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Posts Tagged ‘Iain McGilchrist’

During April, I was working on the last of a long number of poems concerning my search for truth. I had no idea I was about to read a book that would provide my left-brain with some strings of words to help it understand what my right-brain was struggling to express.

Bernardo Kastrup’s book The Idea of the World was a fascinating read all the way through, but it was not until I almost reached the end that I found one of the most surprising pieces of information, previously completely unknown to me, in spite of my continuing interest in so-called ‘paranormal’ experiences.

I will digress a little before getting to that point.

He defines self-transcendence[1] as the ‘abrupt . . . broadening of one’s sense of self’ and explores the wealth of new evidence that demonstrates that such experiences, rich and complex as they often are, correlate with ‘a broad variety of brain impairment mechanisms.’ His list of such impairments includes cerebral hypoxia, electromagnetic and chemical impairment, generalised physiological stress and physical damage.

NDEs

One of his key examples is particularly close to an area of interest of mine: near death experiences. He writes:[2]

Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) are the prime examples of self-transcendence associated with dramatically reduced brain function due to e.g. cardiac arrest.

He refers at this point to the work of Pim van Lommel, whose book, Consciousness Beyond Life, I have blogged about earlier.

It’s probably worth a brief recap of van Lommel’s position.

Van Lommel argues – and I am not sufficiently expert in quantum theory to judge the strength of his case here – that quantum theory has altered the balance of the argument significantly:[3]

According to some quantum physicists, quantum physics accords our consciousness a decisive role in creating and experiencing perceptible reality. . . . . . This transforms modern science into a subjective science in which consciousness plays a fundamental role.

As a result of the implications of quantum theory and supported by his own research and that of others, he strongly feels:[4]

On the basis of prospective studies of near-death experience, recent results from neurophysiological research, and concepts from quantum physics, I strongly believe that consciousness cannot be located in a particular time and place. This is known as nonlocality. Complete and endless consciousness is everywhere in a dimension that is not tied to time or place, where past, present, and future all exist and are accessible at the same time.

To help lame-brains like me to keep up, he brings in a helpful analogy that is being used quite widely by those of this point of view:[5]

Our brain may be compared both to a television set, receiving information from electromagnetic fields and decoding this into sound and vision, and to a television camera, converting or encoding sound and vision into electromagnetic waves. . . . . The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness.

Let’s pick up his argument at what is a crux for his case:[6]

The fact that an NDE 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.

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 both immediately afterwards and then after a set period of time again later, rather than finding people who claimed to have had an NDE and interviewing only them. The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved:[7]

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:[8]

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:[9]

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 the NDE was experienced were completely, accurately and verifiably recorded, something not possible in a retrospective study: van Lommel is clear[10] that ‘in such a brain [state] even so-called hallucinations are impossible.’

He explains how an NDE serves to demonstrate this:[11]

The oxygen deficiency brought on by the stopping of the heart temporarily suspends brain function, causing the electromagnetic fields of our neurons and other cells to disappear and the interface between consciousness and our physical body to be disrupted. This creates the conditions for experiencing the endless and enhanced consciousness outside the body (the wave aspect of consciousness) known as an NDE: the experience of a continuity of consciousness independent of the body.

Psychedelics

Now we come to the unexpected evidence.

Kastrup references similar work under his various headings, another of which is psychedelics. They produce ‘powerful self-transcending experiences’ and, he explains[12], ‘it had been assumed that they did so by exciting parts of the brain.’ As it turns out ‘psychedelics do largely the opposite,’ the evidence for which was derived from ideal research on subjects who were[13]‘placed inside functional MRI scanners, instructed to report on their conscious inner state according to standardised procedures, and then injected with the psychedelic compound.’

Where does this surprising counterintuitive evidence take him?

His first concern[14] is to use this evidence to undermine physicalism’s contention that consciousness is simply a by-product of the brain, something I have explored at length, particularly in terms of my disillusionment with psychology’s take on this issue (see my sequence on Irreducible Mind ). He contends that:[15]

It remains a direct implication of physicalism that an increase in the richness of experience needs to be accompanied by an increase in the compound level of metabolism associated with the NCCs[16].

What is also worth mentioning is that Matthew Cobb, a convinced reductionist, in his book The Idea of the Brain: a History, quotes comparable concerns from as early as the 1860s pointing to a potentially different conclusion. Francis Anstie[17] suggested that, in cases of hashish and alcohol, ‘the apparent exaltation of certain factors should be ascribed rather to the removal of controlling influences than to positive stimulation of the faculties themselves.’ Psychoactive drugs suppress the brain’s ability to control, including through inhibition.

This would not necessarily imply that rich experiences require an increase of overall brain activity and might be compatible with the observed reduction. Unfortunately, Kastrup does not quote enough of the evidence to clarify which parts of the brain show reduced functioning. However, this does not undermine the wealth of other evidence, for example from NDEs, that provide clear examples of lucidity while the brain is out of action. This suggests to me that Cobb’s later claim (pages 359-60) that ‘inexplicable experimental results’ that would undermine the ‘materialist approach’ have never ‘been forthcoming’ indicates that he’s never looked carefully enough, or possibly even at all, at the wealth of evidence that does exist.*

It is also worth pointing out that Cobb’s privileging of the term experimental might be used to rule out the kind of evidence created by NDE-type studies such as those van Lommel refers to, in which case it would be a convenient way of weighting acceptable evidence in favour of materialism and excusing materialists from ever bothering to objectively inspect evidence that might call their ideology into question.

I’ll pause for now, after considering that clash of ideas, before I move onto other aspects of Kastrup’s book that resonate strongly with me.

*Footnote:

Although I disagree with Matthew Cobb’s reductionist position, I think it’s worth mentioning that his book The Idea of the Brain: a History, is worth reading.

For instance, I was genuinely intrigued by the superficially plausible argument he puts forward, based on studies of spilt-brain patients. These are people, previously suffering from epilepsy, whose corpus callosum, which joins the two hemispheres of the brain together, has been severed.

He contends that[18] ‘if you split a brain, you get two minds instead of one,’ and goes on to argue that the resulting differences between the two halves of the brain’s way of processing experience[19] ‘strongly support the general working hypothesis that the mind emerges from the brain.’ He seems to believe that an idealist, who does not accept the reductionist view and argues that ‘the brain somehow detects the non-material mind, has to explain how, when separated, the two hemispheres enable such different minds to appear.’

I hadn’t heard this argument before.

I believe he underestimates the differences between the hemispheres in order to strengthen his contention. He suggests[20] that apart from language being located primarily in the left hemisphere and ‘emotional responses’ in the right ‘there are no clear fundamental differences in the functions of the two sides of the brain.’

He does not make any reference in his book to Iain McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary. I have reviewed this is an earlier post and won’t repeat the arguments here. Suffice it to say that McGilchrist establishes, to my mind beyond doubt, that the hemispheres work in significantly different ways, and that we along with most of our  so-called successful scientists are in bondage to the mechanistic bias of the left hemisphere at the expense of the subtler more holistic perspectives of the right hemisphere, which implies that this is part of the reason Cobb thinks as he does.

