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. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)

Before this account of the cruise is over there are just two more tales to tell.

The first concerns our stop in Barcelona. Unlike our first trip there some years back, when we stayed several days in the city, enjoying streets fringed with Gaudi and galleries teeming with Picassos, which compensated for three disturbing encounters with pocket pickers, on this occasion we only really had time to stick to La Rambla.

The Columbus monument (for the source of the image, see link)

The boulevard was only a short walk from the ship. The first landmark we encountered was Columbus’s statue, erected, as the tourist website puts it ‘in 1888 to honour Christopher Columbus when he disembarked from Barcelona to find the New World.’ It was only a few yards later that we saw the motionless figure of a gold painted man in a golden costume mimicking those of the 15thCentury. We couldn’t take a photo of him as he was charging everyone who did. For reasons I’m about to explain I didn’t feel comfortable giving money away for this purpose.

The sheer height of the statue speaks for the elevated regard in which Spaniards still hold this founder of their American imperialist ambitions.

So why is this relevant here?

Because it relates to nature again, but not nature as Clare experienced it, more as those he railed against saw it. Patel and Moore spell this out in A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. They write (pages 50-51):

[Columbus] launched a colonisation of nature as pecuniary as it was peculiar. European empires, beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese, obsessively collected and ordered natural objects – including ‘savage’ human bodies – always with an eye on enhanced wealth and power. Columbus’s cataloguing of nature to evaluate (put a price on) it was an early sign that he understood what nature had become under early modern capitalism.

I love Spain for many reasons, not least for its culture, language and the warmth of its people. However, if I can’t condone aspects of the history of imperialism of my home country, I’m obviously not going to feel comfortable with the exploitative imperialism of anywhere else. So, yet again the cruise dropped an uncomfortable reminder in my lap. The heyday of national imperialism is long over, but a different kind of imperialism continues with societies that boast industrialised and technologically savvy societies feeling justified in regarding themselves as superior representatives of a global elite.

A more measured position was expressed by the Bahá’í Office of Social and Economic Development in a Statement on Social Action (page 5 – my emphases):

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialised. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.

There is therefore a lingering and destructive form of imperialism still at work in the world and I was travelling on one of its products.

Before I say what the cruise’s second experience was that I want to share here, I’m going to move onto an artist who worked in Spain across the divide between Europe before the French Revolution and Europe afterwards, a time of considerable political and personal tension.

Goya

Back home I began my efforts to store the pollen of wisdom my bees of reflection had collected during the cruise. This sequence as a whole is part of that attempt.

Time now to examine a key figure in art that the prints of Dalí in the cruise ship’s gallery pointed me towards. This was an after-gain of the cruise experience but a result of the cruise none the less.

Once I was home I had time to check the background to Goya’s Caprichos, works that he tried to sell in the 1790s.

It took a while before one discerning critic realised that at least two modes of thought were blending in Goya’s caprichos. Werner Hofman in his book on Goya (page 79) points out that Baudelaire recognised the presence of ‘two complementary features’ in Goya’s art: ‘the sharp eye for événements fugitifs, “fleeting events” and what he called the débauches du rêve, “dream debaucheries.”’

Image taken from Werner Hofman’s ‘Goya’

Before we dig deeper I want to flag up a general point that applies to all this work, I suspect, and relates to Capricho 43 – The Sleep/Dream of Reason. Hofman explains (page 130):

Bearing in mind that the Spanish word sueño can mean both ‘dream’ and ‘sleep’, this means ‘the dream/sleep of reason produces monsters,’ but generally this double meaning has been ignored by scholars.

He feels that dreams are an important source of Goya’s inspiration, as they were with Dalí, but they have to be considered in the light of the tradition that distinguishes between deceptive and true dreams (page 131).  ‘What then,’ Hofman asks, ‘were Goya’s dreams – the benevolent, helpful dreams, or the oppressive variety?’ Is there a realm in-between?

Telling the difference can be difficult (page 132):

Light and dark enter into a symbiotic relationship, which is difficult and fundamental to Goya’s art: between concealing and revealing, between masking and unmasking.

Bearing all that in mind let’s plunge in.

