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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.

As the workshop entered its last day our attempts to close in on the exact power of consultation were reaching a kind of climax.

Beyond a Culture of Contest

We examined more of the explanation started the day before from by the Bahá’í International Community’s document Prosperity of Human Kind (Section III this time – page 7-8). That described consultation as central to ‘the task of reconceptualising the system of human relationships.’ They argue that consultation demands far more of us than ‘the patterns of negotiation and compromise that tend to characterize the present-day discussion of human affairs.’

In much the same way as Michael Karlberg discusses in his book Beyond the Culture of Contest, the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) confront us with the reality that:

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.

They cover much the same ground as we had already explored but in possibly simpler terms, for example the 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 ‘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.’

This is so different from the way that the word consultation is used all too often in our society where a ‘consultation’ document is issued, opinions are canvassed, responses remain unpublished and an opaque decision is arrived at that satisfies no one.

Any link with justice is conspicuous by its absence. Not so in Bahá’í terms according to the BIC.

. . . consultation is the operating expression of justice in human affairs. . . . Indeed, the participation of the people on whose commitment and efforts the success of such a strategy depends becomes effective only as consultation is made the organizing principle of every project.

Lample sings from essentially the same hymn sheet as the BIC, emphasising the way consultation rises above petty self-interest (Revelation and Social Reality – Page 199):

Consultation is the method of Baha’i discourse that allows decisions to be made from the bottom up and enacted, to the extent possible, through rational, dispassionate, and just means, while minimising personal machinations, argumentation, or self-interested manipulation.

Unsurprisingly justice comes into the mix again (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.

I end up, after reading such passages as these, feeling that consultation is the Bahá’í yoga. It is equally central to Bahá’í spiritual development as yoga is to its tradition; it is equally effortful and demanding as well as leading to an at least equivalent level of skill.

I think it is fair to say that the workshop group ended up of basically the same mind.

Hopefully the development of this central skill will make the Bahá’í community capable of following the advice of its central body, the Universal House of Justice, when it reminds us (Ridván Message 2008) of the words of Shoghi Effendi that we neither “overstress” nor “whittle down” the truth which [we] champion’ neither must we be “fanatical” nor “excessively liberal”.

More examples perhaps of the ‘moderation’ we have already explored as a necessary quality of our speech. Lample expresses a similar idea when he writes (page 45) ‘[C]aution must be exercised to avoid the extremes of absolute certainty or relativism.’

The Universal House of Justice also emphasise (ibid) that ‘Only if you perceive honour and nobility in every human being – this independent of wealth or poverty – will you be able to champion the cause of justice. And to the extent that administrative processes of your institutions are governed by the principles of Bahá’í consultation will the great masses of humanity be able to take refuge in the Bahá’í community.’

The Importance and Nature of Action

This whole process depends not just on studying our Scripture. Lample explains (page 23):

Study of the Word of God must be complemented by the effort to put the teachings into effect through a simultaneous process of action and reflection.

He quotes Shoghi Effendi’s analogy (From a letter of 2 November 1933 to an individual believer) of the Bahá’í community as a laboratory.

The Bahá’í community life provides you with an indispensable laboratory, where you can translate into living and constructive action the principles which you imbibe from the Teachings. . . . . To study the principles, and to try to live according to them, are, therefore, the two essential mediums through which you can ensure the development and progress of your inner spiritual life and of your outer existence as well.

Lample makes it clear that belief without action upon that belief is not enough (page 47):

The purpose of religion, however, is not simply to describe reality but to change human conduct and create a new social reality. Interpretation does not stand on its own. To test the soundness of our understanding we have to strive to apply it in action.

This will not be a quick fix nor will it depend only upon the Bahá’ís. The Universal House of Justice describes it as the work of centuries. Lample writes (page 48):

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality… It is not a project in which Baha’is engage apart from the rest of humanity.

He amplifies the second point later (page 109):

. . . emphasis on the contributions Bahá’ís are to make to the civilisation-building process is not intended to diminish the significance of efforts being exerted by others.

In fact (page 210) ‘Spiritual progress and moral behaviour are won by degrees, in incrementally better actions day by day, in an incrementally better world generation after generation.’

