Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘John Donne’

View of the River from the entrance of the Pavilion Centre

One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.

Bahá’u’lláh quoting a hadith in Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 238).

Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Tablets – page 168)

Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212).

Last time I looked in some detail at the life of Bahá’u’lláh, as derived from the notes I made to prepare for a longer talk at the Pavilion Centre in Hereford that never happened! This is where I move to a brief consideration of the core teachings.

The Core Beliefs

The main tenets of Bahá’í belief can be summarised briefly here as follows:

The absolute core is a belief in the essential unity of God, Religion and Humanity:

O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

(“The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh”, Arabic no. 68, rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1985), p. 20)

The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.

(Gleanings – CXVII)

We are living in a single interconnected world. The challenges of globalism in its current form and the inequalities it fosters are causing many to regress to a harder line nationalism as the solution. This will definitely not work in the long term and probably won’t in the short term either.

Other important principles that stem from the concept of unity are:

The idea of a World Government; (this would not be an authoritarian bureaucracy – the local, national and international will each have their appropriate jurisdiction); the independent investigation of truth; the essential harmony of Religion and Science; the equality of men and women; the elimination of all prejudice; universal compulsory education; a spiritual solution to economic problems; and the need for a universal auxiliary language.

Questions Two, Three & Four

Two of the next three questions put to me before the talk were slightly more unusual:

How has your faith changed since travelling to the UK and do you practice in the same ways as originally defined? How can your belief be used to help us all create more understanding and a better world for us all – locally /nationally and beyond? What is your personal story for following your faith?

The answer to the first question is not a lot in terms of its fundamentals, and I’ve dealt with the second and third question on this blog many times.

The question that proved most intriguing, because the answer that popped into my head was not the one that I expected, was:

What is the most important aspect of your faith to you and why?

There is so much that I could’ve said including these: the Bahá’í Faith combines spirituality and activism in what seems to me to be a unique way; we have a global democratic administrative system that allows what we learn in one place to be applied in another and involves no priestly authority; its core concept of unity and interconnectedness is the key to our material survival as well as to our spiritual thriving; the idea of progressive revelation reduces the tensions and conflicts between people of different faiths; and service and community building are at the heart of the Faith’s approach to the social world. All of these matter to me a great deal and influenced my decision to attempt to tread the Bahá’í path. All of these depend for their effectiveness both upon nurturing the family and developing the educational system: even so I didn’t choose those either.

It may come as no surprise to readers of my blog that what I decided to say in the end, but never got the chance, focused upon the link between reflection and consultation, not just in the context of the administrative system, but as a consistent pattern of experiencing our inner and outer worlds and communicating with others, as skills that we need to use everywhere and all the time. It is part of the mystical core of the Bahá’í Faith, depending as both skills do on the development of the highest possible levels of detachment.

In a recent post I summarised the core of this insight briefly by saying:

. . . truthfulness requires the ability to reflect as an individual, which means stepping back, as we have described, from the immediate contents of our consciousness, so that we can gain a more objective and dispassionate perspective, and as a group it means consulting together as dispassionately as possible in order to lift our understanding to a higher level.

In fact, it is as though truth were, as John Donne wrote, ‘on a huge hill, cragged and steep.’ We are all approaching it from different sides. Just because your path looks nothing like mine it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, it is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. I might honestly feel you are completely mistaken and say so in the strongest possible terms. But I would be wrong to do so, even if I’m right. We would both move faster upwards if we compared notes more humbly and carefully. Reflection helps create the necessary humility: consultation makes the comparison of paths possible.

Of the key criteria that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sets for the achievement of true consultation, I chose to emphasise, in this context, the capacity for detachment. This is simply because it underpins the process of reflection for us as individuals as well as the process of consultation for us as groups and communities. If I cannot step back from my passing thoughts and feelings, detach myself from them, I won’t be able to consult, and similarly if I am with people who cannot do that also, consultation will be impossible.

It is intriguingly difficult to convey these points briefly to those who have not had cause to think about them before. In the world as it stands it is increasingly important that more of us learn these skills than ever before. A constant focus of my current reflections is on how I can best work towards both honing my own reflection and consultation skills, and, just as importantly, how can I motivate others to do the same.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

To download the complete materials click this link Upholders of His Oneness v2.

At Strathallan, when we were moving between the main hall and the workshop room there was a downpour. This caused us to notice something unusual about the guttering. It was not clear to us at all what purpose was served by the piping that ended up in the trumpet shape pointing towards the sky. The amount of rain such a device captured would make next to no difference to the quantity that cascaded down the sloping roofs into the normal guttering. Nor did it produce any audible melodic sounds. Another of those mysteries!

So, we flourished our umbrellas against the deluge and headed for the workshop where we were due to pick up the trail at the point where it led from the spiritualisation of the individual to the development of the group or community. A useful bridge to help us across the border here is Paul Lample’s observation in Revelation and Social Reality (page 212) that ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

How might this be so?

The Power of Speech

First we need to look at speech in itself and what might give it power.

One important consideration is clearly that we have to practice what we preach (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh – CXXVIII)

. . . Unless he teacheth his own self, the words of his mouth will not influence the heart of the seeker. Take heed, O people, lest ye be of them that give good counsel to others but forget to follow it themselves.

In the Tablets revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas Bahá’u’lláh unpacks other crucial factors (page 172-73).

Perhaps most importantly we need to realise that words are a double edged sword, ‘. . . One word is like unto springtime causing the tender saplings of the rose-garden of knowledge to become verdant and flourishing, while another word is even as a deadly poison.’

How do we avoid the poison and maximise the positive effect?

Bahá’u’lláh explains that ‘words and utterances should be both impressive and penetrating’ and adds that they won’t be so unless they are ‘uttered wholly for the sake of God and with due regard unto the exigencies of the occasion and the people.’ We have to combine an absence of ulterior motive with a sensitivity both to the needs of the moment and the needs of the people to whom we are speaking.

