly with the experience of reading Jane Austen, for example, where her device of free indirect speech means that the story unfolds through the consciousness of her characters rather than through any kind of explicit statements of her views. As Wikipedia explains: ‘What distinguishes free indirect speech from normal indirect speech is the lack of an introductory expression such as “He said” or “he thought”.’

What surprised me was that, as a student of English literature in the 60s in Cambridge, I had failed completely to take on board that this is how Jane Austen wrote. So much so, that when I recently read Mansfield Park (I am ashamed to say, for the first time), I was astonished to find that the whole narrative was carried along almost completely from within the consciousness of her characters. The caustic nature of her irony makes her presence felt even when she is nominally in the head of a character, especially that egomaniac, Mrs Norris. When the plan to bring Fanny, the daughter of her impoverished sister, to Mansfield Park, is being discussed, we get a typically caustic glimpse into her mind with only the faintest of obvious authorial touches at the start (Chapter 1):

The division of gratifying sensations ought not, in strict justice, to have been equal; for Sir Thomas was fully resolved to be the real and consistent patron of the selected child, and Mrs. Norris had not the least intention of being at any expense whatever in her maintenance. As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others; but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends.

Ford Maddox Ford does the same thing even more consistently in his greatest works such as Parade’s End.

The value of this approach is unquestioned. You are drawn deeply into the experience of the characters and, as in life, you can never be completely sure you have understood exactly what happened in an objective sense – all you have is a composite of subjective points of view.

I believe it is crucial that we all come to realise our interconnectedness. I therefore welcome the way the reading of novels has been shown to relate to increased empathy and social skills. Keith Oatley‘s book, Such Stuff as Dreams, tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value. He feels that one of fiction’s most important benefits is the fostering of empathy. He defines empathy as follows (page 113):

In modern times, and on the basis of recent research on brain imaging, empathy has been described as involving: (a) having an emotion, that (b) is in some way similar to that of another person, that (c) is elicited by observation or imagination of the other’s emotion, and that involves (d) knowing that the other is the source of one’s own emotion.

He asks a general question (page 95):

If we engage in the simulations of fiction, do the skills we learn there transfer to the everyday social world?

In this book he sees fiction as (page 99)

. . . . . a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world. This is what Shakespeare and others called a dream.

And finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects) – page 159:

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

Clearly, if that is what we are after, free indirect speech would be a strong candidate for one of the best ways of enhancing empathy.

However, there are also advantages in a similar direction, as Mead points out in this engaging tour of Eliot’s thought, to the use of the author’s own voice which we will come on to next time.

Related

The film of Mansfield Park lacks the depth and subtlety of the book but it was the impact of this film that helped me overcome the resistance engendered by the negative critics, go back and read it for myself.

 

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