Nor will it be achieved by merely materialistic motivation nor by self-interest no matter how enlightened (pages 147-48):

The profound and far-reaching changes, the unity and unprecedented cooperation required to reorient the world towards an environmentally sustainable and just future, will only be possible by touching the human spirit, by appealing to those universal values which alone can empower individuals and people to act in accordance with the long-term interests of the planet and humanity as a whole.

Progress in turn results from the mutually reinforcing interaction of individual and society (page 58): ‘Living a Bahá’í life involves the twofold purpose of individual and social transformation.’ He quotes the Guardian’s insight (Shoghi Effendi, from a letter to an individual Baha’i, 17 February 1933) that ‘We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.’

On sobering thoughts of that kind we closed the workshop with a sense of all the challenges that lay ahead, the anxiety tempered by an equally strong sense that not one of was alone in that endeavour: we have each other and we can draw upon the Power of Bahá’u’lláh.

The Journey Home

When we boarded the train in Dundee to return home, it was virtually empty. Great! I could start my sequence of blog posts about the summer school. My wife and I had the table to ourselves. With my laptop in front of me I started pulling the first post together. I’d probably done over 700 words by the time we pulled into Kirkaldy.

Then everything changed.

The carriage flooded with people. The table opposite filled with a party of ladies pouring champagne. A man almost as grey as me quietly asked if he could take the window seat beside me. Fortunately I’d anticipated the influx and put most of my stuff on the luggage rack and was just finding a place for my laptop cover as I stood up to let him in. My wife on the opposite side of the table moved over to the window to make space for a mother with two young daughters.

At the far end of the now crowded carriage, where our luggage was stashed, a party of six was settling in with their beer and wine, one of them perched on the top ledge of the rack.

‘It’s always like this on a Saturday,’ the man in the window seat confided. ‘Especially now with the Edinburgh Festival and a football match.’

I couldn’t catch the name of the team.

‘Which are you going to?’

‘The football of course. I’ve been supporting them for years and never miss a match. Where are you heading?’

‘Hereford.’ As I said that I remembered the sticker on the inside of a toilet door: ‘Horrorford: the graveyard of all ambition.’ I decided not to share the joke.

As I looked out of the window at the green fields speeding by, I added, ‘It’s a bit like this. Lots of farms and lovely countryside. You sound as if you come from somewhere else as well.’

‘You’re right. Bournemouth. But I’ve lived here for over twenty years.’

I could see very clearly I was not going to do any more blogging. I closed the lid of my laptop. At each of the succeeding stations the carriage became even fuller.

Somehow the conversation moved onto the state of the world. I’m not sure which of us started it. We covered all the usual complaints – politics, housing, the NHS, terrorism, Brexit, Grenfell Tower etc.

Finally I turned to him and said, ‘So, what’s the solution?’

‘I haven’t a clue. What do you think?’

‘Well, my first thought is education. That’s a good focus of attention to start creating a better future – encourage our children to become more caring of other people, of animals, and of the planet as well.’

‘I agree, but that’ll never happen. Those in charge will be too threatened.’

‘But we’ve got to start somewhere. I know it’ll take generations, centuries even. But we have to learn that we can’t solve any of our problems by competing and arguing all the time. We have to learn to work together, to stop magnifying our differences, to start recognising we’re all human beings and need to care about each other. We’ve got to get beyond this culture of contest and create a culture of cooperation.’

I hadn’t consciously been thinking of the mother and her children across the table. So, I was surprised when she spoke up.

‘I couldn’t help hearing what you were saying. I completely agree. And I think there should be no more political parties. Everyone should be working together in parliament to create solutions to all the problems that we have.’

Maybe I had picked up subliminally that a mother would respond to the idea of education.

The man in the window nodded vigorously in agreement with what she said.

‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘There must be so many people, far more than I ever thought, beginning to think in the same way in the face of these challenges.’

I edged towards the spiritual dimensions of the remedy and said a little about the Bahá’í Faith. The conversation faded at that point and returned to the safe ground of small talk. Even so it was encouraging.

As we left Edinburgh Gateway it seemed a good idea to retrieve our luggage from the racks at the end of the carriage. There was no exit there. We’d have to get off the train at the door just behind us. I was a bit apprehensive about negotiating two heavy bags down the crowded carriage. As it worked out I threaded my way easily to the partying group at the baggage rack.

They saw me coming. I explained that I was there for my bags and immediately the two men nearest the rack began getting them out for me.

A woman next to me lent over and confided, ‘We’ve sold them on Ebay.’