In the workshop we discussed the way ideas borrowed from Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) might help us grasp the importance of tuning into what the person we are talking to most needs to hear as against what we would very much like to tell them. NLP talks about the need to match what we say to someone’s understanding and pace our expectations as to what they can take on board next. Lisa Wake describes this as ‘Pacing means to match where someone is currently and work alongside them to develop a process of responsiveness that is based on trust.’

Leather work (for source of image see link)

A participant in the workshop, someone with a beard longer than mine and equally silver, wondered whether the two words impressive and penetrating were chosen by Bahá’u’lláh from leatherwork as an image of how this process works. He explained.

‘I once saw someone tooling and staining leather. First, the leather had to be softened before the carver could begin to work it. Once it is soft he could use a special knife more easily to cut patterns in the leather. After that it could be stained. Spraying water on the leather first helps the dye soak in more deeply. It’s as though impressive describes the work of words uttered in the right spirit on the prepared mind, and penetrating relates to how words of the right kind can sink deep into the heart and become indelible, as dye will do in prepared leather.’

We were all taken with the beauty of that metaphor and his explanation of it.

Moderation
We also need to remember that ‘Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. . . . [M]oderation . . . hath to be combined with tact and wisdom . . .’

What might such moderation look like?

In the Gleanings we find this from Bahá’u’lláh (CXXXIX): ‘Say: Let truthfulness and courtesy be your adorning,’ and twice in His Tablets we find (page 36 and page 170) ‘This Wronged One exhorteth the peoples of the world to observe tolerance and righteousness, which are two lights amidst the darkness of the world and two educators for the edification of mankind,’ and ‘The heaven of true understanding shineth resplendent with the light of two luminaries: tolerance and righteousness.’

Bearing in mind that the former is linked with a familiar exhortation to ‘Beware, O people of Bahá, lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds,’ we need also to pay attention to what He links these qualities with next:

Suffer not yourselves to be deprived of the robe of forbearance and justice, that the sweet savours of holiness may be wafted from your hearts upon all created things.

Lamples observes (page 65):

Applying the knowledge for constructive change in the Baha’i community does not involve self-certainty or self-interest, but self-sacrifice. It involves doing what is right, not becoming self-righteous.

We pondered on how we might be truthful while remaining courteous. One member of the group made a penetrating observation. Truthfulness is not always, if ever, the same as honesty. Honesty is saying what we believe to be true, or venting whatever feeling has taken possession of our minds at the time. In either case this may be anything but true.

This sparked someone else to ask, ‘Isn’t it hypocritical to behave sweetly when you’re feeling furious?’

This triggered some soul-searching. We came to the tentative conclusion that reflection resolved this quandary, at least to some extent. If we step back from the brain-noise of the moment, we can hold it in mind, contain it and reflect upon it, rather than pretend to ourselves we aren’t feeling it, which would probably be hypocrisy, or act it out, which might be destructive rather than helpful. It would enable us to continue to hear and understand what others were saying as well as giving us time to think whether the heated reaction of the moment needed to be expressed in a more constructive way or parked for further reflection.

In would also enable us to follow what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) advises and enact our values rather than act out our possibly destructive feelings.

Paving the Way to Consultation

So, truthfulness requires the ability to reflect as an individual, which means stepping back, as we have described, from the immediate contents of our consciousness, so that we can gain a more objective and dispassionate perspective, and as a group it means consulting together as dispassionately as possible in order to lift our understanding to a higher level.

In fact, it is as though truth were, as John Donne wrote, ‘on a huge hill, cragged and steep.’ We are all approaching it from different sides. Just because your path looks nothing like mine it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, it is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. I might honestly feel you are completely mistaken and say so in the strongest possible terms. But I would be wrong to do so, even if I’m right. We would both move faster upwards if we compared notes more humbly and carefully. Reflection helps create the necessary humility: consultation makes the comparison of paths possible.

The criteria ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sets as the necessary prerequisites for consultation are extremely high (Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – p. 87, #43): ‘purity of motive, radiance of spirit, detachment from all else save God, attraction to His Divine Fragrances, humility and lowliness amongst His loved ones, patience and long-suffering in difficulties and servitude to His exalted Threshold.’

We dwelt on those at some length in the workshop. The one I wish to emphasise here, in this context, is detachment.

This is simply because it underpins the process of reflection for us as individuals as well as the process of consultation for us as groups and communities. If I cannot step back from my passing thoughts and feelings, detach myself from them, I won’t be able to consult, and similarly if I am with people who cannot do that also, consultation will be impossible.

The unity necessary to discover truth and act effectively depends upon detachment. Bahá’u’lláh writes in the Hidden Words, ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

Once we are striving in this way to exemplify in our actions the values we espouse, to reflect and consult with detachment and in unity, something potentially world-changing can happen. These are Bahá’u’lláh’s words from a Tablet translated from the Persian quoted in The Heaven of Divine Wisdom:

Consultation bestoweth greater awareness and transmuteth conjecture into certitude. It is a shining light which, in a dark world, leadeth the way and guideth. For everything there is and will continue to be a station of perfection and maturity. The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.

For a clear explanation of what this all means in practice, one of the best places to turn is a document published by the Bahá’í International Community entitled Prosperity of Human Kind:. The quote I’m drawing on comes in Section 2.

At the individual level, justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, justice is “the best beloved of all things” since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or his group. It calls for fair-mindedness in one’s judgments, for equity in one’s treatment of others, and is thus a constant if demanding companion in the daily occasions of life.

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process . . . . .

Bahá’u’lláh Himself links justice, unity and consultation as keys to civilisation-building (Bahá’u’lláh, cited in Consultation: A Compilation to be found also in Compilation of Compilations, Vol I, p. 93):

Say: no man can attain his true station except through his justice. No power can exist except through unity. No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.