In the end, this leaves me convinced that Cobb’s contention is flawed. The reason is this. If the mind is separate from the brain, as a wealth of evidence suggests (see the list of links below for some pointers in that direction) which Cobb chooses to ignore in his book, and if our only way of experiencing the mind is through the brain, then a split-brain will divide our experience of the mind in the same biased way as it divides our experience of the world. I think this negates his key contention here that I, and those like me, have to explain how, when separated, the two hemispheres enable such different minds to appear. It should be self-evident. The differences between the hemispheres are sufficiently great to explain the differences between the two kinds of consciousness they create. Split brains can’t grasp and decode the signals of a united mind so our experience of the mind splits as well. A no-brainer, really.

Some posts that suggest matter is not all there is

Psychology and Spirit

  1. Irreducible Mind – a review (1/3): how psychology lost the plot
  2. Irreducible Mind – a review (2/3): Myers & the mind-body problem
  3. Irreducible Mind – a review (3/3): the self & the Self

References:

[1]. The Idea of the World  – page 179.
[2]. The Idea of the World  –  Page 180.
[3]. Consciousness Beyond Life – Kindle Reference (KR) 231.
[4]. Consciousness Beyond Life – KR255.
[5]. Consciousness Beyond Life – KR261.
[6] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR2,622.
[7] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR2,735.
[8] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR3,117.
[9] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR 3,136
[10] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR3,200.
[11] Consciousness Beyond Life – KR4,890.
[12]. The Idea of the World  – Page 182.
[13]. The Idea of the World  – Page 176.
[14]. The Idea of the World  – Page 189.
[15]. The Idea of the World  – Page 193.
[16]. Neural Correlates of Consciousness.
[17]. The Idea of the Brain: a History – pages 120-122.
[18]. The Idea of the Brain – page 344.
[19]. The Idea of the Brain – page 348.
[20]. The Idea of the Brain – page 347.

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Tipping Point

At the end of the previous post, which dealt with the need for coherence if we are to address the most compelling challenges of our time, I flagged up that a key pair of requirements was: first, co-ordinated institutions strong enough to mobilise change, and second, a level of global consciousness clear and strong enough to create those institutions. There is a chicken and egg problem there, however. Until we have an educational system that helps create such a consciousness, how will we have the effective motivation to create the institutions that we need if we are to develop such an educational system?

Additional complicating factors are that, to achieve a fully transformative level of consciousness to mend our crippled civilisation and defective cultures root and branch will, as the Universal House of Justice indicates, be ‘the work of centuries.’

However, if we are to have any kind of civilisation at all beyond the next few decades, there is at least one urgent problem to resolve: global heating. We don’t have centuries to rise to that challenge. I have neither the time nor the clarity to fully address that right now though there is an earlier attempt on this blog.

What I plan to focus on here is whether we have the capacity to begin to build the foundations right now to make both those other projects, lifting consciousness and creating institutions, potentially viable.

In this final post I will begin to explore some tentative suggestions about how this process might begin to work.

A Tipping Point

Bahá’ís believe that we are living on the cusp of massive changes in society and civilisation. We believe that, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘the world’s equilibrium’ has ‘been upset.’ We can sign up to the vision expressed by Ray and Andersen in their book: ‘When a force for change moves into an inherently unstable time, the potential leverage is very great indeed.’[1]

Paradoxically, the very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat and the totality of its potentially destructive power may be the trigger to our mobilising a more effective response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning:

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it.[2]

Moreover, Bahá’ís believe that science and religion are not at odds, which goes some way to answering the problem McGilchrist explores in The Master & his Emissary. We can see how they could work together for the betterment of all humanity as these authors can: ‘New technologies may give us solutions to many global problems, if they are brought to life in settings with cooperative, constructive values.’[3] Our vision is often summarised in the words ‘The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.’ Ray and Anderson appear to resonate to that as well: ‘The sense of “one planet, our home” is inescapable.’[4] Their conclusion is: ‘It’s a matter of moral imagination, a wisdom of the heart.’[5] (For more on ‘moral imagination’ see an earlier post.)

And the core of that vision, that wisdom, is captured towards the end of their book:

[Cultural Creatives] say that each of us is a living system within a greater living system, connected to each other in more ways than we can fathom. If we focus on that wholeness, we can begin to imagine a culture that can heal the fragmentation and destructiveness of our time.[6]

I feel that there is the possibility of huge reciprocal benefits here.

There are a number of thinkers who have striven to articulate a more benign way of organising our global economic system.

Raworth

There are signs that younger economists, in addition to the writers of The Econocracy, are beginning to question the values of unrestrained neo-liberalism and its emphasis on growth and profit. Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics is one example. She writes (page 74-75):

We live now, says Daly, in Full World, with an economy that exceeds Earth’s regenerative and absorptive capacity by over-harvesting sources such as fish, and forests, and over-filling sinks such as the atmosphere and oceans.

Her book puts forward an alternative approach in detail. Her website contains this useful summary:

Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.

Ehrenfeld

Other thinkers are encouragingly moving in the same direction. John Ehrenfeld, in his conversation with Andrew Hoffman, explains his belief that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion:

Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”[7]

He suggests a more viable idea: ‘sustainability-as-flourishing.’ He describes four key elements:

First, flourishing is the realisation of a sense of completeness, independent of our immediate material context. Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually generated. . . . . Flourishing is the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human beings, the rest of the ‘real material’ world, and also for the out-of-the-world that is, the spiritual or transcendental world. . . . Second it is about possibility. Possibility is not a thing. . . . it means bringing forth from nothingness something we desire to become present. . . . . Third, the definition includes far more than human benefit. Flourishing pertains to all natural systems that include both humans and other life. Finally, adding forever to this definition lends it the timelessness that is found in virtually all conversations about sustainability. In fact, sustainability makes little sense except as a lasting condition. It is that important.[8]

He feels we have forgotten what it is to be human and, blinded by materialism, we reduce everything about growth to economics, turning it into a kind of religion:

If religion boils down to a group’s ‘ultimate concern,’ then growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god. But this religion exacerbates the destructive and violent intrusion of human culture into both nature and our own conception of who we are.[9]

It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.[10]

Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two perspective-shaking ideas. We need to shift our dominant mind-sets from Having to Being and from Needing to Caring:

Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires, even though that self-view has been reinforced by our present consumptive patterns. . . . . . Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted whenever we exhibit authentic care. . . . .

Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole… Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. . . . . .

Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today. . . . . When we rediscover who we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans, and everything else.[11]

The idea of rediscovering a truer sense of self is not some kind of baseless sentimental nostalgia. For example, Gaia Vince in her book Transcendence quotes early evidence to support Ehrenfeld’s claim:

The extraordinary settlement of Çatalhöyük – already a city, 8000 years ago, of hundreds of one-room mud-bricked homes accessed from the roof – reveals evidence of a remarkably egalitarian society with strong social control and norms that prevented accumulation of wealth.[12]

Ehrenfeld also sees spirituality as going beyond the material and explains: ‘This domain is especially important to sustainability, as it heightens one’s sense for the interconnectedness of Being’ and goes on to say that ‘At the centre of this notion of interconnection is that of love . . . . Love is not a something, but a way of acting and accepts the Being of all others as legitimate.’[13] This reminds me of Scott Peck’s dictum in The Road Less Travelled that, ‘Love is not a feeling: love is work:’ those may not be his exact words, but how I have remembered what I thought he meant.

