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Posts Tagged ‘Guy Claxton’

What is imperative is that the quality of the educational process fostered at the level of the study circle rise markedly over the next year . . . . .  Much will fall on those who serve as tutors in this respect.  Theirs will be the challenge to provide the environment that is envisioned in the institute  courses, an environment conducive to the spiritual empowerment of individuals, who will come to see themselves as active agents of their own learning, as  protagonists of a constant effort to apply knowledge to effect individual and  collective transformation.

(Universal House of Justice: 21 April 2010)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This post was first published in 2010. 

Much effort is being devoted in the Bahá’í community to acquiring the capacity to empower others. A key component in this endeavour is what is being termed ‘accompaniment.’ In the same message as quoted above, the Universal House of Justice refers to this:

This evolution in collective consciousness is discernable in the growing frequency with which the word “accompany” appears in conversations among the friends, a  word that is being endowed with new meaning as it is integrated into the common  vocabulary of the Bahá’í community. It signals the significant strengthening of a culture in which learning is the mode of operation, a mode that fosters  the informed participation of more and more people in a united effort to apply Bahá’u’lláh‘s teachings to the construction of a divine civilization, which the  Guardian states is the primary mission of the Faith.

There are a number of contexts (see other posts for an explanation of these) which are allowing Bahá’ís to acquire, develop and consolidate these skills, but we are still at a relatively early stage of doing so and we have much to learn.

I for one have been helped greatly in my endeavours in this respect by the vast body of experience that has been accumulating over the years in the wider community, some of which I have discussed in this blog (see for example the posts on Effort and Excellence). In the book I was describing there, Bounce by Matthew Syed, he drew heavily on the work of Carol Dweck.

I simply had to have a look at some of her work myself so I bought her book Mindset. The whole book is a worthwhile read but I don’t want to go over exactly the same ground as Syed does, valuable though that is. I thought it would be worth looking in more detail at what she has to say about empowering relationships.

For the benefit of those who haven’t read my posts on Bounce, perhaps I’d better recap on the concept of mindsets and her argument from evidence that there are two mindsets which are particularly relevant to learning and personal development.

There is the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

The fixed mindset believes in the crippling myth of talent which goes along with the idea that you either have it or you don’t. If you don’t have it, you can’t acquire it so there’s no point in practising. If you do have it, you needn’t work very hard to keep ahead of the pack. In fact, working hard to do well means you aren’t talented because if you were you wouldn’t have to work at it.

The growth mindset says that everyone has the capacity to become extremely skilled at any number of things. It just takes focused practice, openness to feedback and a belief in the power of effort.

One of the key distinctions between the way these two mindsets affect people lies in their experience of mistakes. To the fixed mindset mistakes prove you have no talent and are to be avoided at all costs which means steering well clear of anything you could learn from. It leads you to stick to what you can already do and avoid attempting anything that would stretch you at all significantly. The growth mindset welcomes mistakes as an opportunity to learn.

Now for what Dweck says about relationships especially in the context of education.

First there is the issue of praise. She nails her colours to the mast very early on in her discussion of teaching and parenting (page 175):

Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.

This is a central point for those of us who are involved in working with others to empower them. We know encouragement is vital so why should praising intelligence be so bad?

Dweck puts it most succinctly on the same page:

[Children] especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow – but only for a moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.

She adduces empirical evidence to support this and she is not the only well-qualified voice to do so. Many years ago I read a book by Guy Claxton, Wise Up, with the sub-title ‘The Challenge of Lifelong Learning.’ He discusses very similar issues in somewhat different language and makes the point that modelling the value of confusion rather than the value of simply looking clever is an important part of a teacher’s toolbox (page 70):

[A] knowledge-focused model reinforces teachers’ belief that they have to be the fount of all knowledge – a belief that makes student teachers very anxious. . . . . Not to know is, for them, to be caught out, to be found wanting, and thus to risk the loss of the pupils’ respect. . . . The idea that genuine confusion and uncertainty are part of learning, and that if children are to become good learners they have to get used to operating under such conditions, is, on this model, unintelligible. The idea that it might be useful for teachers to model for children ‘what to do when you don’t know what to do’ would be . . . unthinkable.

The House of Justice emphasises that in the adult learning processes we are striving to implement, everyone, including the tutor, is ‘to advance on equal footing.’ Feeling you have to behave as if you know it all would be completely out of place.