There we will have to leave it till next time.

When we returned home that evening the cruiser and its lights had disappeared.

Read Full Post »

Grave & Courtyard v2

Usually I stroll to the Death Cafe from home after an early dinner. This time the situation was a bit more hectic, which might have been a sign of things to come.

I had spent too long in town and was dashing to the Courtyard to grab a sandwich before the six o’clock start. I got there just before 5.30. The reception area and the cafe was buzzing. The queue at the counter wasn’t too bad so I got my order in and my cappuccino reasonably quickly, though there was a bit of a crisis when fake news came through that they had run out of brown bread. I hate white for reasons I won’t bore you with right now. Anyway panic over when they established I’d apparently got there in time to catch the last slices of brown.

By ten to six I’d finished my sandwich and picked up my coffee to take to the meeting room. That’s where the problems started. I pulled open the door to see a room full of clothing, presumably costumes of some kind. I caught up with a member of staff who said the meeting was on the mezzanine floor. I carried my coffee carefully up the stairs and checked out the room at that level – crammed with people I didn’t know definitely not talking about death. Not there then.

On the way back to the stairs I saw the white hair of one of our clan bobbing up the stairs.

‘It’s not on the mezzanine,’ he said. ‘I don’t know where it is.’

I decided to check with the reception desk.

‘It is on that floor,’ the girl at the till told me. ‘It’s past the cafe.’

On the way back to the stairs for the second time I met another death enthusiast.

‘Where’s the meeting?’ she asked clutching her coffee and cake.

‘Follow me,’ I asserted confidently. We trekked up the stairs. She waited with her coffee and cake at a nearby table where I placed my coffee as well for safety while I checked out the room, which turned out to be either non-existent or a Platform 9¾ problem. I opted for non-existent and went back to the table where we sat for a while, she nibbling her cake and me scanning the stairs between sips of almost cold coffee for any hints about where the meeting was going to be.

After about five minutes, I decided it was time to go back to reception again. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw a familiar face talking to what looked like the manager. She didn’t look happy.

‘So we haven’t got a room tonight?’ she probed.

‘I’m really sorry but demand was so high today we’ve had to use every available space,’ he flustered.

‘What do we do then?’ she asked with surprising politeness.

‘Well, there’s a table upstairs on the gallery floor with enough chairs.’

As we could only just hear him speak against the background noise we were not pleased about this, but there was nothing else we could do.

We trooped upstairs again but went one floor higher this time.

Two tables were at the stairwell where the noise was loudest.

We pulled them together and surrounded them with chairs, trying to make sure we would all be as close together as possible.

After a few moments more people trickled in and we got ourselves seated.

I was pleased to see the lady from the train had come. I gave a full account of our first meeting in a previous post. She was someone with a keen interest in consciousness and spirituality.

And there were two new faces as well – and they were young. I was happy to see that as it would make it easier to answer a question I’ve been asked more than once when talking about the Death Cafe: ‘Are there any young people there?’ Brilliant! I could now say an emphatic ‘Yes!’

It was hard going at first to make ourselves heard against the background noise, most of it caused by young children waiting for their programme to start in the main theatre. At least the noise would drop once the doors opened and they went in.

‘When someone is dementing, do their family go through a grieving process even before they die?’ This was an entirely unexpected question from someone so young, one of the new arrivals. Her voice was too quiet at first so she had to  repeat what she said.

That set the first ball rolling. Sadly, the white-haired man I mentioned earlier really struggled as he had a hearing problem. Turning up his hearing aid was no solution as it simply made the shouting from below even more of a problem. He wasn’t the only one by any means who was struggling. Most of us had a hard time hearing someone on the other side of the table.

‘It’s not the Death Cafe tonight,’ I quipped, ‘more like the Deaf Cafe.’ It seemed to ease the tension slightly, and fortunately the man with the hearing aid couldn’t hear me. (My apologies to David Lodge for stealing his joke: he published a novel in 2008 called Deaf Sentence about a man struggling with hearing loss.)

From dementia we slid into DMT because the topic had shifted to whether the mind is affected by the brain or somehow separate from it and whether we could somehow access a transcendent realm. I had to do some research when I got home as I’d never heard of DMT.

It was mentioned in the meeting as a pineal hormone with transliminal effects. Wikipedia writes:

N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT) is a powerful psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of other psychedelic tryptamines such as 4-AcO-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 5-HO-DMT, psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), and psilocin (4-HO-DMT).

Most of that went over my head. The next bit was more accessible.

Historically, it has been consumed by indigenous Amazonian cultures in the form of ayahuasca for divinatory and healing purposes. It was first synthesised in 1931, and in 1946, microbiologist Oswaldo Gonçalves de Lima discovered its natural presence in plants. In the 1960s, it was detected in mammalian organisms as well.

I can’t find support for the pineal connection (for example):

And although Strassman clearly states that his ideas about DMT and the pineal gland “are not proven”, many people have accepted them as fact. As of June 2010, there is currently no scientific evidence that the pineal gland produces DMT, much less any evidence for the more far-out speculations that Strassman makes about DMT being a chemical modulator of the human soul. When Strassman examined the pineal glands from “about ten” human corpse brains, there was nary a trace of DMT to be found in them. This doesn’t invalidate his theory, since DMT is metabolized quickly, and none of the corpse brains were fresh-frozen. Further tests on fresh-frozen brains could be done. Someday there may be evidence that DMT is produced in the pineal gland, but that day has not yet arrived.

It did remind me though of Aldous Huxley’s work on the ‘doors of perception’ and Stanislav Grof’s on LSD.

Just as the other new comer was about to speak the loudspeaker blared out a fifteen minute warning about when people should make a move to take their seats.