Baudelaire’s was the first ‘rave review’ of the Caprichos. According to Hofman he claimed that (page 104):

. . . they represent a seamless interweaving of transient reality… and wild dreams which emanate from the imagination. Baudelaire was particularly impressed by Goya’s artistic control, which enabled him to bind heterogeneous elements together and to accommodate the absurd and the monstrous within the everyday spectrum of human life.

Goya argued that (pages 95-96)’ it is as proper for painting to criticize human error and vice as for poetry and prose to do so,’ though he felt this should be directed at a general level rather than at specific people as targets. He ended his attempt to sell these images and went into hiding to escape La Santa– the Inquisition. Out of 300 sets only 27 were sold.

Baudelaire (page 104) labelled Goya ‘artistic caricaturist.’ What he missed though, ‘what Baudelaire would not see was that Goya worked with both levels of caricature. He lashed out at contemporary Spanish uses and abuses, made fun of vices, ignorance and self-seeking… but at the same time he transcends the specific context of the society scenes and turns them into paradigms and generalisations.’

He concludes (Page 111) that ‘It might all be described as a panoramic view, which includes social disablement and oppression…’ What is absolutely true is that (page 114) ‘Goya strikes at the heart of those who abused their political power.’

He gives an example (page 115) to illustrate his sense that nightmares are contextualised to make a critical point about society:

He brings [imagined monsters] back into the prison of human vice: And Still They Don’t Go!(Capricho 59). An emaciated, naked man is trying to hold up a gigantic slab. Those who remember the horrors of the extermination camps, or who are still living today under the iron fist of oppressive regimes, will recognize the despair and the helplessness conveyed by this scene.

Image taken from Werner Hofman’s ‘Goya’

This element is consistently present in the caprichos and the black paintings of Goya, but absent in Dalií in erms of his own original art. Goya’s art in this respect at this point, and also in the black paintings, continues to fuse dream and reality in this way. Fantasy has a positive purpose. Concerning Capricho 43 – The Sleep/Dream of Reason, Hofman quotes Goya (page 123):

‘Fantasy, having been abandoned by reason, brings forth impossible monsters.
Combined with reason, it is the mother of the arts and the origin of wonders.’

His inventions concern (page 128) ‘putting together things that do not belong together, the linking of figures, the combination of people and animals… as well as the charm of fragmentary, exaggerated caricatures, and the terrors of things themselves…’

This echoes a poet we are moving on to in a moment, of whom Johnson said he yoked disparate ideas by violence together. Goya did something similar by bringing such incongruous elements together in his caprichos.

From a technical point of view (page 129):

He wanted to transplant his inventions from fiction into reality, to endow them with convincingly realistic features that would distinguish them from the impossible forms and reveries . . .  regarded as aberrations.

Unlike Dalí, he does not seem afraid to risk the condemnation of his society nor does his primary concern appear to be profit. This was definitely the case with his black paintings which enriched the walls of his home and appear never to be have been intended for purchase.

One of the most famous yet enigmatic of the black paintings (Image taken from Werner Hofman’s ‘Goya”

Hofman’s view is that (page 133):

Guided by reason, Goya can enter the abyss of irrationality and bring forth monsters in the form of people, animals and hybrids. In other words, he can control and subjugate them with his creative power.

In a sense (page 133) ‘He exorcises himself as the inventor and the summoner of monsters and demons, by transforming his dark obsessions into the images.’

Ultimately, (page 135) ‘Freed from the web of Christian and humanist values, Goya – [an] impenitent [in contemporary terms] – places his faith in the power of creative self-healing.’ Perhaps in Goya’s mind his paintings were not just ‘ilustración meaning “illustration”’ but ‘ilustración . . . meaning ‘enlightenment.”’

He was passionately convinced that reason and feeling should not be divorced, and Hofman quotes Forster to unpack the reasons why (page 146):

One of the first Jacobins, Georg Forster [in a letter to his wife of 16 April 1793] describes where reason leads when feelings have gone. There is a new despotism: ‘The dominance, or rather the tyrannyof reason, perhaps the most iron-fisted of all, is still in store for the world.’

I begin to feel we are closing in on a familiar quandary but in somewhat different terrain. Just as Clare, in his intense observation and idealisation of nature, almost made it a faith, so does Goya seem to do a similar thing in placing his trust in feeling to curb reason in a reciprocally constructive relationship.