And Dweck is not blind to the importance of shifting the emphasis from having the gift of talent to seeing the value of learning. In her view we praise people (page 177) for ‘what they have accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good strategies.’ She points out (page 179) how ‘speed and perfection are the enemy of difficult learning,’ When people learn something fast we need to apologise for giving them something too easy and denying them an opportunity to learn.

She condenses many of her insights into the incisive statement (page 186):

Don’t judge. Teach. It’s a learning process.

Her approach does not involve lowering standards in order to ‘encourage’ a student. Feedback has to be honest and the standards have to be high. That is combined with the ability to communicate to every single student, however disadvantaged their starting point, that they can learn to learn. And that once they learn that, who knows how high they can fly?

Fixed mindset teachers in her view (page 197) ‘look at students’ beginning performance and decide who’s smart and who’s dumb.’ They don’t believe in improvement. Teachers with a growth mindset combine challenge with nurture (page 198). And they do not regard themselves as a finished product either.

They love to learn. And teaching is a wonderful way to learn. About people and how they tick. About what you teach. About yourself. And about life.

She quotes a coach with a growth mindset (page 207):

You have to apply yourself each day to becoming a little better. By applying yourself to the task of  becoming a little better each and every day over a period of time, you will become a lot better.

It’s hard not to see the parallels here with spiritual development:

The lily grows from a very unattractive-looking bulb. If we had never seen a lily in bloom, never gazed on its matchless grace of foliage and flower, how could we know the reality contained in that bulb? We might dissect it most carefully and examine it most minutely, but we should never discover the dormant beauty which the gardener knows how to awaken. So until we have seen the Glory of God revealed in the Manifestation, we can have no idea of the spiritual beauty latent in our own nature and in that of our fellows. By knowing and loving the Manifestation of God and following His teachings we are enabled, little by little, to realize the potential perfections within ourselves; then, and not till then, does the meaning and purpose of life and of the universe become apparent to us.

(Esslemont in Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era: page 74)

So, we’re all on a journey, teacher and student alike, and none of us is complete and perfect. And the humility of that understanding is empowering when it translates into action within a relationship.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

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What is imperative is that the quality of the educational process fostered at the level of the study circle rise markedly over the next year . . . . .  Much will fall on those who serve as tutors in this respect.  Theirs will be the challenge to provide the environment that is envisioned in the institute  courses, an environment conducive to the spiritual empowerment of individuals, who will come to see themselves as active agents of their own learning, as  protagonists of a constant effort to apply knowledge to effect individual and  collective transformation.

(Universal House of Justice: 21 April 2010)

Much effort is being devoted in the Bahá’í community to acquiring the capacity to empower others. A key component in this endeavour is what is being termed ‘accompaniment.’ In the same message as quoted above, the Universal House of Justice refers to this:

This evolution in collective consciousness is discernable in the growing frequency with which the word “accompany” appears in conversations among the friends, a  word that is being endowed with new meaning as it is integrated into the common  vocabulary of the Bahá’í community. It signals the significant strengthening of a culture in which learning is the mode of operation, a mode that fosters  the informed participation of more and more people in a united effort to apply Bahá’u’lláh‘s teachings to the construction of a divine civilization, which the  Guardian states is the primary mission of the Faith.

There are a number of contexts (see other posts for an explanation of these) which are allowing Bahá’ís to acquire, develop and consolidate these skills, but we are still at a relatively early stage of doing so and we have much to learn.

I for one have been helped greatly in my endeavours in this respect by the vast body of experience that has been accumulating over the years in the wider community, some of which I have discussed in this blog (see for example the posts on Effort and Excellence). In the book I was describing there, Bounce by Matthew Syed, he drew heavily on the work of Carol Dweck.

I simply had to have a look at some of her work myself so I bought her book Mindset. The whole book is a worthwhile read but I don’t want to go over exactly the same ground as Syed does, valuable though that is. I thought it would be worth looking in more detail at what she has to say about empowering relationships.

For the benefit of those who haven’t read my posts on Bounce, perhaps I’d better recap on the concept of mindsets and her argument from evidence that there are two mindsets which are particularly relevant to learning and personal development.

There is the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

The fixed mindset believes in the crippling myth of talent which goes along with the idea that you either have it or you don’t. If you don’t have it, you can’t acquire it so there’s no point in practising. If you do have it, you needn’t work very hard to keep ahead of the pack. In fact, working hard to do well means you aren’t talented because if you were you wouldn’t have to work at it.

