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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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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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In March, before lockdown, I was invited to give a talk at St Mary’s church, Tyberton, a village in the Golden Valley near to Hereford. This is the text of the talk more or less as delivered. I ad libbed a few extra bits of explanation on the day but have not included them here. I also cut the talk short just before the final two paragraphs quoted here. I’d gone past my allocated ten minutes so I thought it better to quit while I was ahead! Those paragraphs didn’t add much anyway. I had no idea, when I gave this talk, how important the connection between interconnectedness and resilience would become in such a very short period of time.

As you probably already know, the Bahá’í Faith is being persecuted in Iran, its birthplace. Our world governing body, the Universal House of Justice, has exhorted the Bahá’í community in Iran to response with “constructive resilience”[1].

Where might the roots of this resilience be found?

Bahá’u’lláh wrote that ‘No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united,’ and saw this as the source of the ‘discord and malice . . . apparent everywhere.’ He reminded us that instead we should not regard ‘one another as strangers.’ We ‘are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.’ [2] We are all, Bahá’u’lláh says, ‘created . . . from the same dust’ and must learn ‘to be even as one soul,’ so that from our ‘inmost being, by [our] deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’[3]

This is why I, as a Bahá’í, feel that the roots of resilience are to be found in a recognition of our interconnectedness. To quote the Universal House of Justice again, this time from a message addressed in 2001 to those gathered for the official opening of the Terraces on Mount Carmel, ‘Humanity’s crying need . . . calls  . . . for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’

No get out clause there!

Unfortunately all too often the divisions within us and between us, which the Universal House of Justice describes in the same message as the ‘struggle among competing ambitions,’ blinds us to this truth. we are prisoners of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes as ‘the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire.’[4]

How are we to remedy this?

This is a problem that all the great world religions have grappled with, and the Bahá’í Faith recognizes that, which is what unites us across all faiths when they are properly understood. I am though going to focus here only on what the Bahá’í Faith can contribute to this desperately needed healing process, if our divisions are not going to bring about our complete destruction.

First of all Bahá’ís believe that we need to cultivate reflection in order to achieve a degree of detachment from not just the material side of existence, but also from the distorted perspectives within our own minds. If we cannot do that at least to some degree, we cannot then use the process of consultation, where we sit down with people of different views to compare notes and enhance our understanding of reality. Only in this way can we find better solutions to the problems that bedevil us.

A saying of Islam quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states that ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.[5]‘Reflection’ is also variously translated as meditation, remembrance or contemplation.

What does it mean exactly in practice?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá helps us here, when he states, ‘‘This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. . . . Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . . The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror.’[6]

What exactly are the implications of this? What are the possible similarities between our mind and a mirror?

The most important similarity is that a mirror is NOT what is reflected in it. Our mind, our consciousness, is not its contents. We are not what we think, feel, sense, plan, intend, remember, or imagine. We are the capacity to do all of these things. However, none of these products of our mind is necessarily real or true. They are mostly transient products of our brains.

We need to learn to step back from them all and look at them from the position of consciousness in all its purity, the closest we can get to God, to the Ground of Being, if you prefer that expression. At the very least we can connect more closely with what Bahá’u’lláh refers to many times in His Writings as our ‘understanding heart,’ a phrase that captures the critical need for us to balance our verbal analytical left-brain thinking, which has spawned our technical advances which are both a blessing and a curse, with our holistic and intuitive right-brain processes, which cannot be easily captured in words and are therefore often lying half-hidden on the edge of consciousness.

In that state of stepping back, we still know what we think and feel, and who we think we are, but we are no longer so identified with those ideas that we cannot listen open-mindedly to what other people have to say that might enrich our understanding. Only when we do this, and it takes constant practice, can we truly consult with others about the nature of reality, the truth about our problems, and develop better ways of dealing with them.

We can consult at last.

Paul Lample explained it like this: ‘[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.’[7]

Then, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, this will show us ‘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.’[8] He also emphasises that detachment, of the kind I have attempted to describe, is one of the essential prerequisites to the effective use of consultation. Which is why, as Lample explains, ‘‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’[9]

Reflection helps us become more inwardly united and more closely connected with the divine or spiritual realms, and so we can become more united with others in our efforts to deal with problems within our family, our community, our nation and even our world as whole.

As a clinical psychologist, working in the local NHS, I found these insights of great value.

How so?

Well, I was working with a group of patients who are still regarded by many people as ‘not like us.’ They were people who carried the label schizophrenic or psychotic. They’re not like the rest of us, right? Wrong. Oh so wrong.