Almost Ehrenfeld’s final words on this aspect of the matter are: ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’[14]

Ehrenfeld develops this further, when he says that ‘Collapse cannot be avoided, if people do not learn to view themselves and others with compassion.’[15] I have explored the value of compassion and altruism at length elsewhere on this blog, so won’t elaborate further here.

This does not mean we will know all the answers and any such false confidence has been at the root of many of our difficulties[16]. We have to give due weight to the complexity of reality, which, as we explored earlier, much of current economic and political thinking does not do:

Our contemporary conversation about sustainability is taking place without a clear understanding, or with purposeful ignorance, of our place within a complex world. Complexity refers to a system whose parts are so multiply interconnected that it is impossible to predict how it will behave when perturbed.[17]

Ehrenfeld defines what our recognition of complexity must entail in his view:

Until we recognise and accept that we humans are an integral part of the complex system we call Earth, the possibility of sustainability will be nil.[18]

Singing from McGilchrist’s hymn sheet, he argues that mechanistic models won’t serve our purpose here[19]. They fail to capture ‘the holistic qualities of life.’[20] Moreover:

Flourishing and other similar qualities emerge from the working of the system as a whole and cannot be described by any reductionist set of rules.

This complexity also testifies to the impossibility of defining any of the problems we face in simple terms. No minority group or economic sub-system can in itself explain a failure of this wider system and we cannot accurately predict simple outcomes even from simple lines of action. Ehrenfeld goes on to explain exactly what this implies.

At the collective level, this all links back as well to the kind of collective creativity Paul Mason refers to in Postcapitalism, in ways that resonate with the Bahá’í concept of consultation discussed elsewhere. He writes:

Cooperative, self managed, nonhierarchical teams are the most technologically advanced form of work. Yet large parts of the workforce are trapped in a world of fines, discipline, violence and power hierarchies – simply because the existence of a cheap labour culture allows it to survive.[21]

He feels we have to move past this bad model towards a better one building on more co-operative principles:

As we pursue these goals, a general picture is likely to emerge: the transition to postcapitalism is going to be driven by surprise discoveries made by groups of people working in teams, about what they can do to old processes by applying collaborative thinking and networks.[22]

Ehrenfeld emphasises the importance of spirituality because it is the strongest foundation for a necessary sense of interconnectedness. His view of religion is much less positive, though that is not entirely surprising given how divisive religion is perceived to be, something we explored briefly in an earlier post. His main reservation though is that religions are out of date: he seems sadly unaware of the existence of the Bahá’í Faith and the role of other religions in promoting the kinds of awareness he is advocating.

The Bahá’í Perspective

His view is essentially the same as the Bahá’í perspective, and he also sees this task as the work of centuries. He writes:

I don’t think even the young adults of today are going to be the ones to ultimately change things. They are part of a much longer process of change that will even outlive them. It will take generations for these ideas to become embedded in the culture and new norms aligned with flourishing to arise.[23]

It seems a good point in the discussion to tap into a Bahá’í writer who has usefully explored the nature of this dilemma: he looks at it in terms of consciousness and social structures.

Before I plunge into that aspect of his thinking it would perhaps be useful just to touch on some of his earlier insights to pave the way to it.

The writer I’m referring to is Michael Karlberg, a Bahá’í academic with a background in ‘critical theories of culture and communication.’[24] His book is titled Beyond the Culture of Contest. His explanation of his basic position summarises a key aspect of this sequence’s perspective:

This book was written to advance the thesis that our contemporary ‘culture of contest’ is socially unjust and ecologically unsustainable and the surrounding ‘culture of protest’ is an inadequate response to the social and ecological problems it generates.[25]

He later discusses Adam Smith’s assumption that the free market would function within and be restrained by ‘a larger moral framework,’[26] before going onto explain where it all went wrong:

Since western-liberal societies have largely neglected Smith’s call for moral self-regulation, yet accepted Smith’s warnings about state regulation, they have been left with a culture of virtually unrestrained market competition.[27]

The consequences are predictably bleak:

In this context, as the relative absence of state and moral regulation results in the permanent extinction of increasing numbers of species, sustainability of the contest itself is called into question.[28]

Interestingly, in the context of the earlier discussion about capitalism masquerading as a kind of religion, having referred in the previous page to ‘a seemingly insatiable society’ he mentions, immediately after pointing out the absence of moral regulation, ‘the deification of competitive values.’

His analysis of how our current tripartite system of political, economic and legal domains is destructively skewed raises another point relevant to the quandaries I am struggling with:

Political and legal contests are expensive and economic contests determine who has the money to prevail in them.[29]

What makes it worse is that:

Within this tripartite system of contests, it is impossible to regulate economic activity in a socially just and ecologically sustainable manner. In fact, within this system, it is the economy that ultimately regulates political and legal decision-making, rather than the other way around.[30]

His ideas about how to address this come much later, and this is where consciousness and social structures come into play. In describing ‘strategies of social reform’ he draws the following distinction:

 . . . many people have viewed the development or transformation of individual consciousness as a path to meaningful social change. . . . [alternatively] many people have historically viewed the reform or transformation of basic social structures as the path to meaningful social change.[31]

He offers the Bahá’í perspective as synthesis:

In this context Bahá’ís believe that individual psycho-structural development and collective socio-structural reforms are both necessary but that neither one is sufficient by itself. They therefore advocate a twofold process of change involving both.

He discusses this in more detail, first at the level of the individual, and emphasis on education is key here, as is the fact that the Bahá’í community is developing institutions for whom this is a main focus:

On the individual level, Bahá’ís pursue social change primarily through educational processes. . . . [At the time his writing] out of 1700 social and economic development projects Bahá’ís are currently engaged in around the world, more than 750 are education projects. Bahá’ís also conceive of education in terms of individual, moral or spiritual development.[32]

Next he turns to systemic interventions:

The Bahá’ís are simultaneously pursuing collective strategies of socio-structural transformation. The entire administrative order…, with its non-adversarial decision-making methods, its non-partisan electoral model and its globally coordinated institutional structure, is not merely a theoretical construct for Bahá’ís. Rather, Bahá’ís have been actively building this administrative order for more than three quarters of a century…[33]

The ultimate goal for Bahá’ís, he states with reference to Building a Just World Order, is for ‘the administrative order’ to provide them ‘with an institutional framework within which they can further develop the skills, capacities and attitudes that they believe are needed to manage processes of social change in an increasingly interdependent complex world.’[34]

At the end of this post I have added a list of additional references that will provide more detailed information about Bahá’í thought and practice in these respects.

Perhaps it is best to end this sequence with a quotation from a 1985 message to all the peoples of the world, as going into greater detail at this point would open up another long sequence of posts.

An urge towards unity, like a spiritual springtime, struggles to express itself through countless international congresses that bring together people from a vast array of disciplines. It motivates appeals for international projects involving children and youth. Indeed, it is the real source of the remarkable movement towards ecumenism by which members of historically antagonistic religions and sects seem irresistibly drawn towards one another. Together with the opposing tendency to warfare and self-aggrandizement against which it ceaselessly struggles, the drive towards world unity is one of the dominant, pervasive features of life on the planet during the closing years of the twentieth century.

