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Posts Tagged ‘Johann Hari’

Lost Connections

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, about his journey out of the medication trap surrounding depression. I’ve been recommending it to anyone I know who seems to have been struggling with similar issues. A close friend in Australia was initially intending to borrow the book from her library but the waiting list was so long, even though they had several copies in stock, she gave up and bought her own copy, which she is now lending to others. This gives a pretty clear indication of just how many people in our society are fighting these same battles.

For some reason I never found time to do a proper review of his book, and things have moved on since then, but I thought it was still important to mention it here before I move onto to fresh woods and pastures new.

So, what strange tracks have I been wandering along recently?

Three recent books kept me hooked from start to finish, a pretty unusual state of affairs as my habit is to move from uncompleted book to uncompleted book, sometimes only coming back to finish the first one in the sequence years after starting it.

Not quite so this time.

I obviously got a lot out of the first two books, my most recently purchased. I won’t be dwelling on them at great length though. They both tackled closely related subjects in slightly different ways.

How the World Thinks

Julian Baggini’s How the World Thinks is, as its sub-title spells out, a philosopher’s take on the world of ideas. It’s refreshing because it sets out to modify our Western tendency to think that ours is the only approach. His book is devoted to undermining this arrogant complacency and is replete with telling points such as (page 24):

It is perhaps no coincidence that insight as a source of knowledge is stressed most in the traditions the West finds least philosophical. Western philosophy’s self-image has largely been constructed by distancing itself from ideas of the philosopher as a sage or guru who penetrates the deep mysteries of the universe like some kind of seer. This distancing has blinded it to the obvious truth that all good philosophy requires some kind of insight.

And concerning a broader sense of what aesthetic means in Eastern traditions (page 294):

One problem I as a Westerner have understanding this is that the primary connotations of aestheticfor me concern art,… But the original, broader meaning of aesthetic is ‘relating to felt experience’… It was only later in the nineteenth century that the meaning ‘concerned with beauty’ became common. To say that Japanese philosophy is aesthetic rather than conceptual is not primarily to say that it is concerned with the appreciation of beauty – artistic, natural or otherwise – but that it centred on the experiential.

He spreads his net very widely over a number of topics and a vast range of traditions.

Living with the Gods

As does Neil McGregor in his book, Living with the Gods: on beliefs and peoples. Although Braggini dealt with spiritual and moral systems of thought, McGregor is more focused on religious traditions. He has a lighter touch and uses colourful illustrations to bring his points to life.

He deals with important issues that resonate across traditions such as (page 385) ‘the growing trend towards literalist readings of holy texts,’ which need to be taken poetically or mythically. This trend reinforces the tendency we are seeing across the world of faiths and ideologies to develop ever fiercer levels of conviction.

Another that crops up in his book is our different relationships with the natural world, for instance in the Yup’ik culture of south-west Alaska (page 70) which asserts ‘a respectful, entirely equal partnership between animals and humans, where the animals have a real agency,[something which is] almost impossible for a highly urbanised society to grasp. Most foreign to us is perhaps its assumption of such close inter-connectedness and mutual obligation.’

What’s Missing?

Given that both books cover such a wide spectrum of beliefs and world views, it was a shade disappointing to find that they neither of them mentioned the Bahá’í take on some of their issues, even though it would have been relevant, and one of them even quotes from a book by Christopher Bellaigue, The Islamic Enlightenment: the modern struggle between faith and reason,that doesn’t fall into that trap. More of that next time.

What issues do they each raise on which the Bahá’í perspective might have shed some light? A couple of examples will have to suffice.

Braggini first

Braggini deals at some length with the complex issue of the relationship between the individual and the community.

In his discussion of the self in the third part of his book (pages 175-220), he explains two concepts: the relational self and the atomised self. Although the Japanese are identified in our minds with a ‘collectivist’ emphasis (page 194) this is too simplistic. A leading figure in the Kyoto school (page 195) ‘stressed that nothing in this philosophy is against individualism’ and that ‘individualism and egoism must be strictly distinguished.’ He also discusses (page 201) the ‘default conception of self in Africa’ as ‘a relational one. One manifestation of this is the South African concept of ubuntu. This word defies translation but means something like ‘humanity towards others’ or ‘the universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.’ He believes that the individualism of our Western culture came about ‘as soon as selves were conceived in Platonic terms. Unlike the relational selves of East Asian thought, such selves are discrete, self-contained. They may interact and cooperate with others but each is a separate unit, entire unto itself.’

His concluding section of this part discusses the concepts of integrity and intimacy. He feels that ‘a lot of what is going wrong in the West is a breakdown of a stable equilibrium between intimacy and integrity. Consider the distinction in terms of autonomy and belonging. More of one inevitably leaves us with less of the other, and in the West the autonomy culture has become so dominant it has squeezed out belonging.’

What might the Bahá’í point of view add to this?