‘That was a quick sale,’ I quipped.

She grinned.

I rolled the bags back to our table, people taking pains to clear the way for me.

I put the smaller case on our seat and apologised to the father of the two daughters for getting in his way.

‘No problem,’ he smiled.

I got our other stuff down from the rack, packed my laptop into my backpack, put my jacket on and handed my wife her cardigan.

‘Can you manage the bag on the seat?’ I asked her.

‘Don’t worry about that,’ the father said. ‘I’ll get it onto the platform for you. We’re getting off here anyway.’

I was touched by how warmly everyone I had approached in the carriage had helped me solve my luggage problem. In a small way it showed how most people are really only too happy to help others. All the doom and gloom in the media is only part of the picture and sadly helps hide from us our full potential. To be fair, though, the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower inferno demonstrated this kindness on an even larger scale. Hundreds, if not thousands of people showered with help those suffering from the trauma of it all.

As we waited for our train at Haymarket there was a warm feeling in my heart. Maybe a sense of oneness was not all that far away. The ache of the wrench of leaving the summer school and its uplifting atmosphere was easing.

I spent the rest of the journey without a table, noting in my small brown notebook the pages of Lample’s book which contained key quotes to pull into the blog posts on the summer school.

When I was too tired to do any more, I pulled out my copy of The Munich Girl and began to read: ‘Panic ignited a fuse in Anna when the 747’s hatch door sealed shut.’

The last hour of the journey sped by.

Home at last after ten hours on speeding trains and sitting on stations!

‘What was going to happen next?’ I wondered.

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

Each day we drove into Strathallan from Dundee. This was because my health issues meant that I needed to make sure I had enough rest each day. Being a resident at summer school means that you have the benefit of more activities but with that goes a greater expenditure of energy that I couldn’t afford this time round.

So, after the long ribbon of the bridge over the shining waters of the Firth of Tay and the 17 miles of dual carriageway under alternating showers and sunshine, we arrived back at the school in time for prayers and Khazeh Fananapazir’s engaging exploration of the significance of this year. Two hundred years ago Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was born in Tehran. This year therefore Bahá’ís are taking every opportunity to remember His life and connect with Him spiritually, as well as to deepen our understanding of the spiritual connection between Bahá’u’lláh as the Manifestation of God for this day and the Báb as His Herald .

After that, and a cup of coffee and a cake, we headed for our workshop.

Consensus Consciousness

It might help if we begin more or less where we left off. Charles Tart in his book Waking Up.’ begins his analysis of social reality and its impact on the individual by contending (page 9) that ‘Consciousness, particularly its perceptual aspects, creates an internal representation of the outside world, such that we have a good quality “map” of the world and our place in it.’ He doesn’t mince words when he describes what he feels is an important correlative of this (page 11): ‘Our ordinary consciousness is not “natural,” but an acquired product. This has given us both many useful skills and many insane sources of useless suffering.’

He chooses to introduce a phrase that captures this (ibid):

. . . [For the phrase ordinary consciousness] I shall substitute a technical term I introduced some years ago, consensus consciousness, as a reminder of how much everyday consciousness has been shaped by the consensus of belief in our particular culture.

He continues (page 59):

. . . . one of our greatest human abilities, and greatest curses, is our ability to create simulations of the world . . . . These simulations, whether or not they accurately reflect the world, can then trigger emotions. Emotions are a kind of energy, a source of power.

In the workshop at Strathallan School we delved deeply into this down side and its costs from a spiritual point of view. In a mystical work of poetic power and great beauty Bahá’u’lláh writes (Seven Valleys – pages 19-20):

Thus it is that certain invalid souls have confined the lands of knowledge within the wall of self and passion, and clouded them with ignorance and blindness, and have been veiled from the light of the mystic sun and the mysteries of the Eternal Beloved; they have strayed afar from the jewelled wisdom of the lucid Faith of the Lord of Messengers, have been shut out of the sanctuary of the All-Beauteous One, and banished from the Ka’bih of splendour. Such is the worth of the people of this age! . . . . .

Clearly, this kind of tunnel vision is more than enough to account for why Bahá’u’lláh can dismiss much of what we think as superstition, illusion, delusion and ‘vain imaginings.’ There was some discussion in the workshop as to whether invalid should be taken to mean ‘sick’ or ‘unconfirmed/inauthentic.’ Fortunately we had the chance to check out with Khazeh, the presenter of the plenary sessions and a reader of both Arabic and Persian, what the word in the original text meant: he said without the slightest hesitation, ‘sick’.

Also, what we see is still very much in the eye of the beholder. In an exploration which compares reality at the spiritual level to the sun, whose pure light is white, Bahá’u’lláh illustrates how different what we observe is from the light itself (pages 19-20):

In sum, the differences in objects have now been made plain. Thus when the wayfarer gazeth only upon the place of appearance–that is, when he seeth only the many-colored globes –he beholdeth yellow and red and white; hence it is that conflict hath prevailed among the creatures, and a darksome dust from limited souls hath hid the world. And some do gaze upon the effulgence of the light; and some have drunk of the wine of oneness and these see nothing but the sun itself.

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that these subjective differences, which result from the imperfections of our vision, can give rise to utterly toxic conflicts, conflicts whose origins are in essence delusional.

Cleansing the Mirror

As individuals, brainwashed by flawed worldviews, what can we do to transcend the resulting limitations?

In exploring this angle on the issue I am not discounting that steps also need to be taken to address the limitations of our culture, but, in seeking to capture the flow of consultation around the quotations we were considering, it’s easiest to start from here and deal with the wider issues later.

Bahá’u’lláh writes (Gleanings – XXVII):

. . . These energies with which the Day Star of Divine bounty and Source of heavenly guidance hath endowed the reality of man lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp. The radiance of these energies may be obscured by worldly desires even as the light of the sun can be concealed beneath the dust and dross which cover the mirror. Neither the candle nor the lamp can be lighted through their own unaided efforts, nor can it ever be possible for the mirror to free itself from its dross. It is clear and evident that until a fire is kindled the lamp will never be ignited, and unless the dross is blotted out from the face of the mirror it can never represent the image of the sun nor reflect its light and glory.

I have dealt at length elsewhere on this blog with the idea of the human heart as a mirror that needs to be burnished if it is to reflect the light of spiritual reality and that we also need to be sure that we do not mistake what is reflected there for the mirror itself. It is enough at this point simply to quote a writer whose insights, along with my experience of Buddhist meditation, helped prepare me to understand Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation sufficiently to choose the path He reveals to us. What this writer says covers what our consultation on the day disclosed to us about the power and challenges of separating consciousness from its contents, a process he calls reflection.

In his brilliant book on existentialism The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy, Peter Koestenbaum states that (page 69):

[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.

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.

Koestenbaum explains this (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.

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.

I feel this brings us in psychotherapeutic terms close to the exact place ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is describing in Paris Talks. These are the quotes we wrestled with at the Summer School, striving to understand the role of silence more fully (page 174-176):

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 at one time — he cannot both speak and meditate.

It is an axiomatic fact 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. . . .

Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit — the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. . .

Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see.

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

. . . Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . . .

The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these. . . .

Therefore let us keep this faculty rightly directed — turning it to the heavenly Sun and not to earthly objects — so that we may discover the secrets of the Kingdom, and comprehend the allegories of the Bible and the mysteries of the spirit.

May we indeed become mirrors reflecting the heavenly realities, and may we become so pure as to reflect the stars of heaven.

Bronze mirror, New Kingdom of Egypt, Eighteenth Dynasty, 1540–1296 BC. For source of image see link.

This paved the way for our attempt to understand the relationship between achieving oneness and cleansing the mirror of the heart, which Bahá’u’lláh describes as burnishing, a process of intense friction involving metal against metal, not just picking up a duster and some polish to bring the shine back to a modern glass mirror. Once again a quick confab with Khazeh confirmed that the original word implied effort and friction. This suggests that Bahá’u’lláh may have had the early metal mirrors in mind when He wished to convey how difficult, even painful, the polishing process would be for the heart’s mirror. A Wikipedia article states:

. . . . stone and metal mirrors could be made in very large sizes, but were difficult to polish and get perfectly flat; a process that became more difficult with increased size; so they often produced warped or blurred images. Stone mirrors often had poor reflectivity compared to metals, yet metals scratch or tarnish easily, so they frequently needed polishing. Depending upon the color, both often yielded reflections with poor color rendering.[6] The poor image quality of ancient mirrors explains 1 Corinthians 13‘s reference to seeing “as in a mirror, darkly.”

The art of making glass mirrors was not perfected until the 16th Century.

If we become capable of polishing the mirror of our hearts, then we can potentially become capable of reflecting the pure undivided light of spiritual reality, thus transcending both our inner conflicts and our conflicts with others.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes this possibility in the following words (Selected Writing of ‘Abdul-Baha 1978 – page 76):

For now have the rays of reality from the Sun of the world of existence, united in adoration all the worshippers of this light; and these rays have, through infinite grace, gathered all peoples together within this wide-spreading shelter; therefore must all souls become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

This then will remedy our current conflicted state, wherein we are at war with ourselves as well as with others. This is Bahá’u’lláh’s description of the challenge we face compared with the reality most of us are blind to (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh = CXII):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

He is unequivocal about the role of religion in this healing process (ibid. – CXXVIII):

The religion of God is for love and unity; make it not the cause of enmity and dissension. . . . Conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book. This is a decree of God in this Most Great Revelation.

And now we come to a cusp where we move from looking mainly at the individual to where we look at the community. And here it is that we will see where words can change from misleading labels or names, corrupted by misguided worldviews, to lamps of guidance.

That needs to wait for the next post.

When we got back to Dundee that evening, from the window of the flat where we were staying we could see the lights of a cruiser docked at the harbour side. Though purely material, it had a beauty of its own.

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

We had travelled by train to Dundee a few days before the start of the summer school and stayed with family. This gave me a chance to rest before things started to heat up. Summer Schools are intense but heart-warming experiences, and it’s best not to be tired before you get there!

During our time in Dundee there was a curious encounter with a piece of graffiti. We were walking to the centre of Dundee when I saw something oddly familiar but intensely strange on a pebbledash wall.

What on earth did those initials mean in this context? I know that in the States they relate to their National Security Agency, but this was the UK. For me that acronym stands for a national Bahá’í institution called the National Spiritual Assembly. Certainly these letters were not standing for that. It might be the National Sheep Agency but that didn’t seem likely. In the end, I was happy to let it remain one of those amusing mysteries life throws across our paths from time to time.

Anyway, less of that distraction.

Strathallan School, where the Scotland Bahá’í Summer School was held this year, is an ample, even opulent environment about four miles from Perth. There is lots of open space, pockets of woodland and spacious lawns – no sounds of traffic but no escape, of course, from periodic downpours of rain. No surprise there then. As we drove to the venue from Dundee the sky alternately shone and showered upon us.

The theme of the workshop I was in was oneness. We found our way across the vast campus with the compass of optimism and the map of trust eventually finding the room at the end of a corridor branching off from the bookshop (a fatal coincidence of temptations for me).

On the first day, a Sunday, there were 17 of us. The total dropped to 12 after the weekend, but the energy level stayed high and, for me at least, inspiring. The way we worked was to look at passages from the Bahá’í Writings, along with some helpful ideas from various other authors. The process we followed was one of consultation. This means that none of us believed we were the ones who really understood the passages: instead we firmly held onto the idea that by working together, sharing our thoughts and listening intently to the thoughts of others, we would lift our understanding to a far higher level.

It worked. If you don’t believe me you should really try it sometime.

Two faces are blurred because I don’t have permission from the people concerned to publish their picture. I have been assured that I was not asleep.

It would be impossible to cover, in a few short posts, all the interwoven themes that formed the tapestry of our consultation over the three days I was there. We started from where I have described in a previous post which I ended by saying that the role the Bahá’í community should play in creating a more unified world is perhaps best captured by an image that has been used in another context: it is as a catalyst, something that can speed up a process taking place outside itself. This capacity has two aspects (Century of Light – my emphases):

The power that the Cause possesses to influence the course of history thus lies not only in the spiritual potency of its message but in the example it provides. “So powerful is the light of unity,” Bahá’u’lláh asserts, “that it can illuminate the whole earth.” . . . . . The organic unity of the body of believers – and the Administrative Order that makes it possible – are evidences of what Shoghi Effendi termed “the society-building power which their Faith possesses.”

What followed was a circular path leading from the individual through the group and the community to justice and the creation of a better world, which was more or less where we started.

Social Reality:

After our encounter with the challenge laid down by the Universal House of Justice, we continued by looking at some of the obstacles that stand in the way of our full appreciation of unity and how to achieve it, first as individuals and then as groups. Bahá’u’lláh writes (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Haifa 1978: page 58):

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.

Given the hidden nature of spiritual reality and our freedom to choose what we believe or seek to teach others to believe, there is also therefore the immense power of social influence at work on what we experience and how we experience it.

Given that I couldn’t possibly reproduce here the complex flow of our consultation as we grappled with this issue, I’ve decided to pull in quotations that cover much the same ground.

There are two thinkers who have shaped my perspective about this, which of course is an example of how culture works: these are Paul Lample and Charles Tart. A Bahá’í writer, Paul Lample, has written illuminatingly on this theme. I will move between the two of them as I explore their thinking. Tart’s views I have already explored at some length on this blog so I will spend more time on Lample’s as explained in Revelation and Social Reality.

Before I plunge into the depths, it is perhaps important to share the distinction Lample explores early on between two types of reality, a distinction that is of central importance to our understanding of human nature (page 7):

We can understand this special role of humanity by noting that most of what we perceive to be reality – the world with which we interact every day – is not physical reality at all. It is social reality. . . . Social reality mediates our engagement with the world, physical and spiritual, and it is this reality that we have the capacity to create anew.

He quotes from John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality to unpack the distinction he wishes to make (ibid):

In a sense, there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking of things like money, property, governments, and marriages. Yet many facts regarding these things are “objective” facts in the sense that they are not a matter of your or my preferences, evaluations, or moral attitudes. I am thinking of such facts as that I am a citizen of the United States, that the piece of paper in my pocket is a five dollar bill, etc. . . . These contrast with such facts as that Mount Everest has snow and ice near the summit… which are facts totally independent of any human opinions.

Of course, Searle continues (page 8), ‘in order to state a brute fact we require the institution of language, but the fact stated needs to be distinguished from the statement of it.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá eloquently explains exactly what this means in a spiritual terms (Promulgation of Universal Peace (PUP) Wilmette 1982 pages 421-422):

When we consider the world of existence, we find that the essential reality underlying any given phenomenon is unknown. Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes. Man discerns only manifestations, or attributes, of objects, while the identity, or reality, of them remains hidden. For example, we call this object a flower. What do we understand by this name and title? We understand that the qualities appertaining to this organism are perceptible to us, but the intrinsic elemental reality, or identity, of it remains unknown. Its external appearance and manifest attributes are knowable; but the inner being, the underlying reality or intrinsic identity, is still beyond the ken and perception of our human powers. Inasmuch as the realities of material phenomena are impenetrable and unknowable and are only apprehended through their properties or qualities, how much more this is true concerning the reality of Divinity, that holy essential reality which transcends the plane and grasp of mind and man?

Even before we consider the role of names in clouding reality, we have to accept that our senses are quite limited in the way they represent the world to our consciousness, even at a material level. We see wavelengths of potentially particulate light as colours, and combinations of atoms composed mostly of empty space as densely solid objects. In a sense not only is our social reality a simulation: our perception of the physical world is also. It has evolved simply to maximise our chances of survival, not to penetrate the surface to reach the inner reality.

Lample continues (ibid:)

Searle notes that the structure of social reality has a tremendous complexity. A simple visit to a restaurant as a reality that include immediately visible aspects, including the social meaning of ‘money,’ ‘waiter,’ ‘restaurant,’ ‘chair,’ and invisible, underlying aspects such as the concept of employment, an economic system, an agricultural system, and government regulations. There is also a normative dimension of social reality, in that the waiter can be rude or polite, the food unsatisfying or delicious.

There is an important corollary here (ibid:)

Searle observed that the entire structure of social reality is taken for granted by individuals, who are brought up in a culture that conveys social facts in the same way it presents rocks or trees.

Charles Tart

In his book Waking Up, Tart seems to be dealing with this same aspect (page 85): ‘normal consciousness will be referred to as consensus trance; the hypnotist will be personified as the culture. The “subject,” the person subjected to this process, is you.’

In a way that parallels Bahá’u’lláh’s ‘veils’ of delusion and superstition, Tart sees consensus consciousness as on a disturbing continuum (page 102): ‘We can view illusions and hallucinations as extreme points on the continuum of simulation of the world.’

He doesn’t give us much room to wriggle off the hook here. The state of mind he goes onto to describe is not an enviable one (page 95):

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.

Even so, Lample sees us very much as agents in the creation of our world view (Revelation & Social Reality – page 6): ‘Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us.’

Lample none the less plausibly contends that (ibid) ‘In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.’

He illustrates the kind of factor that can trigger such transformations (page 8):

When the fundamental agreements which frame belief and behaviour change, social reality will change, as in the case of the dramatic collapse of communism in countries across Europe and Asia in a matter of months around 1990, after being a commanding presence that dominated the lives of hundreds of millions for over a half century.

He concludes, in terms which acknowledge Tart’s sense that we are shaped by as well as being shapers of social reality, that (page 10) ‘. . . Social reality is not static; it is mutable. It forms us, but because it owes its existence to common human understanding, we have the power to contribute to reshaping it.’

I think this is a good place to pause. Next time we will consider ways of transcending some of our limitations.

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I have just returned from an exhilarating three days at a Bahá’í summer school in Perth. A group of us were working our way through a set of materials tackling the issue of unity – unity at the individual and at the group/community level. It’ll take me some time to digest all that we discussed and learned before I can blog about it coherently. Serendipity is fortunately working in my favour and there is a recent article by Greg Hodges on the Bahá’í Teachings website dealing with an aspect of this. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Humanity is already united. It may not seem like it, but it’s true; and not just in the sense that we’re all created by God from the same spiritual substance.

We are already one because all of us are enmeshed in a world civilization of recent origin and of far greater complexity than any society that has existed in past centuries.

No emperor is sovereign over this empire. No institution governs the entirety of this sprawling network. No race, nation, or ethnicity can claim to represent its true culture. Its various names speak to different aspects of its character: globalization, new world order, capitalism, etc.

The one act that connects everyone in this global empire is trade. The thing that binds us is money. Whether you cook meals for factory workers in Vietnam, have seen your housing expenses skyrocket in London, or live near an oil well in Nigeria, you are connected in some way to the vast flow of resources that joins every corner of the planet to every other corner.

So all the world is one. Everything’s great! Right? We’ve achieved the unification of the human race prophesied by the Baha’i Faith! Haven’t we? Not so fast.

Humanity has unleashed its enormous material capacities, without gaining the corresponding attitudes, behaviors, and institutions needed to channel those powers in entirely constructive directions. We haven’t even developed the necessary means to prevent us from destroying ourselves, as evidenced by the spread of nuclear weapons, and the deep failure to respond in a timely or adequate manner to the onset of global climate change. The overflow of material wealth from modern industry has raised everyone’s expectations about food, clothing, housing, appliances, etc. But the social and cultural means to eliminate poverty or foster meaningful happiness have not accompanied the explosion in technology and the economy.

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A good friend alerted me to this illuminating article on conflict resolution. It sheds such a useful light on the problems of conviction that I’ve just been exploring it was a no-brainer to post it now. Below is a short extract: for the fill article see link.

We can all play a role in helping defuse even the most bitter conflicts. Veteran negotiator William Ury shares his hard-won insights.

My passion in life is helping people and societies to move from no to yes. As a negotiator, mediator and cofounder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard University, I’ve spent more than four decades traveling the world and getting involved in some of the most difficult conflicts of our time, from the Cold War to the Middle East.

One of my favorite negotiation stories is about a man who leaves his herd of 17 camels to his three sons as their inheritance. To the first son, he leaves half the camels; to the middle son, he leaves a third of the camels; and to the youngest son, he leaves a ninth of the camels. The three sons get into an intense negotiation over who should get how many, because 17 doesn’t divide by two, or by three, or by nine. Tempers become strained, so in desperation they consult a wise, old woman. She listens to their problem and says, “Well, I don’t know if I can help you, but if you want, at least you can have my camel.” Now they have 18 camels, so the first son takes half of them, or nine camels; the middle son takes his third, or six camels; and the youngest son takes his ninth, or two camels. Nine plus six plus two adds up to a total of 17 camels. There is one camel left over, so the brothers give it back to the woman.

Many of our negotiations and conflicts today are like those 17 camels — they seem impossible to resolve, with no apparent solution in sight. What we need to do is step back from the situation, look at it through a fresh lens, and come up with an 18th camel. Finding that 18th camel in the world’s conflicts has been my life’s work.

If you think about the human predicament today, we are a bit like those three brothers, because we are one human family. Thanks to technology, all the tribes on the planet can, for the first time, get in touch with each other. And the big question facing us is: How do we deal with our deepest differences, given the human propensity for conflict and the human ability to devise weapons of enormous destruction?

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