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I read an interesting article by Yuval Noah Harari in the Guardian some time ago, entitled The New Threat to Liberal Democracy. Astonishingly, from reductionist premises with which I completely disagree, such as that we have no free will, he arrives at the same conclusion as I do about a key mental skill: ‘renouncing the myth of free will can kindle a profound curiosity. If you strongly identify with the thoughts and desires that emerge in your mind, you don’t need to make much effort to get to know yourself. You think you already know exactly who you are. But once you realise “Hi, this isn’t me. This is just some changing biochemical phenomenon!” then you also realise you have no idea who – or what – you actually are. This can be the beginning of the most exciting journey of discovery any human can undertake.’

This is reflective disidentification in effect. More of that in a moment.

The article, from vastly different premises, confirms my feeling that developing the ability to step back from our automatic reactions is a key skill we need to acquire, but our culture militates against it – in fact, all the subliminal influences in our society are working in the opposite direction.

In Tart’s terms, our ‘trance’, and in Bahá’u’lláh’s words our ‘vain imaginings,’ ’superstitions’ and ‘delusions,’ control us, not because we have no will power, but because we fail to tune into the deepest levels of our being and we invest our trust in false gods.

On top of that, our reptilian brain, the amygdala, drowns out the soul’s whispers with its fear and rage.

What follows may not be entirely coherent as it was only recently, while sitting in the garden with a coffee, that an important penny dropped.

I asked myself whether, in my past attempts to look at what narrows the compass of compassion, eg labelling, the reptilian brain, inequality, power differentials etc, I had missed the more generic point that any kind of identification with a feeling, thought, judgement, self-concept, ego function, by definition:

(a) narrows compassion potentially to zero, and

(b) shallows wisdom to the same extent.

Strong identifications of this kind could lead to a container, whose width is compassion and depth is wisdom, to become the size of a thimble – an obvious but useful symbol. Using reflection to remove these false identifications would create an ocean, by comparison. When you add into the mix how reflection facilitates true consultation as a means of enhancing our simulations of reality through a constructive process of comparing notes with others in a spirit of objective exploration rather than adversarial debate, then the potential becomes even greater. The opposite is also true: failure to reflect impedes consultation and fosters conflict, resulting in impoverished representations of reality.

The other important factor is what we choose as our guiding light. As Reitan points out, simply believing we believe in God is not enough: the God we choose to believe in has to be worthy of worship. To make a god out of our ego or a dictator is a fatal mistake. Even our ideals have to be approached with caution, as Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ points out. In his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Another recent article in the Guardian by Michele Gelfand points up the impact of feeling threatened on our openness to others.

His core point in terms of this issue is: ‘Analysing hundreds of hunter-gatherer groups, as well as nation-states including the Aztecs and Incas, we found that cultures that experienced existential threats, such as famine and warfare, favoured strong norms and autocratic leaders. Our computer models show a similar effect: threat leads to the evolution of tightness.’

This maps onto my long explored idea that fear narrows the compass of compassion and makes intolerance and prejudice more likely. The narrower the container, the more likely we are to experience feelings of threat and a strong sense of difference between us and other people.

I’d maybe been putting the cart before the horse in seeing the feelings as ultimately causative rather than secondary. The wider we set our compass of compassion, and the deeper our wisdom becomes, the less likely are we to be fearful, threatened and reactively aggressive. When something disturbing happens and it’s a drop in the ocean you feel no fear. When something happens and it’s a drop in a thimble, all hell spills out.

This may be a two-way street, though, in that fear will reduce the size of our container, just as the smallness of the container is conducive to fear. There is, however, no guarantee that an absence of fear would be conducive automatically to compassion, as the combination of narcissism and fearlessness is found in the psychopath.

Where the process starts may be different for different people in different situations. If it is basically true, however, that fear shrinks compassion and reduced compassion fosters fear, and it seems likely, the dynamic I’ve described would create a vicious circle of a most pernicious and self-defeating kind. I still need to clarify these implications.

This is what I plan to do in a later sequence.

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

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

John Donne wrote:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

He wrote those words, part of the third of his five satires, during what must have been an agonising period of his life, when he was deciding to abandon the Roman Catholic faith, for which members of his family had died, and become an apostate. By taking this step, he avoided torture and execution and gained a career at the possible cost, in his mind, of eternal damnation.

While the Western world feels it has moved on from such ferocious divisions, the same does not seem to be true everywhere. Also, we should not perhaps feel we are completely free from milder variations of religious intolerance here.

This means that Donne’s message is still relevant.

The most obvious implication of what he says here is that we have to work hard to find Truth.

However, there are other equally important implications, and one of them in particular is crucial to the work of the Interfaith and makes a core aspect of the Bahá’í path particularly relevant for us in our relations both between ourselves and with the wider community.