The experience of the Bahá’í community may be seen as an example of this enlarging unity. It is a community . . . drawn from many nations, cultures, classes and creeds, engaged in a wide range of activities serving the spiritual, social and economic needs of the peoples of many lands. It is a single social organism, representative of the diversity of the human family, conducting its affairs through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles, and cherishing equally all the great outpourings of divine guidance in human history. Its existence is yet another convincing proof of the practicality of its Founder’s vision of a united world, another evidence that humanity can live as one global society, equal to whatever challenges its coming of age may entail. If the Bahá’í experience can contribute in whatever measure to reinforcing hope in the unity of the human race, we are happy to offer it as a model for study.[35]

My own sense of purpose here is similar to that which Karlberg stated at the start of his book:

. . . It is not my intent that readers come away from this book with a personal interest in, or commitment to, the Bahá’í Faith. I will be satisfied, however, if I have prompted my readers towards critical self-reflection regarding the codes of adversarialism that underlie the contemporary culture of contest.

We need to find ways of breaking free of the religion of capitalist profit and consumption that prevails so widely in the West.

I am not claiming that the Bahá’í Faith has perfectly developed a complete antidote in practice. We are still in learning mode and have a steep mountain still to climb. However, I believe our model has valuable insights that can be used by everyone engaged in this struggle to build a better world.

There is no way Bahá’ís could ever claim to be able to do this alone in any case. We all need to work on this together, and have much to learn from each other as we do so. A key Bahá’í offering is our pattern of globally co-ordinated practice, built on a foundation of consultative decision-making, and complemented by vigorous educational processes involving children, youth and adults, that offers a good chance of transcending the fragmented, divided, divisive and almost chaotic processes that currently exist.

This confronts the chicken-and-egg problem, referred to earlier, of how to have educational systems, organisational structures and enhanced consciousness being simultaneously developed.

Additional References:

Humanity Is Our Business Posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Century of Light Posts1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

Becoming a True Upholder of His Oneness Posts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Footnotes:

[1] The Cultural Creatives – page 230.
[2] The Uninhabitable Earth (page 25)
[3] The Cultural Creatives – page 318.
[4] The Cultural Creatives – page 302.
[5] The Cultural Creatives – page 314.
[6] The Cultural Creatives – page 314.
[7] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 18.
[8] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 49-50.
[9] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 76-77.
[10] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 175.
[11] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 191-194.
[12] Transcendence – page 178.
[13] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 202-203.
[14] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 204.
[15] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 208.
[16] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 217.
[17] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 226.
[18] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 227-228.
[19] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 229.
[20] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 230.
[21] Postcapitalism – page 287.
[22] Postcapitalism – page 288.
[23] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 305,
[24] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page ix.
[25] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page xi.
[26] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 39.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 41.
[29] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 51.
[30] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 52.
[31] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 156.
[32] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 157.
[33] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 158.
[34] Ibid.
[35] The Promise of World Peace

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From the The European Bahá’í Business Forum website

Coherence

At the end of the last post I flagged up the fact that another key capacity necessary for change is lacking: coherence. The significance of this lack was flagged up as long ago as 10 November 1974 in a message from the sovereign body of the Bahá’í community, the Universal House of Justice. They wrote:

We should also remember that most people have no clear concept of the sort of world they wish to build, nor how to go about building it. Even those who are concerned to improve conditions are therefore reduced to combating every apparent evil that takes their attention.

However, there are pressures that make it imperative that we transcend this lack of cohesion. The European Bahá’í Business Forum, in a recent letter, puts it fairly bluntly:

We are faced with a challenging new era in human history. It is a chaotic phase of transition in which collectively we are confronted with the difficult reality of unprecedented global uncertainty and forces of fragmentation.

The planet itself is now telling us through accelerating signs of climate change that business as usual is leading us to disaster.

In addition, they spell out bluntly that not everyone is willing to embrace the prospect of radical change:

While the internal incoherence within the current economic system will lead to its collapse, sweeping away some obstacles to a new sustainable system, we are currently faced with the headwinds of an intransigent resistance to change.

That the system is broken in many ways seems almost beyond dispute. Joseph Stiglitz defines a key aspect in the introduction to his widely acclaimed post mortem on the efficacy of our current political and economic system – The Price of Inequality:

. . . capitalism is failing to produce what was promised, but is delivering on was not promised – inequality, pollution, unemployment, and, most important of all, the degradation of values to the point where everything is acceptable and no one is accountable.[1]

The remedy that makes sense to him is currently conspicuous by its absence:

For markets to work the way markets are supposed to, there has to be appropriate government regulation. But for that to occur, we have to have a democracy that reflects the general interests – not the special interests or just those at the top.[2]

This suggests that mending the system will not be easy.

We have to develop some sense, though, of how this perverse fragmentation can be remedied, and a desire for reform to be generated, if there is to be any hope of constructive change.

Not only is the tunnel vision of some approaches far too narrow ever to address the full complexity of the issues that confront us all in global late-capitalism, but even where there might be a wider focus, there is a failure to recognize that tackling aspects of the system’s defects more or less one at a time, in an uncoordinated manner, is not going to get far either.

Iain McGilchrist, in his comprehensive analysis of the way our culture has privileged the wrong half of our brain, The Master & his Emissary, makes it clear how neurobiology has been enlisted to serve the purposes of a reductionist and materialistic scientism. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is this:

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.[3]

He makes a crucial point, when he writes, ‘However distinguished, the individual remains part of the whole and is understandable only in terms of the whole of which it forms a part,’[4] a truth our society and culture seems to have forgotten a long time ago. So, from our fragmented perspective, the group looks like ‘a potential threat to individuality,’[5] a belief that would make effective cooperation seem quite problematic.

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, the left hemisphere view has become 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. 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.

Towards the end of his book, McGilchrist describes a more desirable society when he writes, ‘a society is, or should be, an organic unity, not an assemblage of bits that strive with one another.’ As it stands, he adds, ‘It is as if every organ in the body wanted to be the head.’[6]

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.

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.

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. . . . . [T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.[7]

This however could be much easier said than done, on a collective level, when we are heavily influenced by the powerful promptings of a competitive and acquisitive culture.

A further obstacle to achieving collectively the necessary level of understanding to motivate us to effective action is the short-term perspective that is wired into our primate brains. Ken Whitehead expresses it better than I can:

This pattern reveals a fundamental characteristic of how our brains work; we tend to focus on the short term, and have little thought of the long-term consequences of our actions. The early hunters devised ever more efficient ways of killing the existing inhabitants of the new lands they occupied. There was no thought of long-term consequences. Why should there be? The supply of prey animals was believed to be inexhaustible. Yet one day they were all gone!

The problems we face in today’s world suggest that little has changed in the last fifty thousand years. In his 2004 book “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright describes human beings in today’s world as running 21st century software on fifty thousand-year old hardware. Our brains have evolved to react to short-term crises, such as an attack by a hungry lion. The more subtle cognitive abilities which would allow us to assess and respond appropriately to longer term threats are much less developed within the human brain. As a result we are very good at responding quickly to an emergency, but we are hopelessly inept, both as individuals and as a society, when it comes to taking effective action to head off threats which are perceived as being distant.

So, to achieve coherence we need to effect two major changes.