The growth mindset says that everyone has the capacity to become extremely skilled at any number of things. It just takes focused practice, openness to feedback and a belief in the power of effort.

One of the key distinctions between the way these two mindsets affect people lies in their experience of mistakes. To the fixed mindset mistakes prove you have no talent and are to be avoided at all costs which means steering well clear of anything you could learn from. It leads you to stick to what you can already do and avoid attempting anything that would stretch you at all significantly. The growth mindset welcomes mistakes as an opportunity to learn.

Now for what  Dweck says about relationships especially in the context of education.

First there is the issue of praise. She nails her colours to the mast very early on in her discussion of teaching and parenting (page 175):

Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.

This is a central point for those of us who are involved in working with others to empower them. We know encouragement is vital so why should praising intelligence be so bad?

Dweck puts it most succinctly on the same page:

[Children] especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow – but only for a moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.

She adduces empirical evidence to support this and she is not the only well-qualified voice to do so. Many years ago I read a book by Guy Claxton, Wise Up, with the sub-title ‘The Challenge of Lifelong Learning.’ He discusses very similar issues in somewhat different language and makes the point that modelling the value of confusion rather than the value of simply looking clever is an important part of a teacher’s toolbox (page 70):

[A] knowledge-focused model reinforces teachers’ belief that they have to be the fount of all knowledge – a belief that makes student teachers very anxious. . . . . Not to know is, for them, to be caught out, to be found wanting, and thus to risk the loss of the pupils’ respect. . . . The idea that genuine confusion and uncertainty are part of learning, and that if children are to become good learners they have to get used to operating under such conditions, is, on this model, unintelligible. The idea that it might be useful for teachers to model for children ‘what to do when you don’t know what to do’ would be . . . unthinkable.

The House of Justice emphasises that in the adult learning processes we are striving to implement, everyone, including the tutor, is ‘to advance on equal footing.’ Feeling you have to behave as if you know it all would be completely out of place.

And Dweck is not blind to the importance of shifting the emphasis from having the gift of talent to seeing the value of learning. In her view we praise people (page 177) for ‘what they have accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good strategies.’ She points out (page 179) how ‘speed and perfection are the enemy of difficult learning,’ When people learn something fast we need to apologise for giving them something too easy and denying them an opportunity to learn.

She condenses many of her insights into the incisive statement (page 186):

Don’t judge. Teach. It’s a learning process.

Her approach does not involve lowering standards in order to ‘encourage’ a student. Feedback has to be honest and the standards have to be high. That is combined with the ability to communicate to every single student, however disadvantaged their starting point, that they can learn to learn. And that once they learn that, who knows how high they can fly?

Fixed mindset teachers in her view (page 197) ‘look at students’ beginning performance and decide who’s smart and who’s dumb.’ They don’t believe in improvement. Teachers with a growth mindset combine challenge with nurture (page 198). And they do not regard themselves as a finished product either.

They love to learn. And teaching is a wonderful way to learn. About people and how they tick. About what you teach. About yourself. And about life.

She quotes a coach with a growth mindset (page 207):

You have to apply yourself each day to becoming a little better. By applying yourself to the task of  becoming a little better each and every day over a period of time, you will become a lot better.

It’s hard not to see the parallels here with spiritual development:

The lily grows from a very unattractive-looking bulb. If we had never seen a lily in bloom, never gazed on its matchless grace of foliage and flower, how could we know the reality contained in that bulb? We might dissect it most carefully and examine it most minutely, but we should never discover the dormant beauty which the gardener knows how to awaken. So until we have seen the Glory of God revealed in the Manifestation, we can have no idea of the spiritual beauty latent in our own nature and in that of our fellows. By knowing and loving the Manifestation of God and following His teachings we are enabled, little by little, to realize the potential perfections within ourselves; then, and not till then, does the meaning and purpose of life and of the universe become apparent to us.

(Esslemont in Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era: page 74)

So, we’re all on a journey, teacher and student alike, and none of us is complete and perfect. And the humility of that understanding is empowering when it translates into action within a relationship.