Within the interfaith, we are all, in a sense, approaching Truth from different sides of this same mountain. Just because your path looks somewhat different from mine in some respects, it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, yours is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth.

Donne clearly felt so at the time he wrote Satire III:

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

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

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

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

Bahá’u’lláh expresses this second form of unity in powerful terms. We are all created from ‘from the same dust’, and he explains why it is important that we recognise this: ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acquiring this skill is not easy.

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

He states that (page 69):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is all this so important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, exactly what is this consultation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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hyacinthI recently was involved in a series of workshops at Builth Well in Wales. I thought it worth sharing the materials used. The first set came out last Thursday, and second last Monday: this is the last. What the simple presentation of these materials fails to capture of course is the wealth of insight that comes from exploring the riches contained in the quotations used. The only way of accessing that would be to try approaching them in the same way.

Prayer

Magnified, O Lord my God, be Thy Name, whereby the trees of the garden of Thy Revelation have been clad with verdure, and been made to yield the fruits of holiness during this Springtime when the sweet savors of Thy favors and blessings have been wafted over all things, and caused them to bring forth whatsoever had been preordained for them in the Kingdom of Thine irrevocable decree and the Heaven of Thine immutable purpose.  I beseech Thee by this very Name not to suffer me to be far from the court of Thy holiness, nor debarred from the exalted sanctuary of Thy unity and oneness.

Ignite, then, O my God, within my breast the fire of Thy love, that its flame may burn up all else except my remembrance of Thee, that every trace of corrupt desire may be entirely mortified within me, and that naught may remain except the glorification of Thy transcendent and all-glorious Being.  This is my highest aspiration, mine ardent desire, O Thou Who rulest all things, and in Whose hand is the kingdom of the entire creation.  Thou, verily, doest what Thou choosest.  No God is there beside Thee, the Almighty, the All-Glorious, the Ever-Forgiving.

Bahá’u’lláh

Practice Planting

Sow the seeds of My wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of the heart.

(Bahá’u’lláh PHW No 33 – see also No 78)

O FRIEND! In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love . . .

(Bahá’u’lláh – PHW – No 3)

Know verily that the purpose underlying all these symbolic terms and abstruse allusions, which emanate from the Revealers of God’s holy Cause, hath been to test and prove the peoples of the world; that thereby the earth of the pure and illuminated hearts may be known from the perishable and barren soil. From time immemorial such hath been the way of God amidst His creatures, and to this testify the records of the sacred books.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Kitáb-i-Íqán UK Edition – page 32)

Memorising

Socrates was very concerned about the invention of the alphabet and the reading it brought with it. He feared that human memory would be destroyed. What he would have had to say about the iPhone and the internet I can barely begin to imagine.

The Bahá’í Faith attaches great importance to memorising quotations from the Writings. There are several reasons for this, including the usefulness of such quotations in conversation to convey the ideas of the Faith in their original form rather than in one’s own translation. Another key reason, in addition to the benefits of enhancing the power of our memory, something which our reliance on electronic devices is seriously diminishing, is that the internalisation of truths in this way changes our inner being to some degree. We can enhance that effect by using, in our quiet periods of meditation, the quotations we have memorised.

These are significant benefits, as Eknath Easwaran explains in his excellent and accessible book Meditation: common sense directions for an uncommon life

Among the advice he gives is this (pages 39-40):

In meditation, the passage becomes imprinted on our consciousness. As we drive it deeper and deeper, the words come to life within us, transforming all our thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds. . . . . As you commit a new passage to memory, it is good to spend some time reflecting on the meaning of the words and their practical application to your life. But please don’t do this while you are actually meditating. . . . . And avoid choosing passages that are negative, that take a harsh and difficult view of the body, of our past mistakes, or of life in the world. We want to draw on our positive side, our higher Self, and the passages should move you to become steadfast, compassionate, and wise.

Lasse Thoresen, in his thoughtful book Unlocking the Gate of the Heart which explores meditation from a Bahá’í viewpoint, reinforces basically the same idea (pages 91-92):

Whether we are conscious of it or not, a passage we know by heart will always be with us wherever we may go, whether we are asleep or awake. We have fed our subconscious with the words of God, allowing them to work within us and appear in our consciousness when we have need for them, perhaps as a part of new insight.

It seemed a good idea therefore to introduce a technique for making memorising easier.