The first is to subordinate our analytical tendencies to our holistic potential and invest the necessary significant level of effort in transcending our short-term biases. Education will be a key to that, but if those who value holism and effortful thought do not gain the power to shape our educational system, how is that ever going to happen?

The second is to create cohesive, cooperative and morally creative institutions to manage our communities at every level. This may have to be accomplished before we can rebalance our educational system. You may well ask, ‘how though can we do that until our educational and child-rearing systems create, on a wide enough scale, the kind of consciousness necessary to build such institutions?’ A chicken and egg situation to which I will return later.

The Need for Institutions

Focusing for now on the need for coherent and effective institutions, I found this clearly defined and analysed when reading The Cultural Creatives.

Ray and Andersen describe how anyone involved in working to change the culture in which they live will have to face the intense discouragement that all too frequently comes when results fail to match up to expectations. A choice point torments us: ‘Do I keep faith with my vision or do I break faith with it?’ Keeping faith beyond what feels like its breaking point is often what brings about a breakthrough, healing the testing breach between vision and reality, at least until the next time.

Much of the power of these processes is invisible, which is partly what makes the work so testing, but it can be calculated to some degree once you understand the typical dynamics:

To understand the true size of a social movement, think of a target with three concentric circles. The centre is the hundreds of visible leaders, demonstrators, and little organisations. Around the centre is a circle of many thousands of active supporters. and around those two active circles is the circle of the sympathetic millions who are touched by the events, and may simply read the arguments, and as a result make different choices in some part of their lives.[8]

Powerful as these processes are, even when political alliances reinforce them, they are almost certainly not enough:

To change the culture, you cannot depend on the terms and solutions the old culture provides. . . . Leaving the heavy lifting to the political side of the movements, the cultural side started drying up, and the submerged networks began to lose touch with one another.[9]

At present we are indeed for the most part locked into ‘the terms and solutions the old culture provides.’ Wilhelm Streeck hits this nail on the head as well:

The de-socialised capitalism of the interregnum hinges on the improvised performances of structurally self-centred, socially disorganised and politically disempowered individuals.[10]

Ray and Andersen pinpoint a crucial missing link:

No one knew, or even thought about, how to create cultural institutions to support the work that was so important to them. The first generation practitioners  . . . . . could [hardly] manage their way out of a paper bag. . . . There really was a hole in the culture – the old ways didn’t work, and the new ones hadn’t yet been invented.[11]

The apparent absence of new ways that seem potentially effective is a debilitating aspect of many people’s thinking, much of it rooted in our default position of individualism, as Streeck points out:

The sweated workers of today and the middle-class workers in the countries of advanced capitalism… never experience together the community and solidarity deriving from joint collective action.[12]

Not surprisingly, this becomes a vicious circle, founded as it is in disconnected disempowered individualism:

The practices that make it possible for individuals to survive under neoliberalism may also help neoliberalism itself to survive. . . . . social life in an age of entropy is by necessity individualistic.[13]

But we do have institutions. Why exactly, in Ray and Andersen’s view, wouldn’t the institutions the United States already had, for example, do the trick?

The three Bigs – big government, big business, and big media – have difficulty dealing with issues that cannot be isolated from other issues and solved with tools at hand.[14]

Even progressive movements themselves could be rendered ineffective by the same tendency to atomise everything: ‘Activists, too, are Modernism’s children, believing that they must become specialists.’[15]

Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded:

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.[16]

The Need for Transcendence

They also strongly suggest that this might well involve something much more than a merely materialistic approach. They quote Joseph Campbell:

‘You do not have a myth unless you have an opening into transcendence.’ . . . If we cannot recognise the universe and the nations and ourselves as manifestations of ‘the grounding mystery of all being,’ he said, ‘we have nothing we can really trust.’[17]

And this quote is not in isolation. They also refer to Vijali Hamilton:

‘The true story is that there is a luminous, spacious energy that flows through everything all the time. It’s within matter, within things as well as within space, and you can tune in to it at any time . . . . . It is not otherworldly. It is right here, closer than our own flesh.’[18]

This is very close indeed to the idea that Shoghi Effendi quotes the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith describing:

‘O My servants!’ Bahá’u’lláh Himself testifies, ‘The one true God is My witness! This most great, this fathomless and surging ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.’[19]

A sense of transcendent power may be necessary if we are to overcome the limitations of our primate brains with their tendencies towards the instinctive rather than the thoughtful and the short-term perspective as against the long view.

So it’s not surprising that leaps of faith are required of us if we are to undertake these kinds of transformative processes effectively. We must develop trust in what we are not wired to grasp easily.

Our negativity bias won’t help here. Hanson and Mendius’s book The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain explores this clearly.

They explain that:

. . . . to motivate animals, including ourselves, to follow [survival] strategies and pass on their genes, neural networks evolved to create pain and distress under certain conditions: when separations break down, stability is shaken, opportunities disappoint, and threats loom. [20]

They explain slightly later not only why this was so but one of its most unwelcome correlates:

. . . it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival. . . . . The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information. . . . . Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.[21]

The consequences of this are not by any means simply confined to life threatening situations for us modern human beings (ibid):

. . . . In relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one (Gottman 1995).[22]

Also this bias towards negativity determines the scenarios with which our imagination mesmerises us constantly:

[Mini movies run in our heads] and . . . . keep us stuck by their simplistic view of the past and by their defining out of existence real possibilities for the future, such as new ways to reach out to others or dream big dreams. Their beliefs are the bars of an invisible cage, trapping you in a life that’s smaller than the one you could actually have.[23]

We need to make a conscious and sustained effort to cut against the grain of that bias:

Given the negativity bias of the brain, it takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones.[24]

We clearly need every possible means to enable us to rise to the challenges we face in changing our broken system.

I have also been here before when I reviewed Jeremy Rifkin’s compelling analysis of our current situation in The Empathic Civilisation. He argues that a connection with the earth we depend upon, and our capacity to develop sufficient empathy for our fellow creatures as well as our planet, will be a sufficient motivator for us collectively, and in sufficient numbers, to avert catastrophe.

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.

Rifkin has done his best in his 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.

And there we will have to leave it until I attempt to explore this further in the next post, tentatively offering some possible ways of beginning to break this deadlock.

References:

[1] The Price of Inequality – page xlviii.
[2] The Price of Inequality – page li.
[3] The Master & his Emissary – pages 228-229.
[4] The Master & his Emissary – page 202.
[5] The Master & his Emissary – Page 255.
[6] The Master & his Emissary – page 444.
[7] The Master & his Emissary – page 444.
[8] The Cultural Creatives – page 109.
[9] The Cultural Creatives – page 154.
[10] Streeck – page 41.
[11] The Cultural Creatives – page 187.
[12] Streeck – page 25.
[13] Streeck – page 40.
[14] The Cultural Creatives – page 227.
[15] The Cultural Creatives – page 229.
[16] The Cultural Creatives – page 246.
[17] The Cultural Creatives – page 299.
[18] The Cultural Creatives – page 311.
[19] The Promised Day is Come – page 16.
[20] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – page 26.
[21] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 40-41.
[22] Ibid.
[23] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 44-45.
[24] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 73-75.