The basic principle of the Faith that we are all in essence one helped me see their common humanity. But more than that even. It helped me learn how their strange beliefs and hallucinations were rooted in their life experiences, how they made sense in that context once I had had the patience and humility to explore that with them and with their loved ones.

And even more than that through the disciplines of reflection and consultation, a kind of Bahá’í interpersonal yoga, I could earn their trust because I did not mock their beliefs or belittle their experiences of voices and visions, which allowed them to share their inmost thoughts, from which I learned to make sense of what they were experiencing. From there we could compare notes as equals and they could begin to find other explanations for what was happening to them.

For example, to stop thinking you are being tormented by powerful demons, who have the power to hurt you, helps you get back control of your own mind and life. I didn’t have to challenge the experience in itself, only the destructive explanations they had understandably developed for it, such as the power of the voices to harm them. Then they could move on.

After all, we all go psychotic at night in our dreams. We could many of us have ended up psychotic if life had treated us badly enough early on. The brain is good at creating illusions and delusions. In fact, a book I read recently by Tom Oliver, an agnostic scientist, explains, on the basis of strong evidence, that the prevalent idea in the West that we are a separate disconnected and individual self is a delusion, so we’re all a bit psychotic already really.

All we have is simulation of reality, a kind of trance induced in us by our culture – a materialistic, competitive and divided one in our case. And the only way we can ever correct our false perceptions and mistaken beliefs is to work together with others who do not think the same to transcend them. (And I would now add that if ever there was a time to internalise that lesson for the rest of our days on this earth, this is it.]

The mnemonic I use to remind me of all this is to say to myself ‘I must take CARE:’ the ‘C’ stands for consultation, and the ‘R’ for reflection, but embedded in a context of action and experience. It doesn’t work just at the level of theory.

As I final joke against myself I must admit that the ‘R’ also represents what are for me the three ‘Rs’ of reading, writing and reflection. Without books to breath in with and pens to breath out with my mind would suffocate, and I would never be able to consolidate my reflections into memorable and useful form. So I must thank you all for providing me with an excuse to read, reflect and write even more. Thank you for your patience in listening.

Footnotes

[1]. This phrase was first used in September 2007 in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’í students deprived of access to higher education in Iran.
[2]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 163.
[3]. The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 68.
[4]. Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76.
[5]. Hadith quoted by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Íqán (page 152 UK Edition and page 237 US edition).
[6]. Paris Talks – pages 174-176.
[7]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 215.
[8]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá cited in a letter written by Shoghi Effendi, to the National Spiritual Assembly of Persia, 15 February 1922).
[9]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 212.

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People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs. God grant you may be graciously aided under all conditions to shatter the idols of superstition and to tear away the veils of the imaginations of men.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 58)

This time I will be looking more closely at both expressions of bias, as well as at possible remedies for discrimination.

Before doing so I want to include a reminder of Tom Oliver’s take on a closely related issue: our delusion that we are an independent and separate entity from the rest of the world. In his illuminating book, The Self Delusion, he explains:[1]

We are seamlessly connected to one another and the world around us. Our independence is simply an illusion that was once adaptive but now threatens our success as a species.

He makes it clear later that ‘recent social research reveals that people respond strongly to subtle stereotyping and their personalities go on to develop in ways which reinforce such stereotypes.’[2] So, when we harbour prejudices, which are included in his list of ‘viruses of the mind,’[3] our behaviour serves to create experiences that confirm to us our misplaced beliefs, and can be infectious. This all resonates strongly with Bahá’u’lláh’s description of us as ‘wandering in the paths of delusion’ and of how ‘superstitions become veils between’ us and our own hearts.[4]

This theme is worth bearing in mind as we move forwards.

Examples of Bias

I suspect most people who have had the patience to read this far are already aware of the many ways that bias can be reflected in behaviour. I shall therefore deal with those aspects of the matter briefly.

An obvious example that Jennifer Eberhardt adduces, in her book Biased, relates to policing:[5]

[In New York City] of all stops made for furtive movement, 54 percent were of blacks, in a city that is only 23 percent black. . . Yet blacks were less likely to have a weapon than whites. In fact, less than 1 percent of those stopped for furtive movements were found to have a weapon.

Studies have been done to examine this kind of pattern. In a study of what triggers a response to fire a gun:[6]

[Joshua Correll and his team] . . . found a race effect. Participants were even faster to respond “shoot” to a black person holding a gun than they were to a white person holding a gun. They were also more likely to mistakenly shoot a black person with no gun.… It was found with both white and black study participants.