This is the method:

Reminder about How to Learn Passages: 

  1. Read the passage once. Then divide it into convenient short sections, each equivalent to a line of poetry.
  2. Now read the first section out loud. Take your eyes from the page and immediately say the section again. Glance back to make sure you got it right. If you made a mistake, try again. Now do the same with the second section. Repeat the procedure for every section in the passage.
  3. Go back to the beginning. This time, read the first two sections out loud, look away and repeat them aloud. Check. If you made a mistake, try again. Now move onto the next two sections, going through the whole passage two sections at a time.
  4. Repeat the passage three sections at a time, then four sections at a time, then five and then six. By the sixth pass, no matter how long the passage, you will have memorised it.
  5. Recite the whole passage just before going to bed at night.
  6. Crucial: stop thinking about the passage. Your sleeping mind is very important for memory.
  7. The next day, you should find (after a glance at the first section to bump-start your memory) that you can recite the whole passage.

In using this method I have found it important, if I am to retain the whole passage permanently, I need to slowly reduce the frequency of repeating it over a reasonable period of time. At first, perhaps for a week, I repeat it every night. Then every other, then every third night and so on until I repeat it only once per week. I can then choose to use it whenever I wish in my daily meditations. It is important to keep it fresh by revisiting it occasionally, maybe once every month or two in this way.

I hope everyone found some time to use the method described to commit a quote to memory. We will now look at an approach to using a memorised passage in quiet reflection.

Using a Memorised Passage

EaswaranThis may prove to be the hardest part of this set of experiences. It involves using a passage that we have learned by heart. Our culture tends to despise rote learning and describes it as learning ‘parrot fashion.’ (Not that I have anything against parrots. They’re very bright for a bird.) As a result many of us nowadays do not feel confident when trying to learn anything by heart, and are probably not very motivated to do so anyway as we think it a waste of time.

Parroting facts may really not be very useful if we do not understand their underlying meaning as a result of careful, creative and independent thought. Spiritual words though operate on many different levels, as Easwaran’s guidance quoted earlier explains. We need also to bear in mind another point.

We cannot keep on using the same passage indefinitely (pages 39-40):

Using the same passage over and over is fine at the outset, but in time, the words may seem stale. You may find yourself repeating them mechanically, without sensitivity to their meaning. I suggest you memorise new pieces from [various religious] traditions so you will have a varied repertoire.

We need to spend a few moments now quietly deciding what passage we are going to use. Then, after grounding ourselves as usual, we can begin 10-15 minutes of meditation on the passage we have chosen. This is the third practice to help us internalise what we are learning and making sure the seeds are properly planted in the garden of our hearts.

How should we do this? As Easwaran points out (page 32), we have to find the pace that suits us best: ‘the space between words is a matter for each person to work out individually.… If the words come too close together, you will not be slowing down the mind… If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together…’

If we find our mind has wandered, we should, without getting irritated with ourselves, begin the passage again at the beginning. This teaches the mind that it cannot get away with wandering: there is a price to pay. In these early stages we should consider ourselves very successful if we can meditate in this way upon a text for five minutes without losing our concentration. Our aim over a period of months could be to increase their concentration span to something like 20 minutes. Clearly this would enable us, if we wished, to memorise longer passages for reciting, rather than repeating the same short text.

After that a few moments of reflection can follow, first of all on the meditation we have just done, and then upon the whole experience.

Among the hoped for results of all these experiences is a felt sense as well as intellectual understanding of how a mantra and meditation upon scripture help us move away from our identification with our conditioned patterns of thought and feeling to connect with our deepest self, a connection that will enable us to tune in more effectively to the people around us. As a result of this we will be able to respond to them as they are and in terms of what they need rather than to what we think they should be, as well as being able to learn from them what will help us grow in our turn.

Useful Links

  1. For finding quotations: http://reference.bahai.org/en/
  2. For general information: http://www.bahai.org
  3. For interesting topics: http://bahaiteachings.org
  4. For more on the Understanding heart, see the whole sequence beginning https://phulme.wordpress.com/2017/07/14/an-understanding-heart-16-divided-we-fail/
  5. For more on tuning into the heart see this post from a longer sequence: https://phulme.wordpress.com/2016/07/24/the-third-i-45-whispers-from-the-heart-3/
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IMG_2413I recently was involved in a series of workshops at Builth Well in Wales. I thought it worth sharing the materials used. The second set will come out next Monday and the last next Thursday. What the simple presentation of these materials fails to capture of course is the wealth of insight that comes from exploring the riches contained in the quotations used. The only way of accessing that would be to try approaching them in the same way.

Prayer

O compassionate God!  Thanks be to Thee for Thou hast awakened and made me conscious.  Thou hast given me a seeing eye and favored me with a hearing ear, hast led me to Thy kingdom and guided me to Thy path.  Thou hast shown me the right way and caused me to enter the ark of deliverance.  O God!  Keep me steadfast and make me firm and staunch.  Protect me from violent tests and preserve and shelter me in the strongly fortified fortress of Thy Covenant and Testament.  Thou art the Powerful.  Thou art the Seeing.  Thou art the Hearing.