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The peaceful and uplifting simplicity of the interior of the Methodist Church in Ludlow

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

The Oneness of God

For present purposes I am of course assuming we can all accept that a power we label God in English actually exists. It would take too long to deal with that issue fully right now. What we can deal with briefly is to confirm the essential unknowable nature of God: in the end it is the words we use to describe this Great Being, the Ground of Being, that divide is.

‘McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary explains (page 193): ‘Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.’ Similarly with painting: Each painting says what words can never capture. Munch wrote (Prideaux’s biography – page 201): ‘Explaining a picture is impossible. The very reason it has been painted is because it cannot be explained in any other way . . .’

When we try and capture such an immense ineffability as God, we are in the country of the blind where the one-eyed man is king, as they used to say. Imagine two adjacent countries, the one a culture of cooks, the other of gardeners. For the land of cooks, the colour red has been explained to them by the one-eyed king as chilli: in the land of gardeners, their one-eyed king has said that red is like the perfume of a rose . When people from these two different countries meet they quarrel bitterly, sometimes killing each other for not believing in the rose or in chilli, when in fact they are talking about the exact same thing but do not know it. So . . . .

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

The Oneness of Religion

This is not a new idea, though. John Donne, an Elizabethan poet-priest in Tudor England, wrote:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

He wrote those words, part of the third of his five satires, during what must have been an agonising period of his life, when he was deciding to abandon the Roman Catholic faith, for which members of his family had died, and become an apostate. By taking this step, he avoided torture and execution and gained a career at the possible cost, in his mind, of eternal damnation.

While the Western world feels it has moved on from such ferocious divisions, the same does not seem to be true everywhere. Also, we should not perhaps feel we are completely free from milder variations of religious intolerance here.

This means that Donne’s message is still relevant.

The most obvious implication of what he says here is that we have to work hard to find Truth.

However, there are other equally important implications, and one of them in particular is crucial to the work of the Interfaith and makes a core aspect of the Bahá’í path particularly relevant for us in our relations both between ourselves and with the wider community.

Within the interfaith, we are all, in a sense, approaching Truth from different sides of this same mountain. Just because your path looks somewhat different from mine in some respects, it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, yours is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. Only when someone’s idea of God takes them downhill, perhaps killing others in His name, or at least hating them as misguided deviants, should we realize their God is not ‘worthy of worship,’ to use Eric Reitan’s phrase, and is not God at all. Theirs is not a true religion. All the great world religions are in essence one. It is only when we mistake the cultural trappings and rituals for the core that we think this is not true.

Donne clearly felt so at the time he wrote Satire III:

As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion.’

A material symbol of this essential unity is the Bahá’í Temple.

Bahá’í Temples, as the world community of Bahá’ís grow larger, will be surrounded by ‘a complex which, as it unfolds in the future, will comprise in addition to the House of Worship a number of dependencies dedicated to social, humanitarian, educational, and scientific pursuits.’ These will be open to all.

I will explore the oneness of humanity next time.

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Glass table with book & VG

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

Vincent to Theo – March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh page 272)

It is three years since I republished this sequence of posts. The first time was triggered by the revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear, as well as a Guardian long-read article by  on an exhibition of his work in Amsterdam. This time it is by my recent sequence of posts on Edvard Munch, whose art and ideas resonate so strongly with van Gogh’s, not least because of the emphasis they both placed on the idea of the soul. This is the first of five posts which will be posted every Monday over the next five weeks.

Getting a Feel for van Gogh

I am sitting in the sunlight at the dimpled glass garden table as I type. Its dappling effect seems to be clumsily mimicking the style of the man I am reflecting on right now. The white screen and shining metal of the laptop seem at odds with him and all he represented, all he most passionately believed in, and yet pounding on its keys is the closest I can get to an adequate response. Scribbling in my private diary didn’t seem enough.

IMG_2110I am almost twice the age at which he died, and have only fairly recently been conscious of my own death as something relatively close. As I sat on the flight to Amsterdam, I continued to read as much as I could of the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh. I was quite glad of the plane’s computer malfunction before take off as it gave me another 45 minutes’ reading time.

In August 1883 he wrote to his younger brother, Theo (page 228):

For no particular reason, I cannot help adding a thought that occurs to me. Not only did I start drawing relatively late in life, but it may well be that I shall not be able to count on many more years of life either.

Given the shorter life spans of the 19th Century it is perhaps not surprising that a man who had just turned 30 should already be thinking about his death. Given what we know now, what he goes on to say is perhaps more uniquely poignant (page 228-29):

So, as to the time I still have ahead of me for work, I think I may safely presume that my body will hold up for a certain number of years quand bien même [in spite of everything] – a certain number between 6 and 10, say. (I can assume this the more safely as there is for the time being no immediate quand bien même.)

He is setting the context of his painting within these sobering constraints, which proved all too close to the mark. In just under seven short years’ time he was dead of a gun shot wound. (We’ll be coming back to that event later.) Theo died six months later, aged 33.

At the time of writing the letter, he feels that (ibid.) ‘within a few years I must have done a certain amount of work – I don’t need to rush, for there is no point in that but I must carry on working in complete calm and serenity, as regularly and with as much concentration as possible, as much to the point as possible.’

The intensity with which he feels what he writes is indicated by the underlining, which is his. He explains why this is so important to him: ‘The world concerns me only in as far as I owe it a certain debt and duty, so to speak, because I have walked this earth for 30 years, and out of gratitude would like to leave some memento in the form of drawings and paintings – not made to please this school or that, but to express a genuine human feeling.’

I was reading these words to get a feeling for the man even before I stood in front of his paintings in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. And yet that is precisely what he seems to have wanted people to get from his paintings. He never meant to have his letters published. These were for the eyes of his brother, not the world.

The Myth, the Man and the Artist

My eventual experience in the museum, after queuing for two hours outside in an icy wind, illustrated allIMG_2113 too well how the myth gets in the way of the both the man and his art.

In the final room of the exhibition we caught up with a tour guide. She asked her group loudly, in front of his painting of the cornfield and the crows, ‘’How did van Gogh die?’

The predictable answer came back: ‘He shot himself.’

This same response I’d seen on the screen as we waited in the queue to come in. The same question – ‘How did van Gogh die? – flashed up with three answers to choose from (the wording may be slightly off as I didn’t write it down at the time):

  1. consumption;
  2. heart attack; or
  3. he shot himself in a cornfield.

After a few seconds the third answer darkened to indicate it was the correct one.

‘That’s right,’ the tour guide confidently responded: ‘He shot himself.’

‘No, he didn’t,’ my mind screamed back. ‘He was accidentally shot by a local lad.’ I’m not sure whether it was cowardice or consideration for her obviously pregnant and already stressed state that caused me to swallow my words.

‘This,’ she went on,’ pointing to the cornfield painting, ‘was his last picture.’

‘No, it wasn’t,’ shouted my head. ‘The last painting was of the tree roots.’ The passionate pedant in me was seething by this stage.

‘Why was he so poor, d’you think?’ she asked her enraptured audience.

Dissatisfied with the answers on offer she provided her solution. ‘He was the first artist ever to work outside the box, be completely original.’ The pedant in my head was reduced to the unprintable by this stage, though words such as Turner and Rembrandt amongst many others can be safely reproduced here. If the mould-breaking Impressionists had not made such an impression on him we’d have none of the late van Goghs.