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When woman’s point of view receives due consideration and woman’s will is allowed adequate expression in the arrangement of social affairs, we may expect great advancement in matters which have often be grievously neglected under the old regime of male dominance—such matters as health, temperance, peace, and regard for the value of the individual life. Improvements in these respects will have very far-reaching and beneficent effects. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says:

“The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting; force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals, or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.”

(Star of the West, viii, No. 3, p. 4 [from report of remarks made aboard the S.S. Cedric on arrival in New York]: Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era)

The Master and his Emissary is a deeply satisfying book. It is the first and only book written from a predominantly neuropsychological viewpoint about which I do not have major reservations: his position is not tainted by even the faintest trace of simplistic reductionism. It engages at a profound level with the problems of the modern age. It describes how the pressures of the modern world in the west tend to push all of us nearer to psychosis and delusion than we would otherwise be. It gives a perspective on the Bahá’í principle of unity and its relationship with diversity[1] that I feel is immensely helpful. It also casts an important light on how difficult it is to work both systematically and with a sense of the organic, to be both efficient and loving – something of great concern to the Bahá’í enterprise.

Are the ‘wow’-factor adverbs and adjectives beginning to seem irritating? I can’t help that. Either I use them or I sell the book short.

At a whopping 462 pages of fairly demanding core text it is not a skim read. We’d end up with a variant of Woody Allen‘s experience of a speed reading course: all he could say at the end was, ‘I’ve read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.’ With this book all we would be able to say would be, ‘It’s about the brain.’

Not surprisingly I feel that just might miss the crucial point. However, summarising my sense of the book’s overall meaning in about 1000 words is almost as bad. It’s like getting a lake into a pint pot. Perhaps the only way to do it is to be brutal about my précis of the first half of the book and surgical in my resumé of its second half, which may in the process inevitably do some violence to the overall meaning, for reasons that will shortly become obvious.

Two Ways of Being

For source of image see link.

For source of image see link.

He gives a comprehensive overview of research into the ways the two hemispheres of the brain work both separately and together. He contends these processes underpin and determine the way we experience the world and organise our responses to it. The evidence he adduces for his final conclusion is compelling and extensive.

It is key to the second part of the book, which looks at the impact on modern society of the processes he has clarified. I will state his main conclusions here but there is no way I can convey the impact of the evidence in this space. The book has to be read in its entirety for that to be achieved. Needless to say I feel that would be a most rewarding experience for any one to undertake.

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.

Their Effects in the World

He traces the oscillations of influence between the hemispheres over the centuries.  Though the benefits of a recently increased left hemisphere dominance in the affairs of humanity are clear to see in the technological advances we enjoy, mostly in the west, so are its costs in terms of a parallel increase in alienation, competition, intolerance, fragmentation, totalitarianism and the unrestrained exploitation of people and resources. We are in desperate need of reinstating a proper balance in the modes of operation of the two hemispheres. This cry is articulated in the Bahá’í Faith’s belief that religion and science are to be seen as one and should not be in conflict. They are as the wings of one bird, as also, we believe, are men and women in the social and political sphere, a not unconnected issue as the quote at the head of this post indicates.

McGilchrist’s articulation of this need is complex and subtle but required reading for anyone who cares about these issues. The quote below is only one part of his case, though a central one (page 203).

There is, in summary, then, a force for individuation (left hemisphere) and a force for coherence (right hemisphere): but, where the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts, the force for individuation exists within and subject to the force of coherence. In this sense the ‘givens’ of the left hemisphere need to be once again ‘given up’ to be reunified through the operations of the right hemisphere. . . . [T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.

Over the years many other books by experts in their fields have enriched my understanding of this whole area: the work of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), of Guy Claxton, of Ken Wilber, of Jonathan Haidt, of Robert Wright, of Margaret Donaldson and of Paul Gilbert, to quote only those which come most readily to mind. This book plumbs the waters at least as deeply and perhaps more widely than any of them.

It has altered my take on the arts (I don’t feel so inadequate now for my failure to ‘get’ Cubism, for example) as well as the sciences, and I feel it has also helped me understand more deeply the scriptures of my own tradition. I suspect I will be drawing on those other insights in the posts on this blog for quite some time to come. They are too many and too complex to include here.

If it not already obvious I am strongly recommending The Master and His Emissary. If you want a great read, try this book.