The latter finding may seem counter-intuitive but, in the light of how powerful and pervasive stereotyping is, it should come as no surprise. That black participants were prone to this error supports the notion that it is often the result of conditioning rather than an expression of racially motivated behaviour. The same tendency can be seen on the streets: ‘. . . research shows that black police officers were just as likely as white officers to exhibit less respect to black drivers.’[7]

There is no escaping the fact that, ‘Every encounter police officers and community members have with each other happens in a larger societal context that shapes how each responds.’[8]

The conditions prevalent in a work context play a significant part in shaping negative responses:[9]

Yale Law professors Tom Tyler and Tracey Meares have worked together to develop a model for training police officers on the principles of procedural justice. But why do officers need to be reminded of these principles? Because one of the primary barriers to good policing is the cynicism the officers develop while working the streets. It’s easy for officers to get beaten down by fighting crime. . . As that cynicism grows, it also narrows their vision.

The legal system at higher levels is not immune to this virus of the mind either, though without the same excuse of bitter experience:[10] ‘Judges are not immune to the pull of their own unconscious biases, and the algorithms that risk scores [to assess the likely failure to show up in court] rely on have already been shown to tilt against blacks.’

It is only fair to add that black people are not the only targets, though for reasons explained in the previous post they are likely to be the most persistently targeted. Concerning a white supremacist demonstration Eberhardt writes:[11]

The verbal attacks were also meant to signal to everyone else the Jews were no longer to be accepted as white. Their status was probationary – to be threatened in threatening times.

This also illustrates the previously mentioned role of fear in escalating prejudiced behaviour.

Possible Remedies

It is not easy to counteract patterns that are so deeply entrenched and reinforced by so many influences.

Not surprisingly I registered education as a potentially key aspect of Eberhardt’s thinking. Inside prisons she runs classes for offenders:[12]

Every class reminded me of the power of education to move us beyond our biases and reminded my students of the power of bias to shape their lives.

Clearly, education, over time in a supportive culture, could inoculate us against such viruses of the mind as racism. However, given the situation in which we find ourselves, making lasting and effective change is not easy. She quotes many examples and perhaps an attempted intervention in an organisation affecting a huge clientele would be as good an illustration as any. She tells of Laura Murphy’s work. She was an African-American civil rights attorney enlisted to help Airbnb deal with bias amongst their ‘hosts’:[13]

It’s easy to tell yourself that you don’t see colour, come up with a host of other justifications, and relieve yourself of any self-incrimination for your bias. Laura’s job was to focus the company’s managers on how these psychological manoeuvres worked subconsciously.

The primary problem is not that “People on the platform say, ‘Look, I don’t want any African-Americans’,” Lauren said. “The biggest problem to me is the unconscious bias.” And it’s more difficult to police and remedy that than it is to root out blatant bigotry.

She was able to make a difference, and there was one key factor involved:[14]

When hosts are provided with the previous reviews of guests by other hosts, for example, they are more likely to accept them into their homes, and the racial differences in acceptance rate begin to disappear.… Indeed, decades of research on stereotyping highlight the power of individuating information to mitigate bias.

Care has to be taken to take account of complicating factors. Improvements in behaviour resulting in lower levels of discrimination can backfire. Studies found that:[15]

. . . it was as though responsible behaviour handed [people] a license to behave recklessly. That suggests that companies that offer bias training might be loosening the reins in ways that set prejudice free.

Situations can also be complex in ways that reinforce the prejudices trainers are seeking to reduce. Back to policing again. The general point here is:[16]

Resetting norms isn’t easy, for a country or a company. But the next step – revamping company practices that allow sustained bias – is where things really get complicated.

Eberhardt analyses the exact dynamics in detail. What follows here is a brief helicopter view:[17]

What [these police officers] were experiencing on the streets was the fallout of racial disparities that reflect and generate biases that keep the cops and the community divided. . . . That lack of goodwill stalls investigations and lets crimes go unsolved which sours the perceptions of police and community members alike.

. . . Disparities are the raw material from which we construct the narratives that justify the presence of inequality. Those narratives spring to life to justify unequal treatment not just in the criminal justice arena but in our neighbourhoods, schools, and workplaces. . . . The narratives that prop up inequality can help us to live less troubled in a troubling world. But they also narrow our vision . . . Those biases will continue to be reproduced until we understand and challenge the disparities that fuel them.