As I moved away in mental melt down, hoping that no one would notice the steam coming out of my ears, I heard her say, ‘He only sold one painting in his entire life,’ and ‘No, he didn’t,’ exploded inside my brain.

VG book stackAs we explored the gift shop downstairs I saw on sale the very same book in which Naifeh and White Smith explain in detail their carefully researched evidence that calls into question the suicide myth (more detail in the next post). Doesn’t the museum read the books it sells?

My mind was also ringing with memories of a statement in the Letters, which I’d read in bed the previous evening indicating that he did make a few sales in his lifetime (page 168):

Van Gogh, about whom the myth persists that he sold just one work in his lifetime, received 20 guilders from his uncle C. M. in Prisenhage for a batch of drawings.

I had to admit though, when I had calmed down, that selling drawings to your uncle isn’t exactly making a breakthrough into the art market, no matter what de Leeuw, the editor of the letters, seems to think it is.

The simple blacks and whites of the myth are far more profitable of course than the muddled and muddied colours of his reality.

However, as I read my way through the account in his letters of his years of struggle with his art, I came to understand far more clearly what he felt he was about as an artist, and I believe that gave me a greater ability to experience the paintings as he meant me to than I would otherwise have had. It also kept the simplistic myths firmly at bay.

Inside his Mind

Let me unpack that a bit.

At one level my grasp of his intentions is pretty superficial. I was delighted to read (pages 311-12):

Van Gogh decided to concentrate on portraits . . . . In this field, he resolved to surpass photography, which, he felt, remained lifeless at all times, while ‘painted portraits have a life of their own, which springs straight from the painter’s soul and which no machine can approach.’

I got a buzz out of seeing van Gogh use the same image as I have borrowed ever since from my reading of McGilchrist to convey basically the same idea: when we submit simply to left-brain machine mode without reference to the holistic and organic richness of the right-brain process we have sold our souls.

Van Gogh is also indicating that he is close to Myers’s territory as explored by the Kellys in Irreducible Mind. There is a transcendent dimension to consciousness, which we must take care not to betray. Rather we should use conscious control to help us access it. He refers to this kind of approach in various places (page 272):

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

His shift from religion to art as a vocation is perhaps partly explained by the strained relationships he had with his parents and their generation This split was forming even before his unwelcome passion for his cousin, which alienated his uncle, and his even more testing liaison in 1882 with Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute, which torpedoed his links with his father, at least for the time being. In about 1879 his father had threatened to have him incarcerated in a mental institution in Gheel, and it was probably at this time that van Gogh changed from practising preacher to aspiring painter. He was seeking to break free of his cage (page 74):

I am caged, I am caged, and you say I need nothing, you idiots! I have everything I need, indeed! Oh, please give me the freedom to be a bird like other birds.

His final religious disconnect was clearly with the church rather than with spirituality, and art for him would always seem to be a spiritual practice. Dogmatism, simplification and hypocrisy remained anathema to him.

This did not mean that his paintings would be abstract and ethereal. He wanted to remain rooted in recognisable reality (page 223-24):

I find Breitner’s stuff objectionable because the imagination behind it is clumsy and meaningless and has virtually no contact with reality.

What maps his thinking even more closely onto the Myers perspective is his sense that disorder in art relates to disorder in the mind of the artist. Speaking of work he does not like he writes: ‘I look on it as the result of a spell of ill-health.’ He speaks of Breitner’s ‘coffee-house existence’ which creates a ‘growing fog of confusion,’ and of his having been ‘feverish,’ producing things which were ‘impossible and meaningless as in the most preposterous dream.’ Van Gogh felt that:

Imperceptibly he has strayed far from a composed and rational view things, and so long as this nervous exhaustion persists he will be unable to produce a single composed, sensible line or brushstroke.

The ‘subliminal uprush,’ as Myers would term it, needs conscious organisation to make the best of it.

Van Gogh also speculated (page 349) whether his ‘neurosis’ had a dual origin, first and foremost his ‘rather too artistic way of life’ but also possibly in part his ‘inescapable heritage,’ which he shared with his brother.

He did though see a value in suffering (page 285):

I can tell you that this year is bound to be very grim. But I keep thinking of what Millet said, ‘Je ne veux point supprimer la souffrance, car souvent c’est elle, qui fait s’exprimer le plus énergiquement les artistes.’ [‘I would never do away with suffering, for it is often what makes artists express themselves most forcefully.’

He also felt burdened at times by his work as an artist (page 355):

One knows one is a cab horse, and that one is going to be hitched up to the same old cab again – and that one would rather not, and would prefer to live in a meadow, with sunshine, a river, other horses for company free as oneself, and the act of procreation.

He trusted at the same time that the sacrifices would be worth it (ibid.):

There is an art of the future, and it will be so lovely and so young that even if we do give up our youth for it, we can only gain in serenity by it.

Thursday’s post will begin to examine in more detail both what van Gogh thought painting should be about, and also the issue of whether he died by his own hand or someone else’s.

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Another asked why the teachings of all religions are expressed largely by parables and metaphors and not in the plain language of the people.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá replied:—“Divine things are too deep to be expressed by common words. The heavenly teachings are expressed in parable in order to be understood and preserved for ages to come. When the spiritually minded dive deeply into the ocean of their meaning they bring to the surface the pearls of their inner significance. There is no greater pleasure than to study God’s Word with a spiritual mind.”

(From ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London – pages 79-80)

We stopped last time at the point where Lakoff and Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By mention the metaphor of the mind as a machine.

This idea, and the more pervasive variations of the mechanical model of life, the universe and everything, could not help but call to mind Iain McGilchrist and his brilliant analysis in The Master & his Emissary.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.

It is ironic, in the light of this discussion, that mechanistic reductionists, who mostly dismiss poetry as flaky, probably don’t even notice most of the time that they are using metaphor, that key poetic device, to describe their view of the world, with all the reservations about objectivity that this should imply. More on that later.

The other metaphor Lakoff and Johnson mention is equally pervasive (page 29)

. . . Metaphors like THE MIND IS A BRITTLE OBJECT are an integral part of the model of the mind that we have in this culture; it is the model most of us think and operate in terms of.

And seeing our mind as an ‘object’ has other implications that they pick up on later when they write (page 58): ‘We experience ourselves as entities, separate from the rest of the world – as containers with an inside and an outside.’ This cuts across the sense of connectedness that more accurately captures our real situation.

They explore in considerable detail how metaphors are elaborated into coherent and complex systems (page 71):

All such metaphors imply further elaborations which can be experienced as a gestalt, a ‘complex of properties occurring together’ which is ‘basic to our experience.’

So far they had focused primarily on metaphors used so frequently we never experience them as imagery at all. Later they go on to consider the power of creatively generating different metaphors (page 139):

We would like to suggest that new metaphors makes sense of our experience in the same way conventional metaphors do.

But with interesting consequences.

They illustrate this by offering an alternative metaphor to describe problems. They are not puzzles which have a single solution which, once found, fixes the problem forever. They are more like elements in a chemical brew (page 144):

To live by the CHEMICAL metaphor would be to accept it as a fact that no problem ever disappears forever. Rather than direct your energies towards solving your problems once and for all, you would direct your energies towards finding out what catalysts will dissolve your most pressing problems for the longest time without precipitating the worst ones.… we see this as a clear case of the power of metaphor to create a reality . . .