[1] The ‘concept of diversity as a fundamental characteristic of unity’ appears to date from Liebnitz’s Monadology 1714 (see McCarthy, J.A. Criticism and Experience, in Philosophy and German Literature: 1700-1990 ed. Nicholas Saul)

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Cliff

Lake District Cliff

The best journey to make

is inward. It is the interior

that calls. Eliot heard it.

Wordsworth turned from the great hills

of the north to the precipice

of his own mind, and let himself

down for the poetry stranded

on the bare ledges.

(R. S. Thomas: ‘Groping’ page 328, Collected Poems)

When we considered the mind as a mirror, we felt that it could then contain the universe as a reflection within it. The idea of the heart as a garden or as soil works differently but we should still be thinking in terms of a vast landscaped garden rather than a small suburban one.

The Inscape

In writing about Jung in 1976, Laurens van der Post used the word I have borrowed from time to time ever since – ‘inscape.’ He wrote:

Gerald Manley Hopkins had already said it definitively when he wrote that there were not only ‘landscapes’ for us but ‘inscapes’ as well, or as he put it in one of his greatest poems,

‘O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall,

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.’

(‘Jung and the Story of our Time‘: page 20)

Whether we are simply talking about the mind as a product of the brain or as an emanation from the soul, this holds true. If we move from the poets to a psychologist, we find:

The assembled oddities of human nature point to the fact that it is not just the mind that bursts out of the . . . . straitjacket into which it has been forced; it is the very core of the self, of human identity, that threatens to escape. I am darker, and more dispersed, and more various, and more changeable, than I am supposed to be . . .

(Guy Claxton: The Wayward Mind page 350)

Though the idea of the universe may seem too much too swallow for some, even if we restrict ourselves only to thinking of the brain, our inscape is larger and more complex than many of us are prepared to admit. This throws us back onto the problem we wrestled with right at the beginning: if we have such a complex and powerful hinterland of forces within us, where does free will fit in?

The metaphor of the garden and cultivation helps us here to understand in what ways our freedom to decide is circumscribed by what is happening out of consciousness: at the same time it shows us that we are not completely powerless and we do have responsibility. We can shape the way things go but we cannot do this arbitrarily and in ignorance of the way the mind-brain system works. For those who want a more detailed understanding of what psychology thinks about this issue, Claxton’s books are a good place to start.

Free Will

We are going to be simplifying the situation in order to focus on a central issue. Bahá’u’lláh tells us:

hyacinthSow the seeds of My divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of thy heart.

(Persian Hidden Words, No. 33)

The balance of conscious decision-making against automatic unconscious processes implied here is very much how things really are, I think. We can choose what we sow in the soil: we can even make sure that some of the conditions are favourable. But it is the soil and the sun that do the bulk of the work. Without the power of nature the gardener could do nothing. And this captures the balance of forces between our decisions and the actions we take, which are relatively puny but of great significance, and the massive spiritual and mental forces that are then mobilised to bring our plans to fruition. We have to work with those forces for we cannot work against them. We are the puny rider training the massive elephant, to use Jonathan Haidt‘s different image. If we plant something other than the hyacinths of wisdom, that’s what we’ll get. If we plant nothing and do no weeding, then we’ll have, in the words Hamlet uses of the state of Denmark:

. . . an unweeded garden

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely.

(Act I, Scene ii, lines 135-137: merely means ‘completely.)

(It is perhaps no coincidence that both Zen Buddhism and Islam also see spiritual sustenance in both experiencing and maintaining a well-kept garden: that I’m good with the hammock and bad with the trowel worries me sometimes.)

We must allow that the brain has vast unconscious forces working in parallel. But what we do with our minds influences what those forces do in highly significant ways. It is not deterministic and we do have free will — up to a point. Beneath the surface, our mind processes outside our consciousness what we drop into it. We can learn, if we are skillful and resolute, to control by act of will what is planted in our minds though we may not be able to control exactly what our mind then does with it.

What about the soul?

Now we must return to a crucial point. While what I have just explored holds true regardless of whether we are talking about brains, minds or souls, I also accept that the evidence and the reasons for thinking it is the soul are not compelling. If we were compelled by their cogency and force to accept them, there would be no freedom of choice and no moral value in believing or not believing in a soul, anymore than there is moral value in believing that grass is green or the sun is hot.

However, I would like, before the end of this series of posts, to quote two writers from very different traditions who feel that there is a powerful body of evidence, disparaged in our culture, that says the spiritual or transcendental dimension has to be taken seriously, however you might choose to define it.