O Thou the Compassionate God.  Bestow upon me a heart which, like unto a glass, may be illumined with the light of Thy love, and confer upon me thoughts which may change this world into a rose garden through the outpourings of heavenly grace.

Thou art the Compassionate, the Merciful.  Thou art the Great Beneficent God.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Overview

In the Bahá’í Writings the phrase ‘understanding heart’ is used more than thirty times. Of the heart, in various places Bahá’u’lláh uses three images, one of the mirror, one of the lamp and one of the garden. It is on this last that most of the focus will be in this aspect of the weekend course.

In the Persian Hidden Words Bahá’u’lláh writes: ‘‘In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love . . . .’ (PHW: 3). Also in the Hidden Words He speaks of the ‘hyacinths of wisdom’ (PHW: 33), which will grow as a result of sowing ‘the seeds of Divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart.’

It is easy to access the obvious meanings of these passages. We will be exploring as deeply as we can in the time available what implications they might have for how this process might work and what we might do to foster it. This will include unpacking exactly what we think Bahá’u’lláh might mean by the word ‘pure’ in this context.

1. Preparing the Soil of the Heart’s Garden (90 Minutes)

There are three practices that we will be drawing on as we grapple with what the quotations from the Bahá’í Writings mean to us and seek to internalize them.

Reflective Consultation

The first I will introduce now: we will be drawing on it soon. It is a process of group consultation pioneered in Colombia in the early days of the Ruhi Institute. What does it involve? First, people ask for or offer clarification of any words that are difficult to understand.

In turn each person reads a quotation out loud. The one who first reads the quote acts as a group leader for the consultation on that quote.

Then each person re-reads the quote before sharing one response (s)he has to the quote. Every one in turn expresses their responses to the quote in this same way, whether as thoughts, feelings, intuitions or whatever. All group members should at least read part if not all of the quotation even if they feel they will have nothing to share after doing so.

This goes on until all the members feel they have said all that they wish to say or time has run out. There are no right or wrong answers during this process. It is an opportunity to reflect deeply and share the result.

Efforts should be made not to respond to what others have said but simply to focus on one’s reaction at the time one reads the quote again. Attention should be paid to what implications the quote has for our own lives and to suggestions as to how we might apply what we have learned.

The group leader’s only job is to see that everyone follows these rules, i.e. reads the quote prayerfully and shares one (and only one) response without referring to what others have said!

Introduction

When we apply the metaphor of gardening to the cultivation of our spiritual core, the heart, what might be involved? Hopefully, as we explore further, we will develop a stronger sense of what the word ‘heart’ means in this context. For now I suggest we stick to simple basic implications of the image.

What do we do when we garden? We need to clear and prepare the soil. We need to decide what seeds or shoots to plant, and then place them in the ground. We need to tend them afterwards, keeping them out of the frost, for example, and ensuring they receive sufficient water and sunlight.

Also important, though we may not have time to reflect on this aspect this weekend, is the climate that surrounds us. If we have enough sunlight and rain, flowers will bloom and the fruits come in abundance. If the days are dark or there is drought, plants will shrivel and die. In spiritual terms sunlight and water are seen as coming from God, from immersing ourselves in the Writings of His Messengers, from pure-hearted prayer, from a community of seekers and from sincere acts of service. If we deprive ourselves or are deprived of any of these aspects of the spiritual life, which are also ways of tending the seeds we are sowing, we will risk creating a winter or a desert for our hearts. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained:

But instead of this, what has taken place! Men turned away their faces from following the divinely illuminated precepts of their Master, and winter fell upon the hearts of men. For, as the body of man depends for life upon the rays of the sun, so cannot the celestial virtues grow in the soul without the radiance of the Sun of Truth.

(Paris Talks– page 31-32)

Coming back to the main focus of the day, what might preparing the soil of the heart involve?

Practice of Reflective Consultation

To begin our exploration of this let’s use the process of reflective consultation we spoke of earlier on one of the following quotes:

Return, then, and cleave wholly unto God, and cleanse thine heart from the world and all its vanities, and suffer not the love of any stranger to enter and dwell therein. Not until thou dost purify thine heart from every trace of such love can the brightness of the light of God shed its radiance upon it, for to none hath God given more than one heart. . . . .  And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided. Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of any one besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness, the Exalted, the Great.

(Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh: page 52

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

(Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys: pp 21-22)

What do we feel we have learnt from that process?

Further Considerations

Bahá’u’lláh makes it clear that this process of preparation, purification if you prefer, cannot be avoided.