Just as nature is not God, so neither reason nor feeling nor their combination, as Goya hoped, are in themselves enough to avoid the traps of despotism and deception in the realms of political and domestic power. Goya’s quandary stems from discounting, as Clare also does I feel, a spiritual or transcendent dimension. They try to make either our world, in Clare’s case nature, or our mind, in themselves transcendent, an enterprise that is doomed to failure.

A useful compass reading to take at this point might be the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Son of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith (Some Answered Questions Chapter 83 – new revised edition):

. . . what the people possess and believe to be true is liable to error. For if in proving or disproving a thing a proof drawn from the evidence of the senses is advanced, this criterion is clearly imperfect; if a rational proof is adduced, the same holds true; and likewise if a traditional proof is given. Thus it is clear that man does not possess any criterion of knowledge that can be relied upon.

This is what led me to explore, in an earlier sequence of posts, what I called the third ‘I’ – something beyond either reasons or emotion or gut feeling. It would be too much of a diversion to recap that here. For those interested click on these seven links.

Towards the end of the cruise, I had finished Bate’s book on John Clare. I stared at my modest pile of books on the bedside table before going on deck one morning, wondering which one to take with me. The choice fell between The Islamic Enlightenment and the Norton edition of John Donne. My choice was swayed not so much by which would be the more interesting book but which would be lighter to carry, a surprising factor as I wouldn’t have to carry the book far on board ship and I had no plans to take it on land.

Did Donne help me deal with the issue of the need for transcendence?

John Donne

Nature is not enough – despite the almost compelling case mobilised by Bate. Neither is art. Which is perhaps why I am glad that, towards the end of the cruise I gravitated towards re-reading John Donne and looking at some of the critical comments in the Norton Edition I had taken with me. All the page references below relate to this book unless otherwise stated.

When we were in Barcelona, sharply aware of Spain’s imperial history, we were probably closest to the Spain that got closest to conquering England when Donne was 12 years old in 1588. This conflict between two powerful nations piled further fuel on the fire of religious prejudice already blazing in Elizabethan England.

I’ve already mentioned Samuel Johnson’s comment on the metaphysical poets, as he termed them, including John Donne (page 194):

The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

A different pattern of daring from Goya’s but one that seems to make them kindred spirits in some respects.

John Carey, writing about what he calls Donne’s ‘Apostasy’, suggests that Donne’s faith was not easily won, as he struggled to choose between his family’s Roman Catholic and his country’s Protestant/Anglican religion (page 220):

The poetic evidence of this crisis is Satire III – the great, crucial poem of Donne’s early manhood. . . . a self-lacerating record of that moment which comes in the lives of almost all thinking people when the beliefs of youth, unquestioningly assimilated and bound up with our closest personal attachments, come into conflict with the scepticism of the mature intellect.

The tolerance for all faiths embedded in the most famous passage of that poem may have had its roots in his ultimately divided loyalties (page 223):

Though Donne eventually came to accept Anglicanism, he could never believe that he had found in the Church of England the one true church outside which salvation is impossible. To have thought that would have meant consigning his family to damnation. Instead he persuaded himself that the saved would come from all churches.

Marotti’s line of argument points in the same direction (page 238):

In the third satire Donne refused to defend or reject either Catholicism or the Established Church.

He goes on to strongly suggest that Donne’s decision was unlikely to be self-serving (page 238-9):

He would not abandon the religion of his youth until he had satisfied himself intellectually and morally that it was the right thing to do.

The private circulation of the document, Marotti points out, was Donne’s safeguard against dire consequences.

The lines in question from the satire are:

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.

His sense that all religions may be in essence one is confirmed in the same poem:

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

Basically, Donne implicitly believed in a transcendent realm, but the context in which he held that belief was a polarised one.

Plantinga

It may seem unlikely that faiths that were so fiercely divided could be compatible with a dispassionate quest for the Truth. However, the picture may be somewhat more complex than that, as Plantinga argued when he made the case in his book, Where the conflict really lies, that religion and science are compatible

He claims to show, and I am inclined to agree, that the motivation of early science came from a felt need to explore nature to find God’s order there. Nature was a teacher, in this case, not something to be exploited in the manner of Columbus and others. It complements, in its rationality, Clare’s emotional exploration of nature, while Hopkins’s intense search for signs of God in nature, of which he felt a part, is an additional perspective. Martin describes the poet’s recurrent theme, in his biography of Hopkins, as (page 204) ‘the unity of man and nature as parts of Divine creation.’