Ken Wilber concludes a complex review of what should constitute evidence and falsifiability by stating:

. . . it then becomes perfectly obvious that the real battle is not between science which is ‘real,’ and religion, which is ‘bogus,’ but rather between real science and religion, on the one hand, and bogus science and religion, on the other. Both real science and real religion follow the three strands of valid knowledge accumulation, while both bogus science (pseudo-science) and bogus religion (mythic and dogmatic) fail that test miserably. Thus, real science and real religion are actually allied against the bogus and the dogmatic and the nonverifiable and the nonfalsifiable in their respective spheres.

(The Marriage of Sense and Soul, page 169)

Margaret Donaldson, in an equally brilliant book that looks at the development of the human mind from infancy to adulthood, concludes:

. . . . if the intellect has unbalanced us, there are corrective steps open to us which are not regressive and which do not entail a rejection of reason. At the same time, we may come to feel less embarrassed about and suspicious of transcendent emotion, seeing it as no more ‘wierd’ than the capacity for mathematical thought. Neither of these is, or is ever likely to seem, banal or commonplace. Each has its element of mystery. Yet each is a normal, though generally ill-developed, power of the human mind.

(Human Minds, page 266)

The value of a spiritual perspective

It is my view that, if we can accept the spiritual dimension, we will be more motivated to persist in the difficult work of cultivating our inscape, and if we do not we will be inclined to give up far too soon with dire consequences for ourselves and our societies.

The Elizabethans often compared the state to a garden. There is a strong connection, it seems to me, between the state of the gardens of our minds and the state of the gardens of the societies that we create. If we want to see the Tudor picture of a harmonious garden within and outside us we need to accept that arduous and persistent work needs to be done. The Gardener in King Richard the Second laments:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . O, what a pity is itforsythia

That [the king] had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land

As we this garden! We at time of year

Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit trees,

Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,

With too much riches it confound itself;

. . . . . . . . . . . . Superfluous branches

We lop away, that bearing boughs may live;

Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,

Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

(Act III, Scene iv, lines 55-66)

What is true for them and for King Richard is also true for us in terms of our own hearts and our own communities. If we fail to do the necessary systematic work, then we will perhaps end up with Richard lamenting:

I wasted time and now doth time waste me.

(Act V, Scene v, line 49)

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Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

A pure heart is as a mirror . . .

In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love . . . .

Bahá’u’lláh: The Seven Valleys (page 21) & Persian Hidden Words No. 3

I want to deal with only two more complex issues. Both of them stem from our experience of what might be our soul. The two quotations from Bahá’u’lláh give us a sense of what those issues might be. These posts could go on for a while yet!

The Mirror and the Garden

The first issue is to do with how we can feel there is an infinity inside us and how that relates to the ability of our mind to watch itself. We will be talking a lot about mirrors, hearts and minds later.

The second issue is one that Dennett raises which needs to be addressed more closely than I did last time. He states that the brain is a parallel processor of great complexity and that serial consciousness is what computing people would call virtual not real: in simple terms the more complicated parallel processor underneath, which can do lots of things at once (‘Not a man, then!’ did you say?), fakes our experience of thinking one thing at a time in a time-line.

Guy Claxton deals with much the same issue by using the analogy of interconnected octopuses to describe the brain’s complexity. Both

Octopus

Octopus

agree, as I do (and Jonathan Haidt as well in his elephant and rider metaphor), that the brain, whether or not we have a soul, can do an awful lot of complicated things without our feeling anything at all and can go its own way in spite of us sometimes.

This is the issue that will involve us in talking about gardens as way of describing hearts and minds. We will be exploring whether the relationship between our conscious mind and the rest of our mind is rather like the relationship between gardeners and their gardens. You will have to bear, more than you usually do, with my limitations here: my hands-on experience of gardening is derived only from the deckchair.

In the end I hope to use all this to shed light on whether I have a soul and whether my will is free.

Mind and Brain

We have to get some basic stuff out of the way first before we tackle the fascinating surfaces of our mind’s mirrors and the fertile depths of our heart’s gardens.