They acknowledge that it would not be easy to integrate a radically different metaphor into our default operating system (page 145):

So much of our unconscious everyday activity is structured in terms of the PUZZLE metaphor that we could not possibly make a quick or easy change to the chemical metaphor on the basis of a conscious decision.

The impact of the metaphors we use extends beyond abstract issues such as how we approach problems (page 146):

Not surprisingly, the social reality defined by a culture affects its conception of physical reality. What is real for an individual as a member of a culture is a product both of his social reality and of the way in which that shapes his experience of the physical world.

They also affect how we behave (page 156):

Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities. A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies.

And that is a key point, which makes the idea that we might need to modify our metaphors sometimes hard to access.

Power differentials don’t help (page 157) because ‘whether in national politics or in everyday interaction, people in power get to impose their metaphors.’

Basically, (page 158) ‘In all aspects of life, not just in politics or in love, we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors,’ and in consequence (page 159) ‘. . . truth is always relative to a conceptual system that is defined in large part by metaphor.’

Which may explain why Pilate did not stay for an answer. As with most people trapped in a cultural trance there was no other truth worth considering, if there was any truth at all.

Personal Mythology by David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner covers similar ground using different terminology. I’ll deal with that more briefly. In her introduction June Singer writes (page xi):

If we are unacquainted with the contents of our personal mythology we are carried by it unconsciously, with the result that we confuse what exists objectively in the world with the image of the world supplied to us by our own distorted lenses.

The authors reinforce the same point right from the start (page 1):

Your personal mythology acts as a lens that colours your perceptions according to its own assumptions and values. It highlights certain possibilities and shadows others.

They express more forcefully the dubious effects of blindly following our myths (page 6):

The myths operating in modern societies tend to support material progress and the control of nature, rather than the attunement and participation with natural cycles that characterize more classical mythologies.

Metaphors We Live By also brings in the concept of myth late in their treatment of the issue (pages 185-86):

Myths provide ways of comprehending experience: they give order to our lives. Like metaphors, myths are necessary for making sense of what goes on around us. All cultures have myths, and people cannot function without myth any more than they can function without metaphor.

They clearly share my earlier expressed distrust of those who feel they can access absolute truth with no sense they are also operating from the perspective of a myth (page 186):

The myth of objectivism is particularly insidious in this way. Not only does it purport not to be a myth, but it makes both myths and metaphors objects of belittlement and scorn…

They also have reservations about objectivism’s opposite, subjectivism (page 188-192), and feel there is a need for a third way to avoid the deficiencies of both. They call this ‘experientialist synthesis’ (page 192 passim). They contend that metaphor ‘unites reason and imagination,’ an idea that is music to my ears. They echo McGilchrist in saying (page 193):

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.

In the end, they feel that (page 233) ‘much of self-understanding involves consciously recognising previously unconscious metaphors and how we live by them’ and ‘engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.’

So Why Dreamwork?

It seems to me that dreamwork is important because it is likely to be the most readily available signpost to show the nature of our own subliminally seductive metaphors. Not until we recognise them can we make wise and conscious decisions to replace them with more constructive ones. Also dreams are rich in suggestions about what metaphors we might be wiser to choose instead as part of our operating system.

Take for example my recent dream about playing squash, which I think was a message from my dreaming mind to confirm I was consolidating the change of direction that was first triggered decades ago with my Dancing Flames dream, one that sent a strong message that I needed to blend more poetry into my life and take my foot of the mechanistic accelerator that was driving too much of what I did as I combined a fulltime job with studying psychology part-time.

The dream was short and initially seemed quite baffling.

Two of us are playing squash with forks for rackets and a boiled egg in its shell for a shuttlecock. I do a really hard return and the egg bounces back off the squash court wall broken and coming out of its shell.

Interestingly, some of my associations took me back to Birkbeck and studying psychology there, which suggests the theme is related to the same conflict or dilemma as before. I haven’t played squash more than about twice since I stopped studying psychology. Court had implications of prison. Squash could relate to suppression. I concluded that the dream was very forcefully pointing out how NOT to do things. An apparently exciting, even seemingly enjoyable but ultimately sterile competitive game is shown for what it really is. Given A Walk in the Park, the poem I wrote recently, it was perhaps not surprising that an association with egg took me straight to Magritte’s painting Perspicacity, an object lesson in creativity and how to do it better.

I’m not quite sure why my dreaming mind felt it necessary to remind me of this right now, as I’m not aware of being under the competitive pressure of exams any more, though the todo treadmill remains a problem. It was clear though that letting such pressures impinge too heavily is incompatible with the kind of reflective creativity I value highly.

Another dream I had on the same night seemed to point in the same direction.

I am holding a long set of wooden portable drawers which I clutch/clasp close to stop the drawers opening and the contents spilling out.

When I was originally thinking about this image I used the expression ‘nest of drawers’ as something smaller than a chest of drawers, not that chest is irrelevant, given that it contains the heart. I Googled it and realised this phrase was not the right expression in terms of conventional usage. So, for a time I backed off from the dream in puzzlement and couldn’t really work out what it meant.

But of course this image is my symbol and the word nest is a key to unlocking its significance. I can call it what I like.

So I did.

The nest of drawers is where my creative ideas incubate. I store all the fertile material I discover in these drawers, and at the right time they produce something original of value. I’m mainly a reader. Paper lays the eggs that hatch in my heart. I noted in my dream diary that ‘a full understanding of this dream depends upon the squash dream.’

This was an important realisation because the time it takes eggs to incubate from laying to hatching is considerable. It takes trust and patience to keep them warm and close enough for the bird of a new insight to emerge. Sometimes, perhaps too often, I give up on them too soon.

In terms of dreams, there is also a post on this blog that records how a dream directed me to a deeper understanding of what the word ‘heart’ means in terms of personal development. It was perhaps triggered by my prolonged exploration of what Bahá’u’lláh meant by his phrase ‘the understanding heart.’ I feel that this provides a useful example of how shifting the metaphors we use can make a radical difference to how we take action to tackle the need for personal change. I will be re-blogging this sequence in the coming days.

This clearly indicates that dreams are of course not the only source of life-enhancing metaphors that we can use to replace our default ones. Take for example this quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which I’ve described elsewhere on this blog as completely overturning my existing paradigm (Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 316-317):

. . . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with. The brain made the mind, and that was it. Consciousness was an epiphenomenon, just a side-effect of the brain’s complexity, or at best an emergent property, an unexpected and not quite explicable benefit that we would learn to explain in the end.

Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart. It took several years of intense investigation before my head came fully on board with these metaphors – the light from a lamp or the fruit of a tree, where both lamp and tree are immaterial, spiritual.

Doing so changed the whole way I approach many aspects of the human predicament, not only in terms of death, and of illnesses which lock the person away behind walls of poor communication, but also in terms of understanding the full extent of our connectedness with other human beings and with nature – it was a life transforming shift.

Either way, whether through dreams, poetry, art or spiritual writings, I am in no doubt that recognising the metaphors we live by and learning to enhance them is a key skill to develop.

I’m pretty sure there will be more about that on this blog in the course of time.

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