She had to start again. She picked up on what the lady from the train had shared about Faith, Physics & Psychology concerning various books such as those by Fritjof Kapra and David Bohm. She explained her deep interest in matters of the mind, consciousness and spirituality, something which was clearly shared by others present including me.

Somehow, I have no idea now of how, we moved onto exploring virtual selves in this age of the internet and social media. Would we be mourned after we die by other FB users who had never met us? Does excessive reliance on social media cut us off from real contact with other people? We concluded that social media, just like all other leaps forward in terms of tools and technology throughout human history, was a mixed blessing – just like fire, which we can use to keep warm in winter and cook our food or to burn down a neighbour’s hut if he has upset us.

At about this point the blaring began again to summon all the noisy ones downstairs to their seats. Bliss. Silence.

We had a long exploration then of whether there is a soul, a spiritual dimension, a mind independent of the body – all my favourite stuff. I was astonished to find that someone did not agree that agnosticism is the only rational stance if you rely on reason alone. To believe there is or there is not a God is an act of faith.

‘Well, that’s not how I see it?’ a different voice chipped in.

‘How do you see it then?’ I asked trying to hide my shock at this denial of the obvious.

‘I’m not quite sure. I think it’s more a question of acceptance.’

I’m still not quite sure what she meant by that but we went onto explore whether truth was on a ‘huge hill,’ as John Donne expressed it, and we’re all on our different paths towards it or is there a better metaphor.

I think there was general agreement in the end with the other part of Donne’s position as expressed in his third satire (line 77): ‘doubt wisely.’

Whatever else, we all felt at the end of the evening, as we said our goodbyes, that it had been a great experience which we had all enjoyed enormously.

And I’ll end on my usual challenge. Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

Read Full Post »

Birmingham QE Hosp MedicalSchool

As I walk onto the platform a garbled announcement on the PA system informs me that the crackle for Birmingham will hiss from crackle 4.

I stroll in plenty of time to the appropriate end of platform 3. I’m glad of the bench on which to park my faded brown backpack loaded with food, coffee and a laptop. Just as I’m putting it down I hear a voice in my ear.

‘This train doesn’t usually go from 4, does it?’ The tone is full of a positive energy that sounds quite infectious.

I look up. A lady, slightly younger than me, is placing a brightly coloured shopping bag on the bench.

‘It used to but it hasn’t happened for ages. Not sure why now,’ I answer.

As we speak our train goes past the platform causing a moment of confusion before we realise it will have to reverse back onto the cul-de-sac of platform 4.

‘Where are you heading?’ she asks.

‘To the University.’

‘Oh! Why there?’

‘To run a seminar on consciousness.’

‘Oh wow!’ She almost leaps out of her skin. ‘That’s my life’s work. I’ve spent years working on that.’

‘You’re kidding,’ I say, almost equally astonished.

‘No. Honestly. It really is.’

Our train pulls to a stop behind us. We pick up our bags and wait by a door for the light to come on.

‘Do you mind if we sit together? I’d love to talk,’ she asks.

‘I’d be happy to. I will just need 15 minutes before we get to University station to go over my notes.’ (There’s copy of them for anyone interested in the footnotes.)

‘No problem. I’ll be getting off at Worcester.’

‘Perfect.’

The light comes on. I press to open the door and we settle at a table close by in the warm sunlight streaming through the glass.

The talking begins between us even before I take my coat off. It continues in a constant flow thereafter. Two girls who initially chose to sit at the table opposite to us decide to move to the next carriage. The idea of an hour’s exposure to the excited exchanges of two old fogeys discussing mind, spirit, higher energy, God, the universe and an afterlife is clearly too much for them.

Later, as the train pulls out of Great Malvern I take a card out of my wallet to write down the name of the book we were just discussing: Faith, Physics & Psychology by John Fitzgerald Medina.

‘Are your details on the back?’ she asks.

‘For sure. Is it OK if I have yours,’ I ask getting out my notebook.

‘No problem. I don’t have a television, email address or computer anymore, but this is my mobile.’

I scribble it down.

‘I wasn’t planning to take this train,’ she explains. ‘But my sister wasn’t feeling well and wanted to rest so I said I’d go back early.’

‘That’s weird,’ I reply. ‘I was going to take the later train but the organiser of the seminar wanted me there earlier to set up, so I decided to travel on this one.’

We definitely conclude that our meeting is synchronicity not coincidence. Chance doesn’t seem the likeliest explanation.

She gets off at Foregate Street. I get out my notes to check, for the last time, that they will work for an interactive session with about 15 people. Well before my destination I am happy with my notes. I just watch for the tall clock tower that will signal I am nearly there.

There it is on schedule. I pack up my stuff. As I walk along the platform towards the exit stairs I ring the organiser.

‘I’m going to need my car,’ she tells me, ‘so give me time to drive around the one-way system to pick you up. It’ll take me longer than it would to walk.’

I wait in watery sunlight for the lift, with my destination in eyeshot. I am totally unprepared for what is about to happen.

In about five minutes her car pulls up. Within less than a minute we are squeezing into the cramped car park in front of the looming facade of the Medical Centre. We talk our way through the elaborate security system and I’m in the shining glass and gleaming metal entrance hall again. Memories of the last time four years ago flood back. I’ve described them before so won’t dwell on them now.

We climb the stairs to the first floor labyrinth. We fruitlessly loop round the circle of one set of seminar rooms and set off from the stairwell round the next. We are in luck. The last room we come to is the one for us.

Thirty chairs. Rather more than I was expecting but still not too many for a seminar-style approach even if the room is full.

As the system there won’t talk to my Mac, I save my Keynote slides onto a memory stick in PowerPoint format. The university computer obligingly accepts them. The first slide appears on the screen.

Consciousness

We’re good to go.

Fifteen minutes before we start. The room is filling up. We need more chairs. Five minutes to go and a student asks me if she can sit down in front of the first row. Before I can even answer, another student kneels down to my left.