. . . the lilies of ancient wisdom can blossom nowhere except in the city of a stainless heart. “In a rich soil, its plants spring forth abundantly by permission of its Lord, and in that soil which is bad, they spring forth but scantily.”

(Kitáb-i-Íqán UK Edition– page 122)

Before all else (the friends) must sanctify their hearts and purify their motives, otherwise all efforts in furthering any enterprise will be fruitless.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quoted by the Universal House of Justice in a message: 10 February 1980)

O SON OF BEING! Thy heart is My home; sanctify it for My descent. Thy spirit is My place of revelation; cleanse it for My manifestation.

(Bahá’u’lláh – AHW No 59)

. . . a man should make ready his heart that it be worthy of the descent of heavenly grace.

(Bahá’u’lláh – The Four Valleys page 54)

If we are to weed effectively we need to have some idea of what a weed looks like before we can get rid of it. Perhaps using the same method of reflective consultation will help us glean some insights from the one or both of following quotes.

When a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading unto the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. He must purge his breast, which is the sanctuary of the abiding love of the Beloved, of every defilement, and sanctify his soul from all that pertaineth to water and clay, from all shadowy and ephemeral attachments. He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 162– UK Edition page 123)

O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge. Be ablaze as the fire, that ye may burn away the veils of heedlessness and set aglow, through the quickening energies of the love of God, the chilled and wayward heart. Be light and untrammeled as the breeze, that ye may obtain admittance into the precincts of My court, My inviolable Sanctuary.

(Gleanings No. CLII)

Looking Ahead

In the third session we will be exploring the idea of planting seeds in the garden of the heart. Memorising quotations is a useful tool for this purpose. This is also the second practice we will be using, and the foundation of the third one.  I am hoping that before tomorrow’s session you will be able to find time to look at this idea. Here is a possible way to make it easier for those who find memorizing difficult. The method I am quoting here has been adapted from a way of memorising poetry. I sorry to say that I have no record of whose original idea I have borrowed here.

How to Learn Passages: 

  1. Read the passage once. Then divide it into convenient short sections, each equivalent to a line of poetry.
  2. Now read the first section out loud. Take your eyes from the page and immediately say the section again. Glance back to make sure you got it right. If you made a mistake, try again. Now do the same with the second section. Repeat the procedure for every section in the passage.
  3. Go back to the beginning. This time, read the first two sections out loud, look away and repeat them aloud. Check. If you made a mistake, try again. Now move onto the next two sections, going through the whole passage two sections at a time.
  4. Repeat the passage three sections at a time, then four sections at a time, then five and then six. By the sixth pass, no matter how long the passage, you will have memorised it.
  5. Recite the whole passage just before going to bed at night.
  6. Crucial: stop thinking about the passage. Your sleeping mind is very important for memory.
  7. The next day, you should find (after a glance at the first section to bump-start your memory) that you can recite the whole passage.

If you are not sure what passages to pick to practice on here are two suggestions relevant to that session’s theme.

Sow the seeds of My wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of the heart.

(Bahá’u’lláh PHW No 33 – see also No 78)

Know verily that the purpose underlying all these symbolic terms and abstruse allusions, which emanate from the Revealers of God’s holy Cause, hath been to test and prove the peoples of the world; that thereby the earth of the pure and illuminated hearts may be known from the perishable and barren soil. From time immemorial such hath been the way of God amidst His creatures, and to this testify the records of the sacred books.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Kitáb-i-Íqán UK Edition – page 32)

IMG_4078

Sunset in Builth

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Autumn Garden

After my relatively recent preoccupation with dreams it seems appropriate to republish this sequence which is a fictional attempt to project my inscape into words. Dreams and day dreams feature quite a lot!

In the last post, I describe how William Wordless, Frederick Mires and I had been arguing over how to combine breadth of interests with depth of exploration. Then we joined the main path back to the cafe, with the games and picnic area on our left and the redwood grove in the middle distance on our right.

It’s too cold a day for the picnic area. As we look ahead we see Indira Pindance, our vulnerable new friend, and Emma Pancake, activist and pamphleteer, huddled at a table using steaming cups to warm their hands. They appear to be waiting for us.

‘Where’s Chris?’ I ask when we’re in earshot.

‘Sitting on a bench under a tree somewhere, I expect, waiting for enlightenment to strike,’ Pancake sarks. ‘What have you been doing?’

‘Arguing as usual,’ Mires sours.

‘What about?’ Pindance asks anxiously. She’s always sensitive to any hint of animosity.

‘Books mainly. Well, not exactly. About whether reflection will help us get more out of what we do including reading books,’ I attempt to explain.

‘Reading is a waste of time,’ Pancake flatly declares. ‘There’s not enough time as it is if we are going to change things for the better before we die. Wasting it on books is a crime against humanity.’ She’s just trying to be annoying now, and may be succeeding.

‘Don’t talk such rubbish,’ Mires shouts, catching the bait as usual. ‘Without books you won’t understand the reality you are trying to improve.’ Pancake barely manages to conceal a triumphant grin behind her coffee.

‘I think we need to have Chris here as well if we’re going to be able to talk about this calmly and constructively,’ I suggest.

‘I’ll go and find him. I think I know where he is.’ Pindance has made a strong connection with Humfreeze from the very beginning. He was the one who made first contact and encouraged her to come out of the shadows and loneliness of her earlier existence. She runs off up the path towards the Autumn Garden.

‘Anyone else want a drink I ask?’

‘Coffee for me,’ says Wordless.

‘Tea for me,’ says Mires.

‘D’you need a hand?’ Pancake asks.

‘I can manage,’ I answer with an echo of Pindance’s original independence script. ‘Are we staying outside?’

‘I think it would be better,’ Pancake advises, ‘given the way the conversation might unfold when we’re all together.’

By the time I come back with the drinks Christopher Humfreeze, meditator extraordinaire, has joined us with Pindance sitting next to him.

‘Sorry, Chris, did you want a drink?’ I ask in a tone that indicates that a refusal would be welcome at this point.

‘No thanks.’ Humfreeze waves his bottle of water vaguely in the air. ‘This is healthier.’

‘Have the others brought you up to speed, Chris?’ I ask as I squeeze awkwardly into the gap between the attached bench seat and the wooden table, almost spilling my coffee over Mires as I do so. I must remember to always put my drink down before performing acrobatics.

‘They have.’

‘So, what do you think?’

‘Well, I daresay you can guess, and it’s not gone down well with Fred and Emmie. Not sure about Indie. She’s not said anything yet.’

‘Well, fill me in anyway, Chris.’

‘OK. I personally don’t think there’s any need to read obsessively or keep constantly busy. We should just meditate consistently – then we’ll do only what really needs to be done and read only what needs to be read, and no more.’ He paused, then added ‘Simples,’ in Meercat style with a defiant grin on his face.

‘But how do you know that the books you haven’t read are not for you right now? You can’t know till you start reading them surely,’ came Mires’s predictable response.

‘Surely you learn more from direct contact with reality, than you can ever get from a book, and meditation in a vacuum, cut off from the oxygen of the ordinary world, is a fast train to lala land,’ came Pancake’s attempt to refute them both.

‘Only if you refuse to believe you can access a wiser self through silence and solitude,’ Humfreeze snapped back. ‘Our wiser self has access to levels of consciousness deeper and broader than any book, but it’s hard to reach and hear it in the distracting hubbub of the social world.’

‘We’re in danger of creating another stand off if we carry on like this. That’s not what we agreed we would do from now on. We need to work together on a solution that works for us all, not just for one of us.’ Mires is remembering his psychology at last.

‘That’s going to be easier said than done,’ Pancake chips in. ‘It’s not easy to step back from the habits of a lifetime, especially ones we feel are vital to our survival as ourselves, at that.’

Wordless nods in agreement. ‘I’d like to hear from Pindance. I bet she has a different view of things again.’

She looks hesitant and uncertain but manages to speak at last.

‘Do you remember, Pete, a long time ago, over coffee in a basement kitchen, a good friend of yours who died recently, shared a great idea.’

‘I’m not sure what you mean, Indie.’

‘You were telling him how hard it was to focus on what you needed to do. He asked “Why don’t you try time-banding?” Do you remember now?’

‘I do,’ I said softly. ‘It was such an important idea, and yet so simple. Just put a fence round certain spans of time and do nothing but what you have planned to do in that time frame. It might even be only an hour, but protect it from distraction. How is that going to help us now though?’

‘Well,’ she added thoughtfully, ‘for a start time banding protects you from time bandits.’

‘I get that all right. Distractions steal time and we need to shut them out somehow. But our problem is we have competing priorities. Chris’s bandit is Fred’s best friend!’

‘You’ll have to make a deal,’ Pindance spoke more forcefully than usual. ‘I can’t stand to see you all at odds like this. Your arguments really upset me. I need you to be kind and calm together, or I get scared that one of you will betray us and what we should stand for, like I was betrayed before, and we might all have to go down into the shadows I was lost among before.’

She stared round anxiously at all of us, straining to read our faces, as though fearing we would not understand her.

‘I just want to create harmony and peace. I want to learn to get to the roots of mine and other people’s anger, fear and sadness and transform it into something more positive – I’m not sure what exactly. I just know that each of you, as well as me, have pain and trauma rooted in some experience. Your passion for reading, Fred, yours for poetry, Bill, and yours for action, Emmie, have their roots in something in our past. Understanding these roots can help our branches create more nutritious fruits.’

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh (possibly his last painting)

That definitely focuses our minds.

Pancake has clearly got part of her point at least. ‘If time banding works, and we can find enough time to divide between us, we can each take our share of protected time to use for what we value most. More than that, if we all help each other make use of this special time it could work better than before. If Fred doesn’t make me feel guilty for being out there in the world, and I don’t keep nagging Chris to get off his backside, we’ll all benefit. And that includes your poetry, Bill, and your reflective approach in all these things, Pete. We may even manage to create some spaces for covering a wide range of interests as reflectively as possible, and others for a more focused  and deeper exploration of specific topics. I’m not sure what you need time for, Indie. You need to let us know.’

‘How can you be so young and yet so wise, Indie?’ Wordless finally manages to get a word in edgewise. ‘You speak almost like a poet.’

‘Because I have been quiet all this time, and simply listened and watched, for fear of being harmed, I’ve learned a lot.’

‘You must share this with us sometime,’ Mires quietly requests.

‘I can only explain what I know how to put into words so far. Maybe, Emmie, I need quiet time to dive beneath the surfaces I only float across so far,’ she replies. ‘I’m not really sure yet.’

‘At the risk of raining on your parade, I have to say that there’s just one other slight snag with all this. Time banding is just one part of the solution.’ Humfreeze is speaking quietly but with an almost irresistible firmness of purpose. ‘An equally important consideration is mind-banding as a way of resisting mind-banditry. It’s true that if we all co-operate, mind-banding will be easier. But we can’t assume that we are all the entities active in Pete’s mind. There may well be others keen to sabotage our project for what seem to them good reasons. We have to take up Pete’s idea of trying to master the art of reflection as well as my pet discipline, mindfulness, if we are to be sure of fending off enough of the possible distractions to get the most out of whatever experience we are jointly having. Does that make sense?’

‘Complete sense, even to me,’ Pancake confirms. The rest of us are all nodding as she speaks, and, as she stops, the phone rings and I wake suddenly. Irritated, I listen for the message before I pick up.

A robot voice begins ‘We understand you recently have been involved in a serious accident . . .’ I press to answer and immediately hang up.

Still half asleep I pick up the pencil and the pad from the bedside table and begin to write. What I have just dreamt is far too important to forget – far more important than an accident that never happened.

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Dream GameNow that I appear to have made some progress in developing a closer relationship with my Parliament of Selves, it seems a good time to try and talk to them in more detail about learning to reflect more effectively. The trouble is I can’t find them in dreamland anymore. Since they faded away after our encounter with Indira Pindance, they have been conspicuous by their absence, both in meditation and sleep. Part of the reason for this may be that my dreams in general are more elusive. On waking I seldom remember more than a rapidly evaporating fragment.

That’s why I have pulled my battered copy of The Dream EaswaranGame by Ann Faraday off my dream book shelf. If Eknath Easwaran’s book is my Tao Te Ching on meditation, then The Dream Game is the Analects of my dream world. I decide to follow her advice (page 43):

People frequently complain that dreams are not coming to them as much as they would like, and when I ask are they writing them down, they plead that other obligations have been too pressing – to which I answer that your dreaming mind knows very well how seriously you are taking it and reacts accordingly.

She’s nailed it. I’ve been far too busy to pay attention to my dreams, let alone go to all the trouble of writing them down. Part of the problem is unavoidable. I have commitments to keep. But part of it is self-inflicted. I have so many interests. I am constantly beset by the fear that if I don’t keep reading new stuff on a favourite topic I’ll not KUTD – sorry, keep up to date – so not only do I fail to go deeply enough into what I’m reading about, but I also distract myself constantly from things that are probably more important.

Ring and BookSo, straightaway, after reading Faraday’s words, I promise my dreaming mind I will really listen tonight, and write down what I see and hear. To help, as I settle in bed, I pick up my copy of The Ring & the Book, Robert Browning’s novel in verse, a breath-taking and brilliant exploration of a series of dramatic historical events in 17th century Rome.

The last time I was reading it some days ago, I had just finished Book VI of the twelve, which is Giuseppe Caponsacchi’s movingly sympathetic account of the events that led to the mortal wounding of Pompilia, and the stabbing to death of her adoptive parents. I have put off reading Book VII till now. It is the dying Pompilia’s version of events. I thought a bit of previously avoided heart-rending reading might stir me to pay more attention to my unconscious mind’s creativity.

I am just seventeen years and five months old,
And, if I live one day more, three full weeks.

As usual, right from the first words, Browning’s empathic magic has captured me in his narrative grip. Even so I eventually become too tired to read more. I switch off the light and remind my dreaming mind of my sincere intentions.

It doesn’t take long. Soon, I find I am walking with Frederick Mires, my psychology-mad alter ego, and William Wordless, my poet manqué persona. The others are nowhere in sight right now.

Redwood Grove

We’re on a path in Queen’s Wood, I think, near the stand of California Redwoods, except that their trunks are purple and the needles of their leaves orange. We’re heading for the cafe at the car park.

‘You’re looking a bit upset,’ I say to Mires who’s been walking silently with his face twisted into a two-year-old’s sulk.

‘You’re throwing books away again,’ he spits, facing me fiercely as he says it.

‘Why would that worry you,’ I ask. ‘You’re always rushing from one book to the next, never going back once you’ve squeezed all the juice you can find at the time into the blog.’

‘You never know when you might need to go back to a book again to check a point or fill out the argument.’

‘What are you going to do with your poetry books?’ Wordless asks with a worried expression on his face. ‘They’re the only ones worth keeping. You can read them over and over again and still find new meanings in them. Novels and text books – once read and completely digested, chuck ’em away.’

‘It’s hard going, but I am slowly working out which books are worth keeping because I really will need them again, and which books were a one-time only read. It’s often a question of whether there are any highlights or scribbled notes in the book at all. If not, and I’ve obviously read it, I’m not likely to read it again. I just don’t have the space to hold all my books accessibly. Some of them are double-stacked.’

I don’t mention my feelings of guilt at being a bookaholic hoarder.

‘You’ll live to regret it,’ Mires warns. ‘You’ve done this before remember, and wished you hadn’t when you needed a book you’d discarded.’

‘The point is,’ I insist, ‘that even if I live another 15 years or more, with over a thousand books, I’d have to read at the rate of over a book a week, just to savour all my old ones all over again. And many of them would take more than a week to read. And what about the new books I’ll find that I want to read?’

‘You’re not understanding my point.’ Mires has the bit between his teeth. ‘You won’t need to re-read the whole book if all you require is to check out a reference in it. But if you haven’t got it you’ll waste a lot of time chasing it up again.’

‘Why don’t you simplify things and just do what I suggest. Keep all your poetry books and throw away the rest.’ A massive grin spread over Wordless’s face. ‘My gift for rhyme is returning!’

Broad and Deep01‘Now you’re the one who is missing the point. Look, both of you. The issue is this. I have a broad range of interests – mind, nature, science, literature, art, history, religion, mysticism, near death experiences, politics, biography, music, to name only the most obvious. It’s almost too broad, as I want to explore most of these topics in depth. To really go deep I have to narrow my focus and specialise. To cover a broad area of interest, which is what I really want to do, I have to be relatively shallow. So, I keep rushing from book to book most of the time, never really taking the time to savour any of them properly. But I don’t like narrow or shallow. I want broad and deep. I want to have the best of both worlds. I want to have my cake and eat it too, I guess.’

‘The days when that was possible are long gone,’ Mires retorts. ‘Goethe was probably the last great poet who could also be a real scientist. Knowledge has expanded too much. There’ll be no more Renaissance minds from now on, I think. If you try, you just end up a Jack of all trades and master of none. And let’s face it Goethe was a genius, and you’re not. That’s one of the many reasons I keep focused on psychology and try to forget the rest.’

‘And why I concentrate only on poetry,’ Wordless can’t resist chipping in.

‘But you’re both a part of me and that’s the problem, don’t you see?’

They glumly have to agree and they don’t like it. To please them both, I have to spread myself too thin and do broad and shallow. Very frustrating!

‘And when we finally meet up with Emma and Chris it’ll only get worse. She’s into social action and politics, and Chris is fixated on mystical states. I’m not sure about Indira. I don’t know her too well as yet.’

I pause for breath, trying to let my mouth catch up with my mind. ‘This is why we need to find another way of experiencing things. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to learn how to reflect better, so I can extract every possible drop of meaning from every moment, whether it’s from a book, a conversation, a new place or whatever.’

‘Here we go again. Back on the reflection bandwagon,’ Mires mocks.

Just at that point we join the main path back to the cafe, with the games and picnic area on our left and the redwood grove in the middle distance on our right. It’s a cold day for the picnic area, which must be populated only by those with Scandinavian ancestry. As we look ahead we see Indira Pindance, our vulnerable new friend, and Emma Pancake, activist and pamphleteer, huddled at a table near the cafe wall, out of the wind, using steaming cups to warm their hands. They appear to be waiting for us.

(To be continued)

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Given my latest sequence on the dangers of ideology, idealism and meaning systems, I couldn’t resist reblogging this.Black Holes in the Heart v2

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