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Posts Tagged ‘Kitáb-i-Íqán’

O SON OF BEAUTY! By My spirit and by My favor! By My mercy and by My beauty! All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.

Bahá’u’lláh Arabic Hidden Words No. 67

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.

(John Donne Satyre III lines 79-82)

Themes that Resonate

The previous two posts, after a brief look at his life, considered issues such as politics, linguistic obscurity, doubt and egotism in relation to his poetry. Now I’ll begin to look at the themes that resonate most for me. There will some slight overlap with the themes previously discussed. The main problem though will be knowing where to start and when to stop. There is so much I could say.

Just to say, before I plunge right in, there are two main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, and Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotations is clear.

Spirituality

Perhaps the best place to start is with the explicitly spiritual aspect of Machado’s poetry, and it’s not just me, with my bias in that direction, finding a spiritual element. It’s there in Machado’s own words, as translated by Trueblood (Page 5): ‘I thought that the poetic element was not the word in its phonic value, nor colour, nor line, nor a complex of sensations, but a deep pulsing of spirit: what the soul supplies, if it does supply anything; or what it says, if it says anything, when aroused to response by contact with the world.’ Xon de Ros quotes the original Spanish to support her sense of what Machado describes as his genuine voice – voz verdadera (page 186):

However, Paterson’s post-modern notion of a decentred identity is alien to Machado’s metaphysics where the individual consciousness (however problematic) lies behind both the Bergsonian ‘moi fondamental’ and the ‘tú esencial’ of his later poetry. Machado defines his ‘voz verdadera’ in rather abstract terms as ‘una honda palpitación del espíritu; lo que pone el alma, si es que algo pone, o lo que dice, si es que algo dice, con voz propria, en respuesta animada al contacto del mundo.’

I do not feel his doubts about the soul disqualify the use of the word ‘spirit,’ though exactly what he does mean by the term is hard to determine.

Trueblood raises the interesting possibility that his later style has traces of a mysticism which relate at least partly to the impossibility of expressing what he has experienced (Page 57):

The sureness of Machado’s mature touch is revealed in this mere hint of a state of consciousness which, like that of the mystic at the end of his journey, is inherently inexpressible – and, to the modern mind, unknowable.

I’ll be looking more closely at the issue of the inexpressible later. What will also come into the mix is Machado’s use of paradox to convey the ambivalent state of his reaction to experience (Xon de Ros – page 4): ‘paradox invites resolution, urging the mind to expand and move beyond both scepticism and belief.

Dreams & Spirit

Right now I want to look briefly at a poem that illustrates the interconnection in Machado’s writings between spirit, dreams and loss, all issues of concern to me, as readers of this blog will know.

Poem 10 in Trueblood’s selection pulls these three themes together. It opens with ‘Oh tell me, friendly night, so long beloved,/bringer of my puppet world of dreams,/bare barren stage that holds/only my phantom inside . . .’ before shifting later to a sense of loss in the night’s response, ‘I do not know your secret,/although I have seen that forlorn phantom/you speak of, roaming through your dream.’ Night also admits ignorance because ‘in the deep recesses of the soul,/whether weeping is voice or echo/I do not know.’ This intermixing of such themes runs through the whole of Machado’s poetry. The uncertainty here is also characteristic of Machado’s take on reality as I will explore later, explaining why this also appeals strongly to me.

The notes (page 281) shed light on the effect of writing such poems on Machado’s mind by quoting another poem of his: ‘If I speak, my own voice sounds like an echo and my song is so hollow that my pain is no longer frightening.’ I’ll also come back later to another note to this poem – this time one dealing with the issue of our having ‘many personalities.’

Trueblood quotes Machado to explain why dreams were so important to him (page 19): ‘one who does not remember his dreams does not even know himself. . . . I have always been a man very attentive to his own dreams, because they reveal to us our deepest disquietudes, those which do not always reach the surface of our waking consciousness.’ The influence of Freud is detectable here. Their effect, for Machado, is more profound though than Freud’s take on the matter (page 22): ‘Poem 18 . . . equates the inner space of a dream with the deep vault of the soul.’ Trueblood hypothesizes that they are linked perhaps in Machado’s mind with poetry itself, referring to an English Romantic poet (page 200): ‘Keats’s final poem ‘Sleep and Poetry’ establishes a correlation between the two as purveyors of visions and dreams conceived as a source of creativity.’

If anyone needs an explanation of why Machado’s engagement with dreams resonates with me at least as much as his sense of loss, they will find it in my discussion of my Hearth dream. At the end of my explanation I wrote: ‘I don’t expect to get to the bottom of this dream’s meanings in this life. I just think I have to keep referring back to it to see what else it can teach me. I think it is a dream about the heart that came from my heart. I feel the heart in this sense is ‘the experience of soul or spirit in consciousness,’ as a friend of mine once put it in a workshop.’

At the head of the post I had quoted from Machado (Selected Poems translated by Alan Trueblood: page 90-91):

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hive at work
deep down in my heart.
Within were the golden bees
straining out the bitter past
to make sweet-tasting honey,
and white honeycomb.