‘That’s not necessary,’ I joke, implying I’m not a guru. She seems to get the joke but I’m not quite sure.

The professor I’ve been talking to in-between all the toing and froing, stands up at this point, looks around and says, ‘I’m going to find a bigger room.’ Our organiser goes with him. I look up towards the door and see the queue of people three-wide snaking out into the corridor.

I decide to start packing up all my stuff to set up again somewhere else. I sense this could take some time.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

After what seems an eternity of fidgeting restlessly in our places, whether sitting, kneeling, pacing or standing, we’re told to follow the professor to a lecture theatre up stairs. We trail behind him chatting desultorily. When we get to the stairs there’s a traffic jam.

Stalled half-way up the stairwell on a step less wide than my foot is long I’m left with an insecure sense I might topple backwards at any moment onto the tail of the queue below .

Minutes pass.

‘We need to go downstairs to the ground floor. There’s a room there,’ someone shouts from on high.

We dutifully turn round and slowly descend. We wait in the shining entrance hall. I begin to see how many of us there are. This is definitely going to be no seminar. It really will have to be a lecture. Lectures aren’t my thing. I love bouncing ideas around in small groups, learning from others in an intense exchange of perspectives.

Still, I’m going to have to make the best of a bad job.

At last! The porter (not sure that’s the right word) comes back and leads us along a different labyrinthine corridor, from which we step into a massive hall with the lectern stuck in the far left corner away from the door.

This could be tricky, I think.

As people take their seats I set up again.

The microphone doesn’t work and it’s fixed to the desktop so I can’t carry it anyway.

I stare incredulously into the vast space around me. The front row is several feet away and the back row seems in a different dimension altogether. I’m going to have to shout. I get my flask of coffee out. I’m going to need it if I don’t want to be croaking by the end. At a conservative estimate there are about 100 people here. I’m glad I didn’t know this in advance. I’d be jelly by now if I had.

I set the slide to show the word ‘Consciousness’ again. I prepare my reluctant mind for lecture mode.

They introduce me. I start by explaining that I want to leave space for questions and feedback as we go, even though we are so many. I want to learn from their perspectives as well as sharing mine.

I try to click onto the next text with my right hand on the mouse. The right button does nothing. I need a track pad!

‘This isn’t working,’ I share. ‘I’m used to a real computer.’ They laugh. That helps.

‘Press the left button,’ a supportive voice from the front row advises.

That works. ‘Spirit, Mind or Brain,’ appears.

I ask my three questions. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is simply a product of the brain?’ Maybe forty hands or so shoot up. There are too many to count properly. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is independent of the brain?’ Almost the same number. That’s encouraging. ‘How many have no real idea which way to go on this?’ Probably about twenty.

I go on to share my collision of perspectives in 1982 after I’d moved from atheism to the Bahá’í Faith. I click for the ‘Abdu’l-Bahá quote. After repeating my earlier mistake, the quote appears.

Mind & Spirit

Mind & Spirit

Things begin to settle down. The details of the kind of explanation I intended to give I will share in the next short sequence of posts. It’s close to what happens on the day but not exactly the same. I’ll keep the story very brief for now. I’ve gone on long enough.

Episodes of explanation interspersed with a few questions flow on from here for over an hour.

I start by explaining my default position of doubt . . . . .

Inevitable Uncertainty

Inevitable Uncertainty

. . . . . before moving on to the improbability of life: how much more so of consciousness.

“Why bother investigating at all if we can’t prove anything for certain?’ someone asks later. I think after the event I should have said, ‘If science had only ever investigated what looked like a cast-iron certainty, where would quantum physics be now? By the end of the 19th Century eminent scientists thought there was hardly anything left to find out!’

As it is I offer, ‘We need to balance science and spirituality, as the Bahá’í Faith argues, if our civilisation is going to fly rather than crash even though the best we will ever get with human minds is an enhanced but still incomplete understanding which we can’t be completely sure is true.’

The muddle of models about the mind brain relationship. Isn’t monism the better idea? Is it all a solipsism?

‘Filter or spectrum?’ is the question I put. The brain as transceiver maybe.

Myers Spectrum 2

Myers Spectrum (1/2)

The effects of skunk. Do psychedelics break down the filter both ways – the infrared of stuff from below and the ultraviolet of input from above?

Myers Spectrum

Myers Spectrum (2/2)

Psi, though a small effect, is too rigorously explored and too improbable to dismiss – the issue is the explanation not the effect itself. Science has to take this seriously.

‘Isn’t all this a waste of time when we know consciousness is just the beautiful product of evolution and the massive complexity of our neuronal connections?’ asks a student in the second row. I pause to stop myself responding too sharply. I feel at least half the material so far was supposed to have dealt with that. I answer quietly, ‘Such a discount in advance of investigation dismisses countless experiences and phenomena as pure fantasy even though so many people are convinced they are real.’ I should have added, ‘Open-minded agnosticism is the only objective stance for science to take without betraying itself.’

Just before stopping I ask how many people present would be prepared to risk their reputation to investigate the spiritual aspects of consciousness. About ten people put up their hands. That is more than I would have expected. Encouraging again.

At the end there is a queue of students asking more questions and to share contact details. By the time I leave at 19.20 to catch my train I am in a daze of disbelief. I just hope I didn’t sell the topic short as I believe a more open-minded approach to the issue of consciousness is vital if we are to move towards the collaboration between science and religion that is required if we are to create a healthier society.

As I remember stating before, on my previous talk in this same building, if we place any credibility at all in the eloquently expressed arguments of scholars such as Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds, Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and SoulJohn Hick in The Fifth Dimension or Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary, we have to accept the likelihood that, until our society finds a better balance between spirituality and science as pathways to what is fundamentally the same truth, we are in danger of joining previous civilisations in a crash landing.