It is easier to blame immigrants, foreigners or strangers for the problems that surround us, than grasp the difficult reality that the system is broken and is in urgent need of a complex repair or even a complete replacement. For more information on that see the sequence Can We Balance Matter and Spirit? Also reading Tom Oliver’s book would be a good place to start.

An Overview

Time to return to some general points. I have already noted that fear plays its part in prejudice. America is experiencing a transition that is raising anxieties in the minds of many white Americans:[18]

 . . . by the middle of this century, white people are likely to be a minority in this country… And simply reminding some white Americans of their diminishing presence can lead them to express more negative attitudes towards blacks, Latinos, and Asians . . . Feeling outnumbered can signal a threat to the legacy of dominance and the white privilege that affords.

Even what appear to be straightforward ways of using scientific evidence to counteract bias can backfire. There are two main ways that this can work. The first concerns what happens when we explain how many people experience bias:[19]

It’s true that we are wired for bias. But the problem with narrowly settling for that perspective is that it can lead us today to care less about the danger associated with bias, instead of more.

. . . A research group… found that people are more likely to endorse stereotypes about out-groups – from racists to drug users to porn stars to trash collectors – when they believe the stereotypes are widely held in society.

The second way piggy-backs on this first one because ‘too much focus on how good innocent people can be biased without intention can sap people’s motivation to do something about it,’ which means that ‘teaching and learning about bias is a balancing act that has to be expertly calibrated to have the appropriate impact.’[20]

Not a walk in the park then.

Conclusions

There’s no way we can walk away from this problem, even if we want to:[21]

The strategy of turning a blind eye to bias has indeed failed to stem discrimination. But there are powerful currents that pull people away from confronting bias, even when they believe that’s the right thing to do.

Bringing people from different races closely together can make a huge difference, but the key word here is closely. Eberhardt makes it very clear that simply living in close proximity, but not gaining detailed knowledge of each other by frequent and meaningful interaction, can serve simply to reinforce prejudice:[22]

Science has shown that intense relationships across racial, religious, or ethnic boundaries can quickly undo fundamental [negative] associations that have built up slowly over time.

Her words toward the end of her book particularly resonate with me:[23]

. . . The capacity for growth comes from our willingness to reflect, to probe in search of some actionable truth. . . And there is hope in this sheer act of reflection. This is where the power lies and how the process starts.

I have explored many times on this blog how the power of reflection, especially when allied to the process of comparing perspectives Bahá’ís call consultation, can help us resolve even the most intractable of problems. There is perhaps another core principle of the Bahá’í Faith relevant here as well: the independent investigation of truth. Bahá’u’lláh exhorts us to ‘see with [our] own eyes and not through the eyes of others,’ and ‘know of [our] own knowledge and not through the knowledge of [our] neighbour,’[24] if we are to be truly inspired by justice and fairness in this world.

We may have a long road to travel but there is evidence that we can effect even such massive changes in the way our society and culture work. Even relatively simple steps can make a difference. Oliver, for example, quotes a study by Kang of loving-kindness meditation. He ‘found that participants who had undergone a course in loving kindness meditation had reduced intergroup bias. In particular, they were less likely to stigmatise homeless people compared with participants who were simply taught about the value of the meditation technique not shown how to perform it.[25]

I am well aware though, from reading Goleman and Davidson’s book on The Science of Meditation, that the road from transient state of mind to enduring trait of character requires long and sustained effort over months and years. Oliver is also aware of this same evidence and how effortful bringing about such fundamental changes will be.[26]

That’s no reason though not to keep on trying.

Footnotes

[1]. The Self Delusion – page 4.
[2]. The Self Delusion – page 170.
[3]. The Self Delusion – page 141.
[4]. From the Tablet of Ahmad.
[5]. Biased – page 63.
[6]. Biased – pages 66-68.
[7]. Biased — page 104.
[8]. Biased – pages 74-75.
[9]. Biased – page 84-5.
[10]. Biased  – page 108.
[11]. Biased – page 240.
[12]. Biased – page 123.
[13]. Biased – page 192.
[14]. Biased – page 193.
[15]. Biased – page 282.
[16]. Biased – page 291.
[17]. Biased – pages 296-98.
[18]. Biased – page 231.
[19]. Biased – page 281.
[20]. Biased – page 282.
[21]. Biased – page 239.
[22]. Biased – page 289.
[23]. Biased – pages 301-02.
[24]. Arabic Hidden Words – No 2.
[25]. The Self Delusion – page 225.
[26]. The Self Delusion – page 158.

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My next sequence of posts will be dealing with blind spots, so this seemed a good poem to republish.
Black Holes in the Heart v2

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

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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