I ended the previous post wondering what it is like to experience my soul. I hinted that there is something about our inner experience, something with which we are all very familiar, which might just be the end of a piece of string that is tied to our soul, the experience of soul in consciousness if you like.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, along with therapies like Psychosynthesis as well as Existentialist writers and millenia of meditators, have all homed in on the one same remarkable capacity of our minds. I can look into my own mind and watch it: we can reflect. I can see the contents of my consciousness passing through my mind. ‘Oh look!’ I can say to myself, ‘There’s a feeling of anger. There’s a thought about fish and chips. Oh, and there goes a plan to go shopping tomorrow.’ I think we all know what that feels like already or can at least confirm that we can do it with just a small amount of effort: we can separate our consciousness from its contents.

How do we do that though and what does it mean?

Some say it’s a by-product of language. That’s the A.C.T. explanation. “I speak therefore I can talk as though I am watching my mind.’ Others dress up their explanatory bankruptcy in fancier ways. ‘It’s an epiphenomenon of the brain’s complexity.’ Epiphenomenon means by-product. It also is used to indicate that this ability is accidental and pointless: all the really important stuff is going on underneath where the neurons are firing. ‘I’ve got more connections in my brain than atoms in the universe, so I think my mind can watch itself, ha, ha! It’s got no idea what’s going on.’

Some are more charitable. “Well, when you get complex systems you do sometimes get an emergent property that’s more than the sum of its parts.’ Consciousness and self-reflection would fall into this category. ‘My brain’s so complicated it’s better than its bits so I really can watch my mind working. More than that, my mind can change the brain as well as being affected by the brain.’

Now that really is something.

It either demonstrates an emergent property or suggests that the mind and brain might be different kinds of stuff. It really does happen as well. For instance, wiring a very antisocial late-teenager’s head (i.e. late meaning 18 or 19, but not dead yet or behind time in this case!) to a feedback machine, so he could learn how to increase the activity of the frontal lobes which control impulsive behaviour, led to more active frontal lobes. His grades improved, his crime rate slumped to zero and he stopped using drugs. That doesn’t sound like the brain was really calling all the shots to me.

The Spiritual Perspective

So, the mind can watch itself and also change the way the brain functions in significant ways. Why might that be more than an emergent property?

First of all, in the Pam Reynolds experience, which is not unique, we had, in my view, solid proof that her mind gathered and remembered information that her brain could never have gleaned or stored. It operated separately. The idea of mind/brain separation, therefore has evidence in its favour (See also Jenny Wade’s ‘Changes of Mind‘ for a full discussion of mind/brain separation in infancy and beyond). No theory connected with mind as an emergent property has ever predicted that. It goes way beyond what would have been expected.

That’s the kind of externally corroborated evidence that science likes to find but in this case prefers to ignore as what it demonstrates is held to be impossible.

More importantly though, there is the evidence of our own subjective experience. Remember the disparagement of free will? It’s an illusion, Dennett says. Such people also say that our experience of being able to look at our minds isn’t what it feels like. But why should we believe them about this any more than we should believe them when they say we do not really have free will? Is this another lamp post that needs kicking?

Who is it then that we can get in touch with when we watch ourselves? Who was there when we look back on every aspect of our lives at every period and feel we were the same self doing the watching then? Every cell in our bodies has since been changed. Is it really just a trick of language, neuronal connections or memory? Is there really no genuine constant sense of a real inner self observing all we do?

We all have to make our own decision about what that experience means. I think it is quite reasonable to say that it suggests that my mind is made of different stuff from my brain although it uses it. It is at least as reasonable to conclude that as to conclude that it’s all down to the neurons.

In another post there may be an opportunity to look at the work of Margaret Donaldson and Ken Wilber who both brilliantly advocate in their very different ways the value of subjective experience as data about reality. Many people can keep replicating the same experience by the same spiritual practices in very different cultures: that means something, they argue, about the true nature of reality. Newberg, D’Aquili and Rause have the humility to admit that even though we can pin down exactly what’s going on in the brain at the same time as these experiences, this doesn’t mean they’re not real anymore than understanding the neurobiology of colour vision proves that colour doesn’t exist. The fact that our brains turn wavelengths of light into the experience of colour does not mean there is nothing out there corresponding to the experience, even though green and 510 nanometres seem to have very little in common!

If I can carry you with me rather further now, let’s see in the next post where this possibility can take us. It is worth reminding ourselves again here that the word we use to describe this ability of the mind is ‘reflection.’ Next time we will be exploring mirrors, hearts, selves and consciousness. Not much to look forward to then.

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