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

Footnote

The Plan for the Seminar that Never Happened!

If there are fewer than 20 people I might ask them their names and one relevant fact.

Then:

How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is entirely a product of the brain?

How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is in some way independent of the brain?

How many of you are not at all sure which way to go on this?

  1. ‘Doubt Wisely’

Explore the agnosticism case:

William James

Dennet & Churchland

John Hick & Eric Reitan

  1. Prevalent Theories
  2. Eliminative Materialism
  3. Epiphenomenon
  4. Emergent Property
  5. Seen by most as unscientific

Given the improbability of life unless there really are infinite universes (the multiverse theory) the improbability of consciousness is even greater, so perhaps we need to approach the problems it poses with as open a mind as possible (cf Paul Davies The Goldilocks Enigma – God or infinite universes – both unacceptable to him.)

  1. Mind as completely independent of the brain.

This need not imply survival after bodily death but does entail the idea that the mind is not entirely reducible to the brain and that, though probably immaterial, it can control/influence the material brain (cf Schwartz).

  1. Mind as a spiritual entity.

This brings with it baggage our mainstream empirical materialistic culture does not welcome.

  1. There is a spiritual dimension including perhaps a collective unconscious and a potential capacity in all humans to access experiences without any obvious material mechanism (cf work on psi);
  2. There is survival after death (cf reincarnation, mediumship – inconclusive given fraud and super-psi);
  3. What survives is our sense of perceptive individuality in relation to others who have died, to the material world and to a transcendent power often referred to as God in Western culture (NDE evidence cf especially Sartori).

 So What?

The issue should be not to say that the evidence must be seriously flawed because I know the direction it points is not possible. Rather to admit that the evidence raises serious questions that need to be investigated. Otherwise we have scientism not science. The issue is the validity of the interpretation not the validity of the evidence.

How to explore it further?

Well, experimenter expectation effects have to be taken into account. These cut both ways. The convinced will tend to elicit positive results: sceptics the opposite.

Also putting people with suspected psi through thousands of repetitions of the same task will inevitably lead to increasingly random performance. Imagine going to the optician as I did recently and have them run the dot spotting peripheral vision acuity task 1000 times. I’d probably be rated spot-blinded tunnel vision by the end as boredom and fatigue increasingly eroded my attention.

Also the threat to your career as a credible scientist needs to be addressed. Not many people are prepared to commit career suicide by investigating what has been written off a priori as delusional. Often also neither unbelievers nor believers are keen to spend years investigating what they already know to be a fact.

What we need in any case are detached and genuinely agnostic scientists to come forward (because they are most likely to obtain objectively credible results), jeopardise their careers, struggle for funding and devote decades to the exploration of an aspect of this issue.

How many of you are up for that right now?

Read Full Post »

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

Read Full Post »

The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son

As part of the counterbalance to my recent posts on death and suffering I thought it was about time I republished something a bit more positive. So, here’s another post from 2009.

The Limitations of the Word

Is conversion always the right word to describe what happens when someone changes from one belief system to another?

It certainly captures for most people a key aspect of the experience. On the other hand I think it’s missing something.

When I look back at my whole life trajectory from the moment I said to my mother I was not a Catholic anymore to when I made the declaration of intent we shorthand as becoming a Baha’i, I was on a quest. In fact I still am. I was searching for something then with rather more desperation than I search now.

The quest had its roots partly in suffering. My own early experiences of pain – mine, my parent’s and a world’s recently at war –  seemed partly responsible for this search mode. I once wrote this poem.

Just rose thorns scratching at my window pane!
How many times I’ve moved to open up
only to calm my straying arm again.
Hope will maintain a vigil till wind drop.
I am no Heathcliff, lost no Catherine:
what need to answer every scratch and tap?
I have my dead, it’s true, padding within,
around the cage of memory, a map
of all my days for them to roam across,
bloodless symbols, reverberating boards,
stench: unfree, never still.  I’d grieve no loss
of them –
. . . . . . . . . yet something there is I yearn towards,
strain ears eyes after, a presence I have
sought since mourner I grew, without a grave.

Quest

But I don’t want to explore the issue of quest from this angle in this post – maybe in another post later. What I’m after here is to determine, if I can, whether the suffering hypothesis explains my search with nothing left over.

I’m a died-in the-wool anti-reductionist as those who read this blog regularly will already know to their cost. So, it should come as no surprise to hear me conclude that I think there’s a huge amount left over.

I can trace back one part of the leftover aspects to an experience in church when I was very young. Everyone was bowing down at the same point in the Mass and I asked my mother in a whisper why they were doing this and she replied, in a way which she thought fitting for my age and degree of understanding, ‘Because it’s too beautiful to look at.’

This was a challenge too difficult to resist. Something that beautiful and I couldn’t look! This I must see.

And I looked up and I looked round everywhere. All there was was the same old altar, the same old pictures of the stations of the cross, the same old man in a funny dress standing in front of the altar.

The only difference was this big round golden thing he was holding above his head. This seemed to be the object everyone was bowing to, but I didn’t get it. It was quite pretty but definitely not too beautiful to look at. I detected a trace of thirst in me then which grew stronger with the years. It was more than curiosity: it was fueled by a faith that things could be adequately explained.

To call it a thirst for truth in me at that age would be pretentious but it had the same parched quality: the difference was in degree not kind. (It’s the Baha’i Fast as I am writing this so perhaps my choice of metaphor is a bit predictable.)

A Need for Understanding

In my posts about conviction I quoted Fromm‘s idea that there is a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being which cries out to be filled with a suitable object of devotion.

I didn’t go on to make completely clear that there is not only a feeling component to this but a thinking one as well. We need not just to organise our lives around an object or objects of devotion, but we need understanding too. For things to mean something there has to be an intellectual satisfaction as well as an emotional connection. Those two aspects are contained in the word meaning in any case. We need a coherent meaning system, with which we can securely identify, to guide us in life. If we can’t get hold of a good one, a bad one will do instead. Ditchwater’s better than nothing to a man dying of thirst.