Not surprisingly it triggered an arresting thought: ‘An intriguing question arose after I had re-read Machado recently.  Did I read him before I had this dream? Was there some subliminal influence from that encounter? The date I bought the book permits that possibility, but I can’t be absolutely sure.’ A Machado moment if ever there was one!

This poem is one I love to read and re-read. Partly because, as Trueblood explains in the notes (page 281), it is ‘expressive of aspiration to faith but not of its possession.’ The poem ends:

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was–
I dreamed it was God I’d found
deep down in my heart.

I will be exploring later my uncertainty principle and the idea that John Donne expressed of ‘doubting wisely,’ a turn of phrase to be found a few lines later in Satyre III which I quote at the top of this post. Absolute certainty is elusive and possibly illusory and not the same as the ‘Certitude’ Bahá’u’lláh explores in a book of that name (the Kitáb-i-Íqán). Not all the dreams we have of God are true.

His preoccupation with bees, a frequent trope in his poems, also holds my interest. Until I read Trueblood’s notes, though, I hadn’t realized that ‘bee imagery is not uncommon in manuals of devotion.’ However, there is a caveat here before we assume that this is exactly what Machado means: ‘Whereas the emphasis of the mystical writers cited is on the humility and the diligence of the bees, with Machado it is characteristically on the mysterious powers of creative transformation of their honey-making process, powers here seen at their most striking.’

The ending of the next poem in Trueblood’s selection flags up how far Machado is from the comfort of complete faith, and how close he is to the spirit that infuses R S Thomas’ poetry (page 93):

No, my heart is not asleep.
It is awake, wide awake.
Not asleep, not dreaming –
its eyes are opened wide
watching distant signals, listening
on the rim of the vast silence.

That’s enough for now I think. More on resonant themes next time. For now I’ll close with another poem about bees. The first poem below is the Spanish version, followed by Trueblood’s translation, with my lame version trailing behind, though I have improved the ending over my first attempt.

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Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending time we find them there.

(‘Mending Wall‘, Robert Frost, Selected Poems, page 43)

wall

In the closing decades of the last century the Berlin wall tumbled. Nor was it only in the landscape that we found this happening. Such collapses were and still are transforming our inscape as well.

The Bahá’í Revelation, Bahá’ís believe, has a crucial part to play in helping the dismantling of the barricades within and between people. We are a kind of catalyst in that it is by our transformation as Bahá’ís that this process will be accelerated and, even better, by borrowing our ideas and practices everyone, whether a Bahá’í or not, can join in the work of bringing down the barricades.

In the concluding post of the sequence on Conviction I threatened to return to some aspects of the Bahá’í prescription for living in a way that could, if given the chance by a sufficient number of people, change the direction of civilization for the better.

I’m now delivering on that threat and going to attempt to demonstrate that one exportable aspect unique to the Bahá’í life has an especially strong bearing on this problem of walls: consultation. There are others that I don’t mention here that would have the same effect. Another, meditation, which I will deal with very briefly, is not unique to the Faith.

Meditation, for an individual, seems to be equivalent to consultation for the group. It serves the same purposes and requires and creates the same personal qualities. They both grow from and result in unity and in detachment, which may in any case be one and the same process and end-state.

I apologise for this post’s being so long but it didn’t seem possible to split it without  making the theme hard to follow.

Consultation

The purpose is to emphasize the statement that consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion . . .

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 72)

We have to remain mindful, though we often forget, that investigating the truth is a goal whose pursuit does not guarantee that we will always find it. What we can do though is be resolute in developing increasing levels of humility about the value of our opinions, so that the consensus becomes richer and an ever closer approximation to the particular truth under investigation. Developing that kind of humility in such an opinionated world is easier said than done.

Some questions might still come to mind. Why is it so difficult to treat our own opinions as simply contributions to a consensus? How can we learn to do that? Is the investigation of the truth the only purpose of consultation or are there others?

Turning to the literature of the Bahá’í Faith should assist us. For example Bahá’u’lláh writes :

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.’

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, pages 168-9)

lightIf we are in the dark, some light, however little, will help – even a match will be better than nothing. Even though the light we create will never rival the sun’s, it will often be quite good enough to help us find our way forwards. But it will work best when we combine our lights together rather than shielding them to ourselves. That is what consultation can do: polishing our own mirror in meditation helps us, as we will briefly see later, bring a brighter light to the process of consultation.

Why is letting go and sharing our light so hard? How can we learn to do it?

Peter Senge, a systems theorist, in The Fifth Discipline (pages 8-9), argues that we all operate upon ‘mental models’ or ‘mental maps’ (page 239) which are

deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behaviour.

And on page 185:

all we ever have are assumptions, never truths, that we always see the world through our mental models and that the mental models are always incomplete.

He asserts (page 182) that:

. . . decision-making processes could be transformed if people became more able to surface and discuss more productively their different ways of looking at the world.

These assumptions are deeply ingrained because we have often formed them in childhood or adolescence, they have seen us through difficulties or even kept us alive, and they seem to make sense of our sometimes overwhelming experiences. We are not inclined to leave go of them too easily nor do we look charitably upon those who threaten them by argument or action. So, we protect our little candle and don’t readily let it pool its light with everyone else’s.

Blocks

Peter Koestenbaum in his book ‘New Image of the Person: theTheory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy’ states that:

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

By reflection, amongst other things, he means unhooking ourselves from our ideas.

An example he gives from the clinical context illustrates what he means:

. . . to resist in psychotherapy means to deny the possibility of dissociating consciousness from its object at one particular point . . . To overcome the resistance means success in expanding the field of consciousness and therewith to accrue increased flexibility . . .’

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? In therapy it is the feeling of trust and safety we develop towards the therapist that helps us begin to let go of maladaptive world views, self-concepts and opinions.

Amongst the prerequisites listed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for those who take counsel together is ‘detachment from all save God.’ In the Tablets written after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas Bahá’u’lláh explains what it takes to be detached:

The essence of detachment is for man to turn his face towards the courts of the Lord, to enter His Presence, behold His Countenance, and stand witness before Him.

It’s fairly clear that such an awareness will entail a great deal of work on practising the presence of God. If we can maintain such a sense of His Presence then it is extremely unlikely that we would be inclined pig-headedly to bludgeon our friends, family, colleagues and neighbours into submission with our opinions.  It feels like a lifetime’s work to get to this point though.

Detachment as a Process

Is this becoming one of those counsels of despair which can seem so characteristic of the spiritual life? Can we only consult if we are completely detached? If not shouldn’t we bother?

Perhaps though detachment is more of a process than an end-state at least in this life.

Koestenbaum supports this view (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 he means something closely related to meditation.

We need to consider the possibility that consultation is also a process that can help us become more detached. If so, it’s goal is clearly more than simply the investigation of truth. It is a spiritual discipline in itself and leads to personal as well as group transformation. It perhaps could rightly be called a Bahá’í yoga.

Maybe now would be a good time to shift our attention from consultation to a brief consideration of meditation before looking at how the two processes work together. They may be mutually reinforcing: they may even effectively be the same thing!

Meditation

The wine of renunciation must needs be quaffed, the lofty heights of detachment must needs be attained, and the meditation referred to in the words “One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious must needs be observed, . . .’

(Bahá’u’lláh: The Kitáb-i-Íqán, page 238)

At first sight an equivalence between meditation and consultation, of the kind I am speculating about, seems unlikely. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Paris Talks (page 174):

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things it one time – he cannot both speak and meditate.

Consultation, at least in Western Europe and the United States, is not conspicuous for its silences. Have we drawn a blank?

‘It is an axiomatic fact,’ He continues,

that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.

Perhaps not. We are, in a sense, consulting, though with our higher Selves rather than with other people. Such inner speech seems to require an absence of outer speech, but it may nonetheless be a form of consultation. We are suspending our usual assumptions and opening ourselves up to other possibilities. He goes onto say:

The spirit of man is itself informed and strengthened during meditation; through it affairs of which man knew nothing are unfolded before his view. Through it he receives Divine inspiration, through it he receives heavenly food.

Do Consultation and Meditation Reinforce Each Other?

When we suspend our assumptions in this way, we receive intimations of a higher and more accurate kind. This sounds remarkably similar to the understanding achieved in consultation. It seems possible , at least in principle, to use meditation to improve our consultation skills and consultation perhaps to practise and refine our meditation. It also raises the question whether consultation, at least in the West, would benefit from more silence.

We know it requires detachment. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continues:

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

One possible way of conceptualising detachment, orr at least a result of it, is freedom from our animal nature as described here.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:

Regarding the statement in ‘The Hidden Words’, that man must renounce his own self, the meaning, is that he must renounce his inordinate desires, his selfish purposes and the promptings of his human self, and seek out the holy breathings of the spirit . . . . ..

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 207)

Meditation, then, might help us achieve the detachment necessary for consultation. Consultation will almost certainly strengthen our ability to be detached and thereby facilitate our meditation. They are clearly not unrelated disciplines sharing as they do this same outcome.

We also have to be open to the views of other people when we consult and to the Bahá’í Scriptures when we meditate upon them or to the promptings of our higher self when we commune with it in meditation. So these two skills are not all that different either: they both enhance our understanding of reality.

In the end, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that meditation will help us consult and consulting will help us meditate. It certainly seems to me that meditation and consultation used in conjunction as the Bahá’í Faith recommends would constitute a wrecking ball of sufficient power to bring even the most obdurate of our dividing walls crashing to the ground and pave the way for greater unity within and between us. Such a degree of unity is imperative if we are to become capable of solving the problems that currently confront us.

Consultation has links with justice, too complex to go into now, which add further strength to this position:

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.

(From Section II: The Prosperity of Humankind)

fallen-wall

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