Plantinga summarises his main points (page 265):

Recall my overall thesis: there is superficial conflict but deep concord between theistic religion and science, but superficial concord and deep conflict between naturalism and science.

Most people who have bought into the prevailing myth will have expected the exact opposite and he knows that.

He opens with an obvious truth which most of us may well have overlooked and whose implications he is keen to unpack (page 266):

Modern Western empirical science originated and flourished in the bosom of Christian theism and originated nowhere else. . . . it was Christian Europe that fostered, promoted, and nourished modern science. . . . This is no accident: there is deep concord between science and theistic belief.

I am setting aside something he does not discuss: the debt European science owed to other traditions such as Islam.

He defines what he means by science in this context (pages 267-268):

the fundamental class to which science belongs is that of efforts to discover truths—at any rate it is science so thought of that I mean to deal with here.

He accepts that what distinguishes the scientific approach or method is empiricism, the need to test belief against experience in a systematic way (page 268):

While it is difficult to give a precise account of this empirical component, it is absolutely crucial to science, and is what distinguishes science from philosophy.

He is looking at the notion, commonly held by Christians everywhere, that we are made in God’s image, and this will have an unexpected link to empiricism (ibid.):

God is a knower, and indeed the supreme knower. . . . We human beings, therefore, in being created in his image, can also know much about our world, ourselves, and God himself.

Alvin Plantinga

This capacity to learn about our world is a key aspect of our being and relates to this issue in his view (ibid.): ‘this ability to know something about our world, ourselves and God is a crucially important part of the divine image.’ And this is where he springs on us an unexpected point in favour of his case (pages 268-269):

God created both us and our world in such a way that there is a certain fit or match between the world and our cognitive faculties. . . . . For science to be successful . . . there must be a match between our cognitive faculties and the world.

That match is not at all what we should necessarily expect. The world could just as easily, probably far more easily be an incomprehensible and apparently random puzzle to us, but it is not. This predictability makes successful empiricism possible.

His key point is that an expectation of such predictability is built into theistic religion (ibid.):

It’s an essential part of theistic religion—at any rate Christian theistic religion—to think of God as providentially governing the world in such a way as to provide that kind of stability and regularity. . . . . The world was created in such a way that it displays order and regularity; it isn’t unpredictable, chancy or random. And of course this conviction is what enables and undergirds science.

If we see one role of religion as to help us find the Truth, as far as we are able, we have to accept that we will not arrive at the ‘whole truth,’ and probably not achieve ‘nothing but the truth.’ We will only see part of the truth as ‘through a glass darkly.’ The Bahá’í view is that true religion and real science complement each other, and are not contradictory.

If the idea of truth as standing on a hill that can be approached from various sides is true for religion, does it also apply to philosophy, art and science? Can each within themselves only see the truth from one angle? Even if we pool them in our consciousness, presumably we are yet again limited by the same constraints, even if the angle becomes somewhat wider.

Habermas

I think it may even go further than this.

Michael Pusey I have quoted in a previous post. He explains (page 51) that at the threshold of modernity Jurgen Habermas sees three modes of relating to the world becoming increasingly differentiated: there is first the ‘instrumental’ approach, then the ‘ethical’ perspective and thirdly the ‘aesthetic’ take on reality. These need to be in balance and integrated. We have increasingly privileged the instrumental (ends/means or rational/purposive) at the expense of the other two (moral and expressive). This mode has ‘colonised’ what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’ Discourse from the other two positions plays second fiddle to the ‘instrumental’ (sorry! I couldn’t resist the pun!) This impoverishes the decision-making processes of our public lives. Values and subjectivity are seen as second rate, on no objective basis whatsoever.

It looks as though we need to add beauty (the aesthetic), practical usefulness (the instrumental) and morality (the ethical) into the mix. How fairly can we expect art of various kinds to blend and integrate all four of these – beauty, usefulness, morality and truth – into a representation of reality? Is this how we should distinguish great from lesser art?