I was being driven even at that early age by a need to understand, and to understand in ways that made real sense to me not just in hand-me-down terms that people were fobbing me off with. The Faith I now belong to endorses that need as one that arises from our deepest nature, from our very soul as we would say.

Retreating Tide

So, I shut the door of the Catholic Church behind me and stepped into the back lanes of agnosticism. It wasn’t long before I was on the beach of atheism watching the tide of faith go out beyond eye-shot.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

(Matthew Arnold)

Not that it worried me consciously.

I wanted to look the hard facts of the world full in the face, see reality for what it was without all that mumbo-jumbo/hocus-pocus/smoke-and mirrors stuff (delete according to your particular distastes). I felt I had found the bed-rock of a firm and true understanding (except I was writing poems about search for reasons I didn’t understand at all).

Still, I stuck with my supposedly godless views because I thought they made sense of everything. I didn’t see it as a faith, which it is – just as much a leap in the dark as any other faith might be and ultimately far more unsatisfactory than many others which accept that there is a God. I had simply made a god of nothing since to believe in Nothing is an act of faith.

I congratulated myself on the hard-headed no-nonsense courage I was displaying by seeing the world as meaningless. I chuckled appreciatively over Castaneda‘s concept of ‘controlled folly’ in his books about the Yaqui Indian ‘way of the warrior:’ you know the world means nothing but you choose to give it a meaning none the less in a brave act of defiant self-assertion.

I plunged into left-wing politics and became ‘a fellow traveller.’ I couldn’t quite make the leap into becoming a real socialist: something held me back. When I began working in mental health and went to see a therapist, we decided that the epitaph engraved in big letters on my tombstone would be, ‘He died with his options open.’ I was very reluctant to make any kind of commitment.

Cragged HillBetween a Rock and a Hard Place

Yet at the same time there was this restless seeking after an indefinable something. Because I shared Chekhov‘s revulsion from violence and lies I stepped away from the radical socialism I was toying with. Even milder versions that eschewed violence in my eyes seemed, like everyone else seeking power, far too keen on lies. The ends always justified the meanest means. In some incoherent way I was expressing that I valued truth more than power except I could never have put it like that at the time.

This drove me to psychology (of which there has been more than enough in these pages already and there is plenty more to come). And that led onto Buddhism which seemed a conveniently atheistical religion with a sophisticated psychology. Choosing to investigate that at the same time as I studied psychology was a no-brainer for me.

My career as a truth-seeker strongly resembles John Donne‘s description:

. . . . . . . . . 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.

I came to a point in my life where the ideals of communism -‘ from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ – seemed to me to have been betrayed by all of its followers that had actually got into power. For example, far from rescuing the bulk of Europe from tyranny, the war against Hitler, with supreme irony, handed whole swathes of the continent over to a tyranny of an equally repellent kind.

On the other hand, Buddhism, which still seems to me a religion of great beauty, depth and power though I never threw in my lot with it, disappointed for a different reason.

I was impressed painfully by its combination of deep spirituality and practical inefficacy in the modern world. I had been haunted since the end of the Vietnam War by a potent symbol of this: those images of Buddhist monks burning themselves to death in the streets. The most widespread effects of these supremely compassionate acts of courageous self-immolation seemed to be futile if passionate demonstrations by the well-meaning and a series of tasteless jokes of the ‘What’s little and yellow and burns with a blue flame?’ variety, which combined racism and cruelty in about equal proportions.

Without knowing it at the time I longed, from the deepest levels of my being, for a pattern of belief, a meaning system, that could combine effective social action with moral restraints strong enough to prevent that social action becoming a source of oppression.

To embark now, after 1500 words, on a tale of how I found the Faith would test the patience of potential saints. Suffice it to say that I believed then, 27 years ago, that the Baha’i Faith offers just such a system and I believe it still. Hence this post.

What’s this got to do with conversion not being the right word?

Oh, I almost forgot!

The whole point of starting this story was to use my experience to indicate that the word conversion is missing something. When I became a Bahá’í I did not feel I was abandoning a previous belief system to adopt another quite different one. Anything but.

I felt I was finding a system of belief and practice that exactly corresponded to what I had always believed, could never have articulated so well and had always wanted to find in someone or something else apart from somewhere behind a fog in my own mind.

The Shrine of the Bab at Night

So strong was the sense of home-coming that when I went on pilgrimage four years later, I ended up weeping at the gates near the Shrine of the Báb, overcome by waves of relief and gratitude, such as a person who had been decades in exile might feel after a long and arduous journey as he looked down from a nearby hill top on the sunlit roofs of his birthplace.

It made sense of the phrase used by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to describe faith: ‘conscious knowledge.’ Till I found the Bahá’í Faith, it seems to me, my faith was unconscious, blind, deaf, dumb and desperate.

Of course, my journey of discovery is not over. It would be very boring if it was. Becoming a Baha’i, as I said at the beginning, is a declaration of intent. I am constantly working at improving my understanding of its teachings and striving to increase my love for God through interacting with the Words of Bahá’u’lláh and reflecting on His life.

But as I said, the search is now a lot less desperate. I’m not at sea now in a storm, at the mercy of the waves, nor even on that desolate beach. I’m on dry land under a bright sun and feel I am moving forwards in something far closer to the right direction.

I just need to remember to keep looking at the map, that’s all. Carrying it in my back pocket doesn’t work too well.

Read Full Post »

 

Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

The theme of this much earlier sequence of posts seems to complement the current sequence about death as light and therefore warrants republishing now.