There is the obvious aspect: the core belief that all humanity is one. Also the powerful sense, as expressed by its central body in 2001 that there has to be ‘a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’

That may not deal clearly enough with the question of the best relationship between the individual and the community. The Bahá’í NGO addresses that more adequately in The Prosperity of Humankind.They wrote:

Human society is composed not of a mass of merely differentiated cells but of associations of individuals . . . As social organization has increased, the scope for the expression of the capacities latent in each human being has correspondingly expanded. Because the relationship between the individual and society is a reciprocal one, the transformation now required must occur simultaneously within human consciousness and the structure of social institutions. . . in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. . . .Concern that each human being should enjoy the freedom of thought and action conducive to his or her personal growth does not justify devotion to the cult of individualism that so deeply corrupts many areas of contemporary life. Nor does concern to ensure the welfare of society as a whole require a deification of the state as the supposed source of humanity’s well-being. Far otherwise: the history of the present century shows all too clearly that such ideologies and the partisan agendas to which they give rise have been themselves the principal enemies of the interests they purport to serve. Only in a consultative framework made possible by the consciousness of the organic unity of humankind can all aspects of the concern for human rights find legitimate and creative expression. . . . Present-day conceptions of what is natural and appropriate in relationships — among human beings themselves, between human beings and nature, between the individual and society, and between the members of society and its institutions — reflect levels of understanding arrived at by the human race during earlier and less mature stages in its development. If humanity is indeed coming of age, if all the inhabitants of the planet constitute a single people, . . . — then existing conceptions that were born out of ignorance of these emerging realities have to be recast.

I have cherry-picked key points from across a number of pages to try and illustrate that this perspective is adding something significant into the mix: first, the idea of the global family of humanity and, secondly, the notion that we have an understanding of our relationships that has evolved in the past but now needs to evolve far beyond its current level.

In a letter written to all Bahá’ís throughout the world in March 2017, our central body went into more detail about the implications of this for our economic system:

The welfare of any segment of humanity is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole. Humanity’s collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbours’ or pursues economic gain without regard for how the natural environment, which provides sustenance for all, is affected. A stubborn obstruction, then, stands in the way of meaningful social progress: time and again, avarice and self-interest prevail at the expense of the common good. Unconscionable quantities of wealth are being amassed, and the instability this creates is made worse by how income and opportunity are spread so unevenly both between nations and within nations. But it need not be so. However much such conditions are the outcome of history, they do not have to define the future, and even if current approaches to economic life satisfied humanity’s stage of adolescence, they are certainly inadequate for its dawning age of maturity. There is no justification for continuing to perpetuate structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the interests of all peoples. The teachings of the Faith leave no room for doubt: there is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization o f wealth and resources.

This not only refers to the same idea of human progress, but also extends its reference to the relationship between the individual and society from the socio-political sphere to the economic one.

That’s the main reason why I feel the absence of an awareness of the Bahá’í perspective significantly reduces the sought-for inclusiveness of this otherwise excellent book. He is the writer who refers to Bellaigue’s book in a discussion of Islam (page 48), which means he should have had some idea of where the Bahá’í Faith is coming from.

McGregor next

I can deal with McGregor more briefly. He discusses polytheism at some length (pages 322 passim). He is concerned to examine how monotheism has tended throughout its history to be more intolerant than polytheism in terms of the societies it shapes. He is not simplistic about this though (page 329): ‘But as we shall see  . . . polytheism, no less than monotheism, can in the modern world also provide a vehicle for exclusion and political intolerance.’

The potential Bahá’í contribution here can be stated briefly. As far as I am aware the Bahá’í Faith is the first major monotheistic religion explicitly to accept that Hinduism, a polytheistic Eastern religion, completely separate from the tradition of the so-called ‘people of the book,’ is a valid divinely inspired faith. Not only that but it explicitly includes Buddhism and, not so surprisingly given its country of origin, Zoroastrianism, in the same category. The international Bahá’í website lists the founders of the great faiths as follows: ‘Throughout the ages, humanity’s spiritual, intellectual and moral capacities have been cultivated by the Founders of the great religions, among them Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and—in more recent times—the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.’

This is not so significant an omission, perhaps, given the nature of his book, but it indicates that he fails to mention a monotheistic faith that has enshrined an inclusiveness that hopefully will avoid the intolerance trap.

Time to move on.

The last book in today’s list is Bellaigue’s on the Islamic Enlightenment.

More of that next time.

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Depression

‘Drugs are having a positive effect for some people – but they clearly can’t be the main solution for the majority of us.’ Photograph: Alamy

For various reasons I needed recently to look into the current state of thinking about depression. As a result I stumbled upon this article by Johann Hari with which I strongly resonate. The closing paragraph hits a very important nail exactly on the head:

If you are depressed and anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. The only real way out of our epidemic of despair is for all of us, together, to begin to meet those human needs – for deep connection, to the things that really matter in life.

Below is another short extract: for the full post see link.

I started to research my book, Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, because I was puzzled by two mysteries. Why was I still depressed when I was doing everything I had been told to do? I had identified the low serotonin in my brain, and I was boosting my serotonin levels – yet I still felt awful. But there was a deeper mystery still. Why were so many other people across the western world feeling like me? Around one in five US adults are taking at least one drug for a psychiatric problem. In Britain, antidepressant prescriptions have doubled in a decade, to the point where now one in 11 of us drug ourselves to deal with these feelings. What has been causing depression and its twin, anxiety, to spiral in this way? I began to ask myself: could it really be that in our separate heads, all of us had brain chemistries that were spontaneously malfunctioning at the same time?

To find the answers, I ended up going on a 40,000-mile journey across the world and back. I talked to the leading social scientists investigating these questions, and to people who have been overcoming depression in unexpected ways – from an Amish village in Indiana, to a Brazilian city that banned advertising and a laboratory in Baltimore conducting a startling wave of experiments. From these people, I learned the best scientific evidence about what really causes depression and anxiety. They taught me that it is not what we have been told it is up to now. I found there is evidence that seven specific factors in the way we are living today are causing depression and anxiety to rise – alongside two real biological factors (such as your genes) that can combine with these forces to make it worse.

Once I learned this, I was able to see that a very different set of solutions to my depression – and to our depression – had been waiting for me all along.

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