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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Koestenbaum’

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

Vincent to Theo – March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh page 272)

Before Christmas I republished my sequence on Reality, Art and the Artist. This sequence is my somewhat unexpected attempt to dig deeply into this topic from a different angle.  It seemed useful to post this again in the New Year.

Distraction

Last Monday was not my best meditation day.

I was doing quite well till my mind got hooked by my shirt. I found myself suddenly remembering how I thought twice before letting its red corduroy comfort go to the charity shop as part of our current declutter. Red shirt led to blue shirt, which led to blue jacket, blue trousers and Crewe Station. I was there again. Just as I was boarding the train, one foot on the platform and one foot in the air above the step, carrying luggage that should have made it clear I was a passenger, someone tapped me on the shoulder thinking I was a guard and asked me what platform the Liverpool train was leaving from. I turned to look at them and put my foot down between the platform and the train, scraping the skin neatly off my shin as I did so. Fortunately I dropped my bags on the platform and not on the line. I used a tissue to staunch the blood between Crewe and Hereford. Rather than go straight home, I called in on a friend who got out the TCP and Elastoplast. I still remember the sting to this day. I remembered that this was the friend I’d called on once before 20 years earlier, when – and this came vividly back to me despite the span of time – driving home tired down the Callow at the end of a long week, I was overtaking (legally at the time) in the middle lane (they’ve blocked that option since for downhill traffic), when I saw a car coming up the hill doing the same thing. The long lorry I was halfway past was picking up speed. All I could do was brake. As I tried to pull in slightly too soon, I caught the Lada on the back end of the truck. Fortunately the Lada was made of sterner stuff than most cars at the time and didn’t completely cave in or get derailed, but it was pulled out of shape and the near side front tyre was blown. I pulled into the side of the road and, with the help of the lorry driver who had stopped to check I was OK, changed the tyre. The car was slightly wobbly as I drove off and I knew it was not a good idea to drive it all the way home. I was amazed to pass a parked police car on the way with no interest shown on their part. So, I drove to my friend’s and parked the car on his front lawn, the only safe space off the road. He had a bit of a shock when he got home from work. At this point I snapped out of my trance of associations and brought my mind back to the focus of my meditations, shaking of my irritation with myself and my slight reactivation of the Lada-on-the-lawn stress as best I could.

Incidentally, I don’t wear blue anymore when I’m travelling.

Reflection

For this and other reasons I am revisiting an all-too familiar theme: reflection. To bring on board those who might not have read all my earlier posts on this issue I’ll pull in now a brief quotation from some time ago. It comes from a book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Hayes et al. It is attempting to explain that transient states of mind and mere self-descriptions are all too often mistaken for our true self. To help people step back from such identifications the authors liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board (page 192):

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.

Peter Koestenbaum makes essentially the same point more abstractly in his excellent book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. 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.

Personally, while I find the ACT analogy helpful, I prefer the idea of a mirror and its reflections, partly I suppose because it uses the same word in a different but helpful sense. Our mind or consciousness is the mirror and all our experiences, inside and out, are simply reflections in that mirror: they are not who we are, not even the most intense feelings, our most important plans, or the strongest sense of self. We have to learn to see them as simply the contents of consciousness. Only that way can we tune into deeper and wiser levels of our being. Mindfulness at its best can enable us to identify with pure awareness rather than with whatever transient trigger has grabbed our attention.

I have been working fairly hard (not hard enough probably, as the derailed meditation at the start of this post suggests) to put the insights explored in that sequence of posts into action.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 (for source of image see link)

Capturing Consciousness

It has led into me into some interesting territory.

While I was exploring the concept of transliminality even further back in time I came across A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf edited by her husband Leonard after her death by suicide. I was drawn to examine what she wrote in case it shed light on my attempt to link creativity, thresholds of consciousness and so-called psychotic experiences together.

Long before I could integrate what I found there into my model, my focus of interest had typically moved on: my mind is still more of a butterfly than a bee, despite my best efforts so far.

However, the Woolf issue was still stalking the door of my consciousness, whether I was aware of it or not.

As part of my decluttering, I am in the process, as I have mentioned elsewhere, of checking whether I still need all the books I have bought over the years. I take a book off its shelf at random from time to time, open it and see if I have read it or not. Sometimes there are highlighter pen marks within and I put it back, at least for the time being. Sometimes there aren’t and occasionally it’s not even got my name signed on the flyleaf. In which case I dip into it and read a few random pages. I reported on having done that recently with a biography of Hardy. I repeated the same process with Julia Briggs’ account of the creative life of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf: an inner life.

Same outcome: no way that was going to the Oxfam bookshop.

Why not?

Basically her book was a brilliant tour of the writer’s mind. Within that there were a host of insights into aspects of the creative process related to mental health and reflection, or perhaps more accurately in Woolf’s case, creative introspection. Whatever the right term is, part of her genius lies in her capacity to capture in words the subtleties and complexity of consciousness, including the rambling associative networks that can hijack attention at any moment.

Before we tackle that head on, in the next post I’m going to make a detour via some paintings.

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Why am I grappling with this task now? That’s not an easy question to answer.

Psychosynthesis

On 29 February 1976, I celebrated what I called the best event of that unusual day. I had read Psychosynthesis by Roberto Assagioli:

Some jargon, yes. Some holes – he’s appalling about music, not as scientific as he’d like to think, . . . but the sanest, most balanced, optimistic, and apparently potentially effective therapy I’ve read about.

Given that at this point my atheism hadn’t really been significantly dented, this was quite an accolade for such a spiritual form of therapy. And what had particularly gripped me was his disidentification exercise, though I found the practice of it hard going. Judging by the highlights I made at the time, I was struck by what Assagioli defines as the power and importance of disidentification:[1]

We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves.

If I was relying purely on my memory I would now state with complete confidence that my fascination with Psychosynthesis continued for months, if not a year or more. I was living in Hendon, close to the Psychosynthesis Centre, and was even contemplating paying them a visit.

Transactional Analysis

However, in reality, by 19 March I was writing: ‘I’ve leapt from Psychosynthesis to Transactional Analysis (TA) in no time at all.’ This was at a time when I was also dithering about whether to do a psychology degree or not. By 23 March I was going to an appointment with a TA therapist and by the 1 April I was attending her group. I did practice disidentification off and on for years after though, buying more books on Psychosynthesis in the late 90s.

What I think TA did for me was help me disidentify from my Parent and Child Ego States and use my Adult more. So it was a step up the ladder of reflection in a way, but not as powerful as disidentification would have been if I had practiced it more assiduously. However, I needed some tools to help me cope with the staff interaction patterns in my work at a MH day centre, and TA seemed a perfect fit.

It didn’t seem to take very long for TA to help me straighten out my handling of some aspects of the fraught relationships in the job situation. Initially I did not know how to deal with the backstabbing that seemed to me to be going on, but a diary of entry of 10 May 1976 suggests significant progress was being made, at least in clarifying one way of handling the problem. I wrote down my intentions clearly:

Basically I want to say, ‘Look, I don’t like what’s happening here. I’m not going to talk about her to you or about you to her. Whatever either of you say or think about each other is between you. I’m not going to get caught up in it. You sort out your own tangles: at least those that happen when I’m offstage. Any that happen when I’m on stage, I’ll try and say exactly what I think and feel if it seems appropriate and constructive. If it doesn’t I’ll try to shut up. I’m not going to keep on moaning and gossiping. Anything I’ve got to say about you I’ll say to you. . . . My policy is if you or anyone wants to talk about anyone else around here, I’m not going to talk about them behind their back. I’ve had enough. And I’ll say it to you as well as to her.’

It is intriguing how many elements of these various learning experiences primed my mind to respond positively to so much of the Bahá’í message. Here my intentions mapped so closely onto the Bahá’í perspective on backbiting. As Bahá’u’lláh explains, if we are seeking to find the right path in life, we ‘should . . . regard backbiting as grievous error, and keep [ourselves] aloof from its dominion, inasmuch as backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul.’[2]

Whether I followed my own advice to the letter and stated my case in the way I describe, I unfortunately do not know as there’s no clear record of my doing so. A later comment from the same date suggests I had my doubts: ‘I don’t know whether I’ll be strong enough to be like that.’

Anyway, best to get back to the main issues.

Reflection

So, what had prepared the ground of my mind to welcome so warmly Koestenbaum’s perspective on reflection as a process of separating consciousness from its contents and connecting more strongly to our deepest self, was Assagioli’s concept of disidentification and TA’s focus on using the Adult Ego state to process experience, along with an intermediate prolonged and powerful experiment with a Buddhist meditation based on following the breath.

That something that worked so well involved breathing should come as no surprise given my dramatic breakthrough to a previously unconscious pool of pain after using continuous conscious breathing for several hours at a London Encounter Group. (In addition, the fact that my traumatic childhood experiences in hospital involved being chloroformed, which entails breathing in an unpleasant anaesthetic, it is entirely logical that undoing the emotional damage from that should involve breathing in air in a purer form.)

From that Encounter Group starting point before exploring Disidentification, then diving into TA, passing out of atheism, through Buddhist meditation and through Koestenbaum to the Bahá’í concept of the essential unity of all humanity, turned out to be a shorter step for me to take than I would ever have thought. (I’ve dealt with that at some length in Leaps of Faith(especially in the third part) so I’ll say no more here.)

I need to also flag up here something quite remarkable. When I originally read Assagioli’s book in 1976, not only was I moved to practice his disidentification exercise, but I also highlighted some other key ideas on page 18. He wrote:

The changing contents of our consciousness (the sensations, thoughts, feelings, etc.) are one thing, while the “I”, the self, the centre of our consciousness is another.…

In 1986, I found that Peter Koestenbaum makes essentially the same point more in his excellent book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. Reflection, he says:[3]

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

(My edition of Assagioli’s book came out in 1970: Koestenbaum’s in 1978. As I only have the copious notes I took from Koestenbaum’s book I can’t check whether he made any reference to Assagioli or not. I suspect he did not or I would have registered it.)

It was as if, for all that decade, I had been exploring the same deep truth without realising it until the very end.

The Explanation At Last

And now, I realise that what I have failed to do so far, I think, is to blend all these various key experiences into some kind of coherent account of how they relate to each other. Each had a key role to play in increasing my understanding of consciousness, my own and other people’s, but none of them on its own would have covered all the ground I needed to traverse.

My revisiting Donaldson and Covey recently made me appreciate the value of going back over old territory. My encounter with Levine’s book on trauma expanded my understanding of the meaning of my key experiences. I felt impelled to make better sense of the whole package.

So, here is my best attempt to capture the synergy of its various components.

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.)

The diagram at the head of this post attempts to fuse the Psychosynthesis and TA models. Assagioli’s own description of his diagram gives some credibility to this. He describes the Middle Unconscious as being formed[4] ‘of psychological elements similar to those of our waking consciousness and easily accessible to it,’ and goes onto describe the Field of Consciousness[5] as ‘that part of our personality of which we are directly aware,’ which is in effect the main focus of TA’s torch and lens.

Also the TA concept, as described by Woollams and Brown, of the Somatic Child[6], whose being is largely confined to ‘bodily functions and reactions’ maps closely onto aspects of Assagioli’s Lower Unconscious[7] with its focus on ‘fundamental drives and primitive urges.’

There is no equivalent in TA to Assagioli’s Higher Self.

In the next post, having slightly expanded the diagram, I plan to dig a bit deeper into the area beyond the boundary of the orange oval in terms that make special sense to me. I will focus initially on Levine’s important insights about our bodies before exploring the value of a spiritual perspective. In the post after that I will be expanding on Assagioli’s idea of the Higher Self and how to access it.

References:

[1]. Psychosynthesis – page 22.
[2]. Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 193.
[3]. The New Image of the Person – page 99.
[4]. Psychosynthesis – page 17.
[5]. Op. cit.: page 18.
[6]. TA: the Total Handbook of Transactional Analysis – page 11.
[7]. Psychosynthesis – page 17.

 

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If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá from The Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 181)

I have been triggered to revisit books I have hoarded which deal with levels of consciousness. This all started with another rapidly abandoned look at Ken Wilber’s model. With moderate enthusiasm I had picked off my shelves Wilber’s Up from Eden, which had lurked up there unread since 1996. I felt that Fontana’s references to his work in Psychology, Religion and Spirituality warranted another look to help me overcome the reservations triggered in my mind by John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, where he takes issue with what he feels is Wilber’s arrogant implication that it is impossible for someone in a lower level society to leap to a higher level of consciousness (page 136):

. . . integral theorists actually support the idea that, out of the entire human population in the world, only an elite cadre of Westerners presently has the capacity to achieve the highest levels of human development.

I was not sure this criticism was entirely warranted but it did create reservations in my mind about some aspects of Wilber’s approach.

This was not what put me off this time.

I got as far as page 73 before the feeling that this was not the approach I wanted to immerse myself in right now grew so strong I couldn’t turn another page. His approach in this book was too mythological for my taste. I’ve so far been completely incapable of finishing any of Joseph Campbell’s work for this same reason. My distaste may be irrational but it remains insuperable.

As I sat and stared at my shelves aching for inspiration I remembered how much I had resonated to a book that explored in illuminating ways the split-brain culture we inhabit. No, not Iain McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary this time, much as I value that book and always will. There’s a clue in a comment I left on my blog more than a month ago, about a text that I have now re-read for the third time, but have not yet blogged about. I’ve probably never really attempted to integrate this account into my other explorations of levels of consciousness because the model presented does not easily map onto numerically coded versions such as those of Jenny Wade, Piaget, Wilber, Dabrowski  and Koestenbaum.

It is Margaret Donaldson’s Human Minds: an exploration. On page 135 she writes of what she calls ‘the value-sensing transcendent mode,’ something which our materialistic culture does not cultivate. She describes experiences in this mode as surging up ‘still in spite of the power of other modes which have threatened to exclude them.’ These experiences ‘come occasionally, unexpectedly, like marvellous accidents.’ Her book is partly about our need as a society to learn how to encourage us to access them more consistently. My own such encounters have been extremely rare indeed. Her insightful book also considers, though in less detail, the role of the novel and poetry in enhancing consciousness.

It also focuses on both the need to balance head and heart, science and religion, and on the ways we might get closer to achieving that.

I will deal fairly quickly with her discussion of her more basic modes of experiencing the world, then I will move on to the next highest levels in a bit more detail, before dwelling at greater length on her in depth exploration of the transcendent modes, both intellectual and value-sensing. In all probability this fairly rapid flight over the complex terrain of her richly informative model will fail to do it justice, but, if it at least brings her important work to your attention, that might just be enough.

Basic Modes

Margaret Donaldson deals first of all with the basic modes, the first of which concerns itself purely with the present moment, and begins in our infancy. She calls it point mode.[1] She goes on to add, ‘Later other loci become possible. For example, the second mode, which is called the line mode, has a locus of concern that includes the personal past and the personal future.’ More specific detail on the line mode next time.

Then our capacity expands to ‘the impersonal’ enabling us to think beyond our ‘personal goals.’[2] When this relates to thinking, that fits with our preconceptions about what it should be like. ‘But,’ she asks, ‘what about emotion? Can we take steps towards impersonality in respect of our emotions also?’

This is an issue we will come back to in more detail. For now I’ll just mention that she adds that ‘The process of “opening out” in those two directions is the one that I have previously called disembedding, in an earlier book, Children’s Minds.[3] This relates to some degree to concepts such as reflection and disidentification, dealt with at length elsewhere on this blog.

She emphasises that we modify our perceptions of the world ‘to suit our purposes.’[4] She was particularly taken with some of Freud’s descriptions of how we do that and expresses them in an effective metaphor:[5]

In talking of the defences Freud uses one image which I find illuminating. He likened the activities of a mind shaping its own consciousness to those of an editor revising a text, working towards an acceptable final draft.  The various mechanisms that have different editorial counterparts. For example, amnesic repression is equivalent to complete removal of parts of the text… likewise denial is equivalent to the insertion of ‘not:’… Projection is equivalent to changing the subject of a sentence: ‘He is I am evil, lazy, useless.’ Displacement amounts to changing the sentence object: ‘ I hate my father enemy.’ . . . In this way, we write for ourselves an authorised version of our lives.

In short, ‘. . . our experience of the world is experience of an interpretation.’[6] This maps closely onto my own sense of my perception of the world as a simulation. However, Donaldson explains, this tendency is balanced ‘by another more austere aim: the aim of understanding, of getting at the truth.’ The Bahá’í approach to this stresses the importance of an ‘independent investigation of the truth.’

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

There is another factor she mentions that again resonates with the Bahá’í Faith: ‘The second corrective is to consider shared experience.’ This sounds closely linked to the value attached to consultation, which is central to many processes of interaction encouraged in the Bahá’í community. Obviously these resonances partly explain my attraction to Donaldson’s model of consciousness, but it is not the only reason.

She argues that the foundations for our modes of consciousness are laid down very early.[7]  ‘At what point in life’ she asks, ‘does a child have a mind capable of concerning itself with things in some sort of controlled and organised way?’ and her answer is, ‘We can at least now confidently reply: “Very early, certainly by the end of the first two or three months, possibly sooner. (Stern terms it an emergent self.)’

She amplifies her comment by saying:[8]

There follows, from two to around eight months, the development of the ‘core self’ – a sense of self that is coherent, firmly distinguished from what is other, but not yet informed by an awareness of other minds.

. . . the point mode begins as the core self is established.

In the next post I will be exploring what follows on from that. It’s probably worth pointing out straightaway that, even later in life, as we shall see, point mode is not pointless.

References:

[1]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 11.
[2]. Human Minds: an exploration – page  16.
[3]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 16-17.
[4]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 24.
[5]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 25.
[6]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 27.
[7]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 46.
[8]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 46-47.

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The Wheel of Being (My idea of ‘how’ to approach experience)

I thought that the poetic element was not the word in its phonic value, nor colour, nor line, nor a complex of sensations, but a deep pulsing of spirit: what the soul supplies, if it does supply anything; or what it says, if it says anything, when aroused to response by contact with the world.

(Antonio Machado, quoted in Alan S. Trueblood’s Selected Poems – page 7)

Given my recent triggering to go back yet again to David Gascoyne’s poetry I couldn’t resist republishing this short sequence.

As a result of the trigger described in the last post, yet again I come to the same kind of realization, of an insight into the importance of the heart, so recently diluted yet again by my habitual over-emphasis on left-brain pragmatics and planning.

Pattern-Breaking 

As  I have indicated in the previous post in more detail, I’ve been here before. This poem explored similar material to that which I am about to explore but from a more tentative angle.

On 6th January I scribbled in my portable black notebook:

Having worked out ‘how’ I want to do whatever I am doing, it looks as though I have been catapulted into being reminded of ‘what’ I need to bring more into focus. The book sent to me in the aftermath of an energizing conversation in Panchagani, with its themes of Rumi, poetry and The 40 Rules of Love, has forced me to recognize that spiritual poetry is something I need to read and if humanly (or do I mean Hulmanly?) possible write to keep my life in balance: at least that’s what it looks like right now.

Later I followed this up by writing:

The 40 Rules of Love parallels almost exactly my encounter all those years ago with the dancing flames dream itself and more recently with the rediscovery of my dream notes and the consequent epiphany, which I kept consistently discounting in the aftermath. In some way, because of the prolonged discounting, its impact this time has been even more powerful.

How am I going to break this pattern by which my left brain pragmatism and obsession with being useful keeps stifling my poetic heart until it almost dies. I must never let this happen again. I must keep poetry and song much closer. . .   I can get carried away with practicalities and fail to keep the two kinds of operation in balance as I am convinced the Faith would have me do.

And I am following this up by drafting this blog post to the strains of Beethoven in spite of the pressure to draft the minutes of a conference call yesterday.

I have now had three powerful reminders – the dancing flames dream, the hearth dream and now The Forty Rules of Love – to emphasise how important poetry is to my spirituality, to nurturing my heart. Maybe my recent enthusiastic and rather protracted exploration of the poetic style of Virginia Woolf’s late novels was nudging me in this direction but I failed to realise it by convincing myself that my focus was on consciousness – not that I have lost my interest in consciousness, I hasten to add.

Let’s hope it’s third time lucky!

Revisiting Gascoyne

But I badly need a plan. And it’s a plan that is going to need my left-brain on side. Usually, whenever I’m immersed in music, art or poetry, especially of the kind that is not immediately comprehensible, I can feel the fingers of my left-brain tapping impatiently on my skull. If that side of my mind doesn’t buy into the plan, its impatience will sink it, not just because it will be a distracting presence at the back of my mind, but also because I sense that I am too identified with my pragmatic and prosaic side. A tough bit of disidentification work and heartfelt persuasion is going to be needed to get that part of me on board. (Incidentally, this may go some way towards explaining my distaste for modernist poetry. It has little emotional appeal, so my right-brain’s not interested, and it usually doesn’t make any immediate sense, so both sides of my brain switch off.)

For now though, I am at least sticking to the spiritual poetry plan of reading and re-reading the books of that kind on my shelves as time permits, not at the expense of other priorities but persistently and mindfully.

Revisiting David Gascoyne is proving very rewarding. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to keep focused and remain fully aware that spiritual poetry is something that really matters. It will be easy to forget that this may be a key to help me bring all parts of my being to bear on experience and my responses to it, and that it may be telegraphing one of the most important things I am meant to be doing with my time from now on, not to the obsessional exclusion of everything else, but not to be sacrificed for anything else either, if I am to bring out the best in myself and become more integrated, unified, standing on the ground of my being rather than floating on the surface of my mind.

So, how is reading Gascoyne helping?

The introduction to my edition of his Collected Poems (edited by Robin Skelton) may help explain that. The comment I quote follows on from the editor’s outline of Gascoyne’s concept of the role of the poet as both ‘seer’ and ‘victim.’ He writes (page xiii):

This is a simplified interpretation, but it makes it easier to see how Gascoyne’s romanticism, left-wing sympathies, surrealist tendencies, and concern to explore deep into the world of dream, obsession, and suffering, could lead him towards a fundamentally religious poetry.

This is not done with arrogance or fanaticism. Skelton quotes from a poem I still remembered from my first reading of Gascoyne in 1982, just before I began to tread the Bahá’í path.

Before I fall
Down silent finally, I want to make
One last attempt at utterance, and tell
How my absurd desire was to compose
A single poem with my mental eyes
Wide open, and without even one lapse
From that most scrupulous Truth which I pursue
When not pursuing Poetry, – Perhaps
Only the poem I can never write is true.

As I began to read my way through the later pages of this collection I began to wonder whether I had seriously underestimated the influence of his poems on my eventual decision to tread the Bahá’í path. If poetry can do something so fundamentally important, it has clearly been a mistake to sideline it as severely as I have done at times.

I have always been aware of Peter Koestenbaum’s influence and have drawn attention to it many times in these posts. I feel I have done Gascoyne an injustice that I now want to correct.

Graham Sutherland – sketch for the Crucifixion

What really set me thinking in this way was re-reading a poem from which I have always remembered key lines but whose whole context had slipped into partial oblivion. I say ‘partial’ because re-reading it strongly suggested that it had continued to influence me in its entirety, not just by the few lines I remembered consciously.

The poem is ‘Ecce Homo.’ Only once on this blog before today have I mentioned this poet, and that was to quote, without comment, from this poem.

Not from a monstrance silver-wrought
But from the tree of human pain
Redeem our sterile misery,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
That man’s long journey through the night
May not be in vain.

And yet there is so much else I could have quoted from just that one poem, let alone the rest of his work. He speaks of us as ‘Callous contemporaries of the slow/Torture of God.’ He obviously has in mind the toxic ideologies of his time when he speaks of ‘Black shirts and badges and peaked caps,’ who ‘Greet one another with raised-arm salutes,’ but what he wrote resonates still, I feel. A key stanza reads:

He who wept for Jerusalem
Now sees His prophecy extend
Across the greatest cities of the world,
A guilty panic reason cannot stem
Rising to raze them all as he foretold . . .

Why do I think he might have influenced my attraction to the Bahá’í Faith?

Well, in this same poem he asserts that ‘The turning point in history/Must come.’ And, writing still under the shadow of war he speaks (The Post-war Night) of how far we are from realizing ‘the innate sense/Of human destiny that we are born with.’ He defines this as ‘truly our aim on earth: one God-ruled globe,/Finally unified, at peace, free to create!’

Does that thought ring any bells among my readers?

The status quo will continue, he felt, as long as we remain ‘Comfortably compromised collusionists.’

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

He speaks to the artist in particular (The Artist) as having a crucial role in reversing this process, ‘by offering your flesh/As sacrifice to the Void’s mouth in your own breast!’ There is some hope in terms of the wider society (A Vagrant) in that many of us are ‘gnawed by’ our ‘knowledge of [society’s] lack of raison d’être.’ He wryly admits that ‘The city’s lack and mine are much the same.’

Perhaps it goes without saying that he does not have a conventional or simplistic view of religion (Fragments towards a Religio Poetae – Stanza 7):

Really religious people are rarely looked upon as such
By those to whom religion is secretly something unreal;
And those the world regards as extremely religious people
Are generally people to whom the living God will seem at first
an appalling scandal;
Just as Jesus seemed a dangerously subversive Sabbath-breaker
Whom only uneducated fisherman, tavern talkers and a few
blue-stockings of dubious morals
Were likely after all to take very seriously,
To the most devoutly religious people in Jerusalem in Jesus’s day.

There is much more to his poetry than this, including his subtle and unnerving way of describing how minds work and how adept we are at avoiding uncomfortable truths, but this is probably enough for now.

It is certainly enough to spur me on not only to finishing my re-reading of this collection, but also to embarking on revisiting many more of the long-ignored volumes of spiritual poetry on my shelves. To my surprise this has taken the shape of carefully re-reading the poems of Antonio Machado. Progress is slow as I’m not just relying on Trueblood’s excellent translations: I’m reanimating the corpse of my long neglected Spanish to soak up the sounds and the sense of the originals. More of that in due course, I hope.

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It was a bit of a hassle organising our visit to a National Trust site for the first time since before lockdown. My wife and I tried to find a pre-booking slot at Berrington Hall, the nearest location, for the Saturday or Sunday. All slots were fully booked. We had more success trying for the next mid-week slot: Wednesday at 13.30 was ours for the taking.

My calendar dutifully informed me on the day that the roads were clear and it would take 24 minutes to get to Berrington Hall. The temperature outside was 28 degrees before we set off. Even allowing the car doors to remain open for a good ten minutes before daring to sit down inside, the seats felt scorchingly hot through the seat of my shorts.

We set off with the aircon blasting away and eventually cooled down. The ordinary entrance gate to the hall was closed, so we had go in through the lane that was usually the exit, not our first strange reversal of the norm in these Corona days.

As we approached the car park, the lady with a clipboard greeted us from under a shelter.

I wound the window down and asked, ‘Do you need to see our tickets?’

‘No, just tell me your name,’ she shouted back, carefully keeping her distance.

I did, and we were waved in with no further ceremony.

We parked the car under the shade of a tall hedge thinking that would keep it cool for our return.

We decided to have our walk first, then come back for nibbles and drinks if we could find cool shelter nearby. As we left, we passed a group of elderly ladies sitting under the shade of a young tree, enjoying tea and cakes.

‘Enjoying your tea under a tree?’ I couldn’t resist rhyming loudly in their direction.

They grinned back.

Even though the day was sweltering we enjoyed our walk once we got to the woodland near the pond.

When, after emerging from the shade of the woods, we were unable to cope with walking anymore in the heat, we made a detour back to the car park via a coffee and ice cream hatch near the stables. Zarin opted for an ice-cream and I risked a coffee despite the heat.

We arrived back at the car park after an hour or so away, to see the car baking in full sunlight. We both groaned aloud.

Fortunately the ladies had left the shade of the tree, so we took some cake and water out of the car with a sheet to sit on, and headed back to snap up its protection from the sun.

After my cake and coffee, with my head feeling more alert than usual from the caffeine hit I usually avoid these days, I tucked into the book I’d brought, as Zarin read through her yoga manual.

It was David Fontana’s Psychology, Religion and Spirituality.

I was already more than halfway through my re-reading of it. I’d bought it in 2005 and the occasional highlight indicated I had read at least parts of it before, but nothing had stuck in my mind in spite of the complimentary comment I’d scribbled in the flyleaf.

I’d enjoyed the book so far but nothing had prepared me for the pages I was about to read.

His references to Assagioli began to suggest I might be entering important territory, dealing as they did (page 163) with the personal self and the higher self and the concept of disidentification, all of which had strongly influenced me (see link).

Things calmed down again for a few pages until the topic of consciousness came up.

First of all Fontana reminded me of the Jungian model of consciousness (page 175), one that I had internalised many decades ago: it consists of four levels – normal waking consciousness, the preconscious, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious.

I won’t dwell on those or explain them further. I was just pleased to find myself on the home ground of my earlier days, but it was hardly a world changing insight.

It was when he began to refer to Ken Wilber’s The Spectrum of Consciousness that light bulbs started flashing. I have had that text on my shelves since October 2000 but have never bothered to read it. Apparently, according to Fontana (page 177) Wilber highly praises the Advaita Vedanta ‘developmental model of consciousness.’ And he quotes it at length.

There are six major levels, from the material (the most basic) through several levels to the ratiocinative level, the last one before the two highest levels kick in if you have worked hard enough or been very fortunate. It’s the last two levels that most engaged my attention.

The causal level (5) is where ‘consciousness can experience pure contentless awareness, or pure consciousness in and of itself.’ Level 6 is the Brahmanic level. Where ‘consciousness is aware of reality as a unified field of energy in which the material world, the individual, and the source of all phenomena, Brahman or the Absolute, are in essence identical with each other.’

In one way I was a bit surprised that I was getting so excited as levels of consciousness was not exactly a new and undiscovered topic for me (see links). When I paused to reflect though, I realised why these concepts were more alive for me now than they had been before.

One very recent poem, and particularly the experience that triggered, it have a bearing on this. I had been sitting in the garden at home with a cup of coffee and my notebook. To begin with I was just staring at the sky, as I thought. Then four lines of poetry came straight to mind, with appropriate scansion and full rhymes.

That poem broke abruptly through my cloud of thoughts like a shaft of sunlight. Since I wrote down those lines I have only changed five words, to help the potential reader understand better what I think my unconscious was trying to tell me. This is the amended version. It is rare for me not make many radical changes in a number of lines of the first draft of a poem: in fact that has only happened a handful of times at most in all the years I’ve been writing poetry.

Before I read the description of level 5, I felt the poem was simply providing me with a metaphor to capture the same point about consciousness as the mirror metaphor, namely that consciousness is not the same as its contents, just as a mirror is not what is reflected in it. I thought the poem’s insight was particularly helpful in this respect, as before I wrote it I had never thought to distinguish between clouds and the sky, just as, in a way, until I encountered Vipassana meditation[1], Assagioli’s disidentification and Koestenbaum’s reflection, I had been content to continue confusing my mind with what it was thinking, feeling, imagining, remembering and so on.

Suddenly though I was lifted to a different level of understanding for which my poem and the triggering experience had prepared me. I saw an immediate connection between the phrase ‘pure contentless awareness’ and my description of a ‘blue’ and ‘unchanging sky.’ ‘Blue’ is obviously the equivalent of ‘pure.’

However, the fact that the sky is not changed by the clouds that cross it, they simply hide it from us, had eluded me, just as the fact that consciousness is not changed by the thoughts and feelings that pass over or through it had also evaded my mind’s grasp. I had not only allowed my thought and feelings to hide the purity of consciousness from me but I had at some level not truly grasped that they had no effect on the ground of my consciousness at all.

Such is the power of metaphor for me.

This all goes further, though, and relates to level six also.

In another earlier poem, about whose triggering experience I now found myself forcefully reminded, I had described another experience of clouds and sky:

The key section reads:

When I was a child, delirious
they said, I floated lonely on a
cloud, bathed in sunlight. I’m serious.
Was it real? That I’ll never know for
sure. I didn’t see eternity
that day, but an OBE is far
from impossible. The clear beauty
of the blue expanse of sky, vivid,
serene, stays with me still. I could see
the sunlight streaming down, and tried
to turn and see the disc itself, but
failed.

Here I was above the concealing cloud of thought and feeling. I was as close to the sky in all its vivid purity as I could get. I obviously had not reached level 6: I could see the sunlight but not its source, the sun itself. When I recovered from the illness whose fever delivered me this gift, all the adults around me dismissed it as delirium, and I accepted that explanation, but the vivid memory of the experience has never left me. We didn’t understand in those days that factors that impair aspects of brain functioning can open the doors to different levels of experience that are ordinarily inaccessible.

I am beginning to suspect, or even to sense, that I had been steered into an unwise dismissal of something more like a peak experience, though not quite an epiphany, with important implications for my understanding of reality.

Ever since I can remember I have been on a quest for deeper understanding and still am, and am also haunted by a painful sense of having lost something infinitely precious. I think I may at last be getting closer to a convincing explanation for both those factors. The poem I am about to post next time, which was written after this post, is a kind of declaration of intent. Not quite the same as taking effective action though, I suspect.

Footnote:

[1]. As an article on the Buddhist Review website explains, ‘The meditator is trained to notice more and more of his own flowing life experience.’

 

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I was asked to give a talk at a South Shropshire Interfaith meeting in the Methodist Church in Ludlow. This sequence is based on the slides I showed and the explanations I gave. It does not attempt to give an account of the experience of the evening: it would be impossible to do justice to that. Suffice it to say, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore these issues with such a welcoming group of seekers after truth.

Transcending the divisions within and between us

I closed the previous post with a question.

If we are going to be able to hold firm to a compass of compassion and steer a consistent course between the many temptations and deterrents that will lie in our way, what do we have to do? For most religious people prayer and meditation are obvious prerequisites, as well as obedience to the laws and observance of the rituals of their Faith.

In this divided world we need to do even more than that if we are to transcend the prejudices that prevent us from co-operating with our fellow human beings and rise above the quarrelling voices inside our heads.

Bahá’u’lláh has made it abundantly clear how high a level of unity we must achieve and how much this depends upon the degree of detachment we have developed. I am now going to spell out a key set of processes that, within the Bahá’í community and beyond, are critical to this.

Bahá’ís place great weight upon a group and community process called consultation. This goes far beyond the lip service paid to it all too often in the modern world where canvasing opinions that are then ignored is described as consultation. The success of this process depends to a great extent upon how far the participants have travelled along the road to detachment, and detachment meant in a very specific sense in this context. The link is in fact so strong that Paul Lample, in his book Revelation & Social Reality, expresses it as follows (page 212): ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

My experience as a Bahá’í strongly suggests that the detachment necessary for effective consultation between people cannot be achieved easily or possibly at all without a complementary process within each of us. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá uses the terms reflection and contemplation to describe this state of mind. This process is so powerful that a tradition of Islam, quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states, ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ [Kitáb-i-Íqán]

The simplest way of explaining my understanding of what this involves is to use the image of consciousness, or in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms ‘the meditative faculty,’ as a mirror. At one level the mind simply captures as best it can what it experiences as a mirror captures what’s in front of it. A deeper implication is that, just as the mirror is not what it reflects but the capacity to reflect, consciousness is not the same as its contents. To recognize this and develop the capacity to withdraw our identification with the contents of our consciousness, whether these be thoughts, feelings, sensations, or plans, enables us to consult with others effectively and reflect upon, as in ‘think about,’ our experiences, ideas and self-concepts. Once we can do this it becomes easier to change them if they are damaging us or other people. I owe a debt to an existentialist thinker, Peter Koestenbaum in his New Image of the Person: Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy for this way of describing reflection and consciousness.

He states that (page 69):

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

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

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

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

By reflection what he means is definitely something closely related to meditation as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes it. 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.

By disciplined practice of this skill we can begin to move beyond our divisive identifications, and become more able to work in unity with others. This is a skill and spiritual discipline that appears in various forms and with various labels in other religions as well as the Bahá’í Faith. Consultation, on the other hand, is not so central, as far as I know, in any other Faith.

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

The Power of Consultation

Shoghi Effendi, quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explaining that ‘the purpose of consultation is to show that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’ [`Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in a letter dated 5 March 1922 written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, published in “Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932”, pages 21-22.]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out the qualities required of us if we are to consult effectively. These include ‘purity of motive,’ ‘detachment from all else save God,’ ‘humility,’ and ‘patience.’ Unity, justice [‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá –number 43]

This makes for a powerful positive feedback loop which will immeasurably enhance our decision-making processes. Detachment is of course the core prerequisite of the three, and can be developed in us by various other ways as well. However, it is also the axle around which the wheel of consultation and reflection revolves, as well as being strengthened by them in its turn.

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

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

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

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

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

If we are going to be able to join together to determine what course of action to take in the increasingly complex situations that confront us, from a Bahá’í point of view which I think is well worth careful consideration, we need to develop these two core skills to the highest possible level. If we do not I fail to see, for example, how we can ever effectively tackle problems such as the climate crisis or the gross inequalities endemic in our global society.

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

So, in all that I have said in this sequence of posts, I hope it is clear that I am not seeking to persuade anyone that the explanations of spiritual reality have to be adopted, but I am urging everyone who shares our goals of unity and connectedness to enhance their effectiveness by testing in practice the powerful consciousness-raising processes I have described here.

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