It’s nearly 4 a.m. On this day at about this time 119 years ago, after four decades in prison and in exile, Bahá’u’lláh died near Acre, then an outpost of the Ottoman Empire, now a city in Israel. So on this holy day it seems fitting to begin some reflections upon the meaning of suffering, not just upon His sorrows but upon those of all who fall victim to what Shakespeare’s Hamlet described as the ‘thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.’

On 11 March this year, in the middle of the Bahá’í Fast which, in my experience at least, sensitises us more than usual to the sufferings of others, the BBC posted the following news bulletin:

Japan’s most powerful earthquake since records began has struck the north-east coast, triggering a massive tsunami. Cars, ships and buildings were swept away by a wall of water after the 8.9-magnitude tremor, which struck about 400km (250 miles) north-east of Tokyo. A state of emergency has been declared at a nuclear power plant, where pressure has exceeded normal levels.

Officials say 350 people are dead and about 500 missing, but it is feared the final death toll will be much higher. In one ward alone in Sendai, a port city in Miyagi prefecture, 200 to 300 bodies were found. In the centre of Tokyo many people are spending the night in their offices. But thousands, perhaps millions, chose to walk home. Train services were suspended.

Even after the most violent earthquake anyone could remember the crowds were orderly and calm. The devastation is further to the north, along the Pacific coast. There a tsunami triggered by the quake reached 10km (six miles) inland in places carrying houses, buildings, boats and cars with it. In the city of Sendai the police found up to 300 bodies in a single ward. Outside the city in a built-up area a fire blazed across several kilometres.

Japan’s ground self-defence forces have been deployed, and the government has asked the US military based in the country for help. The scale of destruction from the biggest quake ever recorded in Japan will become clear only at first light. The quake was the fifth-largest in the world since 1900 and nearly 8,000 times stronger than the one which devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, said scientists.

For anyone who believes that an all-powerful and all-merciful God set up the world this way, such events have to pose a problem. Would it not have been possible to do it differently if God were truly all-powerful? If it were possible to do it differently and eliminate the need for suffering, and He did not, then He is not all-merciful. If He is all-merciful and yet set up the world to contain so much pain, he cannot be all-powerful. There is no fudging the issue and those of us with a belief in God, at some time in our lives, will have to confront it or live in a state of denial.

For a Darwinian materialist, of course, there’s not an issue: ‘This is how the universe works and that’s all there is to say.’

So, why don’t I take that option?

It would end the apparently irresolvable paradox and remove the dissonance at one stroke. This is where I’m going to have to short-hand things because proving the existence of God is not the purpose of this post and in any case cannot be done in a way that would convince everyone for reasons that this blog has already explored countless times (see for instance the comments on Reitan’s book in the post on moral imagination).

I can’t revert to the atheism I used to find so plausible because, even if the existence of a purely insentient universe were not a compelling consideration, the fact that there is both life and consciousness is for me completely compelling. Life without consciousness is so utterly improbable that this alone would be enough to convince me, though, in that case, there would be no me to convince. Consciousness clinches it. The conditions to bring that into being are so improbable that I simply cannot persuade myself that they were not created by an intelligence for some purpose.

Once I’m impaled upon the thorns of that conviction, and it does bring all sorts of uncomfortable consequences in its train, I am also on the rack of the dilemma I described. How come there’s suffering?

Evil, in the sense of pain caused by people to other living sentient beings, can be put down to free will, which is a necessary precondition of moral and spiritual development, another complex issue that must get short shrift here as it’s not the main focus for now. Pain that is inherent to the design of the universe, when, as it does, it contains life forms that can feel it, is another issue altogether and the one I turn to now.

It clearly needs a lot more unpacking before I can fairly expect others to accept that disasters, such as the one Japan has so recently confronted, are compatible with the concept of a compassionate creator God. I find it pretty tough to do so myself and I’ve had years of practice now.

Some mileage can be made out of reminding myself that physical pain is a protector. Congenital analgesia ‘is a rare condition in which there is an absence of pain sensation from birth without the loss of other sensations or demonstrable nerve pathology. This can result in the individual unintentionally harming him or herself.’ When our nervous system is intact and our state of mind undisturbed, it is because we feel pain that we do not harm ourselves. This may extend to some degree into the realm of emotional pain. Experience teaches us what social situations hurt us and we learn to avoid them.

Even so, this benign function of pain does not resolve the crucial question for us, because an omnipotent God could, we presume, have made a world where there was no danger of harm and therefore no need for pain as a warning to us about it.

Charles Tart

Charles Tart

Pain as moral developer goes only so far towards resolving this. Clearly, where there is no fear or pain there’d be no need for heroes, and, where no one suffers, none of us would need to sacrifice our comfort to help them. Also pain has been described by Charles Tart as a ‘trance breaker’ that wakes us up to the deeper realities hiding behind matter. Again though, surely, an all-knowing deity could have worked round that one and made a world where moral growth could happen with no uncomfortable choices.

Even if it were possible to accept, for the reasons give, all those kinds of pain as compatible with a merciful creator, what are we to make of all the unavoidable and seemingly pointless ways painful injury and agonising death afflict us? The warning function of pain is of no use to the victim of an avalanche. There is no moral growth entailed for you when you drown in a tsunami. And trances could surely be broken by something less traumatic?

There is no way round the conclusion that the universe is set up the way it is because that’s the way God wants it, even if it makes no sense to us and tests our faith to breaking point. So, where can we go from here? Is there a way of reconciling the seemingly arbitrary pain of the world around us with a merciful creator?

Bahá’u’lláh forces our faith to confront all these issues when He writes in the Hidden Words:

51. O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.

When the outward is all we can apparently experience, this statement challenges us to change our frame of reference quite radically. So, we are at the beginning of a journey of understanding which will take us through some difficult terrain. We’re in the territory John Donne describes in Satire III:

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 . . .

As traversing it will take some time, it needs the leisure of another post I fear.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »