Posts Tagged ‘Muhammad’

It’s taken me only just over a year to get round to finishing The Islamic Enlightenment: the modern struggle between faith and reason by Christopher Bellaigue, which by my standards is not too bad.

I finally got hooked by it. It’s fascinating for a number of reasons that the subtitle summarises. But that is not all.

Bellaigue deals with three middle-eastern contexts in his book on the Islamic Enlightment: Iran, Egypt and Turkey. It is not surprising therefore that he should spend a significant number of pages dealing with the impact on Iran of the Bábí and Bahá’í movements, as he terms them.

There was at least one major surprise to me in his account. More of that later.

He deals at length with the reign of Nasrudin Shah. Within that there is a short section on the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, with regular references to their influence at different points throughout the later sections.

I bought it partly because a review also contained the following: ‘The story of the Persian feminist-martyr Fatemeh Zarrin Taj Baraghani [Qurrat al-Ayn], who read too much, wrote too much and, veil-less, promoted the social vision of the Bahá’ís (a united, anti-nationalist, monolingual world), is poignantly told.’ It describes her as one of the ‘brave radicals’ adding she is ‘Iran’s first feminist.’

More of the details of that in a moment.

Though her review effectively quotes the title of a book The Woman Who Read Too Much, Bettany Hughes doesn’t mention it. Alberto Manguel’s review captures the essence of the book, which suggests that it provides an important supplement to any more conventional historical approach. He wrote:

Less interested in theology than in literature, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani has chosen to construct, around the figure of Táhirih, a complex fragmented portrait that brings to literary life not only the remarkable personality of someone little known in the west, but also the convoluted Persia of the 19th century, treacherous and bloodthirsty.

The Báb and Bahá’u’lláh

Bellaigue’s account of the Bábí/Bahá’í impact on Iranian society begins on page 140:

The Bábí movement, which began in the 1840s, went on to become an important catalyst of social progressiveness in mid-nineteenth century Iran, promoting interreligious peace, social equality between the sexes and revolutionary anti-monarchism.

He oddly describes it as based on ‘secularism’ as well as ‘internationalism, and the rejection of war.’ He goes on to describe its survival ‘to the present day’ in the form of ‘Bahaism which emerged from Babism in the late nineteenth century’ adding that this ‘qualifies it for inclusion in any narrative about modernisation in the Middle East.’

It was, he explains, experienced as ‘a mortal threat to Islam,’ which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Bábís. For this reason hostility towards it continues in Iran to the present day. Even though he sees ‘the theology of Bahaism’ as ‘a little whacky’ he concedes that ‘the social vision was anything but.’ It transcended any Islamic perspective in its ‘vision of consultative democracy,’ in the ‘distinction it made between religion and politics’ and in ‘its promotion of a world civilisation united by a common language.’

Bellaigue concludes his account of this ‘movement’ by saying ‘Having declared the redundancy of the Muslim clergy, Bahá’u’lláh and his son and successor, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, proposed one of the most enlightened social systems of the time.’

Given the persecution it endured, he notes as surprising Bahá’u’lláh’s declaration concerning ‘the abolition of war’ and His forbidding the ‘denigrating of other religions.’ He points out the Bahá’í Faith’s continuing ‘efforts to live in peace with Islam,’ which continues to be largely rejected within the country of its birth, Iran.

Tahirih, aka Qurrat al-Ayn

Belaigue’s account of Tahirih, aka Qurrat al-Ayn, begins (page 147) by claiming she is ‘one of the most remarkable characters in nineteenth century Iranian history. She is both a feminist icon and the mediaeval saint.’

He recounts her early life and then focuses on perhaps the most famous incident in her entire life apart from her leaving of it – her appearing unveiled at the conference of Badasht (page 151).

Qurrat al-Ayn’s removal of the veil was a blatant rejection of the Prophet Muhammad’s command to his followers, set down in a famous hadith, that ‘when you ask of them [the wives of the Prophet] anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain.’

He then explains a crucial ambiguity:

‘Curtain’ and ‘veil’ are the same word in Arabic, and this ambiguous hadith is the basis on which the practice of veiling women has been sanctified.

After the conference, when the participants were marching north, ‘the sight of an unveiled Qurrat al-Ayn chanting prayers alongside Quddus prompted a group of villagers to attack them. Several Bábís were killed; the rest fled.’

I think it important to mention here that, while noting the intensity of her religious faith, Bellaigue, for obvious reasons given the theme of his book, looks particularly at the political legacy and inspiration of Qurrat al-Ayn. There is another important aspect of her life that needs to be included if we are to achieve anything life a complete sense of her contribution to our culture.

This can be accessed not just from Bahá’í sources. There is a book I discovered in the rich seams of Hay-on-Wye’s bookmines: Veils and Words: the emerging voices of Iranian women writersby Farzaneh Milani. On page 93 she quotes in translation the following poem:

I would explain all my grief
Dot by dot, point by point
If heart to heart we talk
And face to face we meet.

To catch a glimpse of thee
I am wandering like a breeze
From house to house, door to door
Place to place, street to street.

In separation from thee
The blood of my heart gushes out of my eyes
In torrent after torrent, river after river
Wave after wave, stream after stream.

This afflicted heart of mine
Has woven your love
To the stuff of life
Strand by strand, thread to thread.

I think that should be enough to indicate that she was a poet and writer of considerable power.

Milani argues that (page 90): ‘Tahereh’s contribution to the history of women’s writing in Iran is invaluable: she proves that women could think, write, and reason like men – in public and for the public. Such actions set her apart from her contemporaries and confer upon her an inalienable precedence.’

Sadly, this view was not yet widely shared outside the Bahá’í community at the time of her writing in 1992, 140 years after Tahirih’s murder, which, coincidentally, was also the anniversary of the death of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith :

Whether because she has been deemed to too offensive, too dangerous, or too minor a literary personage, no article, let alone a full-length book, has been written either on work, or on her life as a struggle for gaining a public voice.

Her poetry is also challenging, something else that might militate against its wider acceptance (page 91):

Some of Tahereh’s poems are difficult to understand. Their language is rich in abstractions. She not only mixes Arabic with Persian but also makes repeated allusions to Bábí jargon and codes. Her religious convictions saturate her poetry and set her verse on fire. They glow in her poetry like a flame that burns every obstacle away.

Her life and verse complemented and, in one way at least, seemingly contradicted each other (page 93):

If self-assertion is a cardinal tenet of Tahereh’s life, self-denial and self-effacement are key elements of her poetry. The themes of love, union, and ecstasy relate to mystic and spiritual experience.

In the end, there is perhaps more mystery than certainty about the facts of Tahereh/Qurrat al-Ayn’s life, as Bahiyyih Nakhjavani suggests in the Afterword to her absorbing novel The Woman Who Read Too Much:

We know more about what is not known than what is. Her date of birth, for example, is uncertain. The exact circumstances of her death are equally unclear. The details of her marriage and divorce are ambiguous, as is the question of whether she abandoned her children or were they were taken from her.

And the list continues for half a page (p 316). What is beyond argument is what her life stood for and what she died for, and the lasting impact that has had on the course of history since then.

An Unexpected Influence

Returning to Bellaigue’s book in which there are other incidental references to the Bahá’í Faith, as I finished The Islamic Enlightenment, I found an extremely interesting piece of history that I‘d never heard of before. It happened in the reign of Muzzafar al-Din. Bellaigue writes (page 238-39): ‘in January 1906 the shah, embarrassed by the forthrightness of the opposition that had established itself at Shah Abdulazim, and disquieted by strikes in the bazaars, agreed to convene a ‘House of Justice,’ a body made up of influential men that would adjudicate on the complaints of the people, dimly inspired by the(banned) Bábí councils of the same name.’ Later though, the shah’s ‘health had taken a turn for the worse and the government had no intention of carrying out his promise to set up a House of Justice.’

I decided to check this out. I clearly should’ve read further into Moojan Momen’s collection of Western accounts of Bábí and Bahá’í history, which was the first book I pulled off the shelf to check, (page 354 – my bookmark is stuck at the previous page – I got close but not close enough). He quotes, ‘In December 1905, as a result of.a large crowd taking sanctuary in the shrine of Shah ‘Abdu’l-‘Azím near Tihrán, the Shah agreed to dismiss ‘Aynu’d-Dawlih and convene an ‘Adálat-Khánih (House of Justice). Whatever was meant by the latter, the Shah, after the dispersion of the crowd at Shah ‘Abdu’l-‘Azím, showed no intention of fulfilling his promises.’

There are probably many other equally hidden influences on history originating in the Bábí and Bahá’í ‘movements,’ as Bellaigue terms them.

On the whole, and not only for his references to the spiritual path I have chosen to follow, this is a valuable account of one region’s attempt to reconcile its religious history with the pressures of modernity. There is clearly still a long way to go.

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The view from Table Land in Panchgani

Having looked at a couple of the rules that I resonated to from the gift I received of Shafak’s book, now for the thornier issue of whether this list of rules can be found in this form in the works of either Rumi or Shams.

Before I tackle that perhaps it’s best to explain how I come to be looking this gift horse in the mouth in this way.

Most people who know me well have at times encountered this kind of reaction.

Maybe they said something like, ‘You must try this remedy/life skill/unusual food. It really helps your [fill in the appropriate complaint].’

Instead of responding, ‘Thank you so much for telling me about that. I’ll go out and buy some straightaway,’ I tend to ask: ‘Where did you find out about this?’

And when they tell me, I often ask what evidence did this source provide to support the claim that it is effective. Need I go on?

My compulsive checking extends to all kinds of information. As I explain to those who complain I don’t trust them, ‘If I don’t trust my own memory, why would I trust anyone else’s.’ (See my two posts on memory for more.)

My response is the same to extravagant claims of any kind in any domain, and that includes the literary, the psychological, the spiritual and so one.

So, even though I was completely absorbed in the novel, which helped me pass part of the time in a long flight back from India (the whole journey took more than 24 hours thanks to fog in Delhi, but more of that another time perhaps – it was very hard though resisting reading on as we waited for more than four hours on the airport for our connection, but I was determined to save it for the plane), I just couldn’t simply accept that the author was conveying in an unadorned fashion the wisdom of Shams or Rumi. I had to check it out.

I am still in the process of reading through once more the various translations I possess of Rumi’s poetry. I have also done a few trawls of the internet. It’s pretty clear that the idea of forty rules is not to be found in the original works.

One response on the Quora website from Michael Bielas sums that aspect up quite well:

I have been studying the Mathnawi of Rumi for 20 years, with increasing delight. Neither Shams nor Rumi spoke about “rules” involving love. Indeed, Rumi points out the absence of rules in the realm of love. Rules belong in the realm of the ego, the animal nature. The author puts many of her own words into the mouths of Shams and Rumi, presenting a fictional novel, exploiting the popularity of this wonderful mystical friendship.

I also had a careful look through all the references to 40 in the index of Annemarie Schimmel’s book about Rumi, The Triumphal Sun, and found no reference to forty rules of any kind. Early on though there were some related ideas on the same page as a reference to a statement by Rumi, concerning the Mathnavi, that ‘forty camels would not be able to carry this book if he were to tell everything in his mind.’

These ideas concern Rumi’s views on the relationship between words and reality, including love (pages 48-49). Schimmel states:

The poet can only express the husk, but the kernel, marrow, is meant for those who can understand.

She goes on:

Rumi has often tried to solve this riddle of the relation between words and meaning, experience and expression, but always returns to the feeling that words are merely dust on the mirror of ‘experience,’. . and the true meaning, the ‘soul of the story,’ can be found only when man loses himself in the presence of the Beloved when neither dust nor forms remain.

I particularly love the short quote from Rumi she includes here: “The word is a nest in which the bird ‘meaning’ rests.”

This riddle is one that haunts me also as a soon-to-be published poem illustrates.

In a way all this doesn’t matter because the book was clearly a labour of love, and the ‘rules’ feel authentic in the sense that their original roots are in the ground of Rumi’s writing even if they have now been transplanted into a modern soil. And to be honest the rules don’t really read as rules most of the time: they are more like attempts to pin down some eternal truths about spiritual reality which we can use to guide our conduct if we wish. The book also brings to life the relationship between these two seekers after Truth, albeit in an imaginative form based fairly loosely in places on the few possible facts we might have about them. And in the end I feel the author has honoured the fact that Rumi’s sensibility is spacious enough to contain most of us somewhere, rather as Shakespeare’s does.

A good example for me to use to illustrate what she has done to bring their lives to life concerns Rumi’s books.

In case anyone is unclear about how important my books are to me I am including a photograph of what amounts to about 33% of my collection. I’m also adding in a poem on the subject for good measure (see end of post).

Now that we’ve got that clear, it should not be too difficult to work out why two particular episodes from the novel drew me in more strongly than most.

The first concerns Rumi and his wife. This is the event told from her point of view (page 167):

I learned the hard way just how much his books meant to him. Still in our first year of marriage, while I was alone at home one day, it occurred to me to dust the library. . .

That afternoon I dusted and cleaned every book in the library.… Only when I heard a dry, distant voice behind me did I realise how much time I had spent there.

‘Kerra, what do you think you are doing here?’

It was Rumi, or someone who resembled him – the voice was harsher in tone, sterner in expression. . .

‘I am cleaning,’ I muttered, my voice weak. ‘I wanted to make it a surprise.’

Rumi responded, ‘I understand, but please do not touch my books again. In fact, I’d rather you did not enter this room.’

After that day I stayed away from the library even when there was no one at home.

While my protectiveness of my books does not quite extend that far – my wife can come into my study whenever she wants as long as she doesn’t dust my books – I know where Rumi was coming from.

The second incident was more traumatic. Here it is told again from his wife’s point of view (pages 204-05):

I was churning butter by the hearth in the kitchen when I heard strange voices out in the courtyard. I rushed outside, only to witness the craziest scene ever. There were books everyplace, piled up in rickety towers, and still more books floating inside the fountain. From all the ink dissolving in it, the water in the fountain had turned a vivid blue.

With Rumi standing right there, Shams picked a book from the pile… eyed it with a grim expression, and tossed it into the water. No sooner had the book submerged than he reached for another. This time it was Attar’s The Book of Secrets.

. . . I couldn’t understand for the life of me why [Rumi] didn’t say anything. The man who once reprimanded me for just dusting his books was now watching a lunatic destroy his entire library, and he didn’t even utter a word. . .

‘Why don’t you say anything?’ I yelled at my husband.

At this, Rumi approached me and held my hand tightly. ‘Calm down, Kerra, please. I trust in Shams.’

Giving me a glance over his shoulder, relaxed and confident, Shams rolled up his sleeves and started to pull the books out of the water. To my amazement, every single book he took out was as dry as a bone.

The version of this in Wikipedia is rather different:

One day Rumi was reading next to a large stack of books. Shams Tabriz, passing by, asked him, “What are you doing?” Rumi scoffingly replied, “Something you cannot understand.” (This is knowledge that cannot be understood by the unlearned.) On hearing this, Shams threw the stack of books into a nearby pool of water. Rumi hastily rescued the books and to his surprise they were all dry. Rumi then asked Shams, “What is this?” To which Shams replied, “Mowlana, this is what you cannot understand.” (This is knowledge that cannot be understood by the learned.)

This is a good illustration of how Shafak takes the raw material of legend and embeds it in a narrative, endowing it with both psychological and spiritual significance. In this instance it did more than hold my attention: I winced at the whole idea.

I found her book a fascinating read and am grateful that a postman knocked on the door of my sister’s flat in Mumbai bearing this unexpected and rewarding gift. Reading it sent shivers down my spine in places, something I associate with intuitive or spiritual resonances, which might go some way towards explaining why I continued to shiver in a sweater in Panchagani during the deep exchange of ideas. There was more to the Prospect conversation than its apparent content at the time. I was on the way towards having another mind-changing, heart-affecting encounter with a book – but none of us knew that at the time, I suspect. I am coming to think that this experience is, in part at least, reinforcing the message of my Dancing Flames dream, one that I keep losing sight of under the pressure of practical demands on my time. If so, this is the third reminder: hopefully it’s third time lucky! More of that another time perhaps.

Given Rumi’s testing experience with Shams and his books, there’s a touch of irony here, I think. I’ve acquired another item for my book-hoard, making the idea of throwing them into water even harder to contemplate. So much for a book about the Rules of Love enhancing my detachment. I’m a very long way from Rule 33:

While everyone in this world strives to get somewhere and become someone, only to leave it all behind after death, you aim for the supreme stage of nothingness. Live this life as light and empty as the number zero. We are no different from a pot. It is not the decorations outside but the emptiness inside that holds us straight. Just like that, it is not what we aspire to achieve but the consciousness of nothingness that keeps us going.

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Last year I played with the idea of a community of inner selves in a sequence of posts I called My Parliament of Selves. I’ve also dealt with this idea in less personal terms.

I called into question the idea of an automatically unified and integrated self. A vast body of theory, clinical practice and research has accumulated which calls this assumption gravely into question. Split brain research and resulting theories, clinical experiences with multiple personalities and auditory hallucinations, as well as psychoanalytic theory (Freud and Jung especially) and its offspring are all useful starting points in revising a simplistic view.

For instance, Berne, the founding father of Transactional Analysis, saw us as beings organised into at least three different semi-autonomous and incompletely conscious subselves. These he called the Parent, the Adult and the Child. The extent to which these subselves are in harmonious cooperation is one of the determinants of well-being.

A model of therapy often used in coordination with Transactional Analysis is the Gestalt Therapy of Fritz Perls whose most fundamental tenet is that we are divided beings seeking to become whole. His therapy is a form of consultation between conflicting aspects of the person.

I am also aware of the literature which deals with not just dissociated multiple personalities but also mediumship.

None of that prepared me for the shock I felt on revisiting a diary entry of mine from early 2000, which recorded some dream work I had done. I was looking for some notes I took at about that time on the subject of near-death experiences. This was something altogether different.

One way of working a dream, as I have described elsewhere, is the Gestalt technique of assuming the role of a dream element, whether that be a person or a thing and speaking in its voice. In the dream the night before the entry was made I had seen myself reflected in a mirror as a woman, so, when I woke, I worked on the dream by stepping into her presence and speaking her thoughts.

The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mt Fuji (for source of image see link)

‘So you have found me at last,” she says out of her mirror. “Do you like what you see? Will you turn away from me again? My delicacy looks vulnerable and you do not trust me in your world. You do not trust me to be your guide. You think I’ll come to harm. I am not so delicate as you think. Or you fear I’ll bring you to harm. Look at my eyes – a deep deep black. I am in a way your soul. I am the unacknowledged strivings of your truest self. I am beauty. I am truth. I am life. I am love. I am your connection with the infinite. Through me you can know what lies out of your reach otherwise. I know what feeds your spirit and what does not. I am the repository of all the rich experiences you have ever known. Who do you think listens to this Chopin you are playing right now? Who responds to the views of Mount Fuji? Why do you never give me the time truly to savour those wonders? Why do you always wrench me away into the arid distractions of your daily unlife? Why when you usually write this journal do you never wait for me to have my say? Why do you fill it will the froth that floats on top of your mind? Is my path too steep for you? Do you fear your being will not bear the strain of it? Do you fear that paying attention to my concerns will make you careless of your responsibilities in the world? That is not true. Working in the world from my perspective will be richer and more telling.

‘When I look back over your day I can explain why you were so silent for so much of it. Do you remember your thoughts about suffering? All the people that you encountered [she names them but it is best I do not for reasons of confidentiality] – they all speak to the same issue. Suffering is not what we think it is. Its fire turns the clay of our imperfections to flawless china; suffering perfects the soul and enables it to rise to its highest destiny.

‘You do not believe that. I can feel the writhing of your disbelief. You revolt against the idea of bearing such sorrows and such pains in this world. You feel you could not ever do so. You want to evade such pain. That may be your good fortune – to avoid it — but it should not blind you to the purpose of suffering in others. Even those who bear it badly will see how they were blessed when they discard their body and ascend. Even if you had been able to think what I am saying you could not have shared it and what you did think was so negative and bleak there was no point in saying it. So you stayed silent and felt sad. If you have truly learned your lesson from this – which I doubt – you will not turn your back on me again. Try what this life is like – the life lived in full consciousness of me.’

The power of this took my breath away. What’s more I was stunned to realise that I had forgotten the whole encounter entirely, even though I wrote it down so fully at the time and added: ‘I would like to pledge that I will explore the world from this perspective to the best of my ability. But can I do so?’

My doubts were clearly well-founded.

There are many ways of interpreting this persona or sub-personality. Jung’s idea of the anima is perhaps the first to spring to mind. One website defines the anima as follows:

The anima is both a personal complex and an archetypal image of woman in the male psyche. It is an unconscious factor incarnated anew in every male child, and is responsible for the mechanism of projection. Initially identified with the personal mother, the anima is later experienced not only in other women but as a pervasive influence in a man’s life.

Jung did not see this as the soul in the way my sub-self forcefully asserted herself to be.

The anima is not the soul in the dogmatic sense, not an anima rationalis, which is a philosophical conception, but a natural archetype that satisfactorily sums up all the statements of the unconscious, of the primitive mind, of the history of language and religion. … It is always the a priori element in [a man’s] moods, reactions, impulses, and whatever else is spontaneous in psychic life.[“Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i, par. 57.]

And the depth and power of the spiritual insights my mirror-self articulates, especially concerning suffering, seem at odds with all that is written about the anima.

The link with suffering might be giving me a clue to where some of the passion of the persona derives from. I have explored at length how my parent’s grief over my sister’s death four years before I was born scorched my early years.

In addition, the rebukes she spits out about my not devoting time to immersing myself in deep experiences resonates with my work over the years on improving my powers of reflection (see diagram at the foot of this post for my latest perspective on this).

None of this though quite accounts for the sense of a whole personality expressing itself in this outburst – a personality to whom I have denied expression, something I have failed to integrate. I have consigned her to fulminating under the surface most of the time. The anger is searing.

It is possible that the persona was not in fact the anima at all, but rather something more akin to another concept Jung explores in his essay on the mana-personality (Collected Works, Volume 7, page 236). It is something around which the ego unconsciously revolves rather as the earth circles round the sun. He writes:

I call this centre the self.… It might equally well be called the ‘God within us.’ The beginnings of our whole psychic life seem to be inextricably rooted in this point, and all out highest and ultimate purposes seem to be striving towards it.

The Society of Friends refers to ‘that of God within us.’ Bahá’u’lláh Himself writes (AHW: 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

In The Seven Valleys He quotes ‘Alí, the Successor to Muhammad, as saying:

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

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

There is at least one fully articulated model of therapy that incorporates a sense of a higher self and seeks to help us connect with it: this is Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis, which I have explored in various places on this blog. A coloured adaptation of his basic diagram illustrates this perspective clearly enough for now.

Clearly I need to take great care before jumping to the conclusion that this passionate dream element was definitely my Higher Self summoning me to better things. Even so, I also need to think hard before yet again dismissing this experience irretrievably to an  archive shelf somewhere deep in my memory store.

Perhaps a bit of reflection would help?

There is one other theory that might conceivably apply but which has much that feels dubious about it. I will take a look at that hopefully next week. The explanation is a strange mixture of ideas that resonate with and idiosyncrasies that repel me. I want to dig a bit deeper at least in terms of the best bits.

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Bird feed in the park

The previous post ended just as I arrived at the venue for my meeting. This post picks up the threads after the meeting was over.

My friend and I, returning from our meeting via a walk across Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, had got ourselves sorted at a table with one reserved seat for the return journey via Newport. My phone was plugged into the charger to tether my laptop ready to answer emails and create the report about the meeting.

Pretty soon after, a pale woman in her early thirties came rushing towards us brandishing her ticket and claiming ownership of the ticketed window seat, loudly but pleasantly. She was clearly a character. My friend slid out and sat across the aisle. She flopped into her seat, plugged in her phone and produced leaflets galore and a writing pad. Someone else clearly on a mission.

I couldn’t resist finding out what was going on and she was more than happy to tell us. She’d been facilitating a Dementia Training Day for support workers. She’d been doing this kind of work for about ten years and was clearly committed to it. She was adamant that people with this problem needed to be treated with care and respect. She shared how people irritated her so much when they said ‘I am just a carer.’

‘Just a carer! I hate that phrase. What on earth are they talking about? Don’t they understand how important caring is? People should recognise how valuable a carer is so that carers don’t feel they have to almost apologise for getting paid. End of rant!’

‘On a related topic but somewhat to one side, I was at a Death Cafe last month,’ I said.

Her eyebrows shot up. ‘A what?’

I explained it was where people could talk about death and dying without being shut up or criticised and how hard it was for some of the dying to feel that they were understood and truly cared for. Death, like dementia, was a subject that was almost taboo. Speaking of it could get you quarantined. And the dying could be rendered almost invisible.

‘Just as with Alzheimer’s, even if ordinary consciousness is warped, lost or nearly lost in the dying process, there is still a person in there. They must be treated the same as anyone else, even though they do not respond or communicate.’

She nodded emphatically in agreement.

The train had not set off yet and we were already in the thick of a deep conversation. I could see my report time being swept away on these waves of thought.

A young girl slid smoothly into the seat opposite me. We all smiled. The lady with the leaflets couldn’t remain silent even though I could see she was jotting down notes on her pad.

‘You just made it in time.’


‘Been doing anything interesting?’

‘I’ve been on a two day training course for dental assistants.’ She was by far the youngest of the four of us and seemed slightly more reserved though friendly. She mostly only answered questions and seldom chipped in with her views as the journey back to Wales began. She was heading for Cardiff like the Dementia trainer.

I never found out their names but feel it would be easiest to give them invented names for this account. So, the Dementia trainer will be Alison from now on, and the Dental Assistant in the making will be Denise.

Denise helped reassure Alison that there need be no pain from injections at the dentist, but the needles, which Alison found so daunting, had to be frighteningly long. She explained this and how the pain could be avoided completely but I was too busy typing my second paragraph to register what she said. I’m afraid I’m not up to Proustian multi-channelling. If the account of his friends is anything to go by Marcel Proust could listen to an opera, talk to his friends and monitor the conversation in the neighbouring box, all at the same time. He even registered key changes in the score, not just plot lines, apparently!

Alison began describing her work to Denise, who wanted to know more. She came across as warm, compassionate and dedicated to her work. She was skilled at keeping her explanations clear and accessible. She avoided the technicalities of amyloid plaques and focused more on the nature of the memory problems and how to help people maintain a happy quality of life in spite of them. I couldn’t resist praising her positivity and dedication. It was truly admirable.

She was hesitant about one thing though. There was the possibility of participating in a research project testing a new medication. She was quite scared of doing so because of the possible side-effects creating long-term damage. Denise thought that unlikely. I wasn’t so sure, sharing that this was difficult to assess as much of the research data generated by drug companies was kept under wraps so it was impossible to determine how many people had been adversely affected.

‘Maybe I’ll do it when I’m older,’ she added, with a rueful smile. I didn’t say so, but I felt that she was contributing hugely as it was. More was not required of her.

The ticket inspector suddenly appeared — well, suddenly to us as we had been so deep in conversation we never saw him coming. Alison produced a hand of cards.

‘Which one do you want?’ she asked. ‘I never travel on trains. This is only the second time in ten years. I’ve no idea.’

‘Paddington to Cardiff looks good,’ he said. ‘I don’t need the other ones.’ He moved on down the carriage.

I had noticed the silver crucifix pendant on her necklace and decided to comment on it now.

‘It looks as though you have a spiritual angle on all this as well.’

‘Some people see me as very Christian about all this,’ she sidestepped slightly, looking a bit embarrassed.

I decided not to push the issue of her beliefs.

‘I certainly have a spiritual take on it all. As a Bahá’í I believe our soul is still intact even when our body and brain are shutting down. At that level we know how we are being treated. That’s even more reason to deal with those who are damaged in this way with dignity.’

Another idea flashed through my mind.

‘At the Death Cafe . . .’

I saw the look on Denise’s face.

‘Ah! You weren’t on the train when talked about that were you?’

She shook her head. I briefly explained again.

‘At the Death Cafe,’ I picked up the thread, ‘it was amazing to be able to discuss the whole spiritual dimension freely with everyone feeling it was OK to say what they believed.’


I looked down at my computer and the first few words of the report I had been planning to draft on the train. I began to type. I noticed that my friend across the aisle was nearly asleep. For a short while Alison seemed happy to sort her papers out and make her notes in silence.

But not for long.


Park FountainI’m not sure how we got there but Alison was explaining how, at a recent training, she had seen how someone with dementia was managing to take care of herself and perform routine tasks with the help of prompts and lists. This triggered my memory of a recent TV documentary by Angela Rippon on the subject of dementia. It included a moving section in which a GP explained how she coped with her dementia with the help of a QR reader and an iPad, and by keeping all her dishes in the sink to remind her what she had eaten and drunk during the day. She was handling her problem so well she was even able to run a cognitive stimulation group for other sufferers based on Japanese research. Truly inspiring.

Even antihistamines came up as a topic as Alison shared that she might have to consider which brand to take. Amazingly I was able to share my own attempts to shed light on the topic. The evidence I’ve found suggests that anticholinergics like Piriton which cross the blood-brain barrier, trigger memory loss in some people. This may be true even for Loratadine, whereas Zirtek, which apparently doesn’t get into the brain, is safer. Alison was surprised that her own team did not seem to have this knowledge and noted it down to check it out.

I cannot help but feel that this established for me a degree of credibility so that when it later became my turn to rant I was listened to with patience and understanding.

The conversation had reverted to mortality, death, and the importance of being compassionate and helpful.

‘From my perspective as a Bahá’í, it’s really important that we all recognise that we are all members of the same human family. None of these divisions we’ve created count for anything really. Nationality, creed, race, and all the other labels we bring out are real. They’re creations of our cultures. Beneath all that we’re fundamentally the same, in body, mind and spirit. And until enough of us really believe that we’ll never solve the problems we’re facing now. The core of all positive belief systems in the end is love and wisdom, and as the being of light told someone before they were sent back to this life, that is all we can take with us when we die.’

“You had your rant before the end!’ Alison said with big grin on her face. We all laughed.

My friend roused from his slumber at this point. He seemed to have heard more than we thought and spoke of how this was true of all Faiths, including Islam, which he explained is much misunderstood at present. Both Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, and Muhammad, expressed this spirit of love in their lives.

‘We can see this aspect of Muhammad’s character in the incident with an old woman. She really did not like Him. To express her contempt she used to throw garbage in His way whenever He passed by her house. One day, when He walked past her house there was no garbage thrown. This made Him check out where the old woman was. He came to know that she was sick and went to visit her offering His assistance. The old woman felt extremely humbled and ashamed of what she had done. She became convinced that Islam must be a true religion.’

As my friend spoke I tried to read the expression on Denise’s face. Was it boredom? Irritation? I couldn’t quite tell. She was looking a little pale.

My friend paused for a moment. No one spoke. He continued, ‘Bahá’u’lláh showed the same spirit. He was being taken to prison. As He was approaching the dungeon, an old woman emerged from the crowd with a stone in her hand. She was eager to throw it in the face of Bahá’u’lláh. Her eyes glowed with determination and fanaticism. Her whole frame shook with rage as she stepped forward and raised her hand to hurl her missile at Him. “I adjure you,” she pleaded, as she ran to overtake His captors, “give me a chance to fling my stone in his face!” Bahá’u’lláh said, “Suffer not this woman to be disappointed. Deny her not what she regards as a meritorious act in the sight of God.”’

Just then Denise almost fell off her seat in her sleep and had to be steadied by Alison. I put this down to her tiredness at the end of her demanding training rather than to her lack of interest in the topic. Not that I’m biased in anyway.

With perfect timing the train approached Newport where my friend and I had to get off. As I did so Alison spoke of how a blog would be a great way of capturing what we had all been talking about. I barely had time to scribble the name of this blog on her pad before I sped to the exit just in time to descend onto the platform as the train came to a complete halt.

My friend, who lived close by, helped me find the bus stop I needed. We said our goodbyes. As I stood waiting I noticed that a tanned, slim, elderly man in a dark suit carrying a suitcase was looking slightly puzzled. We started chatting. He’d been to London to watch the cricket at Lords.

I was able to help him clarify which bus we needed and he was grateful as he had not understood the mumbling rail staff’s hurried explanation that the first bus was a stopping service and the 18.00 was the one that went direct to Hereford.

Once on the bus our chat continued. It roamed across many topics: left-wing politics including socialism, pacifism through Buddhism to the Bahá’í Faith, republicanism, as well as our experiences of university. To go into more detail would tax any reader’s patience.

I definitely felt at the end of these two journeys in and out of London that my declared delight in deep conversations was being put to the test. I think it passed because, even after such an early start and all the constant talking throughout the day both on the trains and in the meeting, I was uplifted rather than exhausted. I am grateful for having been able to spend such fascinating spans of time with such interesting people.

Birds across water

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I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This post was first published in 2012.

I’ve been catching up with an intriguing three part series called ‘Divine Women‘ in which Bettany Hughes looks back through the mists of history to bring into the light of day the important part women can be shown to have played in the development of religion. The link is now only to a 30 minute group of extracts. I’m posting this quickly so those in the UK who are interested can download it before it disappears on Friday.

In the first episode, When God was a Girl, she goes back for clues to a 12,000 year old site at Gobekli Tepe and what she described as the oldest religious building so far discovered. A nomadic people, with no complex settlement, had shifted 16 ton blocks of stone to erect it. She made the interesting observation that such a site preceding a settlement strongly suggests religion is key to forming human society rather than the other way round. In terms of her main thesis, the prominent position of the picture of a woman carved into the rock suggested that women played an important role in the religion of that time. She looks at the same trend continuing on the artefacts found at other site throughout the immediately succeeding millennia.

The next part Handmaids of the Gods, leapt to the age of the Greeks. Professor Judy Barrington could be seen declaring: ‘If you take women out of Greek religion, it’s basically empty.’ Then things get really interesting with the Romans and the rise of Christianity.

She begins with a text, not included in the Bible, that describes the acts of St Paul and Fekla (the Cyrillic form of the Greek ‘Thecla’ and the Latin  ‘Tekla’). Bettany Hughes feels that the ‘end of the world’ emphasis of Paul’s message at the time would have released women from the burden of their traditional roles which suddenly ceased to matter. ‘Motherhood! Why bother?’ captures the feel of it. There’s no need to struggle to keep the population up when it’s all going to be over soon anyway. Even when the end of the world was seen not to be nigh at all the position of women was more firmly established. They were seen very much as equal in the early Christian Church.

50% of Rome’s early churches were apparently founded by women. As is widely recognised, in the catacombs there are images of women presiding over the Eucharist and one is clearly wearing an alb, a long white robe worn by priests and other ministers.

Perhaps the most telling moment in the whole of this programme came when Bettany Hughes spoke to Father Scott Brodeur at the Gregorian University in Rome. He prepares men for the priesthood. He quotes from St Paul to the Romans (16: 1-2) as follows:

1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.

2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.

(This is not the wording in every translation: my own copy refers to her as a ‘servant.’ Others have his wording: see link for an example.) And Father Brodeur claims Paul was asking the Christians to be guided by her in understanding his message to them. This was in his view testimony to the real importance of her position in the early church.

She locates one of the key influences in reducing the status of women in the church to St Augustine, of  ‘Lord, make me chaste but not yet’ fame. He apparently contended that the state of original sin is perpetuated by the sexual act that produces us. Because Eve had encouraged Adam to sin the role of women was increasingly sidelined and the history of the church rewritten to bring it into line with that version of reality. The Council of Nicea in 393 A.D. defined women as laity, setting its seal of approval on the relegation of women in the Western church.

In the east, covered in the third part, it was rather different. St Theodora, though vilified in the west, was admired in the east and played a huge role in the formation of the foundations, legal and religious, of the Byzantine Empire. To her is attributed the idea of ‘innocent until proved guilty’ for example. In early Islam also women such as Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Mohammad, and Aisha, his second wife, were central to the development of Islam in its early years.

When it comes around again as it probably will, this series is well worth a look.

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Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

(Bahá’u’lláhThe Seven Valleys‘: pages 21-22 which ends with a hadith or tradition about a saying of Muhammad.)

Is the soul a smoke and mirrors job?

There is, in some scientistic quarters where materialism is dogmatic rather than enquiring, a prevailing distrust of any statements of a mystical nature. This scepticism routinely crosses over into suspicions of insanity even when the source of the mystical statement would, on closer investigation, be found to demonstrate a strong, balanced and exemplary character without any other sign of delusion. In fact, in the real world as against in the fantasies of reductionists, mystics are almost invariably very practical people, something that gives their mystical pronouncements added credibility in my view.

Ever since the so-called Enlightenment, our culture has been increasingly losing the ability to discriminate between madness  (seen as meaningless because hallucinatory and delusional, though for reasons I argue elsewhere not necessarily meaningless even so) and mysticism, which is not hallucinatory or delusional in any acceptable sense of those words. I would earnestly request anyone harbouring such a sceptical tendency as I describe, to suspend their habit of disbelief for a few moments for reasons that will become clear as this exploration advances.

Before you read beyond them I would like you ponder on which of the following passages was written by a philosopher and which by a religious person.

Meditation, the first man says:

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

The second man states of meditation that it:

. . . frees man from [his] animal nature [and] discerns the reality of things.

Even though I tried to equalise the style you probably got it right. The first statement comes from Peter Koestenbaum (page 99) and the second from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Paris Talks: page 175).

I think you will agree though that they are more complementary than in conflict.

What each goes on to say is even more intriguing. Koestenbaum ends by saying:

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

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words are:

[Meditation] puts man in touch with God.

A Plan in The Mind's Mirror

A Plan in The Mind's Mirror

The terms meditation, reflection and contemplation are used almost synonymously in many passages. In discussing what he terms reflection within the existentialist tradition, Koestenbaum speaks of it as ‘separating consciousness from its contents.’  It can be also termed disidentification when it involves separating our consciousness from our ideas of ourselves and leads into the deepest levels of our being.

So, it is not just mystics that find our ability to reflect remarkable. Existentialism, which is not known for a fairytale take on experience, gives it tremendous weight as does the Bahá’í approach. This is not a trivial issue. Both schools of thought, and many therapeutic approaches, see reflection in this strong sense as a key pathway to personal transformation, self-transcendence and the enhancement of society.

The Importance of Experience

We will postpone for a moment whether this entails an acceptance of other things such as the reality of the soul. What it does mean is that this capacity we have is subject to the test of experience by all of us. And when we try it out we may find it leads us in unexpected directions that call into question some of our most cherished assumptions. It will inevitably do so because it separates us at least for a moment from those assumptions, cuts across our identification with them, and enables us to look at them afresh. This is why we need to be prepared to suspend our disbelief long enough to put these ideas to an empirical test.

Our culture embraces its own narrow idea of empiricism. By this it generally means only controlled experimentation and excludes

A Feeling in The Mind's Mirror

A Feeling in The Mind's Mirror

personal exploration through experience. There are many things in this world that we can only discover by doing not by reading, talking or thinking about them. Nor can we understand them by a method of scientific exploration that turns people into objects rather than subjects. In ‘objective’ mode, we become like a colour-blind neuropsychologist who knows everything about the way the brain processes colour but can never know what colour is like when we see it (I have adapted this comparison from David J. Chalmers: page 103).

Experiencing our ‘self’, in the fullest and deepest sense of that chameleon word, in order to discover who we really are, is one of those things.

So, I have a challenge for us all. I am suggesting that between now and the next post we all try the following experiment. We need to find a quiet space to do the following exercise at least once a day: it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. It is based on ideas from Psychosynthesis, psychology, Existentialism and the Bahá’í tradition. It is worth persisting with even if it feels somewhat artificial at first. Not to even try is pre-empting the possibility of an experience that could expand our minds. It works best if we approach it with open-minded curiosity as a personal experiment, not as a holy grail or a superstitious ritual.

Separating the Mirror from its Reflections

Sit comfortably and at first simply read the following suggestions several times. When you feel ready, close your eyes, breath slowly and gently, and in your mind repeat the suggestions to yourself at least three times. Put your own ideas into the round brackets if you wish.

I have thoughts but I am not my thoughts. My thoughts change from moment to moment. Just now I was thinking of (money): right now I am thinking of (these words): soon my mind will be preoccupied with (my next meal). So I cannot be my thoughts. I am my capacity to think, the well spring of all my thoughts.

I have feelings, but I am not my feelings. My feelings change from moment to moment. One minute I’m feeling (angry), perhaps; the next moment I’m feeling (sad). So, I cannot be my feelings. I am my capacity to feel from which all other feelings grow.

I have plans, but I am not my plans. My plans change from moment to moment. One minute I plan to be (rich), perhaps; the next moment I plan to be a (poet). So, I cannot be my plans. I am my capacity to will from which all my plans grow.

I am a mirror of pure capacities. I am a mirror created to reflect the highest possible reality. I will do all in my power to cleanse this mirror and turn it towards the highest imaginable realities.

(This exercise is an adaptation of the Disidentification Exercise originally described in `Psychosynthesis’ by Roberto Assagioli: see earlier link.)

Next time we will take a long look at the implications of this. We will look at what the distinction between a mirror and what it reflects suggests about us. In the meantime, happy mirroring!

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How dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form

When within thee the universe is folded?

(Ali, Successor to Muhammad,

quoted by Bahá’u’lláh in ‘The Seven Valleys‘ page 34)



Near death experiences come to the same conclusion as Ali:

As I indicated at the outset, what I have quoted here from our conversation describes only a portion of Mellen’s NDE, but it is enough, I think, to make clear that his vision is one of absolute wholeness in which all things are connected in a living cosmic web of organic unity. The visible universe is a universe of vibrating fields within fields, a dance of exquisite harmony, where, as Blake said, “Energy is eternal delight,” and everything sings of God’s immanent presence. At its core, exfoliating from the Void, is that radiant Light, which some have called the Central Sun, and which metaphorically may have its physical representation in the Big Bang, the genesis of it all, including the star-stuff we call ourselves. Because all things are truly one within this vision of life, we human beings-indeed, all living creatures-are one body indivisible and, as such, not separate from God either, but His very manifestation.

(‘Lessons from the Light‘: page 291)

Reductionists, those who would explain everything in the simplest possible material terms and insist there is nothing left over, find all such experiences irrelevant to an understanding of ‘reality.’ When we explore the issue carefully though, it is my belief that we will find a way of reconciling the idea of a soul and a limitless interior (inscape as I called it in an earlier post) with ordinary human experience.

Let’s start relatively small.

The Ghost in the Machine

The argument rages over whether the ghost in the machine, the pilot in the cockpit of our being, really exists or not. The question would then become not ‘Are we a self or a soul?’ but ‘Are we even a self?’

Daniel Dennett is clear. There is no ghost whatsoever in the machine. It’s a myth. Serial consciousness is itself an illusion. We also kid ourselves  if we believe for one moment that the self we feel ourselves to be is really in charge.

I’d better say, right at the outset, I’m not a philosopher as Dennett is. I am or was until I retired an applied psychologist by profession

A real lamp post!

A 'real' lamp post!

and before that a teacher of English Literature. When it comes to philosophy I’m about as advanced as Dr Johnson when he kicked a lamp post to refute Bishop Berkeley‘s solipsistic claim that things existed only as ideas in our minds placed there by God.

I will argue none the less that Dennett is fundamentally mistaken.

He produces what for him is compelling evidence that our complex brain has plotted and initiated its responses before we were even aware of what we intended to do let alone had the faintest possibility of making a decision about it. The fact is though he is talking about a response time experiment when we also know, for instance, that athletes delegate their decision to react to the gun to parts of the brain that respond subliminally before conscious attention gets the signal. That’s one of the reasons you get false starts.

But the decision to delegate is not made by those parts of the brain. So that we do not get eaten all that often by tigers and the like, evolution has shaped us to be able, in emergency situations, to react faster than we can think: that does not mean we choose to do that all the time. It’s not how we decide to buy a house or write a book. If it were ‘Consciousness Explained‘, the Dennett book in which this theory is propounded, would simply be the product of the automatic processes of a complex calculating machine not the purposeful carefully wrought creation of a person.

The brain has also evolved to automate well-learned skills such as driving a car. We’ve all had the experience of driving several  miles on ‘automatic pilot.’ To suppose, as Dennett seems to do, that  this is the same kind of process as deciding where to drive is treating mud as though it were cheese. Even if we were blindfolded with a peg on our nose, the latter error would become immediately obvious when we put the mud in our mouth. Unfortunately we do not have a similar palate wired in for distinguishing logic from confusion. So, Dennett gets away with his extravagant overgeneralisation. We end up believing, if we are not very careful, that my decision to go and visit my cousin in Manchester was not an act of will but of unseen processes in the brain automatically unfolding.

I’m afraid free will is a lamp post for me. When I decided to write this blog I kicked it and it was definitely there. (The brain’s complex automation adds a further complication to this which, for simplicity’s sake here, I am deferring to a later post: in spite of it I still can kick my lamp post of free will!)

But if there is still some kind of ghost in the machine what kind of ghost and what kind of machine are we talking about?

Identity, Self, Character and Soul

Previous posts on this blog looked at some of the arguments and evidence as to whether or not we will enjoy some kind of afterlife. If this belief has substance, then we have some kind of soul. What are the implications of that for our identity?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his conversations with Laura Clifford Barney (Some Answered Questions [SAQ]: Page 212), explained that there are three kinds of character: the inherited, the acquired and the innate.

`The inherited character’, which he sees as the source of weakness of strength, most closely corresponds in layman’s terms to the idea of `temperament’ or `constitution’. ‘The acquired character,’ which for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the source of good and evil, has no simple equivalent being a composite of all that results from our life experiences: the concepts that stand closest to it are the `empirical self’, (which interacts with others, performs social roles and meets the gaze of introspection), and, perhaps, the `personality’ (which, it is claimed by some, can be measured by questionnaires and tests but generally has no moral implications for the psychologist who studies it).  The last, `the innate character’, is described as `purely good’ because it is a `divine creation.’ This seems to relate it closely to the human soul: `The personality of the rational soul is from its beginning; it is not due to the instrumentality of the body . . .’ (SAQ, page 240).

This description suggests that our sense of who we are is likely to be a composite and we may choose at different times to identify with these different aspects. We could be a self and a soul on this model, and not have to choose between the two as the title of this post suggested.

It is easy to see how we come to identify with our body and with the character we slowly develop as we grow and learn from interactions with the world and with other people. It may be harder, if not impossible for some of us, to experience our soul at all let alone identify with it.

How do we do that? What does it feel like?

Those are big questions and will have to wait for the next post.

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