This is a complex problem and I’m by no means the first to wrestle with it. Interestingly, almost as soon as I began to ponder on it, I re-read, in Robert Martin’s life of Hopkin’s (page 131), about the way the issue surfaced in Hopkins’s relationship with Walter Pater. Hopkins was being tutored by Pater and knew of his essay ‘advocating Beauty as the standard by which to judge morality. Hopkins himself certainly recognised the dangers of such a position, as well as its attractions.’

I’m entering difficult waters but here goes.

I don’t share the perspective that John Keats places in the mouth of the Grecian Urn:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

What looks beautiful is not always true, and the truth is quite often not even slightly beautiful. Once you begin to factor in the possible need for representations of truth to also capture the good and beautiful we may be asking the impossible.

I think Goya in art and, for example, Wilfred Owen in poetry, offer some kind of potential solution. Neither of them shies away from depicting the worst aspects of humanity, but their underlying positive values are still detectable in their way of presenting the unacceptable. It is partly expressed in what I experience as the outrage of the utterance. They neither condone nor capitulate anymore than they mitigate. Something gives them the strength to contain and convey the unendurable.

My argument would be that they manage to combine a special kind of haunting beauty with the horror. I think the revulsion I feel is in them and in their art as well, so there is a moral compass orienting their perspective, but it does not preach.

Is it useful? I think it is, but not in the simplistic sense of prescribing a clear line of action. It is useful socially and culturally because it does what perhaps nothing else can do as well: in its immediacy and power it can change our consciousness, can help us feel what a soldier feels or a victim of tyranny. It can thereby enable us to resist whatever social forces operate simplistically in those contexts. It can enhance our sense of connection with other creatures and even with the earth itself, in the case of Clare.

It can make the world a better place.

In spite of the doubts expressed in this sequence, I accept that science, technology and the Enlightenment have brought huge material benefits, but as I tried to express in a poem, we’re out of balance. We also always need to recognise that every such advance from fire to atomic power is a double-edged sword and cuts both ways, and we must always therefore be vigilant about the way we use them.

Perhaps I’d better leave it there, except to say that the unintended consequence of my failed attempt to escape from the pressures of our complex world has been to help me deepen my understanding of the purpose and potential methods of the arts, something that perhaps the temporary freedom from mundane tasks gave me the space, time and energy to do. Being on a big ship worth millions should, if anything, have sailed me further away from reality into fantasy. I was fortunate that in this case, more by good luck than good management, it did the opposite.

This experience has also reinforced something I have always felt. It is impossible to run away from all your problems because you carry most of them in your head.

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For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

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I recently have a short talk at the Birmingham Interfaith. It seemed worth sharing here as it relates to the current sequence.

Ever since I studied English Literature, and long before I eventually specialised in psychology or discovered the Bahá’í Faith, the words of a poet-priest from the Elizabethan period have stuck in my mind.

John Donne 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.

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.

It is clear, if this is as true as I think it is, that we would all move faster upwards if we were able to compare notes humbly and carefully.

I think an aspect of the Bahá’í path is particularly useful for this purpose.

It stems partly from our core beliefs that all the great world religions are in essence one at the spiritual level, coming as they do from the same divine source, and that all of humanity is one at this spiritual level, not just at the level of our increasingly global material connections.

Bahá’u’lláh expresses this second form of unity in powerful terms. We are all created from ‘from the same dust’, and he explains why it is important that we recognise this: ‘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.’

It’s perhaps important to clarify that the unity He describes is inclusive of diversity: it does not mean uniformity. So, there will be cultural differences affecting our perspectives, creating a need to reconcile them if problems are to be solved.

This radical concept of oneness and interconnectedness is at the root of two Bahá’í practices that relate to our ability to work together in a way that transcends our differences. The skills appealed to me deeply as a way of enriching my therapeutic work with people whose perspectives on life were causing them painful problems.

One practice is shared by just about every religious tradition to some extent, and perhaps most extensively by Buddhism, which has the longest and richest tradition in this area.

This is termed reflection, meditation or contemplation in the Bahá’í Writings. There is one particular fruit of the meditative process that is most relevant here.

This spiritual skill or discipline helps create the necessary detachment and humility for true consultation to take place, because we are able to step back and withdraw our identification from our thoughts and ideas sufficiently to listen sympathetically and open-mindedly to what others are saying.

My experience as a Bahá’í strongly suggests that the detachment necessary for effective consultation between people cannot be achieved easily or possibly at all without this complementary process within each of us. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Son of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith,  describes it at one point as the ‘faculty of meditation’ which ‘frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1972][1] He also uses the terms reflection and contemplation to describe this state of mind. This process is so powerful that a tradition of Islam, quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states, ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ [Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán 1982]

The simplest way of explaining my understanding of what this involves is to use the image of consciousness, or in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms ‘the meditative faculty,’ as a mirror. At one level the mind simply captures as best it can what it experiences just as a mirror captures what’s in front of it.

A deeper implication is that, just as the mirror is not what it reflects but the capacity to reflect, our consciousness is not the same as its contents. To recognize this and develop the capacity to withdraw our identification with the contents of our consciousness, whether these be thoughts, feelings, sensations, or plans, enables us to consult with others effectively and reflect upon, as in ‘think about,’ our experiences, ideas and self-concepts. Once we can do this it becomes easier to change them if they are damaging us or other people.

Acquiring this skill is not easy.

An existential philosopher called Koestenbaum expresses it very clearly in his book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy.

He states that (page 69):

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? True reflection at the very deepest level, it seems to me, has to ultimately depend therefore upon the degree of our reliance upon God, but can also be achieved to some degree by disciplined practice alone.

Koestenbaum is optimistic about our ability to acquire this skill (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection what he means is definitely something closely related to meditation. Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

Reading Koestenbaum has helped to deepen my understanding of this concept.

This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life. In developing that capacity we will have to strive for perfection and be content with progress, as the saying goes.

As a process within the individual, it is complemented by and interacts with the process of consultation, as we will now explore.

Once we can reflect, we can then consult. Interestingly I see this as a two-way street. Just as reflecting more skilfully makes for better consultation, so does striving to consult properly enhance our ability to reflect.

And consultation makes the creative comparison of paths and perspectives possible, as we will see. As far as I am aware no tradition other than the Bahá’í Writings makes this link between these two skills so clearly nor emphasises so strongly the need for consultation as a dissolver of differences and enhancer of understanding both at a practical and a theoretical level.

Why is all this so important?

A statement on prosperity from the Bahá’í International Community, an NGO at the UN, states a key weakness of our culture’s basic approach:

Debate, propaganda, the adversarial method, the entire apparatus of partisanship that have long been such familiar features of collective action are all fundamentally harmful to its purpose: that is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.

Karlberg, in his book Beyond a Culture of Contest, makes the compelling point that for the most part our culture’s processes are adversarial: our economic system is based on competition, our political system is split by contesting parties and our court rooms decide who has won in the battle between defence and prosecution, rather than on the basis of an careful and dispassionate exploration of the truth. The French courtroom is, apparently, one of the few exceptions.

The Bahá’í International Community explain how we need to transcend our ‘respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals.’ They speak of ‘an atmosphere, characterized by both candour and courtesy’ where ‘ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur during the discussion but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued.’

Karlberg describes this alternative model in far more detail in his book than is possible to include here. His approach is based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is that (page 131: my emphasis):

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

It isn’t too difficult to see how all this might be applied to our interfaith work.

Paul Lample, a member of the Bahá’í supreme body, the Universal House of Justice, explains further (Revelation and Social Reality – page 215):

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context. Consultation is therefore, the practical, dialogical means of continually adjusting relationships that govern power, and, thus, to strive for justice and unity.

So, exactly what is this consultation?

Shoghi Effendi, a central figure in the explication of the Bahá’í faith after the deaths of its Founder, Bahá’u’lláh, and His son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as saying that ‘the purpose of consultation is to show that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1922[2]]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out the qualities required of us if we are to consult effectively. These include ‘purity of motive,’ ‘detachment from all else save God,’ (detachment – that key word again that helps us be united), ‘humility,’ and ‘patience.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1978[3]]

It should be clear by now that bringing those qualities to any process of collective decision-making will be made far easier if participants have already begun to master the art of reflection. In fact the link is so strong that Paul Lample, in his book Revelation & Social Reality,expresses it as follows (page 212): ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

In the light of all this, to summarise the core aspects, we could say that consultation as Bahá’ís understand it, is a spiritually based process of non-adversarial decision-making which assumes that:

  • no one person can formulate anywhere near an adequate representation of the truth. In a study group on consultation I facilitated at a Bahá’í summer school in Scotland last year, one of the participants nailed an extremely important point to the wall of our understanding. He said, ‘Being honest is not the same as being truthful. None of us can be sure what the truth is. That’s why we need to consult.’ An important implication of this is that even when we are convinced we are telling the ‘truth,’ we need to have the detachment to accept we might still have got it wrong, objectively speaking. So,
  • groups of people, if they pool their perspectives in a collaborative fashion, formulate increasingly accurate but still never fool-proof approximations to the truth, and
  • today’s formulation, no matter how useful, may be out-of-date by tomorrow.

Only its proper use can be guaranteed to transcend differences and discover the most effective and constructive lines of action.

The unity we all both desire and need is an ideal that may not be possible without true consultation, which is a spiritual discipline not easily or cheaply achieved.

Hopefully we can all agree that these concepts constitute fruitful food for thought, or do I really mean reflection?

Footnotes:

[1]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:Paris Talks(Bahá’í Publishing Trust UK – pages 173-176).

[2]. `Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in a letter dated 5 March 1922 written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, published in “Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932”, pages 21-22.

[3]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá –number 43.

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A Mumbai pavement

The drive up the section of the Western Ghats from Mumbai towards Panchgani was much less scary than the last time we came. Instead of the single track, with two way traffic winding alongside vertiginous drops into the valleys below, we wound our way serenely up and down three-lane dual carriageways higher and higher into the mountains, past the same river and in sight of the same lakes as before.

Even so it was a longer drive than expected, more than five hours, because of the dense volume of traffic leaving Mumbai.

The closer we got the more peaceful it became. Unlike Mumbai, Panchgani had not changed all that much – slightly busier perhaps, but still much quieter, much slower, than Mumbai.

I’m publishing a couple of poems relating to this place, one that I love the most in India. One is the reposting last Monday of the story of the burial of my wife’s grandma and the next one tries to capture the emotional impact of this most recent visit.

This post has a different purpose.

Bougainvillea in Panchagani

The value of this visit did not just reside in revisiting old haunts, like grandma’s grave, Table Land or my wife’s old school, important as those experiences were.

This post is going to try and record something much harder to define. It is something that belongs among those strange coincidences and sudden leaps of faith that led to my becoming a psychologist and choosing the Bahá’í path. It didn’t involve anything so dramatically life changing but it had something of the same strange unsettling power.

Panchgani is much colder than Mumbai, though I did not really notice this until after sunset. We hadn’t thought to bring any warmer clothes than those we had been wearing at sea level.

As the sun was setting and we sat on the patio of the Prospect Hotel where we were staying, the conversation became an ever more intense exploration of spiritual issues with like-minded souls (I’ll not share their names for fear of embarrassing them). Two of them were as deeply interested in spiritual psychology as I am. Rarely have I ever had the chance to meet with psychologists with a spiritual bent, probably because such people are as almost as rare as the Phoenix, for reasons I have explored elsewhere on this blog. The sense of rising energy became stronger every moment as the exploration continued and I did not notice at first how much I was shivering.

At last I apologised for breaking the flow of the conversation saying that I had to go to my room to get my dressing gown, the only warm garment I had with me. Immediately, I was offered a warm sweater, which I gratefully accepted, and sat down again to immerse myself once more in the refreshing flow of conversation.

As we spoke many books were mentioned. I threw into the mix at various points the recent books I’d read about Shoghi Effendi through the eyes of the pilgrims who visited Haifa in his lifetime, and at least one book from long ago – Schweder’s Thinking Through Cultures – which I blogged about a long time back.

One of my companions mentioned a book I’d never heard of: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. I wrote the title and the author down, but didn’t think much more of it at the time. I noticed that the sweater had not done much to diminish my underlying sense of shaking which clearly wasn’t to do with feeling cold anymore. It didn’t feel like shivering anymore: perhaps it had never been only that.

I had to entertain the possibility that some other seismic change was taking place at an altogether different level, something perhaps to do with the territory we were treading together or the connection that was active between us all or maybe both.

Anyway, once the intensity of the conversation died down, the rest of the visit, though memorable for the beauty of the place, the hospitality of our hosts and tranquility of the whole environment, lacked anything quite so dramatic.

We were very sad to leave the following day after so short a stay.

It was only later that a synchronicity occurred that suggested that the conversation in Panchgani might have had more to it than I thought.

I was lamenting to my wife that I should have brought more books. I had finished the two massive tomes I’d brought with me. I thought they’d last the whole trip and possibly beyond. Three weeks, with not much other work to do, can gobble up more pages than I realized.

A few hours later there was a knock on the door.

‘It’s a parcel for you,’ my sister shouted.

‘For me?’

‘Yes, for you.’

I went to the door and signed for the package the postman handed over.

I looked at the label. It was from the person who had recommended the book by Shafak. I could tell immediately the parcel contained a book.

You will have already guessed which book it contained. You’ve got it: The Forty Rules of Love.

As usual I checked out the reviews. One of them referred to it as a children’s book, not my usual diet. Other reviews and a quick glance inside the book itself quickly dispelled that delusion. I don’t know (m)any children who would read their way through this book.

Even more convincing was my web search of the topic and the discovery of the entire list of 40 rules in condensed form. Some of them were amazingly resonant. I’ll deal with the issue of whether they are expressed in this way by either Shams or Rumi later.

Take Rule 6 for example: ‘Loneliness and solitude are two different things. When you are lonely, it is easy to delude yourself into believing that you are on the right path. Solitude is better for us, as it means being alone without feeling lonely. But eventually it is the best to find a person who will be your mirror. Remember only in another person’s heart can you truly see yourself and the presence of God within you.’

One sentence in particular struck a chord with me: ‘Solitude is better for us, as it means being alone without feeling lonely.’

Ever since childhood, with its experiences of stays in hospital for surgery before the days when parents could remain close, I have felt that in the end I cannot be absolutely sure that, in times of need, I will have someone there to support me. I learned the importance of self-reliance early and have practiced it often. This, combined with my introversion, means that loneliness is not a feeling I’m familiar with. I don’t generally feel lonely when alone. I invent, or perhaps naturally possess, purposes to pursue by myself. I love the company of like-minded hearts as the Panchgani episode illustrates, but I can use books, writing, art and nature as satisfactory substitutes for quite long periods of time if necessary. So, I relate to that point, though admittedly in my fashion. I’m not so clear about the mirror idea.

I also found I related pretty strongly to Rule 9 as well: ‘East, west, south, or north makes little difference. No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.’

Not only have my tendencies in this direction been reinforced by the spiritual path I travel, in that Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, both quotes ‘Alí, Muhammad’s successor in the Seven Valleys (34):

. . . . reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

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

and in the Hidden Words (from the Arabic 13) directly urges us to recognise that if we ‘turn our sight unto’ ourselves we may find God standing within us, ‘mighty powerful and self-subsisting.’ This same idea is echoed in the Quaker phrase used by George Fox who spoke of ‘that of God in every man.’

Poetry also has reinforced these tendencies within me. I’ll quote just two examples, the first from an Anglican priest.

The best journey to make
is inward. It is the interior
that calls. Eliot heard it.
Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind, and let himself
down for the poetry stranded
on the bare ledges.

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

And the second from a Jesuit priest looking at the dark side of that immensity, something which puts many of us off such explorations:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins: No worst, there is none)

I don’t think it’s something only priests tend to do, by the way, but maybe not all poets – only poets who are also priests perhaps. I must check out George Herbert and John Donne: I don’t remember anything of quite that kind in their work, though I’m fairly  sure Thomas Traherne came pretty close. I may just need to revisit every other poet on my shelves in case a find a black swan poet of the interior who isn’t a priest: my first ports of call will probably be Henry Vaughan, a 17th Century medic and mystical poet, David Gascoyne, whose later poetry became distinctly mystical, followed by Wordsworth and Eliot as Thomas points firmly in their direction. One of my favourite Wordsworth poems, – Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood – according to some, owes a debt to Vaughan, something else to tease out if possible.

That’s enough for now. Next time I’ll close in on the question of the Rules